In contrast to most south Asian countries, modern India has always been officially "secular", a word the country inscribed in its Constitution in 1976. Secularism, here, is not synonymous with the French "laïcité", which demands strong separation of religion and the state. India’s secularism does
not require exclusion of religion from the public sphere. It implies recognition of all religions by the state. This philosophy of inclusivity finds expression in one article of the Constitution by which all religious communities may set up schools that are eligible for state subsidies.
India’s secularism, therefore, has more affinities with multiculturalism. Its emphasis on pluralism parallels the robust parliamentary democracy and federalism that India has been cultivating for 64 years.
But today, secularism is in jeopardy in India. The main threat comes from the rise of Hindu militancy and its consequences not only for electoral politics, but also for the judiciary and society at large.
The core belief of the Hindu nationalist movement, whose key organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), was founded in 1925, is that the Indian identity is embodied in Hinduism, the oldest and largest religion of India. For decades the RSS has worked at the grass roots level, recruiting children who are taught to fight religions founded outside India and forming new fronts (that include student, labour and peasant groups).
The RSS and its offshoots consistently criticised pro-minority policies. But it remained a marginal player until the 1980s when the ruling Congress Party was again assailed by the Hindu nationalists’ critique of ’pseudo-secularism’.
The RSS supported Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) demanded the (re)building of a temple where the Babri Masjid was constructed in 1528 at Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh.
This campaign ended with the demolition of the mosque by a Hindu mob in 1992. It was accompanied by a widespread wave of communal riots. It contributed to electoral gains for the BJP and between 1998 to 2004, the party was in a position to head a national ruling coalition.
The 1980s-90s were a turning point in India’s secularism. This period could have been a parenthesis, since the Congress party regained power in 2004, but India has never returned to the balance of religious co-existence and compromise that prevailed in its first three decades of independence.
The demolition of the Babri Masjid and the communal clashes that accompanied the BJP’s rise to power have never been addressed properly by the police and judiciary. Muslims were massacred in numbers unprecedented since India’s 1947 partition; about 1,000 were killed in Bhagalpur in 1989, and violence rose to the level of pogroms in Gujarat in 2002 when about 2,000 Muslims were killed after 59 Hindus were burnt alive in train coaches in Godhra, Gujarat. Inquiry commissions prepared reports that were either never made public or not followed by serious action. In most democracies, the kind of violence Gujarat experienced in 2002 would have resulted in at least a ’Justice and Reconciliation’ commission.
Minorities must cope with marginalisation. Christian tribals are victims of violence, especially in Orissa and Gujarat, where they are requested to (re)convert to Hinduism. Muslims face discrimination in the job and housing markets. Politically, Muslims are marginalised with less than 6% of MPs in the lower house of Parliament while representing 13.4% of the population. In 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh commissioned a report on the status of India’s Muslims under a committee headed by Justice Rajinder Sachar. But none of the Sachar Committee’s recommendations to improve the situation has been implemented.
India is gradually moving away from multiculturalism toward a type of ’ethnic democracy’, exemplified by Israel and Sri Lanka, where minorities are treated as second-class citizens. As a result, India may well lose one of the key pillars of its soft power, the quality of its multiculturalism - and more alarmingly, perhaps also its adherence to the rule of law.
Christophe Jaffrelot is a Paris-based sociologist.
The views expressed by the author are personal.