Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Secularism: Required or not?

Does India need secularism? Do we need secularism? In this era of “sickulars”, is secularism under threat in India? Is Modi really a non-secular leader?

What exactly is secularism? Do we understand it? While political scientists or learned politicians will know this, I feel that the average person on the street does not really understand the exact meaning of this term.  And that is a big source of confusion.

Secularism, as defined by the dictionary is, “the principle of separation of the state from religious institutions”. Its origins are in the fight over power between the church and the state in medieval and modern Europe. The Popes were utilised by the Kings to gain legitimacy for their rule and their approval meant a lot for the peasantry. A peasant feared religion and God and if the Pope said that the King was a representative of God on Earth, and his will was God’s will, then the peasant accepted that, inspire of taxes, tyranny and torture. Thus, the Popes were actually more powerful than the Kings in some way. That led to the rise of the power of the Popes, especially the politically motivated ones. This led to a power struggle between two power centres. Over a period of time, the Popes and the Kings realised that there was no way they could win the battle against each other and arrived at this principle of keeping religion and state separate from each other. With the advent of the age of science and Enlightenment, this principle has only gained following, so much so that many modern democracies have adopted secularism as a state policy.

India, when gaining independence, was yet another modern democracy. It also struggled with the idea of declaring India as a secular country or not. The proceedings of the Constituent Assembly from 1946-1949, show the intense amount of debate that we went through on this important topic. It was crucial to discuss this, because India was being partitioned ostensibly on religious lines. But, we finally did NOT declare ourselves as secular.

This comes as a surprise to many of us! Are we not secular? But doesn’t the Preamble to the constitution mention the word “secular”. We have read this in our NCERT text books in school. Well, that is true. But do you know the history of that word?

Our original constitution did not declare us as Secular. The word secular is not present in the original constitution except for Article 25(2a), where the use is to merely define activities that are non-religious in nature. For a nation that was suffering a massive loss of territory and people due the partition, it was a strange thing to not declare us secular. 

The reason for this is what I have already explained earlier; the meaning of the word. If we were to declare ourselves to be secular, then that would not mean no interference in the domain of politics by religion and no interference in religion by politics and the state. For a country so steeped in religion and rituals and other such, it was practically unimaginable. Our rulers were ruling us in the name of the God (the British did that and so did the Indian Kings, Rajas, Maharajas, Nawabs, Sultans and Nizams etc.). For our people to have a new reality that the new leaders of the country were not going to interfere in religion or gain legitimacy from it was something perhaps hard to adjust to. 

It was equally hard for politicians to let go of the powerful imagery of religion. Mahatma Gandhi regularly used religious imagery, Hindu and Muslim, in his political discourses. His mother, Putlibai was a Jain and Jainism is described as the fountainhead of his doctrine of non-violence in his autobiography. Sardar Patel was actively engaged in the repair and reconstruction of the Somnath Temple, which had been ravaged by marauders from the Central Asian region. Nehru and Jinnah had aversion to religion (both were far removed from the supposed tenets of their respective religions in their personal lives) but had no compunctions in using it in achieving their political ambitions. Ambedkar too felt that religion had a strong role in mobilising people and he converted to Buddhism in his twilight years, more as a social and political statement than any real benefits that accrued to him. Tilak had used Ganesh Utsav as a massive social and political movement generator in and around the Bombay-Pune belt in the 1890s, a movement that still reverberates as a massive cultural phenomenon. Many other politicians had similar ideas about secularism. It simply wasn’t the thing for India.

In such a scenario, it is hardly surprising that the founding fathers of the modern country did not think of separating these two powerful forces from each other. They were using religion in their political lives, since it was and remains a powerful tool to motivate/channelize people’s energies.

However, what changed during the Emergency in 1976 that prompted Indira Gandhi to insert the word secular (along with Socialist, another of her pet ideas) in the preamble to the constitution of India? In fact she made so many changes to the constitution with this, the 42nd Amendment to the constitution, which it is commonly referred to as the mini constitution.

We can only enter the realm of speculation as to why she did it? She was shrewd and could see the rise of right-wing parties. While they may not have been massively successful till her time, they were finding their voice. Many states had experimented with limited right wing movements and some, like Punjab, had openly chosen right wing parties. Her calculation could have been that by limiting the role of religion in politics, she could checkmate these religion based parties in advance. Whatever the reason, we were suddenly declared secular, after more than 25 years of no such ideas.

When the Emergency was lifted, the word came under much scrutiny. The Supreme Court was asked to rule on this word and its place in the Indian Constitution. The court said that it was duly voted in and is therefore an integral part of the constitution. But that presented some peculiar problems. If we were indeed secular then state should have no role in religious institutions. But the government had active interference in religion and religious bodies. It gave subsidies to pilgrims (e.g. for Haj to Muslims and for Kailash Mansarovar to Hindus, Buddhists and Jains), states had temple ministries that actively managed temples, priests and their funds (e.g. in Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan) and they paid salaries to clerics of various religions (e.g. in UP today). Either all this had to stop or the word had to be removed but not both. The court said that both must co-exist. And for that, an ingenious solution, in the form of a change in the meaning of the word was introduced. The court said that secular in the Indian context means not that state has no interference in religious institutions; rather, it means that all religions were to be treated equally by the state!

So that is where matters stand today. Our government can interfere in religious matters, as long as it interferes equally :)

So when you discuss secularism in India in its modern context, which definition are you using? Unless there is basic agreement on what we are discussing, it is simply not possible to discuss at all.

As far as the benefits of secularism are concerned, personally I prefer that the original definition of non-interference be applied to India. Religion should not have a place in running the government of the country. Religion is a matter of personal choice and it should remain so. We need only look at the example of countries with state religions like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia or erstwhile Nepal to realise that their levels of social, economic, political and other manners of development are much lower than truly secular countries. These countries are run by diktats that are based on out-dated ideas that do not take into account modern realities. As a personal choice, people are free to practise their religion but states should not be run according to ideas that cannot be changed. 

India is not a secular state by the original definition. Even by the modified definition, we are not really there. Most of our political parties when in power will try to favour one religious group over another in an attempt to garner votes and find favour with vote banks. And thus, our development too suffers. Actions speak louder than words. You need to look at not what parties claim about their secularism, but what they actually do about religion based priorities.

True secularism will require the Indian voter to demand it from the politicians. Only then will we be able to achieve it.

© Ankur Jain, 2015