The State dumps secularism, as bigoted groups call the shots

‘Religious nationalism confronts the secular State.’ That is the title of Mark Juergensmeyer’s book that came out two decades ago, but is more relevant today to what has been happening in India and elsewhere. Will this confrontation between religious and secular nationalism harden into a new Cold War? This is the question that he attempts to answer. He suggests that turning to religion – described long ago by Karl Marx as the opiate of the masses – for stability should come as no surprise in times of social turbulence and political confusion after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the decline of American economic power.

 The world over the very idea of a multi-cultural, pluralistic and democratic society is being confronted by shrill sectarian voices. Liberal values are under threat. The so-called Arab Spring has proven to be far removed from a democratic resurgence as it bares its fundamentalist Islamic heart in Egypt. The strategy of these sectarian groups to arouse primordial fear is invariably the same: us versus them, the known versus the unfamiliar. They couch their thinly disguised fascist agendas by using ‘nationalism’ and  ‘patriotism’ as a cover.

 The slogan may be Germany for white Christian Germans; Hindustan for Hindus; Sri Lanka for the majority Buddhist Sinhalas; a Jews-only Israel; or a Europe minus Muslim and Hindu immigrants. The killing of Sikhs at a gurudwara in Wisconsin, United States, is a fresh memory. In India, intermittent communal rioting, whether in Assam or Uttar Pradesh, is a reminder that what happened in Gujarat in 2002 may not be firmly behind us.

 Sub-religious groups are also rearing their heads. It is Sunni against Shias in Pakistan and Iraq; Protestants against Catholics and vice versa in Ireland; and the centuries-old caste wars within the ‘Hindu’ fold in India.

 In India, what is disturbing is that secular values are on the retreat as aggressive extremist groups of all religious hues – Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Christian – flex their muscles to demand ban on books, plays, films and even music. What is worse, the state seems timid, unsure of its own and its people’s commitment to secular values.
 No one seems to be heeding warning signals as religious identity politics makes its way from the fringes to the mainstream of our body politic. Various groups and political parties espousing extremist views – often using religious cultural issues as alibis – have already become, or are in the process of becoming, mainstream. The Bharatiya Janata Party, the Shiromani Akali Dal, the Shiv Sena and a host of Muslim groups and parties have all indulged in the game of religious-identity politics.
 The government concern, it would seem, is not the consolidation of the country’s secular foundations, but prevention of alienation of one presumed vote-bank or another. When the government does act, if often takes the easy way out: coming down hard on religious minority groups and pretending the problem does not exist when claims are made citing ‘hurt sentiments’ of the majority religious community.
 
Tolerating vandalism

The one group that is not seen as a vote-bank – it is diffuse and cannot make a difference in any electoral constituency — is that of atheists. No one bothers — not the government, not courts and certainly not political parties — when their sense and sensibility are daily assaulted by temples encroaching on public land, blaring loudspeakers fitted atop mosques and gurudwaras and religious processions of all hues bringing the city life to a halt. They are expected to tolerate vandalism and hooliganism, even rioting in the name of ‘hurt religious sentiment.’

 It was after the Emergency that the word ‘secular’ was added to the preamble to the Constitution to describe the nature of the Indian state. The Supreme Court held this to be a basic feature that cannot be tampered with. Yet, aggressive religious identity politics was given a shot in the arm by the same court when it opined Hindutva was a ‘way of life.’ It failed to make a distinction between Hinduism and Hindutva, the political ideology of Savarkar and Golwalkar.

 In India secularism came to be defined not as separation of the State and the Church as in the west, but as tolerance of all shades of religious beliefs and practices – ‘sarvadharma samabhav.’ Over time, the Indian state has used this interpretation of secularism to encourage every kind of religious dogma that should have no place in a nation aspiring to find its due place in a modern world.

 The State looks on as khap panchayats order killing of young couples defying religious tradition; in the name of Islam, the grand Mufti of Kashmir issues a ‘fatwa’ prohibiting girls from playing music in public; forgetting Khajuraho and the Kama Sutra, a Durga Vahini cites Hindu culture to force closure of an exhibition on female nudity in art. The Tamil Nadu government obliges Muslim groups demanding censorship of a film that was showing without a problem in several other states with a significant Muslim population. The West Bengal government fearing the ‘sensitivity’ of Muslim groups prevents a visit to Kolkata by Salman Rushdie, hounded by fundamentalists ever since he authored The Satanic Verses. In Maharashtra, Shivaji acquires a godly status and not a critical word can be said about him...

It is perhaps time to remember what Nehru said: “The spectacle of what is called religion, or at any rate organised religion, in India and elsewhere, has filled me with horror...Almost always it seemed to stand for blind belief and reaction, dogma and bigotry, superstition, exploitation and the preservation of vested interests.”
India’s secular state is in crisis. It is time for it to practice the secularism it preaches.

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