Secularism, a term as intrinsic to my understanding of India as electoral competition. But, apparently for some in the current political discourse, it has become contentious. While, debates and discussions form the essence of any democracy, the purpose of this article is to highlight why some ideas are sacrosanct and should remain that way.
The story of independent India features riots and religious intolerance as often as communal unity.
Every second week or so the headlines mention an eminent leader of the ruling party going ahead and questioning why the Constitution contains the word ‘secular’. To be fair, given the close association the BJP has with the RSS and its history of communal politics, any mention of ‘Indian culture’ and ‘secular’ is bound to be seen with suspicion. While, some of these statements may be pardonable, others are blatantly unacceptable. More often than not, accurate facts are presented in a distorted manner to suit their agenda. For instance, the term ‘Hindu’ received a religious connotation not very long ago and strengthened in that regard only under the British Rule and the term ‘secular’ was added to the Constitution during the Emergency proclaimed in 1975. But, the implications derived from these truths are extremely problematic. Somehow, the conclusion was reached that everyone in this country is a Hindu or secularism is undemocratic because it was brought on in the constitution during the emergency.
But let us not make the mistake of thinking that this is an actual debate. Secularism is the hallmark of a democratic state. But why? Democracy, as the definition goes, is rule of the people, by the people and for the people. Religion forms a major component of people’s identities. The problem arises when different people follow different religions. So whose religion should prevail? No one’s- says the doctrine of secularism: everyone has the right to practice, preach and propagate one’s own religion and the state shall distance itself from all religions unless intervention is required for greater social benefit and reform.
Why is this notion important? History has the answer. Colonial India, as we all know was subjected to a policy of ‘divide-and-rule’ by the British. The most obvious manifestation of this was the notion of separate electorates. This meant that the Muslim population would vote for Muslim candidates for whatever number of seats they were allotted in the legislatures. As a result, politics began to take communal forms and polarisation along religious lines became stronger. The end result was a painful and bloody partition of the subcontinent wherein the two separate nation-states of India and Pakistan were created. Pakistan was formed on the premise of a state for the Muslims as the League believed that Muslims in India could never have any real rights or powers as they would always be oppressed by the Hindu majority. These fears were not completely unfounded as there were forces that actively worked towards making India a Hindu-nation (Think: RSS). But more importantly the larger section of the political class believed that India was a land of diversity and the democratic dream triumphed over all else.
But the scars of the Partition and everything that led to it were never quite wiped away. The story of independent India features riots and religious intolerance as often as communal unity. And this is preciously why secularism remains important: in the absence of it our land would turn to chaos and bloodbaths as it did during the dark days of the partition. It is important to remember how deep the mistrust between the religious communities runs before we dismiss secularism as a redundant notion. It has also been argued that certain parties use the blanket of secularism to create vote-banks through minority appeasement, while this may be true it does not warrant the rejection of secularism. Any attempt by others to do so should also be challenged openly and condemned widely. India is a country of a growing and dominant youth population and thus, the onus is on us to ensure that the liberal democratic dream burns bright.