In reading Dr Khalidi’s article, “Why is India not a Secular State“, I find that he has presented irrefutable points to back his basic premise. My difficulty is largely with the wording of the title and the conclusive paragraph of his meaningful essay.
Yes, in many ways the Muslim and Christian minorities have suffered unequal treatment at the hands of the state in India. Sikhs suffered only in one phase for a few years mostly in reaction to their own militancy. After that the state moved to ensure that Sikhs do not get away from the Hindu fold.Ã‚Â Ã‚Â As to Jains and Buddhists, with many commonalities with the Hindu ethos, Indians at large consider them offshoots of Hinduism, rather than as religious minorities. That leaves only two minority communities, Muslims and Christians. The unequal treatment of Christians is of recent origin and is limited to a handful of states. Due to their much better socioeconomic and educational status and the fear of reaction from Western countries (that have heavy Christian populations), the Indian state has been careful in handling Christians.
That leaves Muslims as the only religious minority that has suffered unequal treatment since 1947.
Why are Muslims the victims?
1. The creation of Pakistan as a homeland for the subcontinent’s Muslims in 1947 and then the aggressive/militant actions of Pakistan against India. In the last 25 years the random terrorist attacks on civilians in India. All this has kept the pot boiling against Indian Muslims and the reaction against Muslims continuing. In the decade preceding 1947 the Muslim League campaign of th Ã¢â‚¬Å“Two NationÃ¢â‚¬Â ideology did much to damage Hindu-Muslim relations for a long time to come among the Hindus.
2. Total silence from 53 Muslim countries (other than Pakistan) to say even one word against any of the worst oppression and harassment of masses of Muslims and their institutions in 60 years. Many of the energy rich Muslim countries have continued to supply oil/gas at preferential terms to India and have continued to give lucrative contracts to Indian companies. Thus Indian Hindus are quite sure that Indian Muslims have no international sympathizers
3. The resurgence of religion based politics initiated by BJP in the early 1980s; other groups picked up on it and a sort of competition began among them to become more aggressive against Muslims.
4. The Congress party’s Vote Bank politics directed at Muslims where the party made all sorts of cosmetic gestures just before every national election without giving any real help to improve the community’s security or socioeconomic situation. In the last decade other regional parties and even Communists have picked up this strategy and are benefitting from it.
5. The international Islamophobic environment following 9/11/2001 and the irrational terrorist acts of a handful of Muslims. This has given an opportunity to the anti-Muslim elements in the Indian Government to develop discriminatory policies against Muslims.
6. The continued poor socioeconomic and educational status of the Muslim communities that prevents integration at equal level of Muslims with others in the country at large.
The Western Secular Countries
In the US the state has tried to be inclusive towards Muslims and Hindus; beginning the sessions of Congress with prayers of religions other than Christianity. Allowing religious symbols of religions other than Christianity, adequate public display in the ‘holiday season’ in November/December each year; Calling the religious observances as ‘holidays’. The power structure in US constantly tries not to let religion seep into the political or state apparatus and there are plenty of watchdogs to ensure that.
We must remember that the people of India continue to be seriously attached to religion and the role of God in their daily lives per se, as opposed to the Western countries where the majority of people today have very little attachment to religion or the role of God in their daily lives. Religion plays a very important role in the daily lives of even the well to do intelligentsia and others in India. That is our national ethos. In contrast most people in the West have given up attachment to religion at least since World War II. The basic ethos of the Western society has changed over to material pursuits, science & technology, belief in their own prowess, as opposed to the role of God in their lives. Natural calamities in the West are hardly ever described as ‘Acts of God’. Today the faith of the common people in God or prayer is at very low level. Irreligiosity is common place.
The same is true about most countries in Europe. The state after all reflects the public opinion at large and those who operate the organs and agencies of the state come from the common populace. Thus with ireeligiosity common place it is easier to separate the state from the church in real practice in the Western countries. On the contrary in India most people who operate the state being Hindus, reflecting the 85% majority population in the country, bring in their ethos of putting their religion in the state apparatus.
The picture of the secular and religiously tolerant Western countries though has developed some cracks since the Al Qaeda terrorist attacks in US of 2001 and the terrorist attacks in London and Madrid. In their pursuit to make their countries safe from terrorist attacks many centers of power including the state apparatus in the Western countries are falling prey to the Islamophobic attitudes of the small number of zealots. Thus Muslims are being painted in the media in the Western countries as sympathetic to reactionary and violent elements. Yet in symbolic and public policy matters the state apparatus in Western countries does allow Muslims a role. And there is optimism for the improvement of the civic situation of Muslims in the West in the years to come.
Is India Secular?
In India 60 years of experience shows that attitudes against equal space for all religions has hardened in an India which started out in 1947 with a Ã¢â‚¬Å“tryst with destinyÃ¢â‚¬Â to build a secular state as Jawaharlal Nehru so eloquently promised. After 60 years of numerous failures to give equal space to the Muslim and Christian minorities in the state apparatus, and the policies of successive governments to look the other way as these failures become standard operating procedure, one can only say that while the Indian state believes in being secular and holds on to that theoretical premise, it does not make much effort to prevent its failure and constantly looks the other way when transgressions occur. Of the three organs of the state, executive, legislative, judiciary and the media Ã¢â‚¬â€œ the fourth, while the record of the first two, namely executive and legislative is pretty sullied with repeated transgressions of secularism, the record of the other two in upholding secularism, namely the judiciary and the media, is quite bright. Also in public pronouncements most political and civic parties and the power structure do constantly refer to the importance of secularism as a national creed.
Thus while I may not conclude that India is not a secular state, I may prefer to say that I have doubts about the extent to which the Indian state tries to be secular.
The writer, a community activist in Washington DC, can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo: Laxmi Street, Delhi