Wednesday, 09 July 2014 04:08


The question of future of secularism in India is very important particularly at this juncture. The fundamentalist forces are raising their head in India as in other countries of the world. No religion is exception to this. There are many reasons for this. Secularism today is in much greater danger than ever before due to Hindutva and Islamic militancy.

Secularism is highly necessary if India has to survive as a nation. But apart from survival of Indian nationalism and Indian unity, secularism is necessary for modern democratic polity. And this need for secular polity becomes much greater if the country happens to be as diverse and plural as India. Secularism is a great need for democratic pluralism. Secularism, since very early times, has evoked certain controversies in India from very beginning. In democracy, all are equal citizens though they may not follow same religion or may not follow any religion at all. India happens to be multi-religious country. A multi-religious society cannot function democratically without secularism.

In democracy citizenship and citizens' rights are most central. India was from very beginning of its known history a multi-religious and multi-cultural society. Democracy in such a society cannot function without secularism as in democracy citizenship has priority over religion. Thus when the Britishers left and India chose to be democracy it had no recourse but to opt for secularism as well. Only a secular democracy can ensure equal rights for all citizens. India rightly chose to be a secular country in the sense that Indian state shall not privilege any religion and that followers of majority religion shall not have more privileges than the followers of minority religions in terms of citizenship. Also that state shall protect all religions equally without any distinction.

Our leaders and freedom fighters were well aware of need for secular and modern democratic polity for India. They also knew that India is highly religious country and that secularism in the sense of hostility or indifference to religion will never be acceptable to people of India. Secularism was never meant to be indifference to religion by Indian leaders. It is for this reason that even most orthodox among Hindus and Muslims accepted it as a viable ideology for Indian unity and integrity.

The most Orthodox Muslim Ulama of Deobandi school preferred secular India to Muslim homeland or theocratic Pakistan. They outright rejected the idea of Pakistan when mooted by Jinnah. They denounced ‘two nation’ theory on the basis of religion. In Indian situation, secularism means equal protection to all religions. However, communalism and obscurantism spread with more intensity than secularism.

In fact the educated were more affected with communal virus than the illiterate masses who never studied in schools and colleges. Similarly urban areas were more affected with communal virus than rural areas. Formation of Pakistan also greatly affected thinking of educated middle class Hindus and they looked upon Muslims as responsible for creation of Pakistan. They were never explained the complex political factors which brought about existence of Pakistan and that it was small percentage of elite Muslims who were more responsible for creation of Pakistan than the Muslim masses who did not even migrate to that country.

Thus the education system did not cultivate secular outlook and conservative political outlook continued to strengthen communal mindset among the educated middle classes. The Muslim leaders in independent India, after the death of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Zakir Husain, could not provide moderate and wise leadership to Muslim masses. They also remained not only extremely cautious in their approach but never prepared Muslim masses for modern secular polity in India. They were more insistent on minority rights than on necessity for change.

This attitude was further strengthened among these leaders due to frequent occurrences of communal riots. The Jabalpur riot of 1961 shook Nehru as much as Indian Muslims to the core. For the first time, they became greatly apprehensive of their security and began to withdraw in their shell. This further reinforced conservatism and began hurdle in developing secular outlook among Muslims. The Jabalpur riots were followed by more intense communal violence in Ahmedabad in 1969 and Bhivandi-Jalgaon in 1970.

The end of seventies and early eighties witnessed number of major communal riots in which hundreds were killed brutally. All these developments were sure prescription for increasingly weakening secular forces in the country.

Thus we see Indian secularism has followed a tortuous course all through in the post-independence period. It is not surprising in an underdeveloped country like India with its immense poverty, insurmountable levels of unemployment and widespread illiteracy. Recently, the Gujarat carnage again shook the world. The BJP Government tends to be buffeted between the VHP extremism and National Democratic Coalition compulsions, failed to adopt consistent policies.

In the given political circumstances, the future of secularism does not seem to be bright. However, one should not take short- term view based only on given context. Human beings have always struggled to transcend their given situation. A purely contextual view tends to be realistic but also restricted one. A vision, on the other hand, may not always be realistic but has a much broader sweep. And it is this broader sweep which shapes new realities and these new realities enables us to shape our future.

Though religion will never cease to be a force in human life secularism will not lose its relevance either. The modern democratic polity cannot be sustained without the state being neutral to all religions or equally protective for all religions. And it is in this sense that secularism in India will become more and more relevant. It should also be noted that we should not pose secularism and religious orthodoxy as binary opposites, as some rationalists tend to do.

India has stupendous challenges to meet due to its economic backwardness and unemployment, which sharpen communal struggle. Unemployed and frustrated youth can easily be induced to think and act communally as he thinks his unemployment is due more to his caste or community than economic backwardness. Thus chances of secularism will certainly brighten with more economic progress and reduced levels of unemployment, particularly educated unemployment.

Indian democracy, which is here to stay, is in itself a guarantee for future of secularism. A pluralist country like India needs secularism like life-blood. India has been pluralist not since post-modernism but for centuries and no one can wish away its bewildering pluralism and this pluralism can be sustained only with religiously neutral polity. India has been passing through very critical phase now but there is nothing to despair. The present communal turmoil is not here to stay. It would certainly yield to more stable secular polity