Battle between “Secularism vs. Communalism”

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(Brig (retd) GB Reddi)

Come elections begins the battle between “Secularists and Communalists” to accelerate societal divide irretrievably. In reality, the battle is between “pseudo secularists and the right-wing nationalists.

Even a layman understands its fallout: “Divided India”.  How can a “divided India” ever traverse on the path peace, progress and development to ensure higher quality of life styles  by lifting the BPL families out of pecuniary and poverty?

The key issue to address, therefore, is simple: Is “secularism possible in India?”  Let me at the outset highlight that it is a mirage or utopia. With Islamophobia haunting Indian politics and open and insidious innuendo and jingoistic rhetoric glaringly evident during elections through social-cum-fake media, the scope for tolerance and respect for other religions is waning at a rapid pace.

Growing radicalization and polarization on opposing religious lines is inevitable.  The cycle of “action and reaction” is but natural.  Those erstwhile “pseudo secularists” now flaunting “Soft Hindutva” faces to somehow recapture their political power are hell bent upon consolidating social divide with utter disregard to lessons of India’s past.

For example, the Mughal emperor Akbar in 1582 CE  propounded Dīn-i Ilāhī (“Religion of God”) as a syncretic religion intending to merge elements of the religions of his empire, and thereby reconcile the differences that divided his subjects; but failed. So also, M K Gandhi freedom movement attempt resulted in partition of India.

Furthermore, even the attempts of modern Indian Saints, Gurus and Baba’s to promote ‘syncretic’ religion ethos like Sai Baba and others have not made any substantial gains to promote harmony and peace.

Also, Indian society is highly structured and competitive what with followers of Islam constituting the second largest population in the world. There are deep seated fault lines that persist which can be exploited and exploded by fringe groups on either side.

Over the past seven decades, appeasement of minorities became the pathway to power in Indian politics. Initially, the majority community did not deem it as serious concern.  Now, Islamists are in the forefront of equality and equity in every sphere and spectrum of life. With the demographics rapidly altering in their favor, they are naturally claims to their fair and share.  And, radical ideology is in pursuit of establishing the “Caliphate” by recovering their past glory of 7 centuries rule.

Ipso facto, the rise of Islam in India has been largely done by the Sword.  The infiltration of Christianity has been more subtle.  The rise of Sikhism was more to protect the indigenous religious culture being swept by the rising tide of Islam and Christianity.

As of now, the influence of the so-called Islamic State in South Asia may be minimal, but India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, have all had the shadow of ISIS’ global footprint land on their doorstep. In the past, the ‘ISIS Khorasan’ maps had showed the region as part of the caliphate’s global ambitions of conquest.

Muslim terrorist organizations frequently blur the lines between “jihadist group” and “Muslim separatist movement.” As a result, a spectrum exists from strictly transnational jihadists, to Muslim separatists utilizing jihadist rhetoric and perhaps accepting assistance from transnational jihadist groups, to violent separatist groups that simply happen to identify as Muslim.

With the territorial defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the domestic jihadists are returning to their homes. After having been fully radicalized and tasted blood, will they return to peaceful ways or what form they would re-emerge next?

Let me highlight that “Secularism” has many divergent interpretations.  If so it should not be termed as a national value or an ideology. Ironic but true, the term “Secularism” was added in the Preamble of the Constitution with the 42nd Amendment of the Constitution of India enacted in 1976. However, neither India’s constitution nor its laws define the relationship between religion and state.

The term secularism is originally European in conception. It is a derivative of the Latin word “Saeculum” meaning time cycle, eternity, era, world.

As per Oxford Dictionary, the term ‘secular’ means pertaining to the present world, or, to things not spiritual. And, secularism means the belief that the state, morals, education and so on should be independent of religion.

In its original interpretation, it differentiated word-oriented priests from spirit oriented regular priests. In the course of evolution of European History, it acquired a political meaning – a doctrine concerning the state and the religion.

In its classical form, it left the spirit oriented choices to the individuals and gave world oriented objectives to the state. Thus, classical secularism did not limit the individual’s freedom to pursue religion. In fact, it envisaged the state to guarantee the individual freedom, but limited its authority to worldly functions only.

During the 17th Century, it referred to the condition of a thing, a territory or an institution that has been separated from the Church. Only during the 19th century, the term came to mean the process of deconsecrating and loss of faith. Therefore, the term secular did not imply non-religion or freedom from religion or any specific attitude to religion.

In sum, religious organizations had no say in political decision making in classical secularism – Europe left Gods alone after waging centuries of religious warfare over the above issue. They left religion to the care of individuals, with no authority from above dictating beliefs or religious practices, which constituted a cultural revolution, called secularism – freedom from religion or state non-intervention.

In today’s Indian social context and content, religion and politics are intertwined. In no way they can disentangled. Real secularism by original conception is mirage.

It must also be remembered that “Secularism” has many faces or interpretations to include: 1) Sociological concept; 2) Derelgionization; 3) Separation of politics from religion or Selective Secularism; 4) Sanatana Dharma or Liberal Secularism; 6) Hindutva or Positive Secularism; 5) Religious Tolerance/Harmony; and 6) Equal disrespect for all religions.

First, as per German Social thinkers, Max Weber and Ferdinand Teniers, it is a sociological concept referring to “the decrease in the meaning of organized religions as a means of social control, or as the result of an accepted shrinkage of the range of religious ideas and norms.

And, Marx perceived that religion is an anti-national superstition from the primitive age, which prevents people from living in reality and emancipating themselves.  So, the Marxists obsession that religion is an evil, because it is anti-rational.  The Indian Leftists version of secularism is equal disrespect for all religions.  Their focus is more on developing collective consciousness.

Europe left Gods alone in the 18th century after learning bitter lessons over centuries and the pendulum is once again swinging towards religionisation wherever politico-socio-economic transformations have not been competently managed.

As a concept, in the more advanced countries of Western World, secularism may appear to have made a tremendous breakthrough.  In retrospect in today’s context, even they too are facing extraordinarily complex challenges due to demographic transitions due to legal and illegal migrations and natural growth processes.

So, to attempt to replicate is dangerous.  Being an ancient civilization, we should look inwards and learn from our own lessons.  The urgent inescapability is to prevent, in the name of Gods, growth of collision and conflict centered people’s syndrome or brutalization of society.  There is urgent need to arrest the growing contempt within and between religions.  Similarly, between various religions and the State.

Admittedly, the foundations of both the Society and the State are totally shaken.  Collapse both will, if the foundations are not re-restored to a state of equilibrium.  True Indianisation is the urgent need.  What is most vital is to promote the desire to co-exist; Indian Muslims, Indian Christians, Sikhs and the Hindus must co-exist.

Second, derelgionization of society, particularly in our domestic context is a utopian ideal to achieve.  5000 or 7000 years of history cannot be swept aside from the psyche of the Great Indian Divide.  All the myths, legends, rituals, beliefs, superstitions, taboos, religious bigotry and Gurus cannot be simply wished away on the basis of modernization.

The greater sins committed in amassing wealth and power, the deeper the commitment to Gods and religions, and the vulgar display that follow it.  In fact, our ingenuity is such that even the Gods are being corrupted in the name of religions.

More vital is to realize that all major religious classical doctrines believe in eternity, the transcendental, as a third dimension.  Man is being, transcending himself.  Part of this human nature is the sense of the divine and the metaphysical, the possibility of experiencing transcendence.  To deny such an opportunity would be to take humanity away from man and to make him an inhuman creature.

Since religion is deeply embedded in the psyche of our people, the probability of decreasing its influence as a means of social control – real secularization even in a long term context of 50 – 100 years appears remote unless a religious revolution sweeps the country or a miracle occurs.

In sum, ours is a faith imbued society and historically a spiritual nation.  How can it ever practice secularism based on derelgionization of society?  Without a violent social upheaval, it is impossibility at least in my life time.

Third, the concept of secularism as separation of politics from religion is another utopian ideal. Edmund Burke remarked: ‘true religion is the foundation of a society’ is real and unquestionable not only for our country, but also to the rest of the world.  After all, society, in turn, is the foundation of a Nation-State.  So, how can religion be separated from politics, or, how can States exist without moral and spiritual values?

Mahatma Gandhi’s remarks in his autobiography are quite apt: “I can say without the slightest hesitation, that those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means”.

Even in the advanced Western countries, they do not practice the concept of separation of politics from religion.  They too invoke Bible at the time of swearing-in ceremonies of their Presidents, Governors and Judges.

Of course, they too conduct thanksgiving prayers.  They view Islamic revivals at international level as an emerging prospect in the 21st century, and view it with concern and as a potential threat. The embryo of ethnic minorityism and their futuristic blow outs, posterity can only unfold.

The ground realities in our country are interesting.  The basis of founding independent modern India is religion.  Also, our State has been actively colluding with various religions to run its affairs.

For example, the Congress has now begun flirting with some of the BJP’s favorite campaign themes: to build gaushalas (cow shelters); develop commercial production of gaumutra (cow urine) and cow dung; promote the Ram Van Gaman Path (the path that Lord Ram took during his exile from Ayodhya); and pass laws that would conserve India’s sacred rivers, and promote Sanskrit. This trend is partly reconfirmed by the party’s strategy in ticket distribution.

Meanwhile, all parties without exception are displaying rank opportunism to manipulate and exploit communal vote banks to capture political power, and at the cost of integration.  Of course, once in power of the States, they have also been appointing Ministers of Religious Endowments to control religious activities, who in turn, appoint Temple Committee and Wakf Board members.

De jure, political priests have replaced religious priests. Paradoxically and ironically, our politicians and politics are inter-woven with religion that Subhash Chandra Bose’s cryptic comment (1928) “let us not become a queer mixture of political democrats and social conservatives” seems to be apt.

In fact, total freedom has been extended to all religions to grow at the cost of Hinduism which has been labeled as ‘Selective secularism’ by the Hindutva protagonists. Of course, secularism is doomed to fail, particularly in our multi racial-religious-cultural and illiterate society which is hydra-cum-heterogeneous.

Fourth, the inclusive concept of Sanatana Dharma as a brand of secularism, that is, co-existence of composite cultures represents our inherited heritage and forms its basis. Sanatana Dharma in its pure form is centered on a liberal outlook.

So, the need for the State, if it is to succeed, is to promote and consolidate the concept of Sanatana Dharma based on its liberalist philosophy, vis-à-vis, permitting escalation of its militant twist.   The State must accept and ensure benevolent intervention effectively in the most active, but firm form.

Historically, Hindu culture is based on a strong community structure, but in matters of religion, it retained its individualistic character – no regular gatherings in temples as per religious custom or fatwa.  In fact, no temples existed prior to the advent of Buddhism as per some historians, mostly western.

But, the high water mark of Hindu culture is individual consciousness.  No group prayers as practiced under the ‘fatwa’ or Islam or Church prescriptions.  One’s religious experience is one’s affair. For the Muslims, it is a total enigma and unacceptable.

Since Hinduism is not purely a religion, but includes a philosophy, a culture, wherein each one can gain access to his beloved God or Gods in his own way and attain salvation or Moksha, it lays claim to the spirit of universality in which man and the universe become one.

Its proponents, therefore, view Sanatana Dharma as a secular concept, which offers adequate opportunities to all people to follow their own faiths and felt needs in an atmosphere free from conflicts and violence.  Undeniably, Hindu spiritualism still attracts Western intellectuals.

In sum, subjecting the individual’s freedom of religion to any public authority, under the garb of secularism, is alien to Hindu culture.  Can co-religionists accept such a common norm?  Will the State implement/ enforce it as a common law of secularism?

Fifth, the concept of Hindutva, which is the militant twist given to Sanatana Dharma by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) protagonists, Bajrang Dal, the BJP and the Shiv Sena.  The Ratha Yathras and the Mandir construction are viewed as threats from within by pseudo-secularists.

They contend that the disintegration of not only India s a nation, but also Hinduism and the Indian society as likely realities, if pseudo-secularism continues to govern our policy formulations.  They contest that “to be a Hindu is communal”.

Whereas to retain trans-national Muslim, Christian or Sikh orientation is not communal howsoever rabid it may be.  If the Hindus congregate for worship, it is communal.  For others, it is hailed as brotherhood which every variety it may be.

How does one justify that a Hindu to be secular should identify himself as an Indian.  Truly, it is perverse logic for a true Hindu who is truly Indian.

Hindutva protagonists, therefore, have coined yet another brand called ‘positive secularism’ as an ideology, that is, the recognition of the hegemony of majoritarianism Hindu religious sentiments and emotions by the State, by various political parties and by various minorities for the greater glory of ‘national unity’.

So, their catchy slogan is “if there is not to be a temple to Ram in Ayodhya, then where it to be – Mecca or Bethlehem is?”

Add to them other interpretations like Mahatma Gandhi’s slogan ‘sarva dharma samabhava’ which was an attempt or experiment to forge an Indian brand of secularism, which failed miserably in 1947 and the rest is history.

Yet another significant feature “Is it true that Indian culture is intrinsically secular?”  The study of history, and in the making, does not give credence to such theories.  Buddhism and Jainism – the two off-shoots of Hinduism – have almost been wiped out from the land of their origin.  Had secularism been the hallmark of ancient Indian culture, surely such higher order Hindu off-shoots would not have been almost wiped out.

Fundamentals of secularism are religious tolerance, freedom and harmony, which should be independent of politico-economic facets of society. In reality, secularism as a religious ideology has varied forms.  Its divergent multi-interdependency and inter-relationships with various politico-economic developments are real.  They need to be understood for their true significance.

Ultimately, the success of secularism as a religious ideology will rest on seemingly visible just distribution of power and wealth; politico-socio-economic.   Muslims expect 13% of share in all spheres, now 20% share.  Our cake is small and there are so many claimants for a just share in it.

Hopes for just and equitable distribution are bleak.  Similarly, religious salvation is remote.  Social reform or revolution per se will not suffice.  It has to be matched by complementary and reinforcing politico-economic reforms. Unless the basic needs of the people and the issues of poverty, resources and development are tackled, the masses would revert to religious fundamentalism.  It is, but an irreversible process as it is today.

In sum, the ballot box battle between “pseudo secularists and communalists” cannot be simplistically wished away since it is extraordinarily complex challenge. Politics and religion are inextricably intermixed and interwoven. Add to it, their economic linkages and transnational orientation and loyalty.

In fact, the real battle is between all the competing and contesting religions to spread their followership by the Pen, the Book, the Sword and also the “Dollars” to attract and appease people to their fold. The struggle of Hinduism, the sole ancient religion, for survival, therefore, is real on its native soil. Inevitable polarization of Hindu’s cutting across their inherited social divide. For the Hindu’s, 2019 elections is a “do or die” battle of ballot box.

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