It has been the bane of our country that we never had a viable opposition to Congress party at national level. The first non-congress government came to power in New Delhi under Shri Morarji Desai in 1977 followed by six others intermittently till 1998 for small periods. Total duration of all such governments was just over six years. These governments were made up of ex- congress men and some other smaller regional parties and therefore not very different from Congress ideology. In 1998 Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) under Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee succeeded in forming the first BJP government in India at the centre. It had coalition partners but BJP was the more prominent one with 182 seats. It is a pity that BJP could not consolidate its gains and lost out to Congress once again in 2004. However having tasted success BJP worked hard and with coming of Mr Narendra Modi in national politics it came back to power in 2014 with a thumping majority – a first for any national government since 1984 when Rajiv Gandhi secured more than 400 seats.
The Vajpayee led BJP government was more in Congress mould baring Mr Vajpayee’s personal leadership. Mr Narendra Modi’s leadership style as also his approach to governance differs vastly from that of Mr Vajpayee and other Congress governments of past. It may not be wrong to say that while RSS’s influence during Mr Vajpayee’s tenure was negligible, in Mr Modi’s time it appears to be a shade more discernible in some aspects of governance. This could be because of Mr Modi’s development through RSS cadres and his firm belief that if India comprises of over 83% Hindus then it must reflect so while officially remaining secular and coexisting with minorities. Given this change, is there any wonder that a nation seeped with minority appeasement politics at the cost of majority for over six decades is today talking of societal divide, mistrust between communities and loss of communal harmony?
Was there no societal divide, mistrust between communities and loss of communal harmony prior to 2014? There certainly was enough of these even then but it was not discussed with so much passion in political, intellectual, social or liberal circles. This was because any mention of the word Hindu or Hinduism or Hindutwa was enough to brand a person as anti-secular or a minority baiter. Without a doubt this resulted in suppression of Hindu voice in the country. Can we call a nation democratic if the voice of over 83% citizens is either suppressed or hardly heard? It was a period where pseudo seculars thrived and the real meaning of secularism was twisted and turned on its head for gaining and maintaining political advantage in the form of vote banks. Indian secularism was defined by speaking up for minorities but never for the majority. Is the Indian society as divided as the gang comprising of opposition leaders, pseudo liberals, intellectuals and social crusaders would like us to believe? Frankly this gang excels in making a mountain out of a mole hill by blowing minor incidents selectively at an opportune time. Unfortunately the arrival of Mr Modi at the centre has set the cat among pigeons and the gang suddenly finds itself on back foot. These days Hindu or Hinduism are not bad words. Many voices in the nation seem to see merit in this change and that worries the gang to no end since they can feel the ground slipping away from under their feet – therefore the cries that secularism is under threat.
It would be naïve to assume that India is not secular anymore under BJP rule. It may be more prudent to believe that the approach towards secularism and hence the understanding of the word secular is undergoing a change. Earlier the onus for remaining secular was on the majority while there was no such onus on minorities. Today perhaps the majority expects the minority too to play its role in keeping the nation secular. If majority must understand and appreciate the religion, beliefs and concerns of the minority, the reverse too has to be equally true. If the majority is expected to avoid an in your face attitude towards the minorities, the same is applicable to minorities too. While it is no one’s business what a minority does within the confines of its community or religion, it becomes the concern of the nation if it spills away from the confines of the community and starts affecting the majority or the nation. That is where importance of uniform common civil code and other such laws for all citizens come to the fore in a democratic nation. By no stretch of imagination do such laws curtail the freedom of any community or religion. Instead they only ensure equality in general and fairness in front of law for all citizens.
In a secular democracy what is important is that the government should not be partial towards any religion nor bring religion into governance. Has the BJP government followed this dictum? In practice of its governance it certainly has. All developmental or welfare schemes launched by the government have no riders in their applicability to any citizen of the nation. No favours of any kind have been bestowed on any particular religious community or restrictions put on another. There would be a few who will turn around and refute such claims and ask what about Ram Mandir issue or the cow controversy? Ram Mandir is an issue under litigation between two communities through their representatives. As a political organisation representing the millions who support it, BJP can certainly express its desire for a Ram Mandir at the site just as some others favour a Masjid at the same place. Without a doubt there are many in Congress and other political parties too who wish to see a Ram Mandir at the same site. BJP – the political organisation – cannot be construed to be the government at the centre. The two are different entities. The government could be charged of being non-secular only if it were to construct a Ram Mandir through an act of the government irrespective of the judicial outcome.
On the other hand Cow Slaughter controversy is all about interpretation of the constitution (Article 48 under Directive Principles of State Policy). Unfortunately the parliament in 1947 could not come to a definite understanding on this subject and left it a bit vague under Directive Principles instead of under Fundamental Rights. But the fact remains that preserving the cow is an important matter that finds a mention even in the constitution of the country. Many states (including non-BJP run states) have framed their own laws on the issue of cow slaughter much before 2014 without facing any hue and cry. But given today’s environment in the country where opposition, liberals and some others find themselves out of reckoning at national level, such controversies are a natural fall out. Any clashes that may have taken place among individuals in some parts of the country in this regard cannot be construed as communal clashes at national level. In most of these instances one cannot rule out the possibilities of individual or local enmities to settle scores. State governments must ensure that local authorities take swift and strict action as required. Suffice to say that governments must see this issue dispassionately and ensure prevention of cruelty to not only cows but all other cattle too while preserving the economic activity centred on such animals. Such an approach will be in spirit of what is written in the constitution.
A concerned and committed citizen is bound to ask whether pre 2014 secularism was better or is the current narrative better for the nation as it moves forward. Before an answer can be found for this question it is important to understand that India can grow into a modern developed nation only if all its citizens not only share the fruits of development but also participate in the developmental process. Secularism based on appeasement of minorities at the cost of majority will always be counterproductive. The whole process of appeasement is antithesis to good development and a perfect recipe to create a divide between communities. Instead the minorities, with assistance of the government and their own leadership, must find ways and means to be part of mainstream of the nation and stand shoulder to shoulder with the majority without looking for any special considerations. Government’s job will then be limited to facilitating and creating an environment that offers equal opportunities to all citizens irrespective of their faith. That is when the nation will be truly secular as religion or faith will have no role to play either in any government initiative or in any interaction between communities.
Finally let us not forget that most communities in India share a common heritage that goes back thousands of years while the religious divide between communities is only a few centuries old. In such a scenario it is but natural that traces of that heritage will always be visible in public spaces and efforts will invariably be made to revive parts of the lost heritage. The question is can a few centuries old religious divide be allowed to prevail over our heritage that is thousands of years old and belongs to all Indians? Can the present Indian society, divided by religions, be united through our common heritage? Perhaps the new secularism narrative is trying to seek answers to these important questions.