You remember the song — Ek chidiya anek chidiya — from Doordarshan’s 1970s animated short educational film? The whole premise of the song rested on inspiring unity despite the religious and cultural differences prevalent in India. It was an attempt to spread the message across a country that could still hear the pangs of Partition. The attempt was to keep the secular spirit — mauled to near-death in the post-Partition violence — alive. That was 1974. In the India of 2020, secularism is a ‘joke’ and the Tanishq commercial is the latest proof. Being unapologetic is a political fad and many Indians don’t care about the health of secularism. This is most visible on social media.
In India of today, anything that talks about unity or secularism, finds a way to be controversial. The makers of Tanishq advertisement have been accused of promoting love-jihad. Wonder what equipment the propagators of hate have access to — they are quick to tell how hurt a particular community is when faced with such portrayals.
However, let’s not delude ourselves. Deep inside, most Indians struggle to be secular. And a lot of the credit for keeping this centuries-old hate alive goes to politicians and their politics.
Much of India’s politics and the driving force for voting has been based on either caste or religion, because Indians are primarily driven by these two factors in their day-to-day lives. The fact that auto rickshaws, trucks and buses with Jai Shri Ram or 786 stickers are a common sight in India shows how people wear religion on their sleeves. Even government offices have pictures of gods and goddesses — tells a lot about how a State views religion. Religion in India isn’t private. Governments in India flirt with it all the time to their advantage. Even the Constituent Assembly had thrice rejected the proposal to add the word ‘secular’ in the Constitution.
Being ‘secular’ has a face value
The person who is credited with adding the word ‘secular’ in the Constitution — Indira Gandhi — is the very politician who played the Hindu card. Even though her election slogans were all about roti, kapda aur makaan, she came back to power in the 1980 Lok Sabha election thanks to her frequent temple runs that were covered well by the AIR. The national broadcaster also aired programmes based on content from the vedas and other Hindu scriptures.
It was her devout Brahmin identity that helped her come back to power despite committing the horror of Emergency. Her last four years in office also saw some of the bloodiest riots —Meerut, Baroda, Neli and in Biharsharif.
Congress’ silence in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination that led to Sikh riots, which saw the killing of over 3,000 people was another occasion in independent India’s history when secularism and its credentials were put to test. Adding a word to the Constitution won’t make India secular. The hate has been winning since centuries. It has the ability to get under your skin. It often leaves you fearful making you worried about you and your community—as if they are facing existential threat. And that’s where the politician enters, preying on your fears, reassuring you of his support, and ready to bury secularism one more time.
In fact, it is no coincidence that the Sangh Parivar began ideating the Ram Mandir movement during the 1980s Indira tenure. There were signs even in the 1950s. Jawaharlal Nehru ensured the banning of cow slaughter in the states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Like great-grandfather, like great grandson — Rahul Gandhi’s attempt to become prime minister in 2019 also followed the same blueprint. Wear janeau, visit temples, try and look as Brahmin as possible.
But the BJP has aced this game because they’ve been consistent with it since the 90s. While then, all of these not-so-secular moves were made implicitly by the Congress, today, the BJP makes no qualms over rejecting secularism explicitly. Being unapologetic, I told you. That’s where it’s all coming from.
The hate agents, the religious contractors
Troll armies on social media ensure that ads like Tanishq are seen with the prism of Muslim men capturing and ensnaring innocent Hindu women, thus emerging victorious over the majority community — they sexualise this idea. They question why a commercial with a romantic ‘liaison’ of a Muslim woman and a Hindu man are not shown. That’s their rationale. A 2019 Surf Excel commercial that showed a girl child, presumably a Hindu, protecting her Muslim friend — a boy going to namaz from Holi colours — was also dubbed as promoting love jihad. Even kids are viewed from this lens of sectarianism. They say tolerance is going down in India. But this tolerance for hate? No need to worry. It’s been on an upward trajectory since 2014.
While promotion of secularism has to rely on commercials far and few, those opposing it have 24*7 access to bigger platforms like TV media. The 9 pm messengers can dissect secularism to the point from where a Tanishq would never dream of coming up with such adverts. Tanishqs will put in place strict contracts with their advertising partners and plead not to bring secularism out of coma, for India is wearing hate in 2020 and there is no space for jewellery from a brand that promotes a universal/liberal idea.
Many primetime TV shows justified why ads like Tanishq are spreading the wrong message. In his show, DNA, Sudhir Choudhary dissected the entire commercial and declared that in 70 years of India’s independence, the majority community and their sentiments have always been sidelined. He, then, went on a toxic tirade to stoke communal sentiments by ‘showcasing’ Hindu men who have been beaten or killed for being in love with Muslim women. The Zee News anchor also expressed his displeasure on why Muslims are always shown in movies and pop culture as peaceful people who keep their promises, whereas, according to him that’s not the case in real life.
For a minute, you think all this could be Choudhary’s individual opinion. But it isn’t. Millions of people are listening to him, suggests the show’s viewership data. According to Zee Network, the show is watched by five crore viewers every month.
The relationship between demand and supply is easy to understand. And demand for secularism is pretty low in India’s social economy. Like the Indian economy, secularism, too, is facing the demand-side problem. Except there is no RBI to fix it.
Shows and TV channels, apparently dedicated to undo the ‘hypocrisy of secularism’ are a hit, because people are watching such content. Colonies in metropolitan cities, segregated on the basis of caste and religion is an on ground reality we can’t turn our faces away from. People of India want India to be a country that espouses ‘Dharma’ based on Hindu philosophy. Which is why the BJP and Narendra Modi is being brought to power again and again. This is exactly what the BJP promises explicitly — a Hindu Rashtra. And people vote exactly for that. We as a nation are not secular. Let’s not pretend to be so either.
The author is a political observer and writer. Views are personal.