Dipankar Gupta


Our grief at Salman Taseers assassination has a schadenfreude aspect to it. We are sad that a brave man died unjustly, but we are happy this happened to our neighbor next door. True, Taseer was part of the establishment, but he had a change of heart when it came to the blasphemy law.


It takes a lot to leave your barber halfway through a haircut, but he did that, and paid for it.


The broad band endorsement of Taseers death is clearly more horrifying than the act itself. While rejoicing that we are lucky to be born here and not there, let us remember that Khap Panchayats in Haryana and UP are against women wearing jeans, Ram Sene does not want couples to date in coffee shops, and honour killings take lives of young women. We are that close to being like Pakistan; but we could have been closer.


SECULARISM: Secularism, with all its faults, has helped to distance us from Pakistan in more ways than we imagine. It is not just that we are secular and Pakistan is not, but that we are thinking development and they are not.


Secularism takes our minds off whether our wives and sisters are behaving, or whether our gods are being upstaged by other gods.


In place of such ungovernable passions, it positions issues of economic growth and development instead.


Pakistans near total obsession with identity politics has disabled it on a number of fronts. Its theocratic character has kept it from bringing about land reforms, curbing the military, setting up institutions of higher learning, and establishing steel mills. That we have been able to do all that from engineering units to IT giants is because secularism gave us the space to grow. We had energy in stock to think of poverty removal, economic sovereignty, export promotion, and so on.


In politics a kind of zero sum game is at work. Either we exhaust our reserves asserting identity politics or get ahead with developmental programs. The two cannot be combined. Is it surprising then that theocratic states are nearly always the least developed? Once we open the door to ethnicity, out goes progress and economic well being.


Those who snigger at Indias secularism should perhaps take a step back from the fence that separates us from Pakistan. Only then will they realize how fortunate we actually are. All the forces of primeval passion, let loose by the Partition, were baying for a Hindu state mirroring that of Pakistan; blood for blood, and so on. Pakistan has not made matters easier either.


Every time it gets too hot and crowded in their kitchen, they open the window and throw junk in our backyard. There have been more times than we would like to remember when we have given in to ethnic passions.


That we did not go all the way is because secular values are still with us, courtesy, the founders of our Constitution.


When the UPA came to power in 2004, we were more relieved than elated. We could now switch off the ethnic engines (they were over heated anyway) and think development instead. Today, that promise the UPA held out is without real legs. It is not because this government has yielded to Muslim and minority baiters, but because it has done little to improve the everyday life of everyday people majority and minorities included. This is why ethnic parties are getting their tails up once again. There is no point in condemning Narendra Modi for being communal if Congress- run states elsewhere cannot out- perform Gujarat on the economic front. Secularism has a double burden: it must not only be good, it has to be better than the rest.


GROWTH: This is a lesson that is often hard to drive home. Secularism is not just about minority protection, it is about majority promotion too. Secularism draws our attention away from medieval concerns so that we can think about economic progress. History is a testament to this. When the western world came out of the religious trap, they experienced economic growth like never before. By not emphasizing this aspect, the promoters of secularism have under served their cause.


In the period 1820 till today, the per capita income in Europe and America grew anywhere between fifteen fold to twenty fold. Till that time, for centuries, nobody knew about anything called growth. It never rang anybodys door bell. John Maynard Keynes made this point emphatically in his 1930 essay,   Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren.  He argued there that from the beginning of the Christian era right up to the 18th century  there was no real change in the standard of living of the average man.  Life expectancy till then was extremely low; people died of natural causes that are easily controllable now; epidemics swept the world even in todays developed countries.


How did it all change? There are many reasons for this, but the most important one is that politics changed. It now espoused industrialization, freedom of movement, rights of children and workers as free citizens.


RELIGION WAS PUT IN ITS PLACE: Round the corner we have the example of Singapore where once ethnic tensions were dominant and the economy stagnant. After Lee Kuan Yew banished religious politics Singapore became a poster- state and a model worth emulating. There are negative examples too.


Hitlers promise of full employment was backed by his unrepentant anti- Semitism. It took him some distance, but where is fascism now in Germany? On the other hand, there are continuous success stories that read like fairy tales. Quebec, in Canada, and the Basque province of Spain, made huge strides after they shook off the hold of the Catholic Church.


France realized the importance of this very early when in 1906 it clipped the wings of the Catholic clergy and forced them to behave. It is only after that that the vision of the Third Republic got a fighting chance of realizing itself.


CHOICE: David Brooks, one of Americas renowned Conservative journalists, made a similar point recently. He argued that when secular ideologies come to the fore, ethnic passions must recede. This is an interesting insight, made more remarkable by the fact that it comes from Conservative quarters. Yet, because he is a Conservative he termed political ideologies the new ethnicity, and spoilt it all.


If we want to believe like our forefathers did, if we want to tremble at the sound of thunder, if we want to be helpless in the face of avoidable diseases, we should go back to religious passions.


If, on the other hand, we want to enjoy the comforts of today, the sciences of today, then we better get secular.


There is much more to secularism than mere religious tolerance, religious equidistance, or even religious goodwill. Without secularism there is no development, and that is the hard truth.


The choice is clear. We can either think like our grandparents and go ethnic, or think of our grandchildren, as Keynes did, and become secular. There is no other option!


(Mail Today, source: SACW, Jan 18-19, 2011)


(The writer is a senior fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum & Library and a former Professor at JNU)

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