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اتوار، 10 جولائی، 2011

Does the BJP oppose secularism?

 A minimalist configuration of secularism affords the maximum freedom to citizens to pursue their way of seeking the truth and this freedom includes the freedom to seek truth through religion itself. Secularism neither denies God nor interferes with His work.

What does the Sangh Parivar oppose: secularism as enshrined in the Indian constitution or pseudo-secularism as defined by Advani in the 90s or both? Somewhere along the road from the 90s, the shrill brigade’s rhetoric in the Parivar has shifted its attack from aberrations in secularism as practiced by the Congress to an attack on the concept itself. What alternate does the Parivar have in mind? Surely it cannot be a Hindu theocracy? Twenty years after Ayodhya, not one votary from the Parivar has cared to define what Ram Rajya (Rama’s Kingdom) is or how it might be worked in praxis. Is the Parivar pulling down a central pillar of the Indian constitution without having an alternative in mind?
 As early as antiquity men realised that gods could not always tell the truth or they chose to do so in an ambiguous fashion. When gods do not tell the truth, man must not only find his truth from his own discourse but in doing so also tell it. The secular idea of the Greco-Roman culture was swept aside by the advent of revealed religions of Christianity, and later Islam, when once again only God, or his priesthood, told the truth. Slowly, the rationality of the Greco-Roman culture was smothered and snuffed out as the bureaucracy of the priesthood extended its hold on public discourse. The unspeakable dark ages followed and the light of creativity was banished from human discourse for centuries.

Renaissance is wrongly credited with the birth of the secular idea. That is true only if we forget the 800 years in antiquity when the secular idea was practiced in everyday life of the Greco-Roman pagan culture. Our own civilisation insists that each individual experience his or her own personal God in an empirical fashion. This ideal did not in any way detract from the faith of those who still chose to consult God. Secularism then is at least as old as the concept of God in recorded history.

Much intellectual effort has gone into distorting secularism. In particular, it has been conflated with the notion of all religions being equal. This conflation is particularly dangerous because it leads to the notion that the state must treat all religions equally. That appears deceptively plausible until one realises that the primary contract of equality before the state is between the citizen and the state. No interloper, such as the religious clergy or a cultural organisation, speaking for a religious denomination, can intermediate the primary contract and claim “equal” treatment from the state on behalf of its citizens. Such an act legitimatises groups such as the mullahs and the Sangh cultural organisations that have no political role to play in our polity.

 There is also a need to avoid overworking the secular concept and endowing it with all sorts of magical cures, which detract from its utility. It should be reduced to its minimalist configuration, which is that Indian laws are made by consensus amongst us as equal citizens without reference to any particular religion. And they are enforced equally for all citizens irrespective of their religion. It is worth emphasising that just the fundamental rights in our constitution taken together guarantee a secular state for any other notion would be inherently incompatible with them. So a separate affirmation of our secular credentials is wholly unnecessary and redundant. Separate personal laws for Muslims and Hindus should ideally converge into a uniform civil code. However, their existence does not negate the secular ideal because laws need to be made consensus and need to be informed by the governability of the issue under consideration.

Just as gods cannot be relied on to tell the truth at all times neither can secular laws. Not all aspects of real life are either known or governable. Laws address but a small sub-set of issues of community life where a consensus exists and where the issue itself is governable. There are vast areas of our community, personal and private lives that are beyond governability where we may choose to be guided by religion, culture, tradition, family or friends. We cannot govern the unknown in a pre-determined fashion. We must also actively avoid doing so because such regulation chokes off creativity, which is the life blood of progress and development. A minimalist configuration of secularism affords the maximum freedom to citizens to pursue their way of seeking the truth and this freedom includes the freedom to seek truth through religion itself. Secularism neither denies God nor interferes with His work.

We are not born hardwired for secularism. Early upbringing gives us a notion of our identity and separateness from the other that is neither wrong nor inappropriate. This stays with most of us for a lifetime. The secular idea comes much later in life and is a matter of education and acculturation. Therefore, if education and experience do not reinforce the secular discourse, it diminishes. The alternate political discourse based on religious identities gains ascendancy. This can only accentuate religious differences rather than stress commonalities and consensus. It is, therefore, high time that both the main political parties sorted out their difference on this crucial issue. To let it go by default, or to politicise the issue as is their wont, is rather dangerous and disingenuous.

Hinduism as a pagan religion is intrinsically open to the secular ideal. Unlike revealed religions it is not doctrinaire. Furthermore, despite the pernicious caste system it has never developed a priesthood that wielded political power as an organised clergy. [The RSS is in many ways an attempt to overcome this hurdle to political power but has not really succeeded.] Therefore, the best way to fight resurgent mullah obscurantism is to emphasise the secular ideal that comes naturally to Hindus and put it up as model for others. The jarring discourse of the shrill brigade in the Sangh Parivar vitiates this struggle against obscurantism. In fact, it lends legitimacy to a reactionary clergy. Nothing could be more self-defeating for our polity. The Sangh must clarify its position on secularism precisely. While it must oppose appeasement of obscurantist forces and exposes vote bank politics, it must not throw out the baby with the bath water.

By Sonali Ranade  
(The writer is a trader. She can be reached at

(Daily Times)

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