The slogan of “secularism” raised for long by the present opposition in India and the more recent cry of “intolerance” whipped up by some parties, do seem to converge on a not-so-subtle political purpose of influencing the minorities. It is a pity that a few individuals in leadership positions in the fields of cinema and literature also became an instrument in a game that is by-and-large political. These issues, however, are too serious to be allowed to pass without a critical examination upfront, of where India—as the largest democracy—stood on them.
In a democratic state, the citizen literally has a three-dimensional existence. He or she has a personal domain that provides choices of lifestyle, family customs and worship. There is then the socio-economic plane, where interaction with other members of society at large is the defining feature. And finally, the citizen has the all important “political” role of deciding what kind of dispensation will rule the nation. People may have different ideologies, but politics should not produce differing interpretation of even a national security threat.
In India, personal freedoms have always been exercised with assertiveness. Difficulties begin to arise as the individual steps into the social domain, which is governed by the do’s and don’ts of society. These are expected to be followed voluntarily, but of necessity, some of these accepted prohibitions are enlarged into the state’s penal code to mandate unequivocal compliance. One’s religious beliefs and practices cannot be imposed on others in violation of the common law of the land. Notions of superiority of one faith over the other do not work.
The third realm of the citizen’s life in a democracy is all about the relationship that he or she had with the nation itself, and this defines the political dimension of his or her role. A democracy maintains its identity on the principle of “one man one vote” that should operate regardless of caste, creed and gender. The advent of caste and community-based politics destroys this fundamental strength of the democratic nation. The Constitution of India recommended special support to the socially and educationally backward “classes” and did not validate “castes”.
In areas dominated by a caste or community, this type of concentration is a typically Indian phenomenon—the votes of other citizens become less significant. There is a perpetual erosion of the “one man one vote” principle, as the ruling dispensation, after the polls, tilts in favour of the concerned caste or community to maintain their spoils for the future. It is amusing to see many of the caste-based parties claiming the legacy of “socialism”.
The practice of “secularism” —a much flaunted word in Indian politics—must begin with an understanding of the separation that has to be made between the personal, social and political spheres of the life of a citizen. A collective activity like the mass prayer or a procession with music, for instance, has to adjust with the convenience of the larger society and earn the latter’s acceptance; it cannot become a matter of asserting the personal religious right over the rights of the rest of the society.
India has been a very tolerant nation granting complete freedom within the parameters of the “collective good”. In the court of Lord Ram, sage Charvak—the earliest known protagonist of atheism—got the same respect as was given to other thought leaders. Intemperate reactions of individuals from any community on issues of sectarian import do not add up to the state becoming intolerant of any section of the citizens. The government of the day must maintain the supremacy of law over such individuals. Since all sections of the electorate are politically equal, “secularism” implies that there should be no need for voting on a caste and communal grid. In recent years, “secularism” has become a vote catching slogan for many political parties who calculate in cold logic that against a highly divided “majority” in the country, a consolidated minority could easily give them an advantage in elections.
The real instruments of secularism in India are development and law enforcement, as these domains, being inherently above any sectarian boundaries, benefit all equally. There is little willingness, however, to acknowledge this, as the political class has tried to inject communalism in both—judging from the politicisation of the police and the encouragement to special weight in jobs and positions of power, given in the name of group identity. In the 2014 general elections, the “secular” promise of Narendra Modi in regard to development and effective governance seemed to have pushed the communal divide into the background somewhat. The trend could not be kept up because of the political tug of war.
Why cannot Hindu and Muslim leaders be popular with the opposite communities on the strength of their “secular” and competent leadership? Many years ago, I accompanied the then Prime Minister to a city in Uttar Pradesh which had witnessed a serious communal riot. There was an air of tension around, as the local leaders of the two communities assembled in the evening to meet the Prime Minister. In his short address, the PM spoke of the importance of communal harmony and took everybody by surprise by suggesting that Hindu leaders nominate the Muslim members of the Peace Committee and Muslims choose the Hindu members. There was a sudden drop in the temperature as everyone had to accept the idea. Normalcy returned in quick time. The learning is that “secularism” should not become a mere political slogan and should not contradict the basic principle that in a democracy all citizens, regardless of caste, creed and gender, have the same rights and obligations.
D.C. Pathak is a former Director Intelligence Bureau.