By Bhikhu Parekh
August 27, 2008
If class and religious divides are beginning to overlap, it’s time for India to revisit its model of secularism.
India, don’t be shy
In our agonised debate on secularism, we often forget that no model of secularism is universally valid, nor need it be static. Every country must evolve one that best suits its circumstances, and as circumstances change, it needs to be revised or replaced.
Our independence struggle threw up different models of secularism. Two were most influential, the Gandhian and the Nehruvian. For Gandhi religion was a vital moral and political resource. The answer to any problems caused by it must be found in religion itself. The state should work together with religion because the latter reached areas the state could not. Religion’s primary public role was the promotion of dialogue and harmony. Nehru drew the opposite conclusion. ‘Religion had divided India and will kill it one day’, he once said. The state should therefore avoid all contact with religion, discourage its role even in civil society, and unify the country using its own resources. For him the secular state was concerned with citizens, not communities, and should foster the spirit of common citizenship.
Nehru’s model won and became dominant. It did much good, tamed religious passions, reassured minorities, held the country together, and encouraged secular thinking or what he called ‘scientific temper’. However its implementation was open to four criticisms. First, it completely separated the state and religion, and that was not possible. Second, reform of the Hindu law, while much-needed, involved singling out one religion. What gave the state the authority to do so? Can a state based on state-religion separation do this? And third, Nehru wisely left Muslim personal law alone. Is this consistent with the equality of religions? We may for political reasons proceed slowly with reform, but should we not start at some stage? Nehru expected to do so eventually, but his followers failed to show courage. Fourth, Nehru was right to do everything possible to win over Muslims’ trust after Partition. He therefore appeared, wrongly in my view, to favour minorities. This made Hindus shy and nervous when expressing their cultural identity, and many of them felt alienated from the state. Although they were a formal majority and in control of the state, they began to develop a sense of victimhood in ‘their own country’.
Nehru’s model, revised by his successors, lasted until the 1980s. Then came a strong reaction, in the strident form of Hindutva. According to it, the Hindu or Indic civilisation, that is, a civilisation that grew up on Indian soil, is the basis of India. The state’s duty is to express and nurture it. Minorities are free to cherish their religions, but should acknowledge their Indian cultural identity. After all, the Hindutva ideologues argue, their cultural roots are Indian, and even their religions have a distinctly Indian (meaning Hindu) ethos.
Some of Hindutva’s ideological insights are valid, and it articulates deep insecurities. However, it is seriously flawed. First, Indian civilisation is plural and the product of many influences, of which the Hindu is only one. Second, Hinduism itself is plural and not monolithic. Third, just as Muslims have been deeply shaped by the Indian culture, they have also shaped it and made their distinct contributions to it. Every Indian therefore is part Hindu, part Muslim, part Buddhist, part Christian, and so on, and is an unintegrated amalgam of these and other civilizations. Finally, the state cannot be partial to a particular religion: that demeans the followers of other religions and makes them second class citizens. This is morally unacceptable and leads to their political alienation.
If Congress secularism is pseudo-secularism, BJP secularism is not secularism at all, and one would rather have pseudo-secularism than no secularism. A single civil code is not the only touchstone of secularism. The real touchstone is whether the state respects all its citizens equally, makes them all equally welcome, and respects their identity. By this test the BJP’s secularist claim is untenable.
A young underclass is growing up among Muslims that is alienated from both their parental and the wider Indian culture. It is vulnerable to external manipulation, and threatens to become a dangerous force. If even one percent of our fifteen crore Muslims build up rage and hostility, we would have as many as fifteen lakh angry men and women with no stake in the country. No amount of state violence would help then. It is about time we all, both Hindus and Muslims, woke up and did something.
No major political party has a coherent strategy, and India risks drifting into dangerous waters. Congress and BJP between them have made a complete mess of Kashmir, and it could have a blowback effect on the rest of India in a way that has not happened before. For the first time since independence, we are throwing up home-grown terrorists who have, according to a recent reliable report, set up hundreds of sleeping cells. Middle classes, predominantly Hindu, want the state to use all the violence it can to give them illusory security, and the victims are all poor and increasingly Muslim. The class divide is beginning to overlap with the communal divide, a frightening prospect.
We need to monitor the integration of our Muslim community in the various spheres of life, identify problem areas, and find ways of tackling them. A research- and policy-oriented national institute of social cohesion could be a long overdue step in this direction. The British, American and French governments face a similar though less grim situation, and are working out reasonably successful educational, economic, security and political strategies, and constantly examining their models of secularism. We can learn much from them. It is depressing that these are rarely reported, let alone discussed by our media.
The writer is a Labour member of the House of Lords and professor of political philosophy at the University of Westminster
Source: Indian Express