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Secularism versus Communalism
by Dr. Jaipal Singh Bookmark and Share

Secularism is perhaps the most misunderstood and abused word in the Indian politics today. In the name of secularism, many political parties, their leaders, self-proclaimed intellectuals and activists have been raising issues in the past and a hysteria during the General Elections for the 16th Lok Sabha that minorities are not safe if the saffron party (i.e. Bhartiya Janta Party) assumes power at the Centre. The new government led by Mr Narendra Modi has indeed taken over the governance at the Centre and will have a tremendous challenge and responsibility to allay apprehensions and fears among minorities, particularly the Muslims, maintain communal harmony and provide equal opportunities to all in their pursuit of socio-economic development and growth of the nation during the next five years.
Through the 42nd Amendment of the Constitution of India enacted in 1976, the words “Sovereign Democratic Republic” in the Preamble to the Constitution were substituted by the words “Sovereign Socialist Secular Democratic Republic”. This implies that India is a secular country with socialist ideals. However, neither India's constitution nor its subsequent laws further defined the relationship between the state and religion. The laws require the state and its institutions to recognize and accept all religions, enforce religious laws and respect pluralism. Thus in effect, the people of India have freedom of religion, and the state is required to treat people as equal citizens irrespective of their religion.

Communalism is a divisive force that identifies people in distinct, often in conflict, religious groups but secularism tends to unify communities on the principles of equity and mutual respect. Empathy, humanism and philanthropy remain basic traits of any secularist person who always advocates for common welfare and well-being of all. Secularism, in true sense, involves rising above the religious considerations to ensure the justice and fair play to all citizens. Hence it is of paramount importance in any democratic country that citizens imbibe the true secular values and ethics for a meaningful democracy and a better social order in the state.

While western concept of secularism lay emphasis on the separation of religion and state, India has not essentially subscribed to this point of view. Instead, secularism in Indian context is interpreted as equal treatment to all religions by the state. In effect, this implies that the state will not interfere with the religious laws and honour such laws in regulating relevant issues of the concerned community.

During the general elections for the 16tth Lok Sabha, some of the features of nineties of the bygone century, albeit in a lower key, were noticeable while so called ‘secular’ parties had aggressively wooed the minority (mainly the Muslims) votes. This is beyond any logic and imagination that political parties and leaders playing religion card would not be aware of the dangerous consequences of the counter polarization, proving this move to be counter-productive to the interest of the society in the long run. But then politicians often tend to forget it or deliberately ignore it keeping their immediate interests and likely short term gains in view.

As against this, Mr Modi led BJP’s campaign largely remained focused this time on and agenda of development and good governance throughout these elections. The electorate’s decisive mandate for the agenda of development and good governance is also a clear signal that the religion (and caste) politics is a thing of past and may not sell or pay anymore. Perhaps in the coming years, the common man particularly younger generation will be more interested and focused on issues like education, employment and social well-being of all rather than driven only by the narrow interests of the religion (and cast) factor(s).

The massive mandate received by the BJP led NDA in the parliamentary elections also clearly indicate that more or less every community has voted in favour of this alliance and the development and good governance is in the interest of all and sundry. Notwithstanding the fact that the so called ‘secular’ parties made all possible efforts to woo minorities, mainly Muslims, but the results clearly go against the communalism, or the religion based politics. Such parties and leaders need to take lesson that the Muslims too would want development, jobs and opportunities like any other citizen of any other community. The efforts made to spread fear or hate amongst their minds in the name of secuarism versus communalism to encash for electoral have clearly not worked.

Unfortunately, the Indian sub-continent has an ignominious history of communal bigotry and riots in various parts and points of time. It’s just for the political reasons that the Gujarat riots of 2002 had been raked up time and again during the last twelve years and in these elections too by the political parties, some religious outfits and self-proclaimed intellectuals to serve their own vested interests.

If the so-called secular parties and their leaders are indeed committed to secularism and well-being of minorities then ideally, and appropriately, the communal tensions and riots should have not occurred in states where these parties were (or are) in power. Also they should have shown noticeable prompt and accurate action to minimize loss of life and property if at all hostilities escalated in some part under their regime. But has this been really so? If so, how one would explain recent communal riots in the Western Uttar Pradesh and some other parts of the country.

It is high time and need that the minority communities, particularly the Muslims, should also debate and realize that it has been over sixty years since independence and the 'secular' parties have fought umpteen elections seeking their mandate in the name of championing their cause but what has actually been done to improve their security, socio-economic standards and to integrate them with the mainstream over the years. They must also realize that in a democratic country, any political party or leader cannot do any unilateral favour or harm to any community and no party should take any community for granted just for the electoral support.

It’s not that it is being said for the first time. It has been debated and opined by many umpteen times that some so-called ‘secular’ parties have been treating minorities, mainly the Muslims, as a vote bank over the years by inciting a fear psychosis during an election that they must support them or else the 'communal BJP' would come to power. Community leaders and individuals themselves should try to analyze logically and rationally, and not simply driven by religious sentiments, if any harm has actually been done by the said communal party while in power in the States and Centre in the past. Onus also lies on Muslims and other minorities to learn and understand finesse of the secularism and the selfish game played by the sectarian leaders and politicians in the name of communalism.

Any government irrespective of the political party must recognize that the Muslims, like all other citizens, need education, employment, prosperity and socio-economic growth, and not merely the lip service or freebies as done in the past. Besides the government and community leaders, the common citizen irrespective of religious leanings must realize that more than religious teachings and education, the pupils also need modern education in sync with the contemporary times to groom as professionals for undertaking challenging jobs and assignment in an endeavor to improve the status of self, their family and the nation in the larger context.

As far the Indian National Congress, which has ruled India for the most of the years after independence, this election was a nightmare and fiasco. The Congress could not garner even minimum number of parliamentary seats required to qualify as the main opposition party. One wouldn’t really know if it is their political compulsion or indeed an honest assessment but either way it appears that they have not learnt any lesson even after a massive defeat and rejection by the electorate during this general election. This is apparent in the aftermath of poll results, when the party spokesmen have stated that the loss at the election was mainly on account of massive polarization of electorate due to BJP’s communal politics and deployment of disproportionately vast resources for the purpose of publicity and mass campaign. It is also stated that the party’s own failure of highlighting the good work done during ten years is also partly responsible for the defeat. One wonders if the Congress has any scarcity of resources or funds and what had stopped them to reach to masses with their achievements.

This is as if the entire nation has not seen or aware of what all transpired during the parliamentary elections. Is it not a fact that the Congress President met the Imam of the Jama Masjid in Delhi on the occasion and the meeting led to a call from the Imam to the community to vote in bloc for the Congress party? Also it is no more a secret how the support of the particular gangster-turned-politician of the minority community  was sought at Varanasi in favour of the Congress candidate in an endeavor to defeat BJP’s Prime Minister Nominee. Incidentally, the same tainted politician is also under trial facing murder charges of the brother of the said Congress candidate. Several politicians and religious leaders of the community from all over the country camped at Varanasi for weeks together to woo minority votes during the election process.

It is surprising that the party and leaders are unable to understand or accept that such aggresive overt and covert maneuvers to garner support of a particular community might indeed lead to polarization of electorate on communal lines, as any reaction is bound to trigger a counter-reaction. This is indeed a strange logic of 'a secular party' which beats all logic and rationale. It would be anybody’s guess and inference that such moves ultimately prove counter-productive and self-defeating. Then you blame your rivals for own misadventures.

Some leaders of other parties too were playing the similar game during canvassing. For illustration, the prominent socialist leader of the Samajwadi Party during the election campaign made a controversial remarks on the death sentence handed down to culprits of the gang rape in Mumbai. He reportedly said, “Boys are boys, they make mistakes. Why hang them?” Then he later added, “Boy and girl fall in love and part ways later due to differences, and when the friendship ends, the girl complains she has been raped.”

It would be difficult to surmise that the leader does not understand the nuances of a mistake and a heinous crime. The obvious corollary made by media, rival politicians and public at large of his statement was that two of the three convicts were from the minority community and the leader was obviously trying to woo the Muslims for votes even on such a sensitive issue. These are few illustrations, there is no dearth of such saviours of minorities in the Indian politics whose heart (?) exclusively beats for secularism and welfare of minorities, more pronounced at the election eve.

In the civilized West, the word secular ordinarily implies freedom of religion, equal citizenship and the separation of religion and state. On the other hand, in India secularism does not essentially mean separation of religion from state. Instead, secularism implies that the state is neutral to all religious communities. Consequently, the religious laws, particularly for Indian Muslims, supersede Sovereign laws in India, which have been questioned and debated by some from time to time.

Because of the marked differences in the interpretation of secularism world over, particularly more democratic and civilized West, and how we envision it in India, secularism has always been a topic of controversy and debate. Some political parties, intellectuals and ordinary citizens feel that any attempt to implement a uniform civil code irrespective of religion would antagonize and hurt sensitivities of minorities, particularly the Muslims. On the other hand, others feel that the acceptance of Sharia and religious laws for the community vitiates the very principle of equal human rights for all citizens irrespective of the caste or creed. Besides, it discriminates against women and renders unequal citizenship. Hence such people feel that India should gradually move towards separating the religion and state.

Ironically, for many in India secularism has become a narrow interpretation of merely a concern for the religious minorities, particularly the Muslims with a population of over 175 million whom they percieve as a vote bank. In a debate of secularism versus communalism, certain political parties as also many self-styled intellectuals appear to speak or taking sides based on their personal interests, or other short term and long term considerations. Those who subscribe to the conventional pacifying view are considered as secular and others who differ and talk of reason are often branded as communal.

In constitution, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Jains and Parsees are listed as minorities. Muslims are approximately 15%, Sikhs are about 2% and others are less than 1% of the total population of India. Interestingly, Sikhs, despite being in minority, have a significant presence in the Indian army and other government jobs besides contributing significantly to the Indian economy. They never seek a reservation for self, one can’t find a Sikh begging and they liberally feed those who participate in their Langars without discriminating on the religion or caste. Sometimes I wonder if others will ever take any clue or lesson from them.

Some rational thinkers believe that a true secularist is one who believes in collective conscience, contemporary needs and impeccable honesty.  The cardinal principle in any secular society should be spontaneous acceptance of the religious diversity with mutual respect and recognition of different religions and faith. Besides, the diversity of faith must be genuinely respected and not merely allowed or tolerated.

Religion and state are separate entities and, ideally, the former should not interfere with the latter and vice versa. The communalism should not merit any consideration and the secularism should imply justice and fair play free of religious interventions. Our medieval history accounts for numerous instances where religion was a source of divisiveness, oppression, conflict and conversion, and repeatedly exploited to further the vested interests of one community or the other. But in the modern era of education and awareness, sooner the people realize this better they will have chances of collective survival and prosperity, particularly in a country like India which has such a complex diversity of the multi-religious, multi-lingual and cast based society.

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