Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Are We Really Secular: Revisiting a Blog post from 2002

This is a piece originally posted for www.sawf.org on April 15, 2002. I have been slowly migrating some of the old pieces to this blog and felt this was a useful reminder, especially as the Congress appears to be playing its usual "secular" card instead of addressing the pressing political, economic and governance issues. Some of the players are the same; what is different is the country. Moreover, the Mumbai attacks saw a shift amongst the self-avowed Muslim leadership in much of the country (although not amongst the Congress and Abdullah family members). And that is a good sign...for the future. 

Are We Really Secular? 

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee recently made a highly publicised visit to the riot-torn state of Gujarat. He visited the temporary camps where riot victims are being housed, and the violence hit neighbourhoods. With great sensitivity, he spoke of the "shame" the riots had brought to India, and how he would not be able to travel overseas because of that shame. Wiping his eyes, he also spoke at length of the need to protect the minorities.

Then he visited Godhra, the site of the train massacre that sparked off the current violence. And there, Vajpayee did not speak of the shame of such violence. He didn't visit the firefighters who were prevented from reaching the flames and putting them out. He never found out that the same firefighters are receiving daily death-threats for simply doing their jobs. He also didn't speak to any of the families of those who were killed in the massacre. Many in India - including me - wondered why he didn't feel "shame" at the carnage in Godhra, or at the killing of Hindus and Sikhs in Jammu and Kashmir.

What I am about to write now will be immediately open to charges of "communalism," and yet it must be said. Not for the sake of political games that all the parties are playing, not for the sake of creating more disturbances and riots. But simply for the longer-term benefit of the entire nation: Secularism is one of the greatest principles enshrined in our constitution. It enables a citizen to follow his/her conscience, enables us to pray, believe and live as our own intellect and faith directs us. Yet on a social and political level, secularism is practised more as a convenient method of wooing minority votes.

This means that all political parties and far too many of our "thinking" classes are more interested in minority-ism instead of true secularism. Just a quick look over the events of the past month will show this.

[1] In most of the media (both English media in India and international) the massacre of women and children was passed off as a logical conclusion of "inciting" Muslim anger. One of the leading commentators even explained that by travelling to Ayodhya, chanting "Jai Shree Ram," and thus being "fanatic Hindus", the 58 women and children had invited the wrath of Muslims.

Since when is speech considered sufficient incitement to kill in a democracy? What if a fanatic Hindu used the same argument as defense to kill Muslims, based on the call for namaaz five times a day? Such verbal and logical sophistry simply opens the doors to doom. It also belittles the tragedy that befell not only a small group of people but also the nation at Godhra.

The press also played an interesting role in partisan propaganda. An anonymous email was sent around the world within the hour of the Godhra attack explaining that the "kidnapping" of a Muslim girl by the ramsevaks had led to the massacre. She had, according to the email, been held in the doomed train carriage. No press member - international or Indian - cared to wonder how a group of families travelling with women and children would "kidnap a young girl" and hold her (apparently for rape and worse) in a train carriage full of their family members. No one in the press cared to question the veracity of the mail - until Prem Shankar Jha in Outlook! And the canard did rounds as absolute proven truth. And of course, it now emerges that there was no kidnapping, no girl, and no other "incitement" for the killing.

[2] Of course, in part the current round of violence can be blamed on political parties who have been too keen on proving their "secular" (read minority-ist) credentials. When Sonia Gandhi led a delegation of opposition leaders to the president to protest the riots in Gujarat, I wondered why she or other leaders had not bothered to condemn or even comment on the Godhra tragedy. For nearly forty-eight hours after the attack on the train, no major leader from any national party or the Muslim community had come forward to condemn the attack. Shabana Azmi, Javed Akhtar and their ilk who hog the cameras at every given opportunity didn't care to condemn the attack. And of course, Imam Bukhari, Syed Shahabbuddin, and the Abdullah duo of father and son had suddenly found camera-silence to be a wondrous new phenomenon.

Similarly, the recent attack on the Raghunath Temple in Jammu and Kashmir by terrorists was explained away by secularists as "the temple was not the target." They never explained what the "target" was. This attack of course came after nearly two months of repeatedly foiled terrorist attempts to reach the shrine of Vaishno Devi. Yet, no leader has condemned the attack or criticized it. Interestingly enough, the English media has made practically no mention of these attempts, perhaps in the interest of maintaining "peace."

More than anything else, this silence has led to the anger that to date simmers not only in Gujarat but elsewhere in India. And it grows every day. It is this latent anger within the Hindus that must be discussed and dealt with, not simply written off as some "lunatic fringe" phenomenon.

[3] This majoritarian frustration and anger is also growing due to irresponsible statements from Muslim leaders, statements that go either unchecked or un-critiqued, and often even explained away, by our self-proclaimed secularists. A Muslim Member of Parliament warned that Muslims would soon want their own separate homeland, perhaps having forgotten that they already have done so once. No other MP protested the statement. Neither did the press or the secular "intelligentsia." At the start of the 1990s, the head of Aligarh Muslim University's student union, had announced that there was no question of handing the structure at Ayodhya to the Hindus. "They have thousands of gods. Today they want a temple for Ram, tomorrow it will be for another god." (this statement loses a great of deal of the intended disrespect in translation). Yet that was considered a "secular" statement by the smug left-leaning self-declared "liberal" intelligentsia.

Hundreds of thousands of Kashmiri Pandits still shudder to recall Farooq Abdullah's rallies in the late 1980s when he called for a Kashmir "only for Muslims," and warned that the Hindus should leave for their "own safety." He is now the self-professed messiah of the Indian secularists, and routinely criticises outfits like the VHP and calls for their banning. Similarly, when a Muslim leader announces that he does not believe in the supremacy of the Constitution, Indian republic or the flag, he is considered simply a "devout" Muslim. Should a Hindu ever declare the same, he would be immediately branded a "fanatic and anti-national" (both labels are being currently sported by VHP, RSS and the Bajrang Dal, who have never - to date - questioned the integrity or entity of India).

[4] It is this form of discriminatory public discourse that has contributed to the anger seething in many parts of India. Back in the 1950's, Jawaharlal Nehru was warned by his advisors that if he didn't practise an even-handed secularism, there would be a day when the Hindus in India would be radicalised. However, lust for power ensured that Nehru did not accept the recommendations of the report.

And that radicalisation has already begun. The temple issue and the riots in Gujarat are merely early manifestations of this process. Unless, there is some concrete steps taken by the "secular" leadership, this radicalisation will continue unchecked.

So what can be done? Well, we need to work towards a truly secular state, where the rule of law takes precedence over religious norms. And it must be a state where the "law" is applied evenly. That means that what applies to one community must also apply to the rest. The USA is a good example where "Christianity" (in all its denominational variations) continues to be the majority religion, and yet the rule of law takes precedence over the religious ones. Where national symbols are accepted as the highest of all, over and above all religious, ethnic and faith-driven ones. This means a uniform civil code, another bogey raised by the secularists as "communal".

At present, we have a situation where a Supreme Court decision granting Rs. 25 maintenance a month to a destitute Muslim woman is overturned by Parliament, in the interests of "secularism." And yet, the same party who led that move defends the "supremacy" of the court when it comes to a temple in Ayodhya. Similarly, a law requiring legal registration of ALL places of worship, irrespective of religion, is shot down as being intended to "harass minorities," even as the Supreme Court prohibits Hindus from praying on an undisputed piece of land, which is owned and controlled by a Hindu religious trust. Right now, the burning alive of one missionary and his two children is condemned but the burning alive of 58 women and children is considered "justifiable."

Unless such skewed practice of the discourse of "secularism" is stopped, we are looking at many more riots, much more violence for many years to come. And no matter how many poems are recited by tottering old politicians, the anger within the country will not be assuaged by partisan declarations, discourse or decisions. In the past month, this has become painfully clear.

Another thing has become painfully clear (although perhaps not to the political leadership of the country, given recent state and municipal election results): The upper echelons of the political leadership have no idea about the way people think. Perhaps we need another Prime Minister who would hang his head in shame not only when the dead are from a minority community, but simply because the dead are Indians. 

We could do with a prime minister who would feel a little shame (just enough to prevent a jaunt overseas) when Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists are ethnically cleansed out of Kashmir. And more importantly, we could do with a prime minister who represents a country where 60% of the people are under the age of 35. Such a leader may have more understanding of one simple, yet brand new reality: much of young India doesn't care what the world thinks and we would like our leaders to instead worry about what we think!

At Godhra, Vajpayee was posed some difficult questions by the representatives of the vernacular press. One local correspondent asked him if along with "minority protection" laws, we needed laws to protect the majority community too. Vajpayee responded rather brusquely that he didn't think that the majority needed protection. The correspondent came back with a question that initially stumped Vajpayee. For once the leader renowned for his wit, could only rely on age-worn cliches and platitudes. The question was simple: "If there is no need for such a law, should we wait for more massacres like that of Godhra?" Of course, the minority community may also ask whether they may look forward to more riots.

Vajpayee should think hard about that question, which articulates much of the discomfort that many in India feel. Are we always going to be fighting each other, or will we ever move towards living together? If the answer is to be the latter, then it is time we began talking to each other, forced our leaders to be more responsible and equitable, or perhaps more drastically, got rid of all of them and got some new ones.