Secularism as it means to a youth of India

Mon, Feb 29, 2016

Social Issues

India has a long history of tolerant secularism. Some recent incidents in India have brought focus on secularism. A Muslim person (Mohammad Akhlaq) was reportedly killed by a frenzied communal mob on the mere allegation that he had consumed cow’s meat. Such incidents are totally unacceptable in India. There have been other cases when consenting adults from different religious communities have been denied the basic human right of loving or marrying each other. Such events have been given a communal colour by vested interests who want to divide the society and earn political mileage. Such incidents prompt us to look back into history. Has India been a communal or a secular country in the past? Is secularism an implant in India?

Secularism in the West versus secularism in India

Even if India was not secular in the western sense; it had imbibed the spirit of secularism in its moral fabric and social life. The West had gone through a different course of history. The West embraced renaissance and enlightenment many centuries ahead of India. Scientific temper entered the ethos of life with scientific inventions and discoveries, Europeans felt more in control of themselves. This led to process of secularisation, which led to a shrinking of the sacred space. Because of secularisation,more and more areas of human life got detached from the influence of religious ideas, religious institutions (like Church) and religious authorities (like priests). So, there was an organic development of a secular state in which, state was strictly divided from religion. India, on the other hand, had a different history. India is proud to have one of the most ancient urban civilizations of the world, i.e., Indus civilization. The archaeological remains of Indus civilization suggest the existence of a priest king, which may imply the fusion of State and religious power. With the second phase of urbanisation by about 6th century BCE, 16 “Mahajanpadas” emerged. Some of them had republican form of government where people directly participated in governance while some other like Magadha were ruled by kings who also claimed divine blessings . So, we are a conjuction of state and religion because the king was also the protector of the religion. With the emergence of Buddhism and Jainism, there was a movement towards deeper understanding of the nature of human existence which was free from the dogmatic prescriptions of the Hindu religious texts like Vedas. Religions like Buddhism and Jainism stressed on humanism and aimed at furthering welfare of all human kind and not of any one sector of community. They spread the universal values of love, compassion and a sense of service towards other sentient beings. The legacy of such tolerant religions built a strong foundation of religious tolerance in India.

India has had a history of tolerant kings starting from Asoka who spread the message of ‘dharma’ (literally means to hold together) to keep people united. The Gupta period saw a golden period of development of intellectual thoughts in the form of art and literature. Even though, the themes or motifs have been taken from Indian mythologies, Indian art and sculpture give a sublime message of universal brotherhood. All the six systems of Indian philosophy promote the spirit of inquiry and reasoning to understand the ultimate truth of life. Even with the advent of Muslim rulers into India, the secular and tolerant nature of the Indian society was not altered much. The Muslim rulers came and assimilated into the Indian culture. This fusion of different cultures created a more rich composite culture. The Bhakti and the Sufi saints played a sterling role in spreading messages of tolerance and love. Sufi saints and their “mazars” were not only revered by Muslims but also by devout Hindus.

If India had been secular in spirit and character, then what is the reason of incidents of religious intolerance and communalism in contemporary India?

The roots of communal feelings were laid during the British rule in India. It was the policy of “divide and rule” by which the colonial powers through various state instruments and administrative processes heightened the feelings of separation between the religious communities in India. Hinduism has been a dynamic synthesis of numerous different Hindi ways of life, which the British combined artificially and made it into a monolithic Hindu religion, through the instruments of Census. In fact, Hinduism by its very nature was accommodative of diverse streams of thought (e.g Vaishnavism, Shaivism etc.) & was syncretic in character. Similarly, the British heightened the feelings of being a separate community among Muslims, whose interests were opposite to that of Hindus. The British steadfastly supported communal politics practised by the Muslim League, the Hindu Mahasabha and many other reactionary forces, which finally led to the unspeakable human tragedy in the form of Partition of India in 1947.

What does secularism mean to us in modern India?

India is a fast growing economy with a huge demographic dividend. The predominantly youthful population of India has rising aspirations of a bright future. Though India has progressed manifold since independence, it is beset with some serious challenges. Because of the colonial past, India faces the challenges of communalism. The nature of competitive politics has aided the spread of divisive communal forces in independent India. The model of secularism that India adopted was unique because it did not ask for complete separation of religion from state but advocated equal treatment of all religious by the state. India adopted the democratic principles of liberty, equality, fraternity and justice-social, economic, political. Such democratic ethos have been the anchors during episodes of communal violence that have erupted in India sporadically. Most often, there have been political reasons behind instigation of communal violence, for e.g., Muza_ arnagar in Utter pradesh was rocked by a series of incidents of communal violence before the 2014 General Elections. The secular nature of the state is sometimes perceived as compromised during incidents of communal violence. The state machinery has to be totally non-partisan and provide complete security of life to all its citizens, regardless of their religion.

Why secularism is important for India?

India is a multiethnic, multicultural, multi-lingual society. If India doesn’t maintain its tolerant culture, then balkanisation of India will be imminent. In order to hold together a diverse nation as India, which is a democracy, there is no alternative but to further nurture and strengthen the principles of secularism, tolerance, empathy and compassion. Communal incidents bring religious disharmony, disturb the course of life of citizens, hurts the economy and drives away investors from the country. India cannot a_ ord to indulge in such inanities of “ghar wapsi”, manufactured notions of “communal hatred” because India has an onerous responsibility of constantly progressing on the path of development to enable the eradication of poverty and malnutrition that affects a considerable section of the population.

Ways to strengthen communal harmony and the ethos of secularism

Greater public awareness and vibrant, impartial civil society participation is a sine qua non for building public opinion against communal hatred. With growing interconnectedness of people, through social media, the educated sections have more responsibility to spread the message of love, compassion and empathy towards all religions. This becomes all the more important when cases of radicalisation of alienated people(especially youth) are on the rise. This requires a proactive counter-radicalisation campaign through multiple channels (like co-opting religious leaders, social media, schools, colleges, civil society organizations like youth clubs etc. in the dissemination of noble ideals of fraternity and communal harmony). If there is a vocal public opinion that denounces communal politics, then political parties will also refrain from stoking the communal embers. A State and an administration with zero tolerance towards communalism is the need of the hour. For this, the prevention of communal violence Act will be significant in fixing responsibility and liability on public officials accused of dereliction of duty during incidents of communal congragration. Institutions like National Integration Council and other institutions for communal harmony must be re-invigorated by the state and participation of civil society and society at large. The role of civil society and the people at large is also critical to the spread of the feelings of religious tolerance and secularism and also keep the state accountable towards its primary duty of protecting the life of its citizens, like Mohammed Akhlaq, who unfortunately become the victims of communal violence that destroys the spirit of secularism. A just and fair state that both does justice and is also seen to have done justice towards the grievances of any its religious communities is the best guarantee for a peaceful and cohesive society.

By: Dhan Singh, Research scholar

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