The future of Indian secularism
Our public discourse is resounding with triumphalism on the one hand, and lament on the other over the death or defeat of secularism.
- Constitutional secularism is marked by at least two features.
- First, critical respect for all religions. Unlike some secularisms, ours is not blindly anti-religious but respects religion. Unlike the secularisms of pre-dominantly single religious societies, it respects not one but all religions. However, as B.R. Ambedkar famously observed, our state must respectfully leave religion alone but also intervene whenever religious groups promote communal disharmony and discrimination on grounds of religion (an inter-religious matter) or are unable to protect their own members from the oppressions they perpetuate (an intra-religious issue).
- Therefore, and this is its second feature, the Indian state abandons strict separation but keeps a principled distance from all religions. For instance, it cannot tolerate untouchability or leave all personal laws as they are. Equally, it may non-preferentially subsidise schools run by religious communities. Thus, it has to constantly decide when to engage or disengage, help or hinder religion depending entirely on which of these enhances our constitutional commitment to freedom, equality and fraternity.
- Party-political secularism, born around 40 years ago, is a nefarious doctrine practised by all political parties, including by so-called ‘secular forces’. This secularism has dispelled all values from the core idea and replaced them with opportunism.
- Opportunistic distance (engagement or disengagement), but mainly opportunistic alliance with religious communities, particularly for the sake of immediate electoral benefit, is its unspoken slogan.
- Indifferent to freedom and equality-based religious reform, it has removed critical from the term ‘critical respect’ and bizarrely interpreted ‘respect’ to mean cutting deals with aggressive or orthodox sections of religious groups.
So, is India secularism dead?
- Today, Indian constitutional secularism is swallowed up by this party-political secularism, with not a little help from the Opposition, media and judiciary.
- Yet, it is not time yet to pronounce the death of constitutional secularism. Grounded in millennia-old pluralist traditions, it cannot easily be brushed aside. Instead, the word ‘setback’ makes more sense.
What is required?
- First, a shift of focus from a politically-led project to a socially-driven movement for justice.
- Second, a shift of emphasis from inter-religious to intra-religious issues.
- B.R. Ambedkar dispassionately observed that when two roughly equal communities view each other as enemies, they get trapped in a majority-minority syndrome, a vicious cycle of spiralling political conflict and social alienation. This was true in the 1930s and the 1940s. Today, feeling extremely vulnerable, Indian Muslims appear to have opted out of this syndrome. When this happens, the syndrome implodes. The result is neither open conflict nor harmony, simply an exiled existence for Muslims in their own homeland.
- B.R. Ambedkar also claimed that when communities view each other as a menace, they tend to close ranks. This has another debilitating impact: all dissent within the community is muzzled and much needed internal reforms are stalled.
- If so, the collapse of the syndrome unintentionally throws up an opportunity. As the focus shifts from the other to oneself, it may allow deeper introspection within, multiple dissenting voices to resurface, create conditions to root out intra-religious injustices, and make its members free and equal. After all, the Indian project of secularism has been thwarted as much by party-politics as by religious orthodoxy and dogma.
Convert it into opportunity
- Since the Indian state has failed to support victims of oppressions sanctioned by religion, a peaceful and democratic secularism from below provides a vantage point from which to carry out a much-needed internal critique and reform of our own respective religions, to enable their compatibility with constitutional values of equality, liberty and justice.
- Such struggles need support from intellectuals. But to be effective, these intellectuals should already have learnt from a wide variety of cultural traditions, both natal and those outside their immediate ambit. Only then will their voice carry weight, and be heard.