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Ayodhya verdict made one thing clear. This is the problem with Indian secularism today

Politics is about coining new words, putting new meanings in old words, and persuading people to accept these new words and meanings.

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Secularism has never looked so anaemic, so abject, so apologetic as it does today, post the Ayodhya verdict. There is no one else to blame for this state of affairs except the custodians of secularism. Not just because of their hypocrisy, but also because of their hubris. Secular intellectuals and politicians have failed or rather refused to translate this constitutional ideal for ordinary citizens.

This is not a rejection of the idea of secularism. In these times, it is necessary to stick one’s neck out and say that secularism is a sacred principle, inherent to the idea of India. The idea that Indian state must have a ‘principled distance’ from organised religions is essential to our Constitution. This is not just a moral ideal but also a political necessity. In the long run, we either have a secular India or we risk having no India at all.

If secularism is a sacred principle, secular politics has hardly lived up to this ideal. Since Independence, secular politics has degenerated into a political fraud. In the aftermath of Partition, secular politics displayed an admirable conviction. Gradually, it became a matter of political convenience and vote-bank compulsion. Knee-jerk minorityism and cynical politics of keeping minority voters hostage became part-and-parcel of the secular political game.

And, this is what invited a backlash and reduced secularism to the politics of capitulation that we see today. Just read the three-line statement of the Congress Working Committee on the Ayodhya verdict to understand the abject capitulation of secular politics. The reactions or the silence of other major opposition parties are no different. Ayodhya verdict is not the end of the dilemma facing secular politics, several other difficult issues await resolution.

Also read: Why and how ideology is central to winning elections in India

Failure of cultural politics

Yet, hypocrisy and cynicism are not the real problem of Indian secularism. Parties that call themselves secular have no monopoly over bad faith. Politics of Hindu, Muslim or Sikh communalism is full of similar U-turns and political machinations. Just contrast, for example, the BJP leaders’ insistence that matters of faith cannot be resolved by courts to their recently found reverence for judiciary. The BJP and the AIMIM are as much about vote-bank politics as the Congress and the Samajwadi Party.

The real problem of Indian secularism is the failure of its cultural politics. Politics is not just about fighting elections, forming governments, launching agitations, and so on. Deep politics is about challenging and creating public opinion in the desired direction. Politics is about coining new words, putting new meanings in old words, and persuading the public to accept these new words and meanings. This could be done through high cultural artifacts like literature or cinema or theatre. Or, it could be done through political speeches, television debates or plain rumours.

This is where politics of secularism has failed and politics of Hindutva has succeeded. For our freedom struggle, secularism was an article of faith, any form of communalism was an anathema. Today, secularism appears to be an alien and a dispensable idea. Secular can now be tarred as ‘sickular’, liberal as ‘libtard’. Hindutva, on the other hand, is successfully presented as righting the wrongs of history, a movement for self-respect, a moment of national resurgence. 

Where secularists went wrong

What made this sea change possible? Ideals like secularism do not live on just because they are inscribed into the Constitution. It takes continuous conversation with the public to keep reinventing these ideals in a new language for every generation. The secular elite halted this conversation decades ago.

The Sangh Parivar, on the other hand, kept at it, despite its stigmatisation and marginalisation in post-Independence India. It spoke to ordinary citizens in their language, their idiom and their cultural sensibility. The secularists were cut off from these. Worse, they did not even deign to make connect with popular culture. Secularism became an elite doctrine even as Hindutva (and its equivalents among minorities) became a popular belief. Eventually, democracy ensured that popular beliefs triumphed.

Indifference to religion and traditions ensured that secularism lost touch with popular beliefs and lost this battle of ideas. During our freedom struggle, most of our national leaders were deeply religious and at the same time uncompromisingly secular. Jawaharlal Nehru was something of an exception. Most other leaders were deeply immersed in one religion, sometimes more than one religion. A number of nationalist leaders wrote commentaries on Gita. Leaders like Maulana Azad were revered as scholars of Islam. Vinoba Bhave was an authority on several religions. Yet, they were wedded to the idea of India where no one religion dominated over others.

Also read: Ayodhya to Kashmir – Modi is now Mr Closure for all of India’s historical wrongs

Cultural vacuum, political exploitation

Compare that to our public life today. How many deeply-religious-yet-firmly-secular politicians do we find today? Forget politicians, how many educated Indians do we find today who are conversant with religious texts and practices? This cultural vacuum creates a condition in which anyone can claim to be a guardian of religious heritage. This condition is ripe for political exploitation.

This is particularly true of Hinduism. While secular politics has been generally indifferent to all religions, it has been especially dismissive of Hinduism. On the one hand, modern, colonised minds felt deeply awkward about a non-Abrahamic religion like Hinduism.

On the other hand, a strand of modern egalitarian thought, especially the one opposed to caste-based injustice, was particularly angry at Hindu social order. Both these combined to create an impression in the modern, secular circles that Hinduism was the most regressive religion on earth. It was kosher in our intellectual circles to mount crude and ill-informed attacks on Hindu religion. This provided an opportunity for orchestrating a political backlash.

If all this was not enough, the deracinated elite failed to communicate in Indian languages and thus sealed this disconnect with the people. Here again, the contrast with the freedom struggle is instructive. Almost all our great nationalist leaders read English, but wrote and spoke mainly in their own languages. The post-Independence secular elite is mono-lingual, limited to English. This cultural chasm between the rulers and the ruled allows a caricature of the “Khan Market Gang”.

These are harsh conclusions, perhaps very hurtful to those who are struggling to save the idea of a secular India in these difficult times. But I hope it drives home a simple lesson: recovering the idea of secular India from its debris is not just about somehow defeating the BJP. It needs a new kind of cultural politics, which is willing to engage in a sustained conversation with ordinary people in their language, their moral idiom, their cultural sensibilities. There are no short cuts.

Also read: For Modi and BJP, remaking Indian society is more important than remaking the economy

The author is the national president of Swaraj India. Views are personal.

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  1. Mark Tully has been writing about this for decades. This looks like a copy and paste job. Here is an extract from his book “No Fullstops in India” published in 1992. Atleast an acknowledgement was in the making. The “Elites/Secularists/Liberals” had enough notice. How did they miss this especially because it came from a “foreigner”?

    At independence, India adopted the contemporary Western view that common sense dictates that religion be confined entirely to the personal domain and kept out of all public life–to put it at its kindest. What in fact the majority of people in the West have done is to consign religion to the rubbish bin. ‘Modern’ Indians inevitably follow our example, and anyone who does not believe in keeping religion out of all forms of public life is regarded as ‘communal’–that is to say, totally biased in favour of his own religious community. The élite’s so-called secularism inevitably degenerates into disrespect for religion. But the vast majority of Indians, who do not enjoy the benefits of modernity, still believe that religion is one of the most–if not the most–important factors in their lives. I have to admit to believing that the West is paying a very heavy price for its lack of religion, but it has made the economic progress to achieve other goals in life–ephemeral though they may be. What I think is manifestly wrong is to disturb the religious beliefs of those who have no hope of any other comfort, which is exactly what we have taught and are still teaching the Indian élite to do. Not surprisingly, this is producing a backlash in India–Hindu fundamentalism.

  2. The idea of India is based on Hinduism. Read Ramayana. Where else do you find a man equal to Lord Ram in moral superiority? Read Mahabharatha. Where do you find man equal to Lord Krishna in any desired human quality? Now there are scientific archaeological evidence to prove the existence of a flourishing culture in India during Lord Krishna’s time. Without much delay more evidences will come about ‘Threthayuga’. The sooner everybody accept the truth the better. Hinduism is about Truth. Truth SHALL triumph.

  3. We keep getting these bland columns devoid of concrete facts from Yogendra Yadav, because he wants to come across as learned but won’t say anything that could antagonize his hopes for political rehabilitation. There is not one concrete example that shows how “secularists” in India failed to keep “principled distance” from organized religion. Let me help. Is it because history was rewritten to white wash the destruction of temples? Is it because the constitution gives preference to minority institutions? Is it because temples are taken over and run by govts but not mosques or churches? Is it because Haj travel is subsidized? Is it because secular parties have openly allied with extremists in Kerala? Is it because, first the CPM and now the TMC, uses Muslim goons to foment violence and extortion? Instead of dealing with any of these issues concretely, what we have is unreadable article that uses a lots of words to say exactly *nothing*.

  4. Mr. Yadav, I think the problem is that we were never a secular country. We preached secularism only to people of one religion (Hindus). The rest of the religions are never required to held up to same standard as Hindus to practice secularism. Over the period of time, the group of people who represent secularism only contained those who hate Hinduism or think everyone who says he is a Hindu is communal. Most of these people are converted to a different religion or from minority religions. They never understood what Hinduism is about and how it helps protect the identity and unity of India. These group does not see a problem in government controlling all Hindu temples, but other religions are free to control their own places of worship. Most Hindus might not come out to agitate for ram temple, but they do believe in Ram and are happy to see a temple build at his birthplace. If a solution that should have been provided by the government with talks and discussions has to go through such a long process and agitations and involve courts, something is definitely wrong about the way we practice secularism. India is the birth place of the religions like hinduism, Jainism Buddhism etc. If Sri Ram has to wait so long and go through courts to have his home, ordinary Hindus cannot survive in a secular India. Hope secularists realize that secularism means respecting all religions and not demeaning one. No other secular country in the world exists where they do not respect and protect the holy religious sites of a religion. I heard itaLy has special tax to support pope. If secularists continue this path, it encourages the worst on the other side and country will suffer

  5. Of late, Yogendrajee, a well known pseudo-sickular, left liberal face on TV studios, seems to have attained the the ultimate realization in his life…that so called secular politics in India was actually a deeply and dangerously communal and opportunist politics. This has now been fully exposed after Modi era from 2014. That any ordinary Hindu ( meaning Indian who is not a follower of religions born outside India) is basically a secular person and he or she separates his or her personal beliefs from the public life is a well known fact. In fact, each of such person may have different beliefs from the beliefs held by their family members or social connections etc. In politics though this was turned upside down and we have developed state of affairs as it exists since many decades. Thankfully, Modi years in future will change this politics and we move to saab ka saath, saab ka vikas and saab ka vishwas! Yogendra ought to be commended for accepting mistakes of the past and referring to many important ideas in the article. However, as I commented on his previous article, Yogendra will dread to know that RSS thinks that he is now a ‘Hindu’, as what he is writing fits very well with RSS ideology,

  6. ‘This is particularly true of Hinduism. While secular politics has been generally indifferent to all religions, it has been especially dismissive of Hinduism. On the one hand, modern, colonised minds felt deeply awkward about a non-Abrahamic religion like Hinduism.’
    Aren’t you one of those minds, Yadavaji?
    A cat drinking milk with closed eyes, thinks the world is not watching it !!
    Truth is Hinduism is the most democratic dharma which allows 33 crore Gods, diverse philosophies as well and caters to all denominations of people.

    • Sir a correction. A popular misconception that 33 koti (in sanskrit means type) means 33 crore Gods. So there are only 33 Gods, Indra and Rudra amongst them. Please stop referring to 33 koti as 33 crore. Thank you.

      • 33 Crore is just a number to indicate that almost every person is allowed to see God in the form he wants. Probably it came into usage at the time of our independenc as our population was around the same at that time.
        Sticking to a number (1 or 33 or any other) is also undemocratic. Isn’t it?

  7. Yogendra Yadav belatedly admits the hollowness of the “Secularism” as was practised in India until the raise of Narendra Modi. L.K.Advani and numerous other leaders, not suffocated by western “liberal values”, have been saying so at least for the last 40 years. The pseudo liberals and academia backed by the Nehru dynasty were so much arrogant and dismissive of the most elementary and sensible reading of history, were so much sure of their personal fortunes as the perpetual thought leaders for foreseeable future that they lied and lied. Mr Yogendra Yadav is conveniently silent on this critical aspect.

  8. “Politics is about coining new words, putting new meanings in old words, and persuading people to accept these new words and meanings.”

    Yeah. Keep up with the politics (incl of course secularism) while the rest of the world (more so Asia excepr the benighted S Asia) have already solved the basic issues of quality universal education, healthcare and real economic progress for all its citizens.

  9. I beleive that peace is key word.

    To attain peace in country, secularism is one of the way.

    To attain peace other modes can also be used i.e. communalism, communist, capitalism or market economism,

    Secularism is not key for all times & problem.

    In India secularism is illegal child conceived in constitution during emergency.

  10. The leftist thought has failed secularism. The idea that only the majority can be communal was carried on to absurd levels. Even the history of the country was twisted to make past Muslim leaders secular. Now, this is what Indian Marxist historians wrote.
    1) Hindu kings also looted temples and places of worship pertaining to other sects and faiths. True, but they were not driven by the zeal of Muslim jihadi rulers and the amount of violence involved was much lower. You can’t use this to justify the religion driven conquest, slavery and desecration of other faiths by the Muslims.
    2) It is essential to show past Muslim rulers in a good light – this is the official guideline of Marxist historians, You can fool some people for all the time … Why was it necessary to show past Muslim leaders in a bad light? Give the people the truth and then dissociate the present Muslim population from the sins of the past Muslim rulers. On the other hand, the English colonial masters were villans. It does not take much to see through the black or white history of the Marxist historians.
    3) Brahmins are the villains. Unfortunately, there are many brahmins and the general population regularly interacts with them. There are good brahmins, bad brahmins and iffy ones, just like any other group of people and people saw through this lie.
    The leftist has already provoked the majority with their consistent lying and there is no way to put the genie back.

  11. India has no problem but its people. Lazy (90 Holiday) all year with low productivity that ashames all about India. North and south block will not be constructive in such issues.,In economic matters most are ignorant and because, as Gallup pole found, It wastes time on religion. Religiosity leads to poverty all over the World. India is no exception.,

  12. Secularists bichare kya kar sakte hain. They are naive enough to believe what is written in the Constitution, also accords with the nobler aspects of human nature. Unko dosh mat dijiye.

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