In a truly secular nation, the hijab controversy would never have cropped up. It would have been settled by a simple diktat that Muslim girls can wear hijabs in private spaces but not in schools/colleges because they are public spaces. But it is not such a simple matter in India.
The Indian State and one of its organs, the judiciary, is seized of the matter at this time and it would not be prudent to predict the outcome or even discuss the Karnataka hijab case in a manner that could impact the outcome. I will rather put this issue in a broad frame of state, religion and personal freedoms to understand why such problems keep cropping up and why settling these is such a pain in the neck.
This is a problem that has to do with the ‘Idea of India.’ Many so-called secular observers say that this is not their idea of India. The Youth Congress president tweeted: “This is not my India.”
This is not my Karnataka,
This is not my India 🇮🇳
I am sorry, We are sorry!! pic.twitter.com/QiDHv37D0l
— Srinivas BV (@srinivasiyc) February 8, 2022
Indian model of secularism
It’s fine that the pitch of the confrontation, the amount of hatred and hooliganism has rattled many of us, but I would like to argue that the idea of majoritarianism is actually ingrained in the Indian idea of secularism. The Hijab controversy is only one of many offshoots of that inherent contradiction between the Indian State and the Indian model of secularism.
India has never been a secular State in the classical sense. But before going into the debate, let’s check some of the classical definitions of secularism. According to Merriam Webster: “Secularism is indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations”. In the Oxford Dictionary, it’s “the belief that religion should not be involved in the organisation of society, education, etc.” For Cambridge Dictionary, “secularism is the belief that religion should not be involved with the ordinary social and political activities of a country. Religious beliefs and atheistic beliefs.” And Collins Dictionary defines it as “a system of social organisation and education where religion is not allowed to play a part in civil affairs.”
In all these popular dictionaries, there are many more, secularism is largely defined as an idea, belief or system that separates religion from State affairs. It’s different from atheism or agnosticism in the sense that secularism seeks to defend the absolute freedom of religion and other beliefs, and protect the right to manifest religious beliefs insofar as it does not impinge on the rights and freedoms of others. So, the broad idea is that secularism protects the rights of individuals to practice any or no religion but State and Statecraft should be separate from it.
The Indian idea of secularism will not pass the test of any of the dictonary definitions. It’s a fact that the word “secular” was added to the Preamble of Constitution after the 42nd Amendment while Article 25 guarantees all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion. The only qualifiers to this freedom are public order, morality and health.
Hinduisation of State function
The Constitution, however, never talks about the great idea of ‘separation of disjuncture’. It means that despite mentioning the word ‘secularism’ in the Preamble, India remains a State where religion is not barred from interfering or impacting its function.
In India, the word and the idea of secularism are understood as “Sarva Dharm Sambhav”, or equal treatment to all religions. In a country where 78 per cent of the population tells the enumerators that they are Hindu, this idea of “all religions equal” is destined to become majoritarian domination of Hindus.
So, no one is perturbed when government functions start with Ganesh vandana or Saraswati vandana and the lighting of auspicious lamps. This has become a normative idea. Nobody questions when a government functionary breaks a coconut while inaugurating a flyover or an airport or even commissioning a frigate or a warship. It’s a normal thing for a government-run education to have an idol of Saraswati at its gate (Indian Institute of Mass Communication in Delhi has one). Nobody bothers about why Hindi language courses are laden with Hindu religious texts. It has been a practice that whenever the Indian Space Research Organisation launches a satellite, its chief pays obeisance at the Tirupati temple in Andhra Pradesh. Such is the relationship between religion and State that even the Supreme Court ordered Ram temple in Ayodhya to be built by a government-appointed trust.
Some may argue for and against such practices and may like to rationalise it as culture, but no one can deny that the Indian State and its practices are blatantly and overtly Hinduised.
Hinduism might not be the State religion in India, but its hegemony in public affairs is all-encompassing. For example, the Karnataka mid-day meal. According to various surveys, people in Karnataka are predominantly meat-eaters. But government schools in Karnataka serve mid-day meals without garlic and onions.
This is how the State functions.
Is the BJP responsible?
Now, let’s ponder upon the more complex issue. Has the conflict started with the advent of the Bharatiya Janata Party? Should the blame of mixing religion with politics and public life be on BJP? I want to argue otherwise. It will hurt the fragile sentiments of many secular liberals, but facts state that the rot began before the BJP began ruling India.
Mixing religion with politics was inherently a Gandhian idea. MK Gandhi broad-based the Congress, which was an organisation of lawyers, feudal lords and businessmen, and made it a mass organisation by using religious symbolism. Thus, ‘Ram dhun’ became the anthem of the Congress, and Gandhi became ‘Gandhi Baba’. He propagated the idea that when the British go, India will become a ‘Ram Rajya’. He supported the Varna system and never changed his views on birth-based professions.
In one of my earlier opinion articles, I have cited many instances of how Hindu religious symbolism was on full display during the transfer of power.
Larry Collins and Dominique LaPierre chronicled the events on the night of 14 August 1947 in their book Freedom at Midnight. They described how Nehru was readied for the occasion by two south Indian priests. “They sprinkled Jawaharlal Nehru with holy water, smeared his forehead with sacred ash, laid their sceptre on his arms and draped him in the cloth of God….Nehru submitted to it with almost cheerful humility. It was almost as if that proud rationalist had instinctively understood that in the awesome tasks awaiting him no possible source of aid, not even the occult that he so scornfully dismissed, was to be totally ignored.” At the same time, vaidik priests were conducting puja and havan at the residence of Rajendra Prasad, who was heading the Constituent Assembly at the time.
Despite all this, during Congress rule, there was an agreement and unwritten contract with the minority that they will have their limited say, and can still profess their religion and way of life, provided they accepted the hegemonic position of the Hindus.
After the ascent of the BJP, that contract is fraying. The Hijab controversy in Karnataka is one of the manifestations of its breakdown.
The author is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine, and has written books on media and sociology. He tweets @Profdilipmandal. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)