How long do you give Indian secularism? If you had asked me this question five years ago, I would have said that there was no time limit on our secularism. It was at the very heart of India. Without it, there would be no modern, democratic India.
Now I am not so sure.
The problem is not that we see an upsurge in communal battles or riots. It is that Hindus, followers of one of the world’s greatest, most tolerant religions, are no longer shocked or horrified by repeated attempts to target the Muslim minority or treat them as second-class citizens or even as the enemy.
Each day brings with it some new horror. Policemen in Gujarat publicly flog Muslims who were allegedly engaging in ‘anti-Hindu activities’ while a crowd cheers. A Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP talks of an economic boycott of Muslims. Videos of Muslims being beaten up inside a police station go viral. Politicians spew anti-Muslim rhetoric (sometimes coded, sometimes quite blatant). Muslims are thrown out of garbas, which used to be occasions when everyone would get together to celebrate, regardless of creed or caste.
The people who do this do not constitute the majority of India’s Hindus who are tolerant and free of hate. But here’s the thing: With each passing week, ordinary Hindus cease to be shocked by these displays of hatred and prejudice. Each new horror brutalises us a little more. And we are heading to a situation where all of this will seem normal and not in the slightest bit shocking or outrageous.
The opposition has already accepted that there is very little to be gained by resisting this kind of hatred. You do hear some protests from the Congress, but they are much more muted than they used to be. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is so quiet that I sometimes wonder if Arvind Kejriwal’s Plan B is to be general secretary of the Hindu Mahasabha. TV anchors either act as though all this is normal or suggest that Muslims had it coming to them anyway.
Roots of the prejudice
The causes of the hatred and the casual indifference to naked, ugly prejudice always baffle me. In the 1920s, the early days of Hindutva politics, it was supposed to be a backlash against the ‘appeasement’ of Muslims by the political establishment. And yes, it would be foolish to deny that there were reasons to object to vote-bank politics. But now? Who can argue that Muslims are pampered or appeased in today’s India? That grievance no longer exists.
Then, the prejudice was a consequence of Islam-linked terrorism and violence. L.K. Advani was reported to have said, “All Muslims are not terrorists. But all terrorists are Muslims.”
This characterisation associated Muslims with violence (as did the frequent use of the term ‘jihadis’ to describe the community) and eventually, with Pakistan.
Well, it has been a while since there have been major terror attacks in India that can be blamed on Muslims. And even Pakistan is rarely used as a whipping boy by our politicians these days. So this explanation no longer holds — if it ever did at all.
Because it is becoming harder and harder to find things to blame on Muslims, bigots are reaching back into history. Centuries ago, we are told, such and such Muslim ruler was cruel to Hindus. Or, hundreds of years ago, this mosque was built on a spot where there used to be a temple.
So, the new refrain goes: Let’s invade Muslim places of worship. Let’s stop respecting monuments built by Muslims during the medieval period. Or, let’s claim that they were all built by Hindus and taken over by Muslims. Let’s never forget how badly Hindus were treated in the 16th century. And so on. When you have to reach so far back into history to malign today’s Muslims, then it is obvious that you can’t think of a single current grievance to focus on.
And now, there is a new one: Disrespecting Hindu gods. You will see that this turns up again and again. Why did comedian Munawar Faruqui have to be arrested? Well, because if he had not been stopped then, he would have made jokes about Hindu gods. Why were Muslims flogged in Gujarat? Well, because they were ‘insulting Hindu gods’.
In the most recent complaints about Muslims — starting from Aamir Khan for disrespecting the Army and Hindu sentiments in his latest film Laal Singh Chaddha — the suggestion is that they insulted the Hindu religion and its gods.
Also read: India’s turned a blind Right eye to Hindutva violence, but it can be a threat to State itself
Looking for trouble
And it’s not just Muslims. The bigots act as though Hindu gods require trolls and thugs to protect them from people of all religions and the lower castes. AAP sacked Delhi minister Rajendra Pal Gautam following an uproar when he took the oath that Dalits have always taken when they convert to Buddhism — it was seen as disrespectful to Hindu gods. B.R. Ambedkar himself took this oath, and he is still venerated by both the AAP and BJP. But that does not matter when it comes to looking for alleged insults to Hindu gods.
How much trouble is a society in when it resorts to hatred without provocation, when it invents bogus grievances because it can’t find any real ones, and when its members sit back and let politicians pick on minorities and humiliate them?
I would argue that when that happens, we are in deep, deep trouble. I don’t want to belabour Nazi Germany parallels because, so far at least, they do not fit. But there are parallels with the Taliban and radical Islamism. Ironically, even as haters condemn India’s Muslims, they borrow the tactics of foreign Islamic fundamentalists.
The central assumption in all of this is that Muslims will take it all quietly. And that the rest of the world will stay quiet.
I don’t know how the rest of the world will react. So far at least, the response has been: Attack your Muslims if you want, but if you attack Islam itself, then we will object. When that happens, as the Nupur Sharma episode showed us, the consequences can be quick and humiliating.
But can we really expect a minority that is constantly humiliated to keep quiet forever? At some stage, there will be pushback. And when it comes, it will provoke more Hindu retaliation and hatred. It will lead to the sort of social conflict that no society can afford.
So yes, I am less and less hopeful about the future of Indian secularism. Not because the average Hindu is not secular: They are. But Hindus have been so brutalised and numbed by the daily instances of prejudice and hatred, they have forgotten that for any civilised society to flourish, the majority must stand up for the rights of all citizens no matter what religion they belong to.
Forget that principle, and you forget the values on which modern India was founded.
Vir Sanghvi is a print and television journalist, and talk show host. He tweets at @virsanghvi. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)