It is no surprise that a state whose law and order machinery is headed by a minister with such semantic predilections will tend to look the other way when various members of his ‘panth nirpeksha’ government justify the use of violence in defence of their ‘dharma’
The word ‘secular’ in the preamble of the Indian Constitution – signifying tolerance, equality under the law and safety for all citizens – has suddenly begun to be reviled as a pejorative, mostly by quarters supportive of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led NDA government of Narendra Modi.
On the first day of the winter session of parliament, November 26, now proclaimed as ‘Constitution Day’, the Union home minister chose to voice his deep resentment over the charge of religious intolerance against his party, parivar and government . It is time, he said, that ‘secular’ – which he described as the constitution’s “most misused word” – and its Hindi synonym ‘dharma nirpeksh‘, were replaced in daily political discourse by the term ‘panth nirpeksh’ (non-sectarian), as is written in the official Hindi translation of the preamble of the constitution.
In Hindi or Sanskrit, the word dharma (as in raj dharma) basically means duty, not just religion, says constitutional expert Subhash Kashyap. To him as to the home minister, the term panth means a denomination and so the term panth nirpeksha is infinitely preferable to the present term dharma nirpeksha to denote a truly sect-neutral state not wedded to any denomination, which could also be religion.
Semantic legal sabre rattling of this kind brings to mind the astringent poetry of Kabir. How shall your heart and mine be one, he asks, you who talk of what is written on paper whereas I describe what is happening before my own eyes. You wish to keep the threads I disentangle, entangled forever:
मेरा तेरा मनवा कैसे एक होई रे,
तू कहता कागज़ की लेखी, मैं कहता आँखिन की देखी
तू कहता उरझावनहारी मैं राखूं सुरझाई रे ||
It is worth noting that virtually all dictionaries continue to describe panth as sampraday, or an ideological group inclusive of religious sects that are major deviations from mainstream Hinduism such as Nath panth, Siddha panth, Gorakh panth, Sikh panth and so on.
In the lexicography of those who are pathologically averse to and dismissive of dissent, the word ‘secular’ is seen as an affront to the majority’s dharma. It is not a coincidence that in the same speech, the home minister also spoke of Lord Ram as an exemplary Hindu ruler who proved his democratic credentials by exiling his pregnant wife to the forest at the mere lifting of a finger by ‘sabse nichli seedhi ka aadmi’ – read, a ‘low caste’ man – against her. Never mind if Ram was copping out of his own dharma as a husband. Or that he also put to death the tapasvi Shambuk for engaging in a ritual that was above his status as a shudra.
It is no surprise that a state whose law and order machinery is headed by a minister with such semantic predilections will tend to look the other way when various members of his ‘panth nirpeksha‘ government, party and parivar tell Hindus they must fight for their dharma by attacking cow traders and beef eaters and the supporters of secularism.
At the same time, what’s with this Talmudic hairsplitting over terms such as ‘secular’? There is a method in this madness.
For authorities fearful of free and open debates, semantic impoverishment – the evisceration of a people’s political vocabulary by stripping terms that describe the human condition of their essence – weakens the autonomy of individuals. As the political lexicon shrinks, so does the space for free debate. As the authorities start providing all acceptable definitions, citizens gradually cease to be aware of the fact that there are moral values beyond the platitudes of ‘development’ and ‘India first’ that uphold real democracy and which they must fight for.
The home minister’s speech also reveals how in the India of 2015, the authorities have suddenly begun to read every text, including our constitution, as allusive, a double text as it were. And each wave of dissent, instead of bringing them to public platforms for a free discussion with the disenchanted groups, makes them more cagey and cross. As a result, all the agencies of the state are constantly sniffing for duplicity. Under such circumstances, any open confrontation with the authorities and the propaganda machines of the state, such as the one mounted by writers, artists and film makers, will be seen and treated if not as outright treason, then as a paid revolt instigated by the opposition for settling political scores.
It is appropriate, therefore, that a debate on the subject of dharma versus panth, secular versus non-sectarian, has been flagged off, inadvertently or otherwise. As foreseen and foretold by the dissenting writers and artists, arming oneself with as many languages as one can will be very important for all those who wish to keep up the healthy tradition – the parampara, if you will – of the argumentative Indian. In the days to come, the struggle for the future of India as a free and truly inclusive democracy is going to take place more and more in the realm of language. And it will be made even more intense by the mass media and social media. Watch this space.