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Constitutional or party-political secularism?

Prof Rajeev Bhargava, CSDS and the Institute for Social Justice

This article was originally published by The Hindu

Instead of respecting the best in religious groups, political parties hobnob with those least deserving of respect

Few countries in the world exist where secularism is more bitterly contested and perhaps even fewer countries than India where the term has been persistently misused and abused. No other term in India has been continuously battered and evacuated of meaning or significance. The cacophony that surrounds secularism may well be the price that secularism has to pay for becoming an integral part of our country’s public and political discourse.

A couple of decades ago, Indian secularism was unfairly charged by its opponents for being anti-religious. It was subsequently labelled as a pro-minority doctrine. In recent times, we have been advised to choose between secularism and development, as if secularism was an anti-development ideology. And last month we saw the bizarre spectacle in Bihar where secularism and corruption were viewed as blood brothers; the champions of secularism, mired in corruption, are arresting the growth of an economy perched to take off and soar high, it was claimed.

How has secularism come to such a pass? This is a complex story, which I cannot even begin to narrate here. But I speak of a small, but important, conceptual episode within this tale: the degeneration of constitutional political secularism to what, for want of a better term, I call party-political secularism.

European and Indian secularisms

What are these two secularisms? To understand India’s constitutional secularism, it is best to contrast it with European conceptions. The break-up of Latin Christendom in Europe generated religious wars. Elimination and expulsion of religious dissenters produced predominantly single-religion societies. Each European state closely aligned itself with one or the other dominant church in society. Thus, England became Anglican, Scandinavia became Lutheran, Spain and Italy became Catholic, Denmark became Calvinist, and so on. Over time, however, the church was seen to become too politically meddlesome and socially oppressive. A movement for ‘un-churching’, or curtailing the power of the church, was set in motion. A battle ensued between the state and the church in which, by and large, European states prevailed. European states separated themselves from the dominant church. Thus, the separation of state and church became the defining feature of European and later American secularisms.

In India, the situation till at least the 20th century was completely different because, here, there has been no attempt to liquidate religious diversity. The state has always found ways of dealing with all religious groups. Hardly any state existed that did not patronise all existing religions. Under modern conditions, this practice developed into a defence of religious pluralism. The state had to respect all religions, treat them non-preferentially. Respecting religions often entailed the necessity of the state to keep off all religions. On other occasions, it meant that the state positively contributed to enhancing the quality of religious life, for instance, by giving subsidies to schools run by religious communities. At the same time, quasi-religious institutions such as caste continue to be oppressive, particularly to Dalits and women. This demanded that the state intervene wherever religion was hierarchical and coercive. Hence the ban on untouchability and the reform of gender-discriminatory personal laws.

India’s constitutional secularism requires that the Indian state be neither wholly respectful nor disrespectful to religions. Critical respect for all religions is the hallmark of Indian secularism.

Furthermore, it enjoins the state to keep a value-based or principled distance from all religions: to interfere or refrain from interfering in religions depending entirely on which of these strategies best promotes freedom, equality and fraternity.

The growth of opportunism

But in thelast 40 years or so, we have developed another secularism, what I call ‘party-political secularism’, an odd, nefarious ‘doctrine’ practised by political parties, particularlythe so-called “secular forces”. This secularism has dispelled principles from the core idea and replaced them with opportunism; opportunistic distance from all religious communities is its slogan. It has removed ‘critical’ from critical respect and reduced the idea of respect to making deals with the loudest, most fanatical, aggressive sections of every religious group. Thus political parties keep off religion or intervene as and when it best suits their party or electoral interests. This has led to the banning of The Satanic Verses, the unlocking of the Babri Masjid/Ram Janmabhoomitemple, the curtailing of women’s rights in the Shah Bano case, and to deals with the likes of Bukhari. Instead of respecting the best in religious groups, political parties hobnob with those least deserving of respect. Party-political secularism means that political institutions like the state and political party keep an opportunist distance from the notorious and highly politicised sections of all religious groups. This is also a fertile ground for majoritarian Hinduism whose spokespersons can question all the deal-making and opportunism of “secularists” without self-examining their own equally unethical practices.

Alas, electoral politics has sidelined or corrupted our constitutional secularism. To be fair, electoral politics breeds opportunism. If one’s only aim is to win, to do so by any means is always tempting. But it is here that we need the courts, a free press, an alert citizenry, and civil society activists to move in, to show a mirror to these so-called‘secular’ parties and tell them what they can and cannot do. I am not blaming political parties alone. This is a collective failure. It is on all of us to stop the proliferation of the misuse and abuse of a secularism that was fashioned collectively by Mahatma Gandhi, B.R. Ambedkar, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel.

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