Friday, November 13, 2015

Secularism Is India’s Need, Not a Luxury

By Babar Ayaz
November 13, 2015
Intolerance is an outcome of extremism. Whether it is religious extremism, ultra-nationalism, extremist views about an ideology or about the superiority of a race, all encourage intolerance towards others. The rise of intolerance in India these days is not surprising. During Modi’s election campaign it was evident that extremist views and communal politics would give space to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Parivar’s intolerant followers. To whip up support from religious ultra-nationalists, Modi unnecessarily dragged Pakistan into his speeches.
I had three opportunities to speak at various forums in India in the last 12 months, where I had to emphasise that in all post-1970 elections no major leader in Pakistan tried to create hatred against India. I also stressed that Pakistan blundered by mixing religion with politics from the very beginning and is now paying a heavy price in blood for making this lethal political formulation. India, I observed, should learn from our mistakes as bringing religion into politics will breed intolerance in society. However, I have always been optimistic that there is a secular India beyond Modi’s Hindutva, as there is a peace-loving Pakistan beyond Hafiz Saeed’s jihad.
Today, secular forces around the world are worryingly looking at the rising tide of intolerance in India. Within India secular forces are joining hands and are fighting against the intolerance unleashed by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and BJP extremists who want to further Hindutva values, which are contrary to the secular values needed to take India forward as a 21st century democracy. Leading intellectuals like Romila Thapar, Arundhati Roy and many other artists have openly condemned the government for promoting intolerance in society. The success of secular forces in Bihar is also a rejection of Modi’s Hindutva and ultranationalist speeches during the elections besides the good performance of the incumbent Nitish Kumar and Lalu’s Muslim-Yadav (MY) policies.
What Modi’s ideologues undermine is that secularism is India’s need and not a political luxury, as it is not a monolithic society. Let us take a look at India’s religion-wise demography. According to the census of 2001, out of a 1,028 million population, 80.5 percent belong to the Hindu religion, 13.4 percent are Muslim (the latest survey shows Muslims sharing the population has risen to around 14.6 percent), 2.3 percent are Christian, 1.9 percent are Sikh, 0.80 percent are Buddhist and 0.4 percent Jain. In addition, over six million have reported professing other religions and faiths including tribal religions, different from the six main religions. It is true that Hinduism is professed by a majority of the population in India.
Although Muslims are over 14 percent of the total population in India, their percentage in many states is higher than the national share. The percentage of Muslims is sizeable in Assam at 30.9 percent, West Bengal at 25.2 percent, Kerala at 24.7 percent, and Uttar Pradesh at 18.5 percent, Bihar at 16.5 percent and Jammu and Kashmir at over 64 percent. So, from the tiny Indian Union territory island of Lakshadweep where Muslims are 90 percent to Kashmir, there are large pockets of Muslim presence that cannot be undermined.
At the same time, Christianity has emerged as the major religion in three north-eastern states namely Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya. Among other states and union territories such as Manipur, they are at 34 percent, Goa at 26.7 percent, Andaman and Nicobar Islands at 21.7 percent, Kerala at 19.0 percent and Arunachal Pradesh at 18.7 percent have a considerable percentage of Christian population to the total. Similarly, Punjab is the stronghold of Sikhism. The Sikh population of Punjab accounts for more than 75 percent of the total Sikh population in the country.
This is not all. Indian Dalits (the name adopted for the scheduled caste by the Dalit leader) are a mixed population consisting of groups who speak different languages and practice different religions. Officially defined as the scheduled caste in India, they are at 16.6 percent and, together with eight percent scheduled tribes; they form 25 percent of India’s population. Though the Dalits or scheduled caste are classified as Hindus in Indian official documents, Dalit intellectuals, from the architect of the Indian Constitution, Dr B R Ambekar, to Kancha Ilaiah, the writer of Why I am not a Hindu, have clearly maintained that Dalits are not Hindus and that even the gods they pray to are not those of Brahmanism. “I was not born a Hindu for the single reason that my parents did not know that they were Hindus. This does not mean that I was born as a Muslim, Buddhist, a Sikh or a Parsi. My parents had only one identity that was their caste; they were Kurumass. Their festivals were local, their god and goddesses were local and sometimes they were even specific to one village” (Kancha, 2006).
Now, if we segregate 20 percent of the non-Hindu population and 25 percent of the Dalits and others, almost 45 percent of India’s population cannot be subjected to the Brahmanism/ Hindutva. Thus, the RSS, Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), BJP and Bajrang Dal ‘legacy’ of Hindu jihad is not a popular narrative. In spite of all the lavish spending the BJP mustered only 31 percent of the votes in the last elections. All BJP voters did not support its anti-secular agenda but voted for its economic programme. Also, the BJP won the elections thanks to the Congress default and poor performance in last five years.
India’s visionary leader Jawahar Lal Nehru travelled to over 300 cities and towns in the country to draw the consensus that India should have a secular constitution. “Nehru: [secularism] means freedom of religion and conscience, including the freedom of those who may have no religion. It means free play of all religious subjects only to their not interfering with each other or with basic conception of our state.”
Secular fundamentalist Mani Shankar Aiyar maintained in his book that “Indian secularism cannot be anti-religious or irreligious, for the bulk of our people are deeply religious. Unlike in Christendom, where the word originated, secularism in India is not about pitting the state against the religious authority but about keeping matters of faith in the personal realm and matters of the state in the public realm” (Aiyar 2004: Confessions of a Secular Fundamentalist).
Babar Ayaz is the author of What’s Wrong with Pakistan?

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