Two recent events tell us that secularism is clawing back into the political discourse of India and how!
First, the common minimum programme of the ruling alliance of Maharashtra and then the removal of Pragya Thakur, the BJP MP, from the parliamentary committee on defence affairs after her “deshbhakt” remark in the Lok Sabha. Did the first development force the BJP to take the extraordinary step of reprimanding one of its most prized MPs publicly?
The media did not fail to note and underline that the common minimum programme of the Maha Vikas Agadi, the alliance of the Nationalist Congress Party, Shiv Sena and Congress which is now ruling Maharashtra commits “to uphold the secular values enshrined in the Constitution.”
One should however notice that it is doing it with great caution. It assures itself and the supporters of all three parties that “on contentious issues of national importance as well as of state importance, especially having repercussions or consequences on the secular fabric of the nation, the Shiv Sena, NCP and the Congress will take a joint view after holding consultations and arriving at a consensus.”
The BJP has already started mocking the Shiv Sena for having compromised with the politics of Hindutva by bowing before the wishes of Sonia Gandhi.
But the pictures of a beaming third generation Thackeray in the company of Sonia Gandhi do say something. She smiles indulgently, like a matriarch of the family.
The Shiv Sena thought it important to take her blessings before the auspicious moment of the oath taking of the chief minister. Has this unsettled the BJP?
After all, its politics is nothing if not a politics of images. The idea of Sonia Gandhi portrayed as an intruder in India and who bears this stigma of being an eternal foreigner taking the mantle of the leader is certainly not pleasing for the BJP and the RSS.
Sonia Gandhi, on the other hand, has taken an upper hand. By remaining in the background, allowing the alliance to be stitched slowly and tortuously, showing neither hurry nor desperation and keeping herself away from the oath taking ceremony and yet persuading the alliance to commit itself to the value of secularism, which till recently was thought to be at the core of the politics of the Congress.
What does this mean for the future of secularism in India? We must ask whether the common minimum programme goes beyond a formal lip service to secularism. Do we need to celebrate it?
In India, secularism has been derided, even by many of our well meaning “secular” friends for being too closely tied to the interests of the minorities. We must not forget that in the recent past we have seen all our “secular” leaders shying away from mentioning minorities yet assuring us that they were very much part of the 125 crore Indians they care for.
So, they would rather talk about all Indians and not divide them. But in the common minimum programme of the MVA, minorities too figure. It promises to initiate schemes to “eliminate the social, educational and economic backwardness of the minority communities and implement constitutional safeguards for its security and welfare in letter and in spirit.”
I would argue that even this formalistic return to secularism needs to be seen as a victory.
Recall the arrogance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he boasted that one of the major achievements of his election victory was that no political party could dare utter the word “secularism”. The satisfaction writ large on his face was vicious. But there was no response to this insult dealt to the foundational value of India. No political leader could say that if secularism goes, India as we know it today would also disappear.
With the second victory of the BJP, it was assumed that it was a long winter night for secularism. It was now an academic concern, safely pushed out of all zones of real significance. And then in the twists and turns of the politics of Maharashtra, it started carving out a space for itself.
This formalism claimed its first head the very next day. The instinctive response of Pragya Thakur to the statement of A. Raja in created an uproar in the house and outside. She resented the mention of the name of Godse as an example of a terrorist.
“You cannot give the example of deshbhakts [patriots],” said Thakur, interrupting the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam MP when he mentioned Godse during a debate on the Special Protection Group (Amendment) Bill.
Raja had talked about Godse’s statement about why he killed Gandhi. He said that Godse had carried out the assassination because he believed in a particular philosophy.
The BJP first tried to make light of the issue and its spokespersons defended her by claiming that she was referring to Udham Singh and not Godse as a patriot. But it had to finally bow down to the pressure mounted by the opposition. Just before this incident, she was made a member of the parliamentary committee on defence affairs.
People were taken aback by this audacious act of the ruling party. Pragya Singh is a terror-accused and is known for her virulent communal views. Her candidature was seen as a challenge to all formal niceties of secular politics. The BJP president had called it an act of satyagraha against the secular politics.
Given this record, the normal response of the BJP should have been to just brush aside the allegations and move on. The punishment meted out to the poor Pragya Singh for following her political instinct is nothing if not extraordinary.
We have seen BJP leaders consistent in their use of coarse and violent language. Crudity is the hallmark of the political language of the BJP. Even on a solemn occasion like the anniversary of the terror attack on Mumbai, a senior leader like Rajnath Singh could not restrain himself from making a cheap comment, “Ab don ko pakadna mushkil nahi, aasan ho gaya.” ‘Now, it’s not difficult to capture the don, it’s easy.’
You talk to the leaders of the BJP and they would tell you that they were confident that making the discourse vulgar and violent helps them cement their base. So, what exactly forced the BJP to come out so strongly against its beloved member? The opposition is so weak that it could have hardly done even a forceful protest had the BJP decided to stonewall the opposition. The media would also have helped it.
Even if these two events are not linked, their timing is too significant to be ignored.
On the day when all this was unfolding, Rajeev Bhargava was giving a talk in which he said that you just cannot afford not to be secular. It was a necessity like clean water, or now, clean air. You can survive in your biological form for some time without these but your system would corrode. Your quality of life would definitely suffer. So, to lead a healthy life you would need clean water and clean air. Bhargava argued that for a healthy collective life, more so for a collective which consists of diversities, secularism is a must.
Our societies have developed in such a fashion that in one particular geographical area, you have a preponderance of people of one particular religion or language. But even there diversities exist. Then there are other groups, linguistic and cultural. If you want to have a collective-like nation with this diversity, inequality cannot play a part in it.
We live as communities but at the same time value our individuality. What should be the form of our togetherness? Would the dominant religion or language or culture subjugate others? It would mean an eternal coercion and also resistance from those who are being dominated. It definitely results in violence or in itself is violence. The dominant has the satisfaction of being the master but it has to live in a very uneasy relationship with the enslaved.
The best way, which keeps you relaxed, is to adopt secularism. It allows all ethical frames, which are popularly known as religions to gain equal validity. None of the ethical frames seek to be the only legitimate frame. It creates an opportunity to interact with each other and if possible, also learn from each other. The best thing it does is make life easier.
The Indian secular experiment was unique as it was not religion skeptic. It did not fear or suspect religious expression. People sporting religious symbols do not scare you, neither do you get offended by the sight of a burqa or a particular type of cap. In India, if we leave the recent six years behind, no government head would have ever been forced to accept like the German leader Angela Merkel that a Kippa-wearing Jew was vulnerable in her country.
Unfortunately, we now resemble Germany. The sight of a Friday namaz can generate violent feelings and the sound of the Christmas jingle can be treated like the sound of breaking peace. How to get back to at least where we were?
Secularism, as Nehru loved to say, is essentially defined by equality and non-discrimination. Of all kinds. He treated it as a package. But the first test of it is if the minority voices feel safe or not. It is good for all societies. Even for those which are largely monoreligious.
So, it is good news that after a long blackout and several announcements of its demise, secularism has raised a finger: Do not take me for dead. Have courage!
Apoorvanand teaches at Delhi University.