Secularism in New India


In India, a person’s identity is dictated first by his religion and then by other traits or characteristics.

Communal politics has been the base of Indian affairs of the State since before independence — there has since been a rise of vote bank politics in the current Indian political sphere. The initial form of communal politics began with the introduction of separate electorates for the Hindu and the Muslim community. Be it the Indian National Congress, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or Jan Sangh, Indian political parties have used religion to create vote banks so as to control the Indian political sphere. This form of vote banks sometimes leads to communal violence, envy and tensions as communities are made to feel inferior or superior depending on the alignment of the political party in power. As Ramachandra Guha says, there are eight threats to the freedom of expression that the people in the nation face at present. “The retention of archaic colonial laws, the imperfections in our judicial system, the rise and further rise of identity politics, the behaviour of the police force, pusillanimity or malevolence of politicians, dependence of media on government advertising and careerist and ideologically driven writers.” Out of these eight threats, the rise and further rise of identity politics is the most important. In layman terms, identity politics means vote bank politics.

A new portrayal of Hinduism has been developing for a long time. Devdutt Pattanaik best describes this. According to him, “a new form of Hinduism is emerging around the world: one that is tired of being seen as passive and tolerant, like a suffering docile wife. It wants to be aggressive, violent. So it prefers Durga and Kali to the demure Gauri; Shiva as Rudra and Virabhadra and Bhairava rather than as the guileless Bholenath or the august Dakshinamurthy; and the Krishna of the Mahabharata to the affectionate Bhagavata Krishna. It visualises Ram without Sita. It wants its Ganesh to lose that pot belly and sport a six-pack ab. All this while, insisting, with violence if necessary, the values of vegetarianism and seva and ‘giving up the ego’, which is the principle of ‘sanatana dharma’ — not just a religion but also a way of life.” This new form of Hinduism is what one might call Hindutva. The political proponents of this new kind of Hinduism can be said to be the Sangh Parivar, or rather, the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The Party managed to win 282 seats of the 543 seats of the Lok Sabha in the General Elections of 2014. This was the first time since 1984 that one party had won an overwhelming majority in the Lok Sabha. This speaks volumes of the current Indian society. With the growing intolerance and increased instances of communal violence, there has been a rise in levels of fundamentalist beliefs in Indian society.

Since June 2014, the secular nature of the Constitution of India has been challenged through policy making, inaction and actions by the Central Government and instances in society where the growing “Hindu Nationalism” has been noticed. From Ghar Wapsi to the beef ban, these various incidents have occurred without any action from the State machinery. The Central Government has been silent on many matters that should have been addressed the moment they occurred. They have allowed majoritarianism to fester into something that challenges the very core of the concept of secularism enshrined in the Constitution.

Ghar Wapsi can be said to be the symbol of majoritarian rule over a pluralist society. With initial State inaction against the Ghar Wapsi campaign, one begins to wonder if the State itself was propagating the campaign. The campaign has been defended on the ground that it is in fact constitutional.

The Dadri lynching was one of the most horrifying acts seen in the past couple of years. The root of the Dadri lynching is said to be the State ban on beef. The question of whether or not the Indian government should be concerned with cow slaughter is not a sectarian one. The question should be answered from a point of reason. The Constitution of India is not based on theology or tradition but firmly in the values of reason, individualism and liberty. “The Indian state is a Republic of Reason, not an altar at which the tenets of the many faiths and spiritual paths of the Indian nation are worshipped.” The ban directly challenges the right to privacy, which exists under Article 21 of the Constitution that deals with the right to life and personal liberty. The beef ban threatens the privacy of individuals by dictating what can be eaten and what cannot be.

Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta of Frontline Magazine states, “The BJP has stepped up its efforts to steer the Sangh Parivar’s Hindutva agenda by changing the nature of public institutions.” Lessons from texts like the Gita and the Ramayana were to be introduced in school curriculums.

Contrary to what many in the BJP seem to think, secularism is not a policy option for the Government, but one of the original principles that is part of the basic structure of the Constitution. “Secular”, as a word to describe the Indian State, might have been added to the Preamble only in 1976, but the freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion under Article 25 is one of the fundamental rights guaranteed in the Constitution. A government that cannot ensure the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution equally to all its citizens will quickly lose its political legitimacy and representative character.

With intolerance growing stronger each day, the fundamental rights of individuals in the country grow weaker. There have already been many forms of revolt, from writers and artists returning national awards in protest against the State-allowed growth of intolerance, to a growing agitation within the student masses of society, the State is being questioned for its policies and its actions or inaction. India is growing intolerant to the intolerance. Secularism is being threatened to a breaking point. Every effort should be made to preserve the secular nature of the State, for it is that which makes this nation unique.

Samragni Dasgupta is Program and Outreach Officer, Bangalore at One Future Collective.

Note: All views expressed in this article are attributable solely to the author.

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