It's Time to Take a Clear-Sighted Stand on Secularism

In the first Narendra Dabholkar Memorial Lecture, N. Ram explains why it is important for India to rise above its present challenges of religious intolerance, inequality and lack of freedom of expression.

On August 20, 2013, doctor, social activist and rationalist Narendra Dabholkar was murdered in Pune by Hindu rightwing activists. On the sixth anniversary of his death, the organisation he founded – the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samitee – held the first Dr Narendra Dabholkar Memorial Lecture. Veteran journalist N. Ram spoke on the occasion. Below is the full text of his speech.


It is an honour to be here, at the invitation of the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samitee, to deliver the first Dr Narendra Dabholkar Memorial Lecture. I wouldn’t say I’m happy to do this.

This is because the grim circumstances that led to memorialising in an untimely way Dr Dabholkar and other upstanding fighters for rationality, a scientific temper, free speech, social and economic justice, and a secular, democratic and progressive India, those grim circumstances should never have arisen in the first place. 

Narendra Dabholkar. Photo: Facebook

The list of the men, women and children who have met an unnatural and violent end in rising India in the 21st century at the hands of the forces of communalism, casteism, and organised hate ideology and politics is long and terrible. But let me mention here four who stood out for the clarity of their ideas and ideals, their unwavering commitment to these ideas and ideals, their integrity, the sincerity with which they put their words to action, and their fearlessness: Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, M.M. Kalburgi, and Gauri Lankesh.

Each worked tirelessly for his or her ideas and cause in a different field. But some common threads ran through their lives, their work, and their unnatural death, in which we can detect a pattern.

Which organisation, which ideology, which set of conspirators and killers is involved is no secret – it never was. We are only learning the specifics, the details as the investigations into these cold-blooded assassinations that were meant to send a message of terror through society make their slow progress. 

Dr Dabholkar was an extraordinary man. He lived his life, public as well as private, in complete harmony with his deeply thought-out ideas on reason, science, philosophy, and social justice. To say that he lived and died by his principles is to state the obvious. 

I have dipped into three of his books, in English translation of course: the two volumes of The Case for Reason, the first offering us an authoritative understanding of the anti-superstition movement, the second a scientific enquiry into belief; and also Please Think, which is a practical guide to developing a scientific temper.

I look forward to reading these books closely. Dr Dabholkar’s contribution in founding MANS (Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti) and in campaigning against and exposing all manner of exploitative superstitions, obscurantist beliefs and practices, and fraudulent claims of so-called miracle workers and ‘healers’ is in the best traditions of the rationalist movement in India and abroad. Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, and Kerala have a leading role in this movement, and I can easily relate Dr Dabholkar’s work to the powerful and long-lasting contribution of Periyar Ramasamy (1879-1973) to rational thinking, atheism, gender equality, social justice, and self-respect in the land of the Tamils.

Also read: This Maharashtra Group is Cutting off Superstition – One Dreadlock at a Time

As for bringing the killers and the conspirators in the Dabholkar assassination case to justice, I read that the sustained protest to ensure an effective investigation and the legal battle to ensure transparency in the investigation have led to a “significant development”, with the CBI making several arrests. Still, given the national socio-political situation and the weaknesses and vices of India’s criminal justice system, we must keep our fingers crossed about the eventual outcome of the investigation and prosecution of this vital case.          

So let me pay my personal tribute to the life and work of Dr Dabholkar and express my solidarity with the campaign to ensure effective investigation and bring the killers and conspirators to justice before I move on to the main theme of this lecture – three big challenges facing contemporary India.

The first is the challenge of mass poverty and deprivation and I will deal with this relatively briefly, if only because there is a large literature, technical as well as more accessible, available on this subject. 

The challenge of mass deprivation

The big question before us today is whether, seven decades on, India has kept its tryst with destiny. In trying to answer this question, let us apply Jawaharlal Nehru’s litmus test when he made his famous speech close to the midnight hour on August 14, 1947: “The service of India means the service of the millions who suffer. It means the ending of poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity.”

The path India took in 1947 was a brave experiment in trying to address underdevelopment and extreme deprivation in a large, highly populated, poor country, within the framework of parliamentary democracy. But the experiment largely failed Nehru’s litmus test – of ending poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity. What is worse, there is no indication that policymakers have lost much sleep over the palpable reality of India having a greater mass of basic deprivations today than any other country on earth. What makes this particularly inexcusable is the failure of a relatively prolonged phase of growth substantially to scale down mass poverty and deprivation. 

Insects and birds fly in a dump yard as a rag picker collects scraps in New Delhi. Photo: Reuters/Anindito Mukherjee

There are endless debates on definitions of the poverty line; and successive central governments have claimed that they have been able to raise tens of millions of people over the poverty line. There is no doubt that there has been progress, but the kind of success claimed in this area has been achieved mostly through the manipulation of data, statistical sleight of hand. In any case, no one denies that the number of poor people in India runs into the hundreds of millions.

But in meeting this first challenge, we need to go beyond how many hundreds of millions are below or around a minimally defined poverty line. We need to look at the challenge in terms of mass deprivations.

“Deprivation” refers to the inability of individuals in a society to achieve basic human functionings. Among these are the ability to live a long and healthy life free from avoidable disease and hunger, and the opportunity to be educated and to have access to resources needed for a socially acceptable standard of living. Mass deprivation in India has many aspects, manifestations, and consequences. There is income deprivation, nutrition deprivation, housing deprivation, educational deprivation, health deprivation, gender deprivation, environmental deprivation, and deprivation of basic human rights. These are the major areas and they define the nature and scale of the challenge. 

Approaching the challenge positively, let us look at a Stage 1 to 2047 that sets about eliminating the worst forms of deprivation in the next five years. Can we take this for granted? The answer is ‘No’ for the simple reason that the task calls for a state that is willing to mobilise and put to use the surpluses that are available to this end, in a determined and concentrated way. This implies a growth strategy very different from the one we are on now.

Also read: ‘Minimum Income’ in India Must Come Through Jobs, Public Services and Pensions

Let us now hear an economist, professor Jayati Ghosh, on how India’s much-vaunted neo-liberal growth process has let down its working people:

“An important failure [from a long run perspective] is the worrying absence of structural change, in terms of the ability to shift the labour force out of low productive activities, especially in agriculture, to higher productivity and better remunerated activities…In the past decade, agrarian crisis across many parts of the country has impacted adversely on the livelihood of both cultivators and rural workers, yet the generation of more productive employment outside this sector remains woefully inadequate. Other major failures, which are directly reflective of the still poor status of human development in most parts of the country, are in many ways related to this fundamental failure.

“They include the persistence of widespread poverty; the sluggishness of employment, especially in the formal structure; the absence of basic food security (and growing food insecurity) for a significant proportion of the population; the inability to ensure basic needs of housing, sanitation, adequate health care to the population as a whole; the continuing inability to ensure universal education and the poor quality of much school education; the sluggish enlargement of access to education and employment across different social groups and for women in particular. In addition there are problems caused by the very pattern of economic growth: aggravated regional imbalances; greater inequalities in the control over assets and in access to incomes; dispossession and displacement of people from land and livelihood without adequate compensation and rehabilitation.” 

So the key question is: Will the growth strategy change so that, as a national priority, we can bring an end to the state of multiple basic deprivations in which hundreds of millions of our people live? There are no guarantees but what we need to do is to work to build public opinion and undertake democratic and progressive public action towards bringing about a suitable strategy change. And that will mean figuring out what kind of institutional change is needed.

It will mean joining the global search for an institutional framework that can deliver a more egalitarian and sustainable development strategy, a strategy that can deliver development with much less of its adverse externalities. 

The challenge to secular, democratic, and pluralist India

The second big question I wish to address is probably at the top of the minds of most people who are here: What kind of society are we building today? What is our idea of India and has that idea changed for most Indians? 

This challenging question has come to the fore at a time the party of the Hindu Right, led by an RSS-pracharak-turned-charismatic-mass-political-leader, has won a renewed and stronger mandate and is actively consolidating its power at the Centre.

This party has an improved majority of its own, with flanking support from a family of militant Hindutva organisations that used to be regarded as belonging to the ‘fringe’. It is no secret that this new dispensation is armed with an ideology and a socio-political programme that are at odds with what we have been accustomed to for most of India’s independent career.

It is important to realize that when the RSS supremo, its sarsangchalak, proclaims that India is a Hindu nation and Hindutva is its identity, striking a blow at the secular concept of Indian citizenship and at the Constitution itself, he speaks for the constellation as a whole. He speaks for the entire Sangh parivar, comprising the party of government as well as the so-called fringe outfits, with the RSS acting as the ideological fulcrum. Let no one have any doubts about this. 

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Communalism as a political mobilisation strategy has made disturbing progress over the past several years, feeding on the weaknesses, the vices, the corruption, the anti-people policies, and the sheer incompetence of preceding governments. What is clear from the history of India over the past century and a half is that a wrong or unprincipled understanding of the problem of communalism in society and politics can led to very tragic outcomes for large numbers of people.

It is no secret that this new dispensation is armed with an ideology and a socio-political programme that are at odds with what we have been accustomed to. Representative photo. Credit: Reuters

Communalism in the South Asian sense is, according to the historian Sarvapalli Gopal, “unknown almost anywhere else in the world” and of relatively recent origin. Combated through the active and sustained practice of what the Constitution has mandated in independent India, it could have been marginalised or at least contained. Yet it has been able, on account of a complexity of factors, to capture hearts and minds and occupy political centre stage in the second decade of the 21st century.

The question that arises is whether this process in society is temporary or is going to be long-lasting. At moments like the present, the apparent absence of capabilities within the political and constitutional system to keep religious majoritarianism at bay dispirits those who believe in secular democracy and modern civil society.

But surely it won’t do to accept any assessment or conclusion that suggests the inevitability of the triumph of an authoritarian majoritarianism over the progressive values of our freedom struggle, values that are embedded in our democratic and secular Constitution. I would like to think that given the strengths of India’s composite culture, its civilisational reserves, the wisdom of ordinary folk, the process being described above cannot be long-lasting. It is certainly not irreversible.

It is fashionable today to decry secularism as a tired, formulaic, hack concept and even some liberal journalists and other members of a supposedly liberal intelligentsia seem to have embraced the fashion. I think now is the time to take a clear-sighted stand on this question. There are many things going for secularism in India, among them our history, our freedom struggle, and our Constitution. But very often when Indians debate secularism, at the intellectual or political level, the issue tends to get blurred or confused.

Also read: What If This Is the Hindu Rashtra?

The typical definition on offer in the Indian debate on secularism is sarva dharma samabhava (equal respect for all faiths) or sarva dharma sadbhaava (good feelings towards all faiths). Over time, various leaders, including the philosopher-statesman Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, have offered interpretations of secularism that suggest that in the Indian context it has a rather special, if not unique, meaning. Sometimes it is defined as religious tolerance and catholicity of outlook. Sometimes the famous statement of Swami Vivekananda in his Chicago address of 1893, “We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true,” is cited as the core of Indian secularism.

Such attempts at definition and clarification of a key concept in modern Indian history may have their advantages and application in particular gatherings or contexts since they have the progressive effect of countering bigotry, intolerance, and fundamentalism in social life and communalism as a phenomenon. But intellectually and politically, they won’t do as an interpretation of secularism and what it demands.

To put it in a different way, sarva dharma samabhava or sadbhava is a necessary but insufficient condition for the flourishing of secularism in India. Let me suggest why.

Secularism as a concept that must be put to work all the time consists of two robust principles. The first is that people belonging to all faiths and social sections and to both sexes are absolutely equal before the Constitution, the law, and the state. There shall be no discrimination against anyone on grounds of religion, caste, race, ethnicity, language, and gender. This is what the Constitution of India mandates through several provisions. The constitutional guarantee of the special rights of religious and linguistic minorities is an extension of this equality-and-fairness principle.

Swami Vivekananda at the Parliament of Religions in 1893. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The abolition of untouchability and the exceptions to the non-discrimination rule made to safeguard compensatory discrimination in favour of the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes, and also the socially and educationally backward classes are meant as devices to secure the integration of historically disadvantaged groups of people and their access to fair equality of opportunity.

Secularism as the equality-and-fairness principle must be based on justice if it is to survive and flourish. The unmet demand for justice in India has many dimensions – the constitutional-political, the social, the economic, gender, and so on. Discrimination and the denial of elementary justice in these dimensions weaken and sap the practice of secularism. Revivalism, traditionalist attitudes to women, caste, and social hierarchy, belief in Sanatana Dharma and Manu Dharma work against secularism primarily by denying justice to the victim sections, the losers, in the population. 

Hindu Rashtra ideology flagrantly denies this equality-fairness-and-justice principle. It does this crudely through spraying anti-Muslim venom into society and, at a more sophisticated level, by advocating the value of ‘positive secularism’. Positive secularism as a political mobilisation strategy needs the disguise of nationalism, or rather pseudo-nationalism, in order to gain legitimacy. Defining many-hued Indian civilisation, and all Indians, as ‘Hindu’ (in a ‘cultural sense’), legitimising Hindutva, pushing the validity of majoritarianism as an imperative of electoral democracy, and calling for an authoritarian ‘national unity’ and ‘patriotism’ on this reactionary and deeply divisive basis is what pseudo-nationalism seeks to achieve for the communalists.

Also read: As the Hindu Rashtra Project Rolls on, It’s Time to Consider What the End Goal Is

But the second principle of secularism is even more important in the present context where major institutions are sought to be restructured. Although constitutionally and legally mandated, this principle is honoured flagrantly in the breach. This principle is that religion shall not be inducted into politics, that it shall not be exploited for political gain. The Constituent Assembly adopted a resolution in 1948 mandating this, and both the electoral and criminal laws have provisions in support of the principle. On March 11, 1994, a nine-member bench of the Supreme Court of India full-throatedly upheld the principle in its judgment in what has come to be known as the Bommai case.

It is important to recognise that communalism in India is of diverse origin and content. It is not the monopoly of any one community. There is majority communalism and minority communalism and they feed on each other. Jihadism, which used to be regarded as a fringe phenomenon, has come to centre stage from time to time in recent decades. Often employing terror as a weapon, it has taken a heavy toll of human lives, livelihood, and welfare. And what is more, it strengthens the ideology of the Hindu Right.

The fight against communalism and religious fundamentalism, fanaticism, and extremism cannot be successful unless it is deeply rooted in reason and unless a scientific temper can be developed among the mass of the population. Communalism feeds on the most reactionary and harmful forms of superstition, obscurantism, pseudo-science, charlatanism, quackery, and hard-core criminality in religious guise. Even the Indian Science Congress has fallen victim to these obscurantist elements. It was not for nothing that Nobel laureate Professor Venkatraman Ramakrishnan went on record to say: “I attended one day and very little science was discussed. It was a circus. I find that it’s an organisation where very little science is discussed. I will never attend another science congress in my life.” I don’t have to elaborate on the critical importance of fighting obscurantism, superstition, and anti-science because this is the aspect of the challenge that Dr. Dabholkar’s writings and life-work addressed tirelessly, effectively, and heroically.

The challenge to free speech and freedom of the press

It is obvious that any campaign that makes a case for reason, science, democracy, the rule of law, and social and economic justice must give high priority to freedom of speech and expression and freedom of the press and, by extension, of the news media. 

Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India, which was adopted in 1950, guarantees “freedom of speech and expression” as a fundamental right. This right, hard won in the freedom struggle against a highly repressive and censorious British Raj, is deemed to be unamendable thanks to the ‘basic structure’ doctrine propounded by the Supreme Court. 

Kashmiri women walk past concertina wire laid across a road during restrictions after the scrapping of the special constitutional status for Kashmir by the Indian government, in Srinagar, on August 20, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

Freedom of the press is not explicitly mentioned by the Indian Constitution but the Supreme Court of India has, through judicial interpretation, read it into Article 19. It has held that freedom of the press is a combination of two freedoms – Article 19(1)(a), ‘the freedom of speech and expression’, and Article 19(1)(g), ‘the freedom to practice any profession, or to carry on any occupation, trade or business’. The first is clearly the principal component. 

Unfortunately, freedom of speech and expression is hemmed in, and to a significant extent undone, by Article 19(2). This provides for restrictions on the fundamental right prescribed by law – some reasonable, most not. Notable among the unreasonable restrictions that remain on the statute book or in practice are the law of criminal defamation, the undefined power of contempt of court, uncodified legislative privilege, the law of sedition (124A of the Indian Penal Code), other illiberal provisions of the IPC (especially 153A), the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, and other draconian laws enacted in the name of fighting extremism and terrorism. 

Today, it is clear that freedom of the press and, more generally, freedom of speech and expression in India are under pressure and, in several cases, under assault.

Also read: Journalists Call Press Council’s Support to Kashmir Media Restrictions ‘Deplorable’

I will come to direct and violent assaults on freedom of the news media in a minute. But ordinary citizens find their fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression diminished, hampered, and constrained by an overarching climate of fear and intimidation. Citizens making innocuous Facebook posts have been arrested and even when they are given bail find themselves facing criminal charges.

A total information blackout and Internet shutdown was imposed, in flagrant violation of Article 19 of the Indian Constitution, on the entire population of the former State of Jammu & Kashmir for a prolonged period, without the government even bothering to offer a serious explanation for why such extreme measures had been called for. 

In 2018 India ranked 138th from the bottom among 180 countries and territories figuring in the annual World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters sans frontières (RSF), a Paris-based independent organisation that dedicates itself to freedom of information. In a comparative reckoning where the worst score was 88.87 and the best 7.63, India’s score was 43.24 – the same as Pakistan’s.

But the bad news does not stop here. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has, after careful enquiry and strict verification, documented the work-related killing of 1350 journalists worldwide, including 50 in India, since 1992. That was the year the New York-based independent non-profit organisation, founded in 1981 to defend journalists worldwide from danger and the fear of reprisal, began to compile data on journalist fatalities across the world. Of the 50 killed in India since 1992, 35 were murdered ‘in retribution for, or to prevent, news coverage or commentary’, and the remaining 15 lost their lives while on ‘dangerous assignments’ or in crossfire.

As the respected editor of Sadhana, Dr. Dabholkar figures in the list of journalists murdered. A breakdown of the subjects covered by the murdered Indian journalists is revealing: politics (20); corruption (21); crime (11); human rights (8); culture (4); business (3); and war (1). (These numbers add up to more than the total shown, because many of the targeted journalists had covered more than one subject.) 

While no co-relation can be detected between the murders and the governments in place in the States and at the centre between 1992 and 2018, it is significant that the overwhelming majority of the murders were committed against journalists reporting or investigating politics, corruption. However, the CPJ’s research does suggest that communal and other forms of divisive politics and social polarisation across India have made the situation worse: ten journalists were murdered across India over the decade beginning May 2004, but the four years beginning May 2014 have already seen the death toll rise by another 12. And it is not as though only defenceless local reporters working in remote locations have been targeted by the killers; experienced journalists writing against communalism or investigating corruption and working for influential news media are also part of the rising toll, which suggests that journalist murders might be going through a process of deadly normalisation in the system.

Also read: A Year After Shujaat Bukhari’s Murder, the Pain Lingers, and So Do the Questions

A special report by CPJ on India found that most of the murdered journalists were small-town reporters who faced much greater risk to their lives and limbs than their big city counterparts working for larger media organisations, that more than half of them had reported regularly on corruption, and that ‘a lack of media solidarity’ had added to the dangers they faced.

The CPJ data reveal that 75% of the journalists murdered worldwide between 1992 and 2019 were reporters covering politics, corruption, and crime; that many of them were highly vulnerable local reporters; that print reporters headed the list of the murdered journalists followed by broadcast reporters, editors, columnists and commentators, publishers and owners, internet reporters, photographers, producers, camera operators, and technicians. The CPJ also found that in a large number of cases the journalists received threats before they were killed, that nearly a third of the murdered journalists were first taken captive, and that the majority of those taken captive were tortured to send out a ‘chilling message’ to their colleagues. As for the perpetrators, political groups, including Islamic State and other extremist organisations, were suspected to be behind the murders in about one third of the cases, and government, military, and para-military officials were ‘the leading suspects’ in more than a quarter of the cases.

Shujaat Bukhari who was murdered in Kashmir in 2018. Photo: Facebook

What is as shocking as the rising number of journalist fatalities and the proliferating violence against them is the fact that the killers and assailants regularly go unpunished. This impunity is a phenomenon witnessed not just in India but also in several other developing countries where authoritarian rulers, typically elected and functioning under the cloak of ‘democracy’, and extremist political movements have little time and tolerance for independent journalism. Investigative reporters especially are targeted as enemies of the state or of the party or of individual political leaders or of the extremist movement. 

Since 2008, CPJ has been publishing an annual Global Impunity Index, a quantified ranking of countries where journalists are murdered, the cases remain unsolved, and the killers go free. In other words, the Index is a graded indictment of countries where the rule of law does not seem to apply when journalists are murdered in the course of their work. CPJ notes that “in the past decade, at least 324 journalists have been silenced through murder worldwide and in 85% of these cases no perpetrators have been convicted. It is an emboldening message to those who seek to censor and control the media through violence.” The 2018 Index identifies 14 countries in which “impunity is entrenched.”

The 14 countries appearing in the 2018 Index account for 82% of the unsolved murders of journalists worldwide for the decade. India, along with six other countries, has figured in the Global Impunity Index every year over the decade. It can thus be described as a founding member, a permanent member, of this Club of Shame.

I think I have said enough to give you an idea of the extent to which freedom of speech and expression and freedom of the press has been eroded and the constitutional guarantee as well as well as the rule of law has been compromised in India.

Let me now conclude with a reminder that a lot of work awaits us in effectively meeting these three big challenges confronting India towards the end the second decade of the 21st century – the challenge of mass deprivations, the challenge to secular, democratic, and pluralist India, and the challenge to free speech and freedom of the news media.

Dr. Dabholkar’s life and work demonstrated, among other things, how these challenges are inter-connected and how without meeting them scientifically, effectively, and fearlessly, our country cannot do well. Working hard at the grassroots and in the socio-political arena to raise popular awareness and mobilise the working people behind the fight for secularism, democracy, socio-economic justice, and the republican Constitution is the key to national advancement.  

N. Ram is a former Editor of The Hindu.