Pseudo and Proud

This piece emerged as a result of Subramaniam Swamy’s sensational claim that Prof. Amartya Sen lost his ‘Indianness’ because he is married to a foreigner.

Thankfully, instead of lingering on the absurd question of Prof. Sen’s lack of ‘Indianness’, the debate shifted to the fight between true-and pseudo-secular. By true-secular, I am referring, sarcastically of course, to the Right Wing supporters and by pseudo-secular, the rest of us.

In result, I posted a few comments in response to people questioning the validity of ‘secularism’. Those ‘comments’ were getting lengthier and I thought I can perhaps expand on them and make it into a blog-post. Here we go.

First off, ‘secularism’, as a concept, is of European origin, just like ‘nationalism’ is. Secularism emerged to address a specific need in Europe which was of unshackling its governments from the control of the church, especially the Catholic Church. It was the result of the Enlightenment movement and also the emergence of other strands of Christianity notably, Protestantism. Christianity is one of the Abrahamite religions that believes in ‘one-path’ towards God, which automatically negates any other path, including the other paths prescribed by other Christian sects.

India has never been secular in the way the term emerged in the Europe. In the ancient and medieval India, most of our kings have been patrons of temples and various religious sects. Kings like Asoka and Akbar have been famous for encouraging religious harmony, and one even tried to found a religion of his own. There have been attacks on the rival sects, notorious ones include Hindu kings attacking Buddhist shrines in the North and Shivite and Vaishnavite conflicting in the South. However, the concept that there can be many paths to god has been in existence since time immemorial so there was no real need for an official announcement of secularism.

When we attained Independence, there have been clamour among the Hindu Right wing groups to declare India as Hindu Rashtra, a mirror image of Pakistan. Nehru’s greatest contribution, among others, was to proclaim India as a secular nation, acknowledging many religions and ethnicities. That calmed the tempers in India to a large extent and helped to make our minorities feel safe.

One of the arguments used by the Hindu Right to ‘prove’ that we are not being secular and we are actually being ‘pseudo secular’ is that there are special privileges accorded to minorities, who can ‘manage’ their own religious places of worship and establish and run minority institutions such as schools and colleges, etc., whereas Hindu places of worships are ‘owned’ and ‘managed’ by our governments. This is one of the points that organisations like RSS disseminate in their induction programmes. It is not entirely true though. There is Waqf Board which oversees the functioning of all Islamic religious sites. It is usually headed by a union minister, nowadays Minister for Minority Affairs.

Even leaving this point aside, we need to look at this argument in two ways, one to see why such ‘special privileges’, real or perceived, was required and two, what result it has had on the country as a whole.

To understand this we need to briefly go back to 1947 and see what kind of independent nation we acquired. It was divided into two alright, but it was still a deeply divided nation with nearly 600 princely states, an agitated majority and highly insecure minorities. Even within the government, some ministers began to round up Muslim employees in their staff. On the one side, Hindu Right Wing was threatening revenge (for the Partition) and on the other there was a communist unrest unleashed by the extremist Left. Each Maharaja was nurturing a dream of a little nation on his own. The Hindu-Muslim riot was continuing in many places, Pathan intruders from Pakistan were roaring at the gates of Kashmir and Dravidian parties were demonstrating for their own ambition of a divided South India into Dravida Nadu (Dravidian Nation).

Several measures were required to send out clear message that India will not be a Hindu Pakistan and that our minorities will be safe. In a letter to Chief Ministers post-Independence, Nehru reminded them that ‘we have a Muslim minority who are so large in numbers that they cannot, even if they want to, go anywhere else. They have got to live in India. This is a basic fact about which there can be no argument. Whatever the provocation from Pakistan and whatever the indignities and horrors inflicted on non-Muslims there, we have got to deal with this minority in a civilised manner. We must give them security and the rights of citizens in a democratic State.’

One of the measures was to allow them to practice their religion freely. If the government took control over their mosques and darghas it would surely have looked like the new government was ‘appropriating’ the places of worships belonging to minorities?

Then why were Hindu temples ‘taken over’ by the government? Again, this is a mistaken perception. Appropriating Hindu places of worship was a separate matter and its intention was not to ‘crush’ the majorities. Many of these Hindu temples were beyond mere ‘places of worship’, as they had crores worth assets, such as lands, jewellery, and even rented residential apartments, which were being used and abused by small feudal groups. Also, many temples were ‘owned’ and managed by the Maharajas at that time and with the end of the princely states they were ‘orphaned’. Many major religious worship places, such as Tirupati, are still managed by fully autonomous trusties. Despite all this, despite us being a secular state, Hindu temples are still supported actively by our rulers. You can still see our Chief Ministers participating in ‘Kumbabishekam’ (inauguration or renovation) functions, but rarely do they attend church or mosque inaugurations.

Coming back to the point, European Secularism evolved to remove the iron grip of Church on society. Indian Secularism evolved to protect minorities from the majoritarian dominance. In that sense it is not ‘true’ secularism in the original definition, so it’s ok if we have to call it pseudo-secularism. But really it is secularism ‘adapted’ to suit local needs.

If we have to listen to the Hindu Right and strictly apply the concept of ‘secularism’ as per European definition, we need to do that for other terms as well. Take for example the concept of Nationalism. This is also of European origin and emerged for identifying a group of peoples without religious definition. This group identification requires that they be of single ethnicity, culture and language. That’s why in Europe you see even the tiniest region with own language functioning as a sovereign nation state. That’s the reason Scotland and Wales are separate countries. The Indian definition of Nationalism is different, perhaps the first country to adopt ‘multiculturalism, multi-ethnicity and multi-lingual’ as its credo. Many European and American observers and historians derided this idea when these points were enshrined in our constitution. If we have to strictly apply the term Nationalism, Tamil Nadu should be a separate sovereign country, and so should AP, Kerala and dozens of others. Karnataka should be at least three countries. And don’t even get me started on ethnicity and culture differences!

Many fanatic separatists in India still believe in this ‘original’ definition of nationalism and argue that India’s existence as a single nation is an artificial construct. Of course they are right. But then, our nature itself is that we take everything from others and ‘Indianise’ them. Even McDonalds burger needs to be laced with masala and KFC needs to sell curry buckets!

India’s endeavour to keep our minorities secure has worked and is working. India has the second largest Muslim population in the world and we’re largely peaceful thanks to Nehru’s great vision to make it a secular country. On the contrary, no country that has not worked towards safeguarding and securing the interests of minorities has ever lived peacefully! Bosnia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and there are several such examples where attempts to ‘show minorities their place’ has backfired and plunged their respective nations into civil war and destruction, not to mention the economic and human costs.

Sadly, considering Sikh riots and Gujarat Pogrom, whatever conditions that were prevailing in 1947 are still there in large and small measures. We have not fully become secular though and we have a long way to go towards making our minorities feel fully safe and prosperous. True, a few national and regional leaders have taken to play ‘appeasement politics’ and, in consequence, several mistakes have been made in the past. However, no such mistake could be larger than the Partition and if Nehru could argue for protecting the minorities and helping them prosper in the backdrop of a million and a half dead, we can surely argue for it now.

And we wouldn’t have to get all hyper about the Right Wing branding us as pseudo-secular. We can wear it with pride. After all technically they are right aren’t they? In fact, in return, we can brand them as pseudo-nationalists!