Asghar Ali Engineer

(Secular Perspective, December 1-15, 2007)

It will be no exaggeration if I say secularism is the very life breath of Indian politics. One can hardly conceive of Indian polity sans secularism. However, it also faces several problems in Indian context. We will throw light and discuss the problematic of secularism in India. Before we do so we must explain meaning and context of Indian secularism.

Secularism in India did not emerge, unlike in Europe, as a result of struggle against authority of church. In Europe since it emerged as a result of struggle against Church, it carried within itself an atheistic trend. It certainly implied a sort of indifference towards religion, if not antagonism to it. Recently this has been further intensified due to increasing consumerism and materialism.

In India religion has always been at the centre stage. Thus secularism here was never conceived as indifference, much less antagonism, to religion. Secularism was conceived as a philosophy giving equal respect to all religions including regional faith traditions. When Indian National Congress was founded, its founders feared it may be dubbed as a Hindu party by non-Hindu minorities. Thus it was sought to be made an all inclusive party and three of its presidents came from minority communities in its early days: 1) Badruddin Tyebji from Bombay; 2) W.C.Banerjee- A Christian from Bengal and Dadabhai Nawroji from Parsi Community.

Thus the Congress got support from all these communities from the day one. Even the ‘Ulama, who were struggling against British rule readily supported it and urged their fellow-Muslims to join the Congress en mass. Maulana Qasim Ahmed Nanotwi, the founder of Darul ‘Ulum Deoband, issued a fatwa to this effect himself and collected several more such fatwas from other ‘ulama of repute and published them under the title of Nusrat-ul-Ahrar (Help for the Freedom fighters). The ‘Ulama were convinced of the all inclusive character of the Congress Party and enthusiastically cooperated with it for throwing out British imperialist from India.

Thus our secularism is more in multi-religious context than any struggle against church or any religious authority for that matter. The Congress adopted secularism as an all-inclusive philosophy. Our country has a very rich experience of religious pluralism and multi-culturalism for centuries. We were never mono-religious or mono-cultural in any period of our history. The West has known religious pluralism and multi-culturalism only after IInd World War.

Some intellectuals immediately after independence thought secularism in India also should mean indifference to religion, if not being anti-religious and criticized state for associating with any religious events. Even our first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was more or less of this view. But soon he had realized that it may not be workable in India and defined Indian secularism as equal protection to all religions by state. Thus real criteria for state remaining secular is whether it provides equal support to all religions or inclines more towards one or the other religion.

Having thrown light on the nature of Indian secularism we come to the problems Indian secularism faces. In fact we can divide state into two categories: 1) notional and 2) functional. As far as notional aspect is concerned it is defined by its Constitution. The Indian state adopted the Constitution which defines nature and functions of state, rights citizens enjoy and role of executive and judiciary.

As far as notional aspect is concerned i.e. constitutional provisions, I do not think there is much of a problem. When we faced some problems the Constitution was amended and our Constitution has been amended more than 100 times. Thus as far as notional aspect is concerned there is no problem. But its functional aspect is expressed through the government and its way of functioning.

The problematic of secularism starts with functional aspect, not with its notional aspect. The government is formed by a political party. For more or less 40 years after independence the Congress continued to rule and under Nehru Congress remained firmly committed to secularism but even under Nehru, it faced severe problems as other congress leaders were not so categorically committed and had quite ambiguous and some of them even communally inclined attitude.

Thus in 1948 itself Chief Minister of U.P. Govind Ballabh Pant, defied Nehru’s instructions and did not remove idols of Ram and Sita which were installed in Babri masjid at midnight. Even Sardar Patel had written to C.M. of U.P. to remove the idols. If Pant had taken the step India would not have faced such huge problem in late eighties and early nineties.

Indian state, functionally, always remained soft as so clearly demonstrated by Jan Myrdal, a Swedish Economist, who wrote his famous work Asian Drama in sixties. The successive Governments kept on yielding to pressures and took decisions which did not conformed to secular values which our Constitution upholds. Even Nehru felt isolated on the question of curbing communal violence in Jabalpur which shook him.

On several crucial questions Central Government yielded to pressures and took unprincipled decisions violating secular values. There are several instances but two most crucial questions on which Government yielded which severely affected Indian secular polity, were Shah Bano judgment and the Babri masjid issue. Rajiv Gandhi bowed to the pressure by some Muslim leaders and enacted a law reversing the Supreme Court judgment in the Shah Bano case and Shri Narsimha Rao did nothing to save Babri masjid and let it be demolished by the BJP hooligans.

This reversal of Supreme Court judgment in one case and total and deliberate non-action to save Babri Masjid seriously compromised Indian secularism and it proved that Indian Government does not act firmly on secular principles but yields to all sorts of pressures and takes opportunist stand. It never wishes to send strong and principled message by taking firm stand on crucial matters and does not mind at all displaying its weakness and opportunism for the sake of power.

Another crucial issue is communal violence. India was repeatedly rocked by communal violence in post-independence period. The Congress leadership, it is said, ultimately agreed to partition to save country from civil war and curb widespread communal violence and hoped that independent India would not witness communal violence. That is why Nehru was greatly shaken by Jabalpur riots which he never expected in independent India.

But this was just the beginning. Had he been alive he would have witnessed much worse riots in 1969 in Ahmedabad (in which more than 1000 people were done to death brutally) and 1970 Bhivandi-Jalgaon riots (in which about 400 persons including women and children) were done to death. Then followed several major riots in eighties which were worse in severity. Some of these riots were Moradabad (1980), Biharsharif (1981), Baroda and Meerut (19820, Neili, Assam (1983) in which more than 4000 people were massacred, Bombay Bhivandi riots and anti-Sikh riots (1984 May and November), Meerut (1987), it was in Hashimpura, Meerut that 42 persons were pulled out of their houses and shot by PAC and their bodies thrown into canal, 1989 Bhagalpur riots in which more than 800 persons perished and then 1992-93 riots in Mumbai, Surat, Ahmedabad, Bhopal, Kanpur and several other places in India.

Now all these riots took place under Congress regimes, both at the Centre and states. These were, to say the least, horrible riots and Congress regime never tried to curb communal violence seriously. Not because the Congress party swerved from secular ideology but because most of the individual Congressmen were of either communal bent of mind or truly secular individuals in the party felt helpless and isolated.

For all politicians be they of the Congress or any other secular parties, power was ultimate aim, not constitutional principles or secularism. If power is prioritized over principles, country would witness such calamities repeatedly. State machinery was always grossly misused in all major communal riots. The politicians used police to promote their own interests and seriously compromised integrity and professionalism of the police.

Police, with some honorable exceptions, always displayed its communal character in almost all the riots. In Bombay riots 1992-93 and Gujarat riots 2002 it played leading role and brought shame to itself. This is mostly because police was instrumental in promoting interests of politicians and so even honest policemen got isolated, transferred or demoted. Lower ranks of the police has been highly communalized and even brutalized.

The governments are quite unwilling to take steps to organize refresher courses for the police to instill in them secular values as they want to use them time and again to organize communal violence as and when it suits them. All election strategies are also based on caste and communal arithmetic and hence it is nearly impossible to be firm on secular values and principles. Our electoral method is exclusive, rather than inclusive. Parties aim at this or that caste and community votes. Thus elections are won by excluding some and including some.

As long as our electoral method is exclusivist, secularism would continue to be weakened. We have to abandon the first past the post method which tends to work by excluding one community or the other and opt for an inclusive method by adopting 51 per cent votes compulsory for winning and then no politician would target one community excluding other community or caste. This will help greatly in promoting secularism which is about including all in political processes. (Centre for Study of Society and Secularism; <> )

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