Why secularism remains key ideal

Why secularism remains key ideal

In the context of former President Pranab Mukherjee’s June 7 ‘advice’ or ‘reiterations’ from and to the RSS platform, the growing jeopardy to the prospect of secularism in India has come to centre stage. Threats to cultural, ethnic and religious pluralism have been persistently manifest in several ways; and freedom to practice one’s religion and culture rituals, food habits and marriage, or the secular ideal, is sought to be annulled by organised groups who claim to hold the key as to what is right and moral, and to be the arbiters of nationalism.

Clearly, this implies crass replacement of the constitutional rights to freedom of thought, expression, media and association by enforced conformity or obedience. This is widely known to be happening, for example, in the day-to-day affairs of the JNU, as well as in other institutions that have been bulwarks of democracy. A conformist or brainwashed, question-answer parroting mind is a comatose mind, a case of obstreperous violation of the provisions of harmony and scientific temper/rationality -- Article 51A, clauses (e) and (h), all enshrined as fundamental duties in the Constitution.

These political trends, characterised by all too frequent slogans like vote bank politics, pseudo secularism and minority appeasement, call for pointed reflection. Along with the idea of nationalism or rather the nation-state, secularism, too, is an idea imported from Europe.

The middle ages in Europe witnessed certain conformity, a hold over people by church authorities coalescing with feudal lords; ordinary people were in thrall and working at the behest of masters and had practically no freedom or autonomy of thought and action; and, unsurprisingly, this was also the period of Europe’s social and economic stagnation. All this changed once fresh thought and examination of all issues anew began during a period called Renaissance.

The great Martin Luther of Germany, for example, translated the Bible into the people’s language and enabled them to know religious teachings themselves, bringing a whiff of freedom and sense of agency to the generality. By dropping weights from atop the Tower of Pisa, Galileo enabled people to understand the importance of experimentation and empirical knowledge.

These new trends in thought unnerved the powerful vested interests — monarchs, bishops and lords — and thus they devised means to hold onto state majoritarian power in the name of nation and nationalism and an element of fear or vulnerability was introduced.

An internal enemy, too, was always identified. In England, Jews, Catholics and Irishmen were a minority and deemed enemies; in Germany, Jews and Catholics were given the minority enemy status; Protestants were the deemed enemies in Catholic countries, all in an attempt to consolidate state power. This was in addition to the Westphalian system of centralised national power and non-interference by other European states.

As an imitation of these European trends, Muslims were deemed enemies in India by the leaders of middle class, upper caste power, the ambitious English-educated participants of the movement against British autocracy/imperialism. Thus, in the dynamics of state and bureaucratic power, ritualistic denominational religion got into pole position; this, despite Queen Victoria’s assurance that India’s religious practices were to remain free of British interference.

Clearly, this nation-state power, coupled with a growing feeling of enmity towards minorities, resulted in damage to peace and harmony, a manifest socio-economic-religious balance, in living and in livelihood/professional symbiosis. Secularism was a doctrine or device to undo this growing damage, and the State was sought to be freed from religious influences.

Or, in a simple sense, secularism meant equal respect to all religions and non-interference of State in matters religious. But in the ever-increasing and diversifying desire for State power, contesting in elections and other paraphernalia, individuals and parties had a finger in the pie of organised religion, rituals, temples and mumbo jumbo. Adding to this was the power of organised vengeance, violence and vigilantism.

Sensing harm in such developments and unbridled mixing of ritual religious denominational issues with politics, its potential to keep embers of enmity alive, India’s politically sensitive/responsible/conscientious leaders plumped for secularism, and this idea became central to the national ideals as articulated through the freedom movement and in the Constitution.

Adherence to secularism is in other words a wholesome practice of religious and cultural pluralism, a traditional practice in Indian society. Hindus and Muslims lived together for centuries in an entirely unselfconscious way. Not only that, the myriad shades of Hindu rituals manifest in castes and regions, temples and gurus scattered all across in the hinterland of India.

This pluralism got strengthened in the anti-imperialist struggle but got a severe jolt when majoritarian Hindu consolidation resulted in Muslim mobilisation for a separate country, Pakistan. India and its leaders strongly believed in pluralist ethos and the ideal and practice for the strengthening of this belief has been the constitutional goalpost called Secularism.

(The writer is a former professor of Maharaja’s College, University of Mysore)