India’s Secular Fundamentalists

We live in the room of Magic Mirrors where every reflection is distorted and upside down. Consider this.

Chief Minister who wears a Muslim prayer cap at a Muslim gathering in the middle of a savage Hindu-Muslim killing frenzy is branded as secularA Chief Minister who says he is a Hindu and a Nationalist is denounced as communal; another Chief Minister who wears a Muslim prayer cap at a Muslim gathering in the middle of a savage Hindu-Muslim killing frenzy is branded as secular.

A Chief Minister who forcibly removes a religious ( Hindu) encroachment on public land for building a road is denounced as communal; another who suspends an IAS officer for doing the same to a similar structure for a mosque is hailed as secular.

A Prime Minister who facilitates a  “shilanyas” in a centuries old disputed Mandir-Masjid structure to allow prayers by Hindus is secular; a (future) Deputy Prime Minister who wants to build a Hindu temple there is branded as communal.

(Both worthies were dead wrong, but why praise one and damn the other?)

In the prevailing polity of India today, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has been the first casualty. It defines Secular as “not concerned with religion”, but to our politicians and liberals it means “contemptuous of one’s own religion and obsessed with the religion of a particular minority.”

“Communal ” was once a good word, denoting sharing between members of two groups and communities; it now refers to an entity of Hindu origin who says he is proud to be one.

The word “Inclusive”, according to the OED denotes something which is comprehensive and comprises all parts; our politicians understand it to mean the exact opposite – something which includes the interest of the minority community at the cost of the majority community!

Not only are words, attitudes and values being redefined and recreated in the image of political convenience, but new species of politico sapiens emerging – the secularist, the fundamentalist, the communalist (not to be confused with the communist, which in fact is a regressing species).

Secular Fundamentalist

And among this lot, the most vocal and visible nowadays is a unique product of Indian politics – a clone of electoral calculations, intellectual reverse-snobbery and foreign funding – which I prefer to call the SECULAR FUNDAMENTALIST.

The Secular Fundamentalist is a person who negates/denies his (or her) religion publicly (not privately),  and seeks to appease members of other religions under the garb of affirmative action.

Such appeasement either has no sanction under law, or is legalised by the unscrupulous use of political and legal processes. It is motivated by the lust for political power or (among the educated and the intelligentsia) by the desire to appear westernised, liberal and “secular” as proof of their intellectual superiority.

Secular Fundamentalism is more dangerous and divisive than Religious Fundamentalism because whereas the latter can be countered by the force of law and thus contained, the former BECOMES THE LAW and pervades all levels of the structure of government and the state.

It thus raises local and short-lived tensions and differences between  religious communities to a national level and gives them a permanence that ensures that the fissures between them will continue for ever.

Secular fundamentalism is not a frontal assault like religious fundamentalism, it is a slow poisoning of the nation’s innards which can have only one result.

Secular fundamentalism( SF) is actually the product of two hundred years of British rule of India and its twin adjuncts of Macaulay’s westernised education and Christian proselytising.

Our new English speaking and Western thinking elite gradually discovered a new fashion statement – running down and belittling Hinduism to the point where today the mere affirmation of being Hindu is considered communal.

There could be no bigger folly, or tragedy, for this is to deny the greatness of a religion that existed long before Christ, one that was battered continuously by a thousand years of violence and forced conversions but reemerged stronger to claim its rightful place.

It is to be blind to the fact that Hinduism is the most eclectic, tolerant and liberal of all major religions – it does not thrust any dogmas on you, but encourages you to develop a spirit of inquiry, to think, to ask questions, to discover your own meanings and find your own answers to life.

Unlike the Abrahamic religions, it does not extol death but celebrates life. Its literature – the Upanishads, the Vedas, the Gita, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata to name just a few- far surpass the literature of all other religions combined, and offer a body of knowledge that has been deliberately suppressed (and much of it destroyed in the pillage of Nalanda and Somnath) that goes far beyond conventional western notions of religion and encompasses astronomy, physics, mathematics, philosophy).

Hinduism is the most pacifist and non-violent of religions and has never sought to force itself on others. It does not seek to convert or to confront: it just wants to be left alone to contemplate the meaning and mystery of life and death.

It is not an episodic religion which merely requires a number of prostrations a week or a service every Sunday – it is a way of living, not worshipping.

By refusing to acknowledge all this in their quest for a distorted secularism, our “intellectual elite” do great injustice to this venerable body of knowledge and thought.

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But that is their loss, for Hinduism will subsist without their endorsement. This ersatz “secularism” by itself is not a worry for the nation; where it becomes a cause for concern is when they seek to impose their disdain for Hinduism on 800 million Hindus who feel otherwise.

They do this by conferring special favours on a minority religion, by branding any display of the Hindu faith as communal, by permitting the Muslims their personal laws but denying it to the Hindus, and a host of similar provocations designed to belittle Hinduism.

Post 1980s the Indian politician, especially those of the Congress party who were looking to counter the emergence of regional parties and the Bharatiya Janata Party with a new “causus belli “, suddenly discovered the virtues of this mutant secularism: properly handled (they realised) this could keep the Hindus and the Muslims perpetually divided.

The resultant animosity and fears would, like good beaters at a shikar, drive the Muslims to seek security within the folds of the Congress and their 18% bloc votes would ensure victory at the polls every time.

And thus began the era of Secular Fundamentalism in governmental policy. I give a few examples below merely to illustrate the point.

In any civilized society governed by the rule of law it is the responsibility of the state to ensure equity and fair treatment for all its citizens, regardless of religious practices and tenets – that is true secularism.

Towards this end a progressive and enlightened Indian state codified common laws to govern issues relating to marriages, inheritances, succession and thereby did away with differing practices and customs of various castes and communities.

These legislations were immensely beneficial, especially to women, because it gave them rights in marriage and in inheritance which previously their personal laws denied them.

But the Muslims, who constitute 18% of the population and number 200 million, have been kept out of these legislations and continue to apply their personal laws to such issues.

Their women therefore continue in their bondage to medieval practices and are discriminated against legally and socially.

WHY? The BJP has constantly been raising the demand for a Uniform Civil Code to remove this anomaly, but because it is a predominantly Hindu party it is deemed communal for doing so. No other political party has had the guts to raise this issue.

Even when our courts step in to ensure  justice for women beyond the preaching of the mullah or a pundit, brute legislative strength is used to invalidate their orders: in 1986 the Supreme Court in the Shah Bano Case held that Section 145 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (which provides for maintenance for separated wives) would apply to Muslim women notwithstanding what their personal laws stated.

Such a judgement should have been welcomed by all- but no, our secular fundamentalists felt it was not secular enough because it infringed on the Muslims’ faith and so Rajiv Gandhi amended the law and threw it into the dustbin!

The same blatant disregard for the law is evident in the government’s attitude to the Shahi Imam of the Jama Masjid. On at least two occasions The Shahi Imam has been named in police chargesheets – the 2001 case relating to an attack on the police in Lodhi colony, and a 2004 case concerning an attack by his supporters on the house of one Arshad Fahmi – and local courts have ordered that he be arrested and produced before them.

The state has persistently refused to do so, citing law and order apprehensions! Breaking the law to uphold it? If Babu Assa Ram can be arrested (he should have been arrested a week earlier) then why not the Shahi Imam?

Affirmative action to ensure that there is no discrimination on grounds of religion is something no right minded person would quibble with: in fact is the duty of any government to take such action.

But our Secular Fundamentalists have turned this laudable objective on its head – they discriminate on grounds of religion and call it affirmative action!

And that too without any constitutional sanction. Crores of rupees are spent every year by the government on subsidising Muslims going on Haj: no such subsidy is given to Hindus going to Kailash Mansoravar or Sikhs going to Gurudwaras in Pakistan. Why?

In many states the government pays a monthly salary to Maulvis in mosques: no pundit in any temple or Granthi in any gurudwara or lama in any monastery is given salary by the government. Why?

Recently the Andhra Pradesh government announced compensation to about 30 Muslim youth wrongly imprisoned for the Mecca Masjid bombings. It is a laudable step for the state should compensate citizens for wrongly depriving them of their liberty, and many countries have such a policy. But why for Muslims only?

Are the rights of Hindus and Christians and Sikhs and Buddhists of an inferior order?

The Union Minorities Minister recently announced the setting up of a special Commission to re-inquire into cases in which Muslims have been jailed. Again, a welcome step because it is no secret that the police routinely jail innocent people for reasons other than the upholding of law.

But, again, why a Commission for Muslims only?

The Uttar Pradesh government last month announced that it was reserving 20% of its development budget for Muslims. Why?

Should state expenditure be based on actual need or on religion? By all means spend even 50 % on them if so needed, but why have this caveat for just one community?

The Constitution of India specifically prohibits reservation in jobs on the basis of religion, and yet government after government has been persistently attempting to provide such reservation for Muslims  for years – if not as a religious minority then as an OBC (Other Backward Caste)!

The courts, fortunately, just as consistently have struck down these attempts. But for how long? Sooner or later a Rajiv Gandhi clone will emerge and legislate it into law.

I willingly accept, and endorse, that minority communities should not face any kind of legal or social discrimination, and that the state should always take steps to ensure that they are not made victims of prejudices by the majority community.

The psychological effects of being outnumbered should be assuaged. There is no legal discrimination in India – let us be clear about that. But yes, social prejudices and discrimination do exist.

However, the way to counter these is NOT BY DISCRIMINATING AGAINST THE MAJORITY COMMUNITY: that will only aggravate ill will between the two.

The way all civilized societies deal with this problem is by developing legal and administrative mechanisms to punish such prejudicial action. We have such laws to protect the Scheduled Castes: why not a similar law for religious minorities?

Why not set up an Equal Rights Commission to ensure that minorities are not discriminated against in matters such as employment, finding a house to rent, treatment in hospitals, admission in schools-areas where the maximum number of complaints occur?

No right minded member of any community could possibly object to these measures because they do not infringe on his rights, because they confer equal rights on minorities, not special rights.

Instead, the insidious quick-fix policy of reverse discrimination has for years been sending all the wrong signals to the vast Hindu majority of India who are now beginning to feel discriminated against in their own country.

Let us accept one fact – India is not a secular country: it is a multi-religious, pluralistic country with Hindus comprising 80% of its population.

In fact, no country in the world is a secular country – they are either Muslim or Christian or Buddhist or Shinto or Jewish or what have you. It is governments which are secular, not countries.

This is a distinction which our Secular Fundamentalists do not seem to comprehend.

Countries do not have to be ashamed of proclaiming their own, native, majoritarian religion even while their governments tread the secular path- there is no contradiction in this-look at Germany, the UK, USA- all proud Christian nations with truly secular governments who do not discriminate for or against any religion.

We, on the other hand, are expected to be a secular country with an avowedly religion-driven government: the exact opposite of what a progressive, enlightened dispensation should be!

This secular fundamentalism is extremely dangerous for the country as the recent riots in Muzzafarnagar have shown. The provocation there was not the incident of molestation of a girl, but the blatant pro- Muslim stance of the Samajwadi government: the video recorded conversations with local police officers only confirms this.

(This one-sided stance continues even after the riots – only Hindu political leaders have been arrested, no one from the other community even though there is as much evidence against them as against the others).

Such behaviour on the part of governments only alienates the law abiding Hindus and creates space and opportunity for lumpen and criminal elements on both sides – it emboldens the likes of the Vishwa Hindu Parishads, the Bajrang Dals and the Ram Senas.

One major reason why there have been no communal riots in Gujarat for the last eleven years is precisely this – Modi has  given no reason for either community to feel discriminated against and has thus deprived the lumpen fringe elements of the diet of resentment and grievance they need to survive.

Mayawati also did this during her reign in UP and all was peaceful during her five years. It is, in fact, axiomatic that religious hostilities will arise only when the state is seen to be weak and partial.

Remove the motivated preachings of our secular fundamentalists and we can have a chance at a lasting peace in our pluralistic nation. The time has perhaps come for us as a nation to embrace a new ideology – not that of the BJP, but that of Modi who, in fact, occupies the true secular space in the country today.

His vision of India first, of all Indians being equal, of even handed development, of preferential treatment to communities strictly within the framework of the Constitution – this is the road-map of the future for us.

This formulation is appealing to more and more people, and this is why the Secular Fundamentalists of all hues have now stepped up their attacks on him.

They realise that if the country accepts his vision at the next elections the very ” raison d’etre” for their existence will disappear. The sooner they vanish into the mists of time the better. This country deserves better than their ilk.

Avay Shukla retired from the Indian Administrative Service in December 2010. He is a keen environmentalist and loves the mountains. He divides his time between Delhi and his cottage in a small village above Shimla. He used to play golf at one time but has now run out of balls. He blogs at http://avayshukla.blogspot.in/

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