Unmasking Indian Secularism: Why We Need a New Hindu-Muslim DealHasan Suroor
129 pages|₹ 295
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
I AM OFTEN REMINDED of the popular Urdu poet and film lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi’s famous line: “Woh Afsana Jise Anjaam Tak Laana Na Ho Mumkin Us-e Ek Khubsoorat Mor De Kar Chodna Achha (When it’s not possible to take a story to the desired conclusion, it’s better to give it a dignified turn and end it)”. He was, of course, writing about unrequited love—how to get over it and move on.
But it is an equally apt prescription for the troubled afsana of India’s experiment with secularism which seemed like a good idea after the traumatic events of Partition. But, 70 years on, it is unravelling amid widespread disillusionment—across the Hindu-Muslim divide—with the way it has been practised. Questions have been raised whether a Western concept was suited to a deeply religious society. It has even been suggested that it was destined to fail. There’s an argument to be had whether the idea of declaring India a secular state was really born of Nehru’s innate liberalism. Or was it intended to score a political point over rightwing Hindu nationalists and Muslim separatists represented by the Muslim League: a Congress attempt to shame Muhammad Ali Jinnah even while it was itself laying the foundations of a minority vote bank?
Ostensibly it was meant to foster communal harmony but in the event secularism has become a source of division, breeding resentment among the majority community which believes that it is disproportionately weighted in favour of minorities, especially Muslims. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies, riding a wave of Hindu nationalism, accuse secularists of minority ‘appeasement’ and peddling ‘pseudo-secularism’ for electoral gains.
Muslims and other minorities have their own reasons to be suspicious of the secular establishment. Far from benefiting from secularism, they say their grievances and frustrations were manipulated by Congress and other secular parties and they were used as proxies in their battles with their rightwing political rivals. The emphatic Muslim rejection of Congress underlines the strength of their anger. Their withdrawal of support has been an existential blow to Congress, plunging it into terminal decline. Which shows how reliant it had been on Muslim votes, and lends credence to claims that it was interested in secularism only as a route to building a Muslim ‘vote bank’—presenting itself as their saviour against ‘communal’ Hindu groups.
The story of Indian secularism is a classic example of good intentions being derailed by misguided practices. Over the years, there has been enough post-mortem of why secularism has not worked and who’s to blame. But we are where we are, and frankly, it makes no sense endlessly debating it. That will only generate more acrimony leading to more polarisation. The effort now should be to ponder ways to find a way out of the mess.
This is not a plea for abandoning secularism altogether but to look for a model more in tune with contemporary political and social realities, and the current national mood. A settlement underpinned by realism rather than idealism. The effort should be to try and strike a balance between minority rights and the majority community’s sensitivities
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It will not be easy, particularly for Muslims who might be required to make some hard choices in pursuit of an end to the insecurity and the uncertainty they face about their future in India. More broadly, it will involve acknowledging our historic failure to deliver secularism compounded by a profound change in Hindu public opinion which in recent years has swung towards majoritarianism. The idea that Hindus have a first right over India has become deeply ingrained, even among many liberals. Any sustainable solution will have to be within the context of these realities.
This is not a plea for abandoning secularism altogether or suddenly embracing a theocratic Hindu state but to look for a model more in tune with contemporary political and social realities, and the current national mood. A settlement underpinned by realism rather than idealism. The effort should be to try and strike a balance between minority rights and the majority community’s sensitivities which it believes have been ignored in the name of secularism. The Hindu sense of grievance—real or imaginary—will have to be addressed in the larger interest of India’s unity.
There’s a mistaken notion that the only alternative to a secular state is a theocracy. I argue that a state can have an officially recognised religion—in India’s case it will be Hinduism—and yet remain secular in practice by treating all citizens as equal and making sure that their religious and civil rights are protected by law as for example in many Western liberal democracies, including Britain, where the state is Christian but government practices are secular. There is a robust and strictly enforced equality law which ensures that nobody is discriminated against because of their religion or ethnicity.
We can find successful examples of the British model or its variations in other countries, including in South Asia and the Muslim world. It will be worth examining these models as a starting point, as the basis for a new constitutional framework that would be seen to be fair to everyone without abandoning the essential elements of a secular society.
NO DEBATE ON Hindu-Muslim relations will be complete without a reference to the role of nationalism in muddying the waters. The term ‘nationalism’ is tossed around a great deal these days as a great virtue and badge of honour, but what is often forgotten is the notorious history of competing Hindu and Muslim cultural nationalisms—and how they have been used to divide people. Partition was a result of the clash between rival nationalisms, peddled by the Muslim League on the one hand and the Hindu Mahasabha and its allies on the other, both feeding on each other. Both sides believed in the “two-nation” theory, namely that Muslims and Hindus represent two separate civilisations and cultures and never the twain shall meet. It is instructive how this worked on the ground with the Hindu Mahasabha actually collaborating with the Muslim League in opposing Congress even as the League campaigned for a separate Muslim homeland.
The Hindu right can be accused of many things but not of hiding its agenda. On the contrary, it announced it from the rooftops with LK Advani sneeringly dismissing Indian secularism as ‘pseudo-secularism’, and calling for ‘Hindu pride’ to assert itself. The demolition of the Babri Masjid was not carried out secretly in the dead of night
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Notably, that was the last time we saw Muslim civil society activism in action in a significant way. Post-independence, Indian Muslims have shown little interest in mass action, and whenever they have it has failed to take off because of a lack of credible leadership. The 2019 Shaheen Bagh protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or CAA—the new citizenship law that Muslims regard as discriminatory—was the first serious attempt by the community to organise, especially around a secular issue.
But its failure amid politically fuelled conspiracy theories about its aims underlined the limits of any mass action not supported by the vast majority of the population; in other words, one which is restricted to a minority group. For all the hype around it, the non-Muslim support for the Shaheen Bagh movement remained restricted mostly to the usual liberal suspects—and towards the end, even some of that support fizzled out. Most revealing was the reluctance of the so-called secular parties to be seen supporting a Muslim protest for fear of being seen as anti-Hindu. In the end, the protestors were left high and dry, politically isolated and demoralised. It greatly diminishes the prospects of similar action in future, reinforcing the argument that Muslims have few options other than seeking a new compact with the Indian state even if it means having to make some unpalatable concessions.
Meanwhile, in the prevailing politically and culturally polarised climate, it has become well-nigh impossible to have a rational argument on Hindu-Muslim relations— with either Muslims or Hindus. I’ve personally stopped arguing for fear of losing friends on both sides of the divide… So, what went wrong? How did the transition from ‘secularism’ to ‘sickularism’ happen, and Indian-ness morph into majoritarianism without anyone ostensibly noticing it? How did we come to this?
The answer is: To some degree, we have all been complicit in messing it up—political leaders of all hues, rightwing Hindu nationalists, the Muslim leadership, and the wider secular/liberal establishment. Even if inadvertently, we all contributed to undermining secularism through ideological prejudice, or political abuse, or sheer complacency in the face of a simmering backlash.
There’s a liberal narrative that we were blindsided by a sudden resurgence of majoritarian nationalism. But the fact is that we could see it coming since as far back as the 1980s-90s, starting with the Ram temple campaign. Signs of an ideological shift were all around us, and those leading the charge made no secret of their intentions. The Hindu right can be accused of many things but not of hiding its agenda. On the contrary, it announced it from the rooftops with LK Advani, the then BJP chief, sneeringly dismissing Indian secularism as “pseudo-secularism”, and calling for “Hindu pride” to assert itself. The demolition of the Babri Masjid was not carried out secretly in the dead of night but in broad daylight and in front of live TV cameras… Yet, the liberal/secular impulse was to dismiss it simply as an act of vandalism by a fanatical fringe, and an administrative failure. There was a lot of hand-wringing and angry rhetoric but no serious effort was made to understand the phenomenon behind it. To grasp the fact that the old idea of India was dying on its feet.
LOOKING BACK, IT seems extraordinary how quickly an idea which formed the ideological cornerstone of post-independence modern India fell out of favour across large swathes of the political and intellectual spectrum. To the extent that many hitherto avowed secularists—academics, media commentators and social scientists—switched sides proudly ‘confessing’ that they had got it wrong the first time; and that secularism was indeed a foreign import imposed on the country by a leftwing liberal elite to appease Muslims.
Ironically, at some point even Muslims started questioning the idea amid a growing sense that they were being used by self-styled secularists for their own ends. By way of flavour, here’s what Shahid Siddiqui, a relatively moderate Muslim leader and editor of Nai Duniya, wrote at the time echoing BJP’s attacks on secularism: “How long are Indian Muslims going to be the slaves of this ‘electoral secularism’, the sole purpose of which is to create fear in the minds of the minorities?” A former MP, who has been associated with assorted secular groups, including Congress, Siddiqui also posted a series of angry tweets denouncing secular “saviours” of Muslims as their “worst enemies”. He tweeted that Muslims had been “pushed into socio-economic ghetto not by BJP but by Cong& SP”; and that “Muslims r unable to see that they have become slaves of secularism to suit a coterie ruling this country using… Muslims as a vehicle to power”.
There’s an argument to be had whether the idea of declaring India a secular state was really born of Nehru’s innate liberalism. Or was it intended to score a political point: a Congress attempt to shame Jinnah even while it was itself laying the foundations of a minority vote bank?
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The liberals refuse to acknowledge how secularism was abused by secular parties, not least Congress. Its record on secularism is dire. It not only failed to protect minorities but, often, actually stoked sectarian violence, most infamously during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. Even the demolition of the Babri Masjid on its watch had its roots in its attempts to appease competing strains of Muslim and Hindu fundamentalism. (Rajiv Gandhi had opened up a part of the masjid for Hindu worship to deal with the criticism of his government’s decision to overturn the Supreme Court verdict in the Shah Bano case, granting an elderly divorcee the right to claim a maintenance allowance from her ex-husband.)
Politically isolated and facing an existential crisis, the question before the Muslim community is whether it wants to prolong the agony and continue to suffer daily humiliation, or try and find a dignified way out of it. There are no easy options: either we continue to be trapped in a no-man’s land—nominally secular but practically discriminatory—waiting for Godot to deliver us from our misery; or swallow our ego, grind our teeth, and give up the tottering ghost of secularism for good. Let’s stop endlessly arguing about the past and, instead, move on. And try and make the best of a bad situation. It’s easy to bury one’s head in the sand and refuse to acknowledge the reality; but it requires courage to confront it and deal with it.
Finally, if this is any consolation, it’s a bad time for minorities everywhere, including liberal Western democracies.
(This essay draws on Hasan Suroor’s latest book Unmasking Indian Secularism: Why We Need a New Hindu-Muslim Deal)
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