Many people were upset last week that NDTV 24×7— even NDTV — decided that secularism ought to be a topic of debate. Amid the prevailing climate of deep political polarisation, prejudice and suspicion, some saw this debate segment, which asked panelists whether “Secularism Is Essential To Democracy”,as a sign that this media house, too, was caving in to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s line of thinking. Others were outraged that there should be a debate on the topic at all — for isn’t the need for secularism self-evident? Isn’t the principle non-negotiable, being part of the basic structure of the Indian republic? It is understandable that the beleaguered advocates of secularism should feel this way. But you don’t have to be a BJP supporter or religious Right-winger to argue that a debate on secularism is not only a good thing, and not only necessary at this time, but something that needs to take place regularly.
Not so obvious
In fact, it is the complacent belief that all the good things we take for granted are self-evident and non-negotiable that causes us to lower our guard and blunt our charge. It leaves the field open to opponents who have the motivation of insurgents and entrepreneurs to prevail over the status quo. This applies not only to political values such as liberal democracy and free markets, but also to such apolitical matters as vaccination, evolution, and even the shape of the earth. You would think that something backed by a massive amount of empirical evidence ought to be self-evident — but even in the year 2020, there are anti-vaxxer movements in the West. Once societies forgot how they achieved high levels of public health, they dropped their guard on defending the approaches that got them there.
Similarly, you would think that nearly 30 years of sustained economic growth, unprecedented prosperity, and historic levels of poverty alleviation would have made Indian society realise the importance of market economics, deregulation, and openness to trade. Yet, we see government policy and public opinion revert to the ideas of the 1960s and 1970s that wasted two generations of Indians. It is evident that without cheerleaders and advocates, public opinion can turn against such palpable, measurable successes such as vaccination and economic growth. The case for making the argument for abstract principles that have stood us in good stead is, therefore, even more important and always necessary.
Time for re-education
It is not enough that something is implicit or explicitly laid out in the Indian Constitution. It was unnecessary for the Emergency government of Indira Gandhi to amend the Constitution to declare India a secular state, for secularism is in the DNA of the document. But as B.R. Ambedkar noted in his closing address to the Constituent Assembly, constitutions are only as good as the people who operate them. Thomas Jefferson famously said ,“The price of liberty is eternal vigilance”. I would contend that it is also eternal education. The case for values has to be made regularly, and every generation has to be persuaded that India’s unity, liberal democracy, pluralism, secularism, and free markets are important. This doesn’t happen merely by putting something into school textbooks. It can only happen when there is a constant battle for ideas in public discourse, where incumbents can’t presume they get a free pass.
As for secularism itself, even the Hindu Right is not clear on what it really wants. As much as its proponents demonstrate animosity towards Muslims and Christians, and have conservative attitudes towards caste, I do not think a lot of BJP supporters want to live in a theocratic state. Some want state policy to conform to religious practices, while others want the government to stay out of temple administration, and for the courts to stay out of interpreting religious matters. Indeed, a debate among the opponents of secularism might find that a secular state is not such a bad idea, after all. Similarly, the proponents of secularism — especially within the Congress party — have used the term as a fig leaf for entitlement politics, at the cost of undermining the principle itself. So, secularists, too,would benefit from a debate.
Rethinking Indian secularism
Therefore, a good public debate over secularism is in India’s national interest. And I have no doubt that such a debate will show the strength of the founding ideas of the Indian republic and persuade the post-1992 generations of their continued importance. We become what we believe we are. As historian Rutger Bregman argues in his book Humankind: A Hopeful History, “Ideas are never merely ideas. We are what we believe. We find what we go looking for. And what we predict, comes to pass.”
The real question is: is it possible to have such a debate at all? When I heard that the need for secularism in India will be debated on national television, I was only amused. The term “TV debate” has become an oxymoron. I can’t think of anyone watching television and clarifying their own thinking on any topic, forget changing their minds. Substantive parliamentary debate died even before that, after the anti-defection bill and live broadcasts were introduced in the late 1980s. Of course, the Supreme Court has brilliant, wise and extraordinary judges who always deliver impeccable judgments, and it is foolish for ordinary citizens to criticise them for any reason whatsoever. Blogs helped raise public discourse at the turn of the century, but social media has destroyed it. It is now merely a battleground for competing prejudices to reinforce their respective biases. The space for serious debate has shrunk, and is now limited to columns in newspapers and online publications. Perhaps, it can expand from this beach head. Our future depends on it.
The author is the director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy. Views are personal.