Brilliant answers. But what was the question? That is how I look back at the rich, furious and short-lived debate on secularism after 5 August. My quick reaction to Ayodhya Ram Mandir bhoomi pujan, in line with what I have written and spoken repeatedly, triggered some of these responses. While I was happy that the provocation finally succeeded in getting Pratap Mehta, among my favourite political commentators, to offer a brilliant response, I wasn’t sure if I could get him to address the real questions.
This is not academic nuance. The future of India depends on how we pose and answer these three questions about Indian secularism: What is the state of its health? Why did it reach where it did? And what is to be done now?
In my various interventions on this issue, I have suggested that the idea of a secular republic is now in dire state. In 2019, we crossed the Rubicon, and are now in a naked majoritarian state that still keeps the fiction of a secular constitution alive, as long as the judiciary does not take it seriously. In this sense, secularism is as good as dead. Over the years, I have got tired of just blaming the Sangh Parivar for this demise of the secular state. While repeatedly noting the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) criminal culpability and the anti-national credentials of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), I have also held the secular ‘establishment’ responsible for the present state of affairs. Specifically, I blame opportunistic politicians and deracinated intellectuals who passed off as guardians of secularism. The way forward, therefore, is not merely a political battle to vote out this government. We need to engage in a long-term cultural battle, where secularism must speak our languages and learn the language of religions and traditions.
Pratap Mehta does not seem to disagree with the first part of my assessment, about the death of secularism. Suhas Palshikar has recently offered a similar reading. Shekhar Gupta disagrees, as he recounts the multiple times the death of secularism has been announced. That’s true. But isn’t it also true that big ideals like democracy and secularism die many deaths? Isn’t it our duty to record and dissect every time something dies in these foundational dreams? Shekhar thinks that what has died is just the opportunistic minorityism masquerading as secularism. It has, and no one should shed a tear. But is that all? Or are the rumours about everyday discrimination, lynching, the new citizenship law and the strange silence of the apex judiciary also wildly exaggerated? Is Shekhar waiting for the unlikely official declaration of a theocratic state before recognising the death of secularism?
Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s real objection is to my diagnosis that he finds it “historically problematic, philosophically dubious and culturally dangerous”. Strong words! He offers strong arguments as well: It is historically inaccurate to think that the problem of communalism arose in India due to a lack of theological or religious dialogue; it was and continues to be a political issue “born in the crucible of democracy and nationalism”. Similarly, the contest today is not about the nature of religiosity, but about the politics of “marginalising Muslims from the Indian narrative”. It is ethically wrong to allow politics to define true religion. It is a slippery cultural slope to grant that Hinduism and our languages have been neglected, because it gives in to the false victimology of Hindus.
Actually, I agree with Pratap. Almost. When I complain that secularists do not engage with the language of religion and traditions, I do not for a minute believe that such an engagement would have persuaded L.K. Advani not to undertake the rath yatra. I too tremble at the thought of political leaders deciding who is a true Hindu or a true Muslim. And yes, I have held myself back for long from public critique of secular ideas and practices lest it become fodder for the biggest propaganda machine of our times. But now, we have reached a stage where there is no option except honest public introspection.
Once the secularists face the truth of their defeat or even a ‘setback’ as Rajeev Bhargava puts it, they must ask: why did we lose this political battle? It is easy to blame the opportunistic and inept politics of ‘secular’ political parties on this score. The deeper question is: why did we lose the battle of ideas that prepared the ground for a political defeat? Why has the entire spectrum of Hindu public opinion turned against secularism? Pratap does not engage with this difficult question in his eloquent critique. When he does, I am sure he would agree with me that it is lazy to blame Right-wing propaganda alone. Custodians of secularism must take the blame for this.
Those who wrote history, those who wrote textbooks, those who shaped public opinion, those who presided over education – they all failed. People Like Us failed. We failed because we failed to connect. And we failed to connect to the commonsense of the ordinary Hindus, because we did not speak their language, literally and metaphorically. The social distance, cultural illiteracy and intellectual arrogance of the deracinated secular elite contributed a good deal to de-legitimisation of secularism. There is no avoiding this harsh conclusion.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta thinks that I over-estimate the control of some Left-liberal scholars on Indian academia. I don’t. Their presence was limited to a few campuses, but they set the template for pretty much rest of India’s higher education in social sciences and the humanities. The NCERT books were more or less copied by most state boards. The Left-liberal establishment controlled the public and the private media until the 1980s. Pratap lists a number of illustrious Hindi writers who were secular in orientation. He is spot-on: I cannot think of even 10 non-secular Hindi writers of some repute in post-Independence India, a point recognised by Ashutosh Bhardwaj. I suppose the same is true of most Indian languages. But that is my point: bhasha intellectuals did not give up on secularism. The secular establishment gave up on non-English intellectuals, as did the media empires in the bhashas.
This may be a small difference. A more serious difference may arise if we go into the depth of how the secular establishment handled Hinduism. True, much of the sense of injury that the majority community carries today, in the midst of majoritarian stream-rolling, is manufactured. It is also true that seculars have been indifferent to all religions. Yet, today, we cannot afford to dodge the inconvenient question: was it not kosher in intellectual circles to mock at Hinduism more than any other religions? Is it not fashionable even today to reduce Hinduism to the worst feature of Indian society, namely the caste system? Doesn’t the secular response to Hinduism resemble the colonial response?
Pratap worries that a focus on intellectual Hindu-bashing might distract from the reality of Muslim-bashing on the streets. The trouble is that the two are connected. Ideological Hinduism-bashing has robbed secular politics of the cultural resources with which to combat Islamophobia and Muslim-bashing of the worst kind.
What’s the prescription?
All this relates to the final operational question: what is to be done? Pratap’s answer is attractive: “a new freedom struggle to salvage individual dignity and rights”. But it is unhelpful, because its passion barely conceals a deep pessimism. Yes, we need nothing short of a new freedom struggle. Yes, we must salvage individual dignity and rights. Yes, we must not keep playing religious hurts against one another. But how do we do that? How do we gather public support for this new freedom struggle? How do we regain legitimacy for the ideals of secularism? Even if the objective is to detach religion from politics, how do we get the public to endorse it? How do we shift the spectrum of public opinion?
Pratap’s sharp analysis doesn’t help me answer this all-important question of our times. There are no short-cuts. Older formulas of countering Hindu communalism with Bahujan majoritarianism or regional politics has not worked. We cannot depend upon electoral arithmetic to correct the excesses of democracy. A clever calculus of short-term political gains would, in fact, push the opposition parties towards playing the game on the BJP’s wicket, something that most opposition parties have started doing. This is not going to defeat the BJP. Even if it does, it won’t lead to salvaging the spirit of secularism. Movements on real-life economic issues are certainly the way forward, but these too require cultural and ideological acceptance.
There is no way except to take on the cultural and ideological acceptance of toxic majoritarianism. There is no way except to craft a new and more attractive nationalism. And for this, there is no way except what the RSS did for decades: enter into difficult dialogue with ordinary people. And for that there is no way except speak the peoples’ language. The battle to save the republic must involve popular debates in Indian languages that invoke and reinterpret our cultural traditions and religions, including Hinduism. Speaking religious language does not mean uncritically accepting whatever any religious text says or reiterating the lessons of piety or foregrounding religion as the issue of politics. What we call religion or traditions provide the alphabet of moral sensibility for most Indians.
You can quarrel with words, but not with the alphabet. You must use the given alphabet to create your own new words. A commitment to the idea of India must involve resistance to the idea of a majoritarian India. Yet, a new idea of India cannot be forged out of a phoney, imitative cosmopolitanism that pretends to outgrow nationalism. It must be grounded in those aspects of our traditions that allow us to build a just future. That remains the principal challenge for secular politics. We could begin by looking for a word for ‘secularism’, other than dharma nirpekshata or panth nirpekshata, which has some resonance in our languages.
Pratap suspects that I am looking for the key where the light happens to be. And he is right. I have put the spotlight of causal reasoning and future responsibility on those who swear by the ideal of a secular India, for it is pointless to keep blaming those who have no investment in this ideal. We must focus on what was wrong with us and how we can do things differently. Unlike a political analyst, a political activist must search for keys where the light is.
The author is the national president of Swaraj India. Views are personal.
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