Secularism, Indian Style
Posted on 1-March-2011
Recently, on a Friday, soon after midday, walking in the best known shopping arcade of New Delhi, I, like so many others, had to skirt a part of the pedestrian walk which had been occupied by a group sitting there outside a tiny mosque inside which an imam was delivering a sermon after prayers. These people had obviously overflowed the mosque. No one bothered the group sitting there, listening to the sermon. There was no policeman around. Obviously none had tried to stop these people illegally occupying a public space while performing a religious ritual. Such attitudes of common folk and law enforcement agencies towards religious practice are widespread in secular India. Any man can grow a beard, don saffron robes, raise a small platform on a sidewalk and start attracting devotees and money and slowly build, unhindered by the police or common people, a small temple over that platform, or another can spread a green sheet over a grave in the middle of the road and claim the grave belongs to a Sufi holy man. A shrine around the grave can also be constructed not long afterwards. In time, the temple and the shrine may also become 'old' and 'traditional' and therefore unmovable. Hindu temples can with impunity blare devotional songs on loudspeakers late into the night or in the small hours of the morning or a muezzin, unstopped by anyone, can on loudspeakers call the faithful to prayer in the wee hours when it is still dark and when the non-believers may prefer to sleep or otherwise spend their time in peace. A religious procession can, with raucous, amplified noise which passes for devotional music or chant, disturb the peace of entire neighbourhoods at any time of the day or the night. There are those who say that all these reflect the true, tolerant nature of Indian society. The ugly reality may in fact be that all this reflects a general lack of concern for the other. The reality also is the the unwillingness of public authorities to enforce the law, particularly against groups claiming to be engaged in their religious rituals.
If this lack of secular spirit were confined to examples of these kinds, remedies would lie in simple enforcement of laws. There are other aberrations that happen all the time. In two recent cases the highest court in India has not shown much understanding of what a truly secular spirit is. One concerns the appeal of the prosecuting agency against a judgement of the Orissa High Court commuting to life imprisonment the death sentence awarded to one Dara Singh by the trial court on the charge of burning Reverend Graham Staines and his two sons to death in 1999. About two weeks ago the Supreme Court upheld the decision of the High Court. There could be a number of reasons for not executing the accused but the Court's reason for not doing so was injudicious in a country with a constitution which guarantees its inhabitants freedom to practise and propagate their religion: in the background, the judges said, was Hindu anger against Christian missionaries converting people to Christianity and therefore Dara Singh's action could not be described as "rarest of rare", which is the Court's own criterion for a death sentence. This reasoning was obviously coloured by the judges' own attitude to religious conversion and not by neutrality on questions of religion required by the Indian constitution.
A case about government subsidy on air fares for pilgrims going on Haj was decided recently by the Indian Supreme Court. Long before India's independence, the Indian government got involved in the organisation of the travel of Indian pilgrims to Mecca for the annual Haj. The government of independent India simply took over the practice and made rules as well as financial provisions. When the relatively cheap sea travel for Haj was stopped, the government started subsidising air travel for the poorer pilgrims. Someone, not surprisingly a Hindu gentleman, challenged the legality of this subsidy in the Supreme Court, and the court in its judgment, has upheld the validity of the subsidy arguing that it is only a miniscule proportion of the total revenues of the government--a tenuous legal ground for the legality of the subsidy. The judges would have done better if they had argued that it was not for the state to facilitate any of its citizens' practice of his religion and declared the subsidy unconstitutional. If they had done so, they would have been truer to the spirit of secularism.
Promotion of religions by different state governments on a significant scale seems already to be an established practice. Government revenues are spent on creating infrastructure for the annual Hindu pilgrimage to Amarnath cave in Jammu and Kashmir. Different state governments finance the renovation and maintenance of Hindu temples. Others pay for the training of Hindu priests. Some others pay their salaries and yet others pay salaries to imams at mosques also. Some people will facilely argue that India's heritage has been for respecting religion and the religious spirit--a doubtful claim at best. Yet others might, equally facilely, argue that the fact that the two Supreme Court judges who upheld the Haj subsidy were Hindu and that a Muslim columnist questioned the soundness of that judgment represents the true spirit of India's secularism. Some people have in any case said for some time that Indian secularism means equal respect for all religions and not the denial of religion.
Not every word has many meanings. Secularism has only one: separation of state and religion. It is the state's business to regulate a community's social, economic and political life. Its foremost duty is to maintain social harmony among its citizens and promote their welfare. For this purpose it legislates with the consent of the majority of its citizens and its laws apply equally to all its citizens. Its citizens may have different beliefs about God or gods whom they should be free to worship in their private spaces according to their lights without encroaching on the rights of others. The state must not interfere in the practice of any religion nor promote it just as its actions must not be based on any religion. Secularism, as briefly defined here, has become now the most widely accepted political ideal the world over. The least it does is to try to remove one source of conflict among people, religion, which has been responsible for so much carnage in the past and continues to be so even now. By attaching greater value to human life than to any divine being, secularism holds greater promise for human well-being here and now than any religion. And it is these values that the people of India, so desperately in need of the modernisation of their minds and for so long kept backward by their adherence to obscurantist religious practices of all kinds, have to embrace fully. Unless the secular ideal is affirmed and reaffirmed and reaffirmed yet again by India's politicians, judges, teachers, writers and journalists, the danger that the India's people will slip back into their pre-modern days of darkness will always be present and real.