First published in Scroll.in on 31 December 2014.
The Preamble to the Constitution of India describes the country as a “sovereign socialist secular democratic republic”. Describing itself as socialist in the Constitution does not make India socialist, of course. What kind of a socialist country seeks Walmart? Similarly, secularism will soon be relegated to being a mere word in the pages of the Constitution.
Critics of socialism and secularism point out that these ideas were inserted in the Preamble not by the makers of India’s Constitution but by Indira Gandhi in 1976. They forget to read the rest of what the founding fathers wrote:
WE, THE PEOPLE OF INDIA, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a SOVEREIGN SOCIALIST SECULAR DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC and to secure to all its citizens:
JUSTICE, social, economic and political;
LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship;
EQUALITY of status and of opportunity;
and to promote among them all
FRATERNITY assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation;
IN OUR CONSTITUENT ASSEMBLY this twenty-sixth day of November, 1949, do HEREBY ADOPT, ENACT AND GIVE TO OURSELVES THIS CONSTITUTION.
Much of that is under attack. When the Prime Minister of India, on a visit to a foreign country, takes a dig at “secular friends”, it is clear that he does not believe in secularism, i.e., the idea that the state has no religion. Modi said at a reception by Indians in Tokyo in September, “I brought Gita for gifting [the Japanese Emperor]. I do not know what will happen in India after this. There may be a TV debate on this. Our secular friends will create ‘toofan’ [storm].”
In doing so, the Prime Minister may himself have overlooked the message of the Gita, to do the right thing, difficult as it may be, when faced by the challenges of dharma ‒ duty, obligation, and responsibility. To say that any “secular friends” have a problem with the Bhagwad Gita is a lie. Such an attack on the founding principles of India’s Constitution by its prime minister leaves you wondering if those principles will survive in the pursuit of power, development and progress by India’s first government in 30 years with a clear majority.
‘Tokenism’ for Hindus only
This was perhaps the first Ramzan when Iftar parties were not patronised by politicians of the ruling party; even Atal Bihari Vajpayee did so when he was prime minister. Supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party and its ideology would say that such tokenism for minorities is exactly what’s wrong with secularism. Yet they see nothing wrong with the tokenism of Modi donating Rs 25 crore ofIndian taxpayer money to the Pashupatinath temple in Nepal.
The Modi government’s assault on Indian secularism lies more in his silence than in his statements or actions. Soon after he came to power in May, a young IT professional in Pune was lynched to death for merely being seen with a beard and a skullcap. Since then, not a week has passed without some action or statement by radical Hindutva outfits against India’s religious minorities. Churches have been mysteriously burnt, adivasis have been beaten up and others made to participate in Hindu “reconversion” ceremonies, Muslim men have been falsely accused and put in jail for “love jihad”,anti-Muslim riots have taken place in Gujarat: the list is endless. Modi did not so much as condemn any of these. In a bizarre statement from the Red Fort on India’s Independence Day, he appealed for riots to be stopped for ten years, as if to say they could resume after that.
Trying to draw a distinction between radical Hindutva outfits and the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party is meaningless, because, as everyone knows, they all belong to the same Sangh Parivar spearheaded by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. Modi himself is a product of the RSS.
The government is not even making an attempt to portray a distance with these groups, their ideology or actions. Instead of condemning forcible so-called reconversions, the government says India needs a law banning religious conversion. There isn’t even a lip service to the Constitution’s ideal of a country where there is “liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship”. Which side the government tilts to is clear when it seeks to hijack Christmas as “Good Governance Day”, making some school children and many government officials work on a public holiday. Can you imagine the government doing this on Diwali or Vijay Dashami? What the prime minister instead does on Vijay Dashami is that he performs “Shastra Puja’”before police and security personnel at his official residence, as if Hinduism was the state religion. Also, he lets the RSS chief use state television to address the nation.
Hindu Republic of India?
Christmas is not a public holiday in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, for instance, because it is an Islamic state that will not have a public holiday on a Christian festival. That is where Narendra Modi seemingly wants to take India: towards being a theocratic state. It has often been said that India is a secular country because of Hindus. That is true because Hindus are in such an overwhelming majority that if they want a theocratic Hindu state, they could have it any day. Is that what they have voted for? The Modi government got a majority on a 31% vote share, and even those voters were largely voting out an extremely unpopular government. The government has already done a number of U-turns on several things it promised before the elections. It is now in danger of being known only for pushing the Hindutva agenda through the back door.
The idea that India is a secular country only because of its Hindus, also implicitly suggests that India’s would not be a secular country if it had a Muslim majority. That is not a given. There are 20-odd Muslim-majority countries that do not have a state religion. Yet our secularism-hating friends want to see Pakistan or Saudi Arabia as a model for minority rights.
The Sangh Parivar and the BJP want to invisibilise India’s religious minorities and reduce them to second-class citizens who must be grateful to the Hindu majoritarian state to be allowed to live peacefully without “reconverting” to Hindusim. They don’t want Hindu women to marry someone of another religion, they don’t want mosques to be allowed to have loudspeakers, they don’t want non-Hindus allowed at garba events in Gujarat, they don’t want religious minorities to have the right to proselytise, and they certainly aren’t giving any election tickets to non-Hindus as they win state after state election with a generous dose of religious “polarisation” of voters. Such are the people in power today, in the sovereign socialist secular democratic republic of India.
The Indian secularism debate ended when Narendra Modi became India’s prime minister. The big question now is how much damage this government will cause to Indian secularism. When the fringe becomes the centre, it will do its best to make sure that it redefines the centre forever.