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How Secular is India Today?

by Asghar Ali Engineer, 16 October 2008

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(Secular Perspective October 16-31, 2008)

There is always a big gap between theory and practice, theology and history. Indian constitution, no doubt, is one of the best in the world. It is truly secular in spirit so much so it was secular even when word secular was not added to it until 1975 i.e. during emergency. If it were truly implemented India would be an ideal country to live in especially for minorities, both religious as well as linguistic.

However, as we all know there is big gap between theory and practice, constitution and governance of the country. India was far more peaceful after independence for number of reasons. Firstly, nationalist leaders who had participated in freedom struggle and were instrumental in framing the Constitution were still around and despite various pressures, stuck to ideals and values to a great extent.

Secondly, due to idealism and nearness to spirit of freedom nation as a category and national identity was of great importance and often caste, linguistic and religious divisions mattered less. Thirdly, the process of economic development had just begun and yet people’s demand for share in development on caste and communal lines was not very articulate and loud.

Because of all this identity politics was still subdued and Marathi versus non-Marathi, Tamil versus non-Tamil sentiments were not so prominent. Hindu versus Muslims feelings were not so subdued due to memory of partition but due to other factors communal violence was still limited and had not assumed proportions of ethnic cleansing or genocide like in Gujarat in 2002.

It all began with series of communal riots in sixties assuming great proportions in Ahmedabad in 1969 and Bhivandi in 1970. In Ahmedabad nearly 1000 people were killed in Ahmedabad in 1969 and around 400 people in Bhivandi. But then communal violence remained in check until 1977 when again some major riots took place in several places like Jamshedpur, Aligarh and Varanasi etc.

Again whole of decade of eighties was full of communal violence climaxing in Mumbai riots in 1992-93. The Ramjanam bhoomi movement once again polarized as on the eve of partition. Again there was lull in communal disturbances from 1992-93 to 2002 when Gujarat took place in 2002. Gujarat riots once again made communal situation quite fragile and weakened secular ethos in the country.

Now the identity politics soared quite high and national ethos considerably weakened. Today everyone prioritize once caste, communal and religious identity over national one. National rhetoric, as if, has almost disappeared and even Hindutva forces talk more of Hindu religion than of patriotism or nation. For them too Indian nationalism has been replaced by Hindu nationalism.

For Shiv Sena of course Maharashtra was always more important than the Rashtra (nation) and those Hindus too who spoke Hindi the Rashtrabhasha (national language) came under attack. Several Hindus from U.P. and Bihar were mauled by Marathi speaking zealots belonging to Maharashtra Navniram Sena (MNS), a splinter group from Shiv Sena.

Now recently Christians who were never targeted before by the Hindutva zealots have also come under attack. Christians, a mere 2.2 percent minority and which has contributed so richly to the country in the field of education and health services are being killed ruthlessly. What is going on in Kandhmal district of Orissa and some adjoining districts, is indeed hair raising.

More than 40 Christians have been killed, a nun mass raped, a woman burnt beyond recognition, more than 400 houses burnt and looted and 35 thousand have fled from their villages to relief camps. And what for? A myth has been spread by the powerful machinery of Sangh Parivar that all Christians convert. Remember RSS propaganda "All Muslims are not terrorists but all terrorists are Muslims"?

Orissa is another Gujarat both in brutalities and terrorization of minorities. When Christians and Muslims are being so brutally targeted the RSS Chief Sudarshan says that both Muslims and Christians convert and Muslims want every one to become Muslim and Christians want all to follow Christ and so Hindus must give fitting reply. And our rulers just look on.

When BJP was ruling over the country and whole country was communalized we were feeling suffocated and felt liberated when UPA took over and the BJP led Government defeated at the hustings. We celebrated UPA’s victory specially because it was supported by the left which is the only hope for Indian secularism. However, left has withdrawn its support on nuclear issue and once again we are feeling suffocated in the communally surcharged state of affairs in India.

However, what is most worrisome is that it is happening under UPA Government which is supposed to be a secular outfit. Perhaps today there is more suffocation than even under the BJP-led NDA Government. The UPA has forgotten all its promises made to the country and is betraying minorities and jettisoning its secular commitment. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is more occupied with his pet nuclear pact with America than the communal explosion back home.

The communal forces are growing stronger and stronger everyday and the ruling coalition of secular forces is quite indifferent. The Home Ministry is functioning quite in a lackadaisical manner. It has given complete liberty to these forces and they are riding roughshod over our secular values and constitutional forces. They never got such license to function freely.
The NDA Government liberally recruited RSS inclined candidates in all key positions and they captured important academic positions too. Also, RSS trained teachers and journalists also were recruited on large scale. It is because of this that we find communally minded people in all walks of life. The media also has been communalised as never before.

Today be it communal riots or terrorist attacks most of the newspapers and T.V. channels publish police version unabashedly as if it is ultimate truth. No questions are raised and it appears as if investigative journalism has become story of the past. Media plays most important role in strengthening democratic values and democracy cannot survive without a critical and alert media. But it seems except for few papers and magazines media has been completely communalised.

Even a well-known Daily from south which was known for its strong commitment to secularism appears to have developed, of late, subtle communal slant. It is indeed very critical period for India. India is well known as largest secular democracy in the world. But first Gujarat and now Orissa has dented its secular image thanks to Hindutva forces. Manmohan Singh was faced with the most embarrassing situation abroad and he had to admit that what is happening in Orissa is ’shameful’.

But having described developments in Orissa shameful what has he done to redeem it? He is quite hesitant to ban Bajrang Dal and resisting demand of some of his own Congress party colleagues to ban it saying we are watching and waiting for reports from Chief Minister of Orissa. It is indeed more shameful than communal carnage in Orissa. Any truly secular government would have dismissed Navin Patnaik Government for its complete inability to control communal violence.

So far I never believed that Indian communalism could take form of fascism as many leftists had been saying all along. Today we see the footprints of fascism in India. The situation is very similar to that of Germany in the thirties. The unemployed hordes of lower middle classes have joined Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad in large numbers and hailing Hindutva leaders. Some of the text books in Rajasthan and Gujarat, both BJP ruled states are praising fascism and Hitler.

Also, the Central Government is appeasing these communal forces. It appears though the Government at the Centre is of secular UPA but agenda is of Sangh Parivar. The police appears to be taking orders from Sangh Parivar rather than from ruling Congress or UPA. Riot after riot be it in Orissa or Digras, Pusad or Dhule the police just looks on when mobs loot and burn even during curfew hours.

It is indeed very very worrisome situation. The UPA Government is assisting the Sangh Parivar in every way possible. The police is riding absolutely roughshod over minorities and latest example is Batla House ’encounter’. Though the print and electronic media abdicated its responsibility the human rights groups raised questions and pricked holes in the police claim of encounter of ’dreaded terrorists’.

The situation is indeed very grave and unless secular forces unite and play determined role things can get far more worse.