The Soul of Man under Secularism

Published: July 02, 2014 12:21 IST
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(Kumar Ketkar is a senior journalist, political commentator, globe trotter and author. He has covered all Indian elections since 1971 and significant international events. He is a frequent participant on TV debates.)

The title of this piece, paraphrased from Oscar Wilde's 'The Soul of Man Under Socialism' would contradict the very essence of the idea of 'Secularism'. The secularists are not supposed to believe in the existence of 'soul'. It is presumed that they have scientific temper and do not believe in any prevailing religion. They may have been born to some religion - Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh etc, but they profess to be secularists. The secularists are either atheists or at least agnostics.

But the Indian version, or rather the Congress version of secularism is essentially respect (or appease) all religious communities. That is why it was translated by a section of Indian intellectuals as "Sarva-Dharma-Samabhava". It tried to emphasize co-existence and tolerance of all faiths, rather than scientific temper or agnosticism / atheism. Under this system, all religions are allowed to not only practice publicly but also propagate their religious beliefs. The pragmatic and politically convenient definition of "secular" is just being "anti-communal".

The otherwise sober Congress leader A K Anthony has stirred a hornet's nest by openly saying that Congress secularism has come to mean appeasement of the minorities. So the definition of secularism was not merely anti-communalism but being overtly pro-minorities. It hardly needs to be stressed that the term minorities is often used as synonymous for Muslims. Anthony himself is a Christian and therefore a member of the minority community. But despite being a Congressman, he too used the term appeasement to mean Muslims. It was the unkindest cut of all.

Actually, a similar critical comment was made by late Vithalrao Gadgil, the then spokesperson of the Congress, in 1998-1999, when the BJP-led NDA came to power, but it did not generate as much controversy. The debate has now reopened because Anthony is a head of the committee set up to investigate the causes of the disastrous defeat of the Congress. Also, the defeat in 1998-99 was not as catastrophic as now. It is natural therefore that the BJP and the conservative Hindu pundits have quickly taken up Anthony's statement and pounced on the rather vague idea of secularism as practiced by the Congress.

Oscar Wilde had observed, in the context of the idea of socialism that, "Admirable but misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils, but their remedies do not cure the disease, they merely prolong it. Indeed their remedies are part of the disease". This observation aptly describes the fate of political secularism in the country today.

For the past 30 years or more, this form of secularism is under siege. Broadly, the organizations or parties believing in the idea of 'Hindutva' or 'Hindu Rashtra' were considered "communal" and hence all other parties, from the Congress to Communists, from Samajwadi Party to the BSP, were regarded as secular. Muslims are not a monolithic community, as most of the Sangh Parivar believes. In fact, the Shia Muslims are supposed to be with the BJP, even in Gujarat. The Bohra Muslims are openly backing Narendra Modi.

Psephologists say their research shows that the so-called Muslim Vote Bank is a media-created myth. The Uttar Pradesh election proves that even the Muslims voted the BJP in a significantly large number. However, there is a strong "secular" view that majoritarianism has prevailed and there was massive Hindu vote consolidation. It is also true that there is tremendous apprehension about this election and there is a lot of fear, frustration and a feeling of getting reduced to secondary citizenship.

For the first time the number of Muslim members of Parliament has been reduced to a single digit. The BJP does not have a single Muslim MP. The only Muslim minister, Najma Heptulla is a non-elected member of the party, and she has complicated the issue of "minority community" by saying that only the Parsis can be considered a minority. Even the Parsis were not impressed by Najma's statement.

Those people who have visited Gujarat feel the state and the so-called development model have not reached out to the Muslims in refugee camps. Modi often says "all are Indians " and he does not distinguish between Tamilians and Punjabis, Bengalis and Marathis. The experience of Gujarat is that it is psychologically divided. There is a huge "trust deficit" between the state government and the Muslim community. It is also easy to say that the people, mainly the Muslims, must "move on" and not keep the injury of 2002 bleeding. Gujarat has a very bloody history of communal riots and just because some intellectuals and pundits want to "move on" does not mean the Muslims will be persuaded to believe a new era of "genuine secularism" has arrived after nearly 60 years of "pseudo-secularism".

It is also absurd that the Congress policy actually appeased the Muslims, even if they did reach out to the conservative Mullas and Maulavis after the landmark Shahabano judgement. A majority of the Muslims remained educationally, economically and socially backward. That was not only the finding of the Sacchar Committee but also the very rationale of appointing the committee.

If indeed the Muslim community was appeased, they would not have remained so starkly backward. The Congress style secularism failed to improve the status of the Muslims (to appease them in the real sense) and, in fact, aggravated the crisis.

The huge Hindu middle class has become so complacent, cozy and comfortable that they do not feel the deeper discrimination. The Muslims do not need patronage or pontification. They need equal opportunities, equal socio-cultural status and security.

More than 40 years ago, in the famous film, "Garam Hawa" starring Balraj Sahani, the agony of a lower middle class Muslim family in search of a house was shown. Today, the situation is worse. They feel marginalized in the job market, in bank loan distribution, in educational institutions and of course in living together with the Hindus. The educated middle class Hindus feel uneasy with having Muslims as members of their cooperative housing society and the Muslims feel physically and psychologically insecure. This divide is growing and the 2014 elections do not hold a promise of "Happy Days". Indeed, not only the idea, but the reality of a secular society is under siege.

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