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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.

Ayodhya verdict celebrations
Residents of Sadatganj area burst fire crackers outside their houses to celebrate SC's Ayodhya verdict, in Ayodhya | Photo: PTI

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.

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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.

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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.

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