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OP-ED: Is secularism in India dead?

The tension between Hindutva and secular India has no end in sight

Whatever language or whatever jugglery of interpretation one may use to justify the construction of the Ram Temple at Ayodhya, even a child with a bare minimum of common sense can tell you that the destruction of the Babri mosque that once stood there was illegal. Indeed, even the Supreme Court judgment, which paved the way for the Ram Temple, conceded this in unmistakable language.  

But let this unending acrimony not detain us. The history of the world is so full of similar wrongdoings by those in power that one will lose patience if one tries to track them all down. Even the most resilient democracies, leave alone their non-democratic counterparts from whom nothing great is anyway expected, have unimaginably murky records. Even the US, the world’s “greatest” democracy, and the UK, the world’s oldest, are no exceptions.

That reality, however, cannot serve as justification for condoning deeds done in the name of political expediency. Many in India and abroad, and especially in our two ever-watchful neighbours, Pakistan and Bangladesh, are now asking a simple yet portentous question: Has India’s secularism reached a dead end? Pakistan indeed has good reason to chuckle: Look, have we not said all along that India is not one nation? Was not our Quaid-e-Azam prophetic when he declared that India was not one nation, but it consisted of two nations?

Ritualistic paraphernalia

The arguments many in India may give to counter these criticisms will increasingly hold little water. A tendentious refutation may have been possible had Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, excused himself from participating in the temple inauguration ceremony. But not only did he pompously place himself at the heart of the ceremony, he unequivocally adorned himself in various Hindu ritualistic paraphernalia. Not satisfied, he went even further, likening the event to India’s celebrated freedom struggle, blithely ignoring the awkward detail that its leader Mahatma Gandhi had stood steadfast in his support for the equality of all religions.

Gandhi’s notion of secularism — sarva-dharma-samabhav (equal treatment for all religions) — is fundamentally different from the textbook definition of the term. Considering Modi’s aversion for the word “secularism,” which he has ridiculed many a time, as well as his subscription to Gandhian values, which he has routinely expressed, it is only logical to wonder whether Modi’s version of secularism will also resemble that of Gandhi’s.  

Now that he has inaugurated a Hindu temple, should one expect to see him next at the inauguration of a Christian church or a Muslim mosque? Nothing can be more Gandhian than that, after all!

As per the Supreme Court mandate, which handed over the Babri Mosque land to Hindus to build their Ram temple, five acres of land in another part of Ayodhya was provided to Muslims to build a mosque. A charitable interpretation of the verdict, therefore, may be to say that this was the Supreme Court’s version of sarba-dharma-samabhav. More objectively, however, the judgment neither reflected the court’s commitment to law nor its subscription to secularism.

Now that this compensatory mosque construction will start, it would be instructive to watch how the Modi government translates the Gandhian concept of secularism into practice. There are straws in the wind to suggest that Yogi Adityanath, the firebrand chief minister of UP, where Ayodhya is located, and who otherwise outdoes Modi in his anti-Muslim hyperbole, is not averse to accepting an invitation from the mosque-building organization.

Since Islam has no tradition like a foundation-laying ceremony for building mosques, there is the possibility that the Indo-Islamic Cultural Foundation, the trust that has been created by the Wakf Board for the purpose of building the mosque at the new site in Ayodhya, will invite Yogi Adityanath to inaugurate some facility within the mosque complex, such as a hospital, school, library, or community kitchen. If the chief minister accepts the invitation, it may, arguably, amount to a step towards Gandhian secularism.

BJP rhetoric

In the larger national context, one may refer to Modi’s slogan sabka saath sabka vikas (everyone’s participation, everyone’s growth). Let us recall the context within which the slogan was made. The high voltage Hindutva rhetoric that the BJP had used to win the 2019 election had caused widespread angst amongst Muslims. It was to palliate their fear that Modi had tweeted forthwith after his victory: Together we will build a strong and inclusive India.  

The word “inclusive” was laden with significance. All along a Congress/secular catch phrase, it was probably the first time that Modi used it.

Against this background, and drawing largely upon Gandhi’s own notion, I propose here a slightly nuanced formulation of India’s secularism. In order to do so, I have convinced myself that everything is still not lost insofar as India’s secularism is concerned. My referral point is a quotation from my own column in the Dhaka Tribune, published almost two years ago (

“[I]t is not only politics that is being communized — even secularism is being politicized. In response to the BJP government’s pro-Hindu move to flag off a Shri Ramayana Express meant for transporting Hindu pilgrims from Delhi to Sitamarhi, Janakpur (Nepal), Varanais [sic], Prayag, Chitrakoot, Hampi, Nasik, and Rameshwaram (all Lord Ram-related pilgrimages), the avowedly secular Aam Admi Party (AAP) government of Delhi has responded by a secular blitzkrieg. 

“To placate all the religious groups, the Chief Minister of Delhi Arvind Kejriwal has launched the Mukhyamantri Tirth Yatra. The offer is open to any senior citizen belonging to any religion to visit the Golden Temple, Wagah border, Anandpur Sahib, Vaishnodevi-Jammu, Mathura, Vrindavan, Haridwar, Rishikesh, Nilkanth, Pushkar, and Ajmer, of course at a subsidized cost. Bravo India’s political ingenuity.”

Such ingenuity is not India’s alone; rather, it is typically South Asian. In the interests of space, let me mention just Pakistan and Bangladesh here, for they were parts of India until 1947. It is true that Pakistan’s majoritarianism is worse than India’s, but it too is susceptible to the same historical and international reasons that keep India’s majoritarianism in check. Lately, something significant has happened in Pakistan which deserves our attention.  

Although it remains a nation where vast numbers applaud blasphemy bashing and where idolatry is discouraged as anti-Islamic, Pakistan has now officially allocated a piece of land in Islamabad to a Hindu organization for the construction of a Krishna Temple. In the teeth of strident opposition from radical Islamists, it was not easy for the Imran Khan government to push for the idea, but push they did. What is remarkable is that the Pakistan Supreme Court sided with the government and vetoed the petition challenging the allocation.

A strong strain of secularism

Unlike Pakistan, Bangladesh’s politics carries within it a strong strain of secularism. Its current Awami League leadership is committed to the ethos of the nation’s liberation struggle, the hallmark of which was Hindu-Muslim coexistence. Some critics decry Sheikh Hasina’s hobnobbing with the country’s Islamist forces but, for political survival, such adjustments sometimes become unavoidable. In any case, such hobnobbing has not critically dented her mainstreaming the Hindu minority of Bangladesh.  

The latter has learned through experience that the Awami League alone is its best safeguard against the Islamic communalism that was a defining feature of the earlier regimes of Hussein Mohammad Ershad or Begum Khaleda Zia.

In conclusion, let me say that it probably matters little whether the word “secular” remains in the Indian constitution or not. After all, it was not there in the original version that came into effect in 1950. The word was inserted a couple of decades later by Indira Gandhi, whose secular credentials were certainly weaker than those of Jawaharlal Nehru, her father.  

Nehru cared little for the word because his commitment to secularism was not spurious and palpably self-evident. That he failed to convince many of his own party colleagues, mostly from UP, was a political failure, not an ideological one.  

The secular-Hindutva tension will continue as an enduring feature of Indian politics, each grudgingly tolerating the other. Muslims, therefore, will continue to remain an unhappy lot, the Damocles swords of uncertainty forever hanging over their heads. But the situation will not please the Hindus either, for their task of making the Muslims irrelevant in Indian politics will remain unfulfilled. And no rightwing Hindutva government can indefinitely ignore the sheer numbers and resource bases that the global Muslim community commands. 

The texture of the Indian economy also will have a sobering impact. The unorganized sector, by some estimates nearly half the size of the economy (45%), will continue to provide a safety valve for Muslims discriminated against by the organized sector. In economics, what matters is productivity; whether the worker chants the Gayatri mantra or reads the Kalima in his private life is of little consequence. 

Here is a small piece of anecdotal but timely evidence. The huge 2.1 ton metallic bell that will adorn the Ram Temple has been designed by one Iqbal Mistri, a Muslim craftsman. The 25-member team currently at work constructing the bell comprises Hindu and Muslim workers both. 

Unhappy darkness

Let me end, therefore, on an optimistic note. Some time in the early 50s the progressive poet Sahir Ludhianvi wrote: “Gham ki andheri raat mein, dil ko na bekaraar kar, subah zaroor aayegi, subah ka intezar kar” (in the unhappy darkness of the night, let not your heart sink into desperation; the dawn will certainly come, await the dawn). 

Sahir’s words captured both his unhappiness as well as his sanguinity. The latter was hard won through personal experience. After Partition, he had migrated to Pakistan only to discover that his kind of poetry would not be tolerated there.  

He quickly returned to his native land, India, chastened but not despondent. The BJP, which mocks everything Nehruvian, would do well to learn from Sahir’s story, especially as it endeavours to make of India a Hindu Pakistan. 

Partha S Ghosh is Senior Fellow, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi. Formerly, ICSSR National Fellow, and Professor of South Asian Studies at JNU.  E-mail: [email protected]

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