The lazy political debates of recent times have turned many vibrant concepts of intellectual importance into terribly vague clichés. ‘Idea of India’, ‘freedom’, ‘Hinduism’, ‘Hindutva’, ‘liberal’, and ‘secularism’ are the most remarkable of such instances. In the context of the growing religious polarisation or rather, ‘competitive’ communal mobilisation, one such idea-turned-cliché, namely secularism, calls for a particular observation. It demands our special attention and non-partisan reflection not because it represents a utopia based on Eurocentric imagination but because secularism is intrinsically embedded in the India we know. Any attempt to divorce secularism from the idea of India will effectively unleash a political, social, and economic nightmare. Although the distortion of the idea by the divisive forces, coupled with the exclusive elitism of the intellectual class has turned secularism open to all kinds of misuse, the future of India still lies somewhere in recovering this very cliché.
Any reasonable discussion on secularism must begin with the admission of the fact that secularism in India is a modern concept. Indeed the ideas of religious pluralism or formal equality of religion as expressed in the notion of ‘sarva dharma sambhava‘ have been an intrinsic part of our heritage. But secularism as a concept that aims to achieve the secular goals of individual dignity and freedom is remarkably modern. This understanding helps us to locate secularism within the historical project of democracy and its constituents of liberty, equality, and fraternity. In the Indian context, it also forms an inseparable part of the parallel social and political revolutions that the constitution seeks to achieve. This gives the idea a completely new character which has redefined the understanding of secularism in general. With its attributes of ‘principled distance’ and ‘critical respect towards all religions’, it stands apart from the predominantly western notions of religious indifference. So any compromise with secularism in India will amount to tampering with the very idea of modern democracy.
But the question here is, do we endorse secularism only because it is an intrinsic part of the conception of modern democracy? It triggers just another question in response—what is the alternative to a secular India? The clear answer is an unimaginable situation of communalism on the part of both the majority religious group and the minority groups. Secularism in India is also a political project to bring an end to the prevalent intra-religious injustices and discrimination. A breakdown of this project will result in a recession of all the signs of progress that independent India has made in terms of social reforms. Since the inevitability of secularism is quite evident, the communal forces rest their arguments on the distinction between genuine secularism and pseudo-secularism, instead of an outright rejection of the idea.
Although this distinction is quite vague and futile, it has been given birth to by the conversion of constitutional secularism into what Prof. Rajeev Bhargava terms ‘party-political secularism’ by the practices of so-called ‘secular parties’. Appeasement of the elite class within the minorities, keeping the rest of their population hostage has paved the way for this misplaced debate. Add to this the intellectual fashion of projecting oneself as allergic towards religion as a whole and thus overlooking the reality of Indian society. All these contributed to the emergence of the politically motivated binary of pseudo-secularism and genuine secularism. But a close observation reveals the fact that these are mere euphemisms for minority appeasement and majoritarianism, respectively, both perfectly complementing each other.
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Despite the inevitability of secularism, it is absolutely evident that the public conscience today finds no resonance with the idea of secularism. In fact, the fate of secularism in India has been such that the term has been abused in all possible ways by groups of all political inclinations. The biggest challenge for those who defend constitutional values is to rejuvenate the term with substantive meaning.
A re-imagination of the republic in general and secularism in particular, keeping it anchored to the core foundations of the constitution is the only way out to rescue India from sliding into the communal environment of the 30s and 40s. But this political imagination must involve an engagement with the masses, particularly the working classes in a language that they speak and comprehend. This requires us to acknowledge the religiosity among the masses and thus give up the cosmopolitan obsession of abhorring religion. In rejuvenating the cliché of secularism lies the future of a socially and economically stable India.
The author is a student at SGTB Khalsa College, University of Delhi. Views are personal