The Ascent & Descent of Secularism in India.
H I N D U I S M
J A I N
B U D D H I SM
S I K H I S M
I S L A M
C H R I S T A N I T Y
The word secular is nowadays very much in vogue for all the wrong reasons. As an anti dote the term pseudo-secularism is also used with the same frequency. The interpretations of both the words depends on which side one is in the Indian political arena. Time was when secularism had only one meaning, broadly understood by all. However today it can have many meanings used suitably by all and sundry.
Secularism basically means the separation between religion and politics. Thus the government and its officials are separating themselves from religious institutions and religious preachers. In short politics and religion are not mixed and the State operates independent of religion. The State does not influence religion and in turn religion does not influence politics.
However in practice, barring a handful of countries, religion and politics do influence each other to a lesser or greater extent. By and large the results are not good for a particular community or the target community.
The term secularism was first used by the British writer George Holyoake in 1851. While the use of the word secularism was new, to distinguish the separation of religion and politics, the concept by itself can be traced back to many centuries in history. In the propagation of the idea of secularism there is no attempt to denigrate the importance of religion in a person's life or on society. It only state that the government actions should not be guided by religious beliefs of either a dominant religion or by those of a minority religion. The State must act in a religion neutral manner and thus ensure fair treatment to its citizens whether belonging to one religion or multiple religions.
The practice of secularism by governments is largely credited to Western governments, where eventually the Church was separated from the government. There was a time when the Church was all powerful and also used to set the political agenda. Gradually intellectuals saw the danger of this unison and started advocating the separation of the Church from government or politics. The oppression by the Church was also a driving reason for many liberals to migrate from England and other European countries to the newly discovered land of America. It was in the 17th and 18th centuries that intellectuals in Europe started questioning tradition especially in view of rapid scientific discoveries. These discoveries were overturning the centuries old held beliefs propagated on behalf of religion. One such beliefs was that the world is flat and not round or the condemnation and subsequent punishment of Galileo by the Church for his scientific experiments. Prominent personalities like Voltaire and Isaac Newton championed the cause of Reason in the dawning Age of Enlightenment. The ideas spread in whole of Europe and its colonies. Soon it reached America where Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson got influenced by it. The result were the American Declaration of Independence, US Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, in particular.
The process of dissemination of the evolving ideas of secularism within and beyond Europe was greatly aided by the increasing printing of books and their distribution far and wide. The importance of scientific literature started increasing and the upper strata of society took upon these new findings liberally. Soon debating societies were set up in England and saloons in France where the evolving new ideas were debated and discussed with great fervour. The coffee houses were another favourite destination for animated discussions.
From the above emerged the concept of and need for separation of government from religion. The eighteenth century is when these concepts involved very strongly. Soon the idea of democracy being the most amenable form of government to practice secularism also gained momentum. It meant that while one was free to believe and practice one's religious beliefs these could not be used in governance. Pluralism instead of homogeneity came to be recognised as a pillar of secularism. Tolerance was another virtue enshrined in the practice of secularism.
It was a only a matter of time before these ideas reached India and attracted its intellectuals. Many Indians went to England for higher studies and saw both democracy and secularism functioning in tandem. The positive and tolerant environment and the rights enjoyed by the individuals made deep impressions on them, especially, because India was a colony of the British.
Introduction in India:
Early on in India's freedom struggle it was realized by the movement leaders, that they were seeking independence for a pluralistic, multicultural, multilingual and multi-religion population. There existed schools of thought which wanted the independent India to be declared as the country of the majority community's religion. However leaders like Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, Netaji, Maulana Azad, Gaffar Khan and others were firm in their conviction that in a free India, religion and politics should be kept separate. The seeds of secularism were being planted in Indian psyche. After all, almost all the leaders of the freedom movement were educated in English language schools and many of them like Gandhi and Nehru had also studied in England and absorbed its secular ideas in their thinking.
It was therefore natural that a movement led by such secular minded leaders would strongly propagate the idea of secularism among the masses. One must also mention here that the dominant religion of Indians is Hinduism, which recognizes the plurality of its followers and is therefore democratic in its conduct. There is no founder of Hinduism but the followers keep evolving practices suitable with the times. Thus the idea of secularism appeals to a majority of Indians. It was therefore easy for the freedom movement leaders to sell the idea of secularism to the Indian masses.
However the idea of secularism was not agreeable to a significant section of the second largest religious group, the Muslims. The chief reason was that they believed, that in a democratic India with one person one vote basis the Muslims will not be able to come to political power except in a couple of areas. This, they concluded would mean that they would be treated as second class citizens. They instead wanted proportionate block of seats as per their share in the population, reserved for them. This was not agreeable to the secular minded Congress leaders as it went against their secular beliefs. Thus Pakistan got created on the basis of religion.
India,upon attaining freedom, adopted the democratic form of government and the right of vote was given to all its citizens. Religion and politics were to be kept separate. Nehru was seen as a champion of the principle of secularism and he became India's first Prime Minister and remained so till 1963, helping to consolidate the practice of keeping religion separate from politics.
However in course of time secularism got an Indian identity totally divorced from its original identity as the world understood it.
The towering personality of Nehru and the wide acceptance of his leadership kept the progress of non-secular forces in severe check. Also the fact that Gandhiji was shot by a person belonging to the right wing school of thought also added to the non secularists remaining low key for a number of years. These parties were also not able to progress politically and also could not capture any significant seats in legislatures to be able to offer any meaningful opposition to the ruling Congress party all over the country.
Secularism was accepted as a guiding principle in governance by vast majority of the Indian masses. However the non-secularists, though much smaller in number, were also gradually but effectively propagating the idea that secularism in India meant appeasement of the minorities, chiefly to garner their vote during elections.
Following the death of Nehru and later on the killing of Indira Gandhi, two powerful personalities who strongly supported secularism, were no longer on the political scene. The dynastic nature of our political system meant that an inexperienced person like Rajiv Gandhi became the Prime Minister. This was the opening the non secularists were waiting for. He did not disappoint them.
He buckled under pressure and neutralised the Supreme Court's decision in the infamous Shah Bano episode. The pressure was from Muslim fundamentalists who felt the Court decision granting alimony to a very poor divorced Shah Bano was against their religious practice. He also mishandled the temple issue at Ayodhaya to the satisfaction of non-secularists. Thus he ended up by favouring both the communities to the dissatisfaction of both, chiefly because he tried to make peace with fundamentalists on both sides. The secularists were aghast and felt betrayed.
By the late 1980's the non-secular forces had to a large extent successfully been able to convey to increasing number of Indians that the ruling party was' under the guise of secularism, following appeasement policies towards the minorities at the expense of the feelings of the majority community. This school of thought also got support from educated youth and old alike. Polarisation of the society on religious grounds had begun.
1990 - till date:
The Rath Yatra led by a very senior leader of the opposition party in early 1990's led to whipping up of passions and the focal point was the building of a grand Ram temple in Ayodhaya. The subsequent events leading to demolition of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhaya and the rioting and bomb blasts thereafter are a painful chapter in our recent history. Besides leading to death and destruction, it also saw the rise of non secular forces in the country and today they are competing for political space with renewed vigour.
It is ironical that today secular forces are perceived as non secular and the latter are championing themselves as secularists. Indeed secularists are now derided as pseudo-secularists. In the process we are seeing frequent clashes between the two major communities in India. The polarisation of the society is sought to be encouraged so that votes go the desired way. Capturing power is now the mission and to hell with secular vision for the country.
In today's understanding secularists are those who are seen as appeasing the minorities. Therefore the other side of the political coin is those who are advocating the cause of the majority community. Sandwiched in between is the Indian public which basically wants, the issue to be development, leading to jobs as one of its major concerns. In surveys also this repeatedly comes out as a major concern of the people. Yet politicians are interested in dividing the people on religion basis.
Will secularism be a casualty in the Indian political system? Will the religion and politics remain separate and not interfere in each other's domain? Will the voter be able to see through the game of polarisation being played by various political parties? Secularism is one of the guiding principles of our Constitution, will it remain on paper only?
Answers to these questions will be known only when people have cast their votes and results are declared in 2014 elections. Whichever way the vote goes, there is a strong current of secularism in the country which wants religion and governance to be kept separate. The common man understands better than the politician that secularism is a long term view as against the politician who see it as a means to power either by supporting it or by weakening it.
The protagonists of secularism in Europe in the centuries gone by must have never imagined that their noble idea would be turned on its head in a country named India. But secularism is here to stay because a vast majority of the majority community supports it. It is also well understood by the minorities that it is secularism that gives then a fair and equal chance to live peacefully and participate equitably in India's growth story. Therefore they also heartily support it. The political parties also know that secularism is what will give them a peaceful opportunity to rule when they come to power. So they also support it though in a latent manner.
That secularism is a strong idea is why it becomes an issue in election after election. Politicians want use the ladder of secularism to climb to power, the right way or the wrong way.
Secularism along with democracy is what will keep India united and make it a powerful nation. So both should be strongly supported by every Indian.
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