India’s Failed Secularism


As I suggested in my previous column (“Sweet Time for the Left in India”, Znet, Sept.,21,2008) events on Wall Street have shown what a fortuitous circumstance it was that the Indian Prime Minister, in his own words, remained a “bonded slave” to the supporting Left parties until the other day.

Had he had unfettered freedom in matters economic, India would be sinking today faster than a tanker.

Likewise, how fortuitous for India’s beleaguered Christians that the good Prime Minister had to suffer “embarrassment” while traveling Christian lands recently. Think that in France, the spunky Sarkozy called the Kandhamal mayhem a “massacre” to his face.

Thus, superceding the travails of the Christians in Orissa, it was the rebuke to india’s “image” that registered powerfully. A circumstance that makes you think how much “nationalism” is often a matter of image and how little of any actual concern for the people who inhabit the nation.

That “embarrassment” has at least yielded some concrete threats to the BJP/BJD government in Orissa after the many politic secular noises about the arson, rape, and murder there. Will it lead to a constitutional dismissal of the government, though? Think again; elections are round the corner in many states. And, as always, the Constitution must give way to canny political considerations. Remember that Modi was allowed to carry on despite the total and proven complicity of the state in the butcheries in Gujarat in 2002

Speaking of which, how unfortunate for India’s Muslims that no country in the world that the Indian Prime Minister has visited or is likely to visit should want to embarrass him about the excesses committed against Indian Muslims. Something that suggests the colossal helplessness that has become their lot.



I have suggested elsewhere that the secular protestations and pretensions of the Republic of India have remained a paper-provision through the years of India’s existence as a sovereign nation-state primarily owing to the failure of the Congress party to honestly and fearlessly embrace and enforce the Republican principle of citizenship.

All its rhetoric notwithstanding, the Congress remains reluctant to transcend the denominational identity of Indians in political and governmental practice.

From day one, its electoral traditions have tended to be guided by considerations of the social identity of candidates—as much as of any other party—with scant effort made to transform the given and inherited biases of the polity.

Just as the Congress incorporated rather than confronted feudal social practices and formations through the “freedom movement,” it has sought to cater to rather than educate out of existence those formations in the electoral career of independent India.

Not surprisingly, this social and intellectual failure has coloured the ways in which India’s law-enforcement and investigative agencies, indeed often its juridical institutions, at lower levels especially, have operated in approaching the culpabilities of the “majority” and “minority” communities variously.

Consider, for example, that the bail plea of under-trials in the matter of the Godhra train burning of 2002 locked away under the draconian POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act) was heard by the highest court in the land in February-March of this year, but the judgement remains in abeyance. In the meanwhile, one more under-trial, Hussein Mohammed Dhobi, age 65, has died there in custody—the fourth fatality in the matter. Nothing has appeared in public as to how those detainees are treated.

Think also that only the other day a CNN-IBN/Hindustan Times countrywide Poll revealed that 87% of Indians think that the police force is communal (read sectarian on the side of the “majority”). As well as an Amnesty International finding that the most corrupt institutions in India are the Police, the Politicians, and the Lower Judiciary! Why Amnesty should either have not looked into the bureaucracy and the corporate sector, or found nothing there remains a surprise.

These facts taken together help explain why it is that the Congress party which never tires of tom-tomming its role in formulating a secular-democratic republic has never yet given a nation-wide call for mobilization on behalf of the secular principle. Something that contrasts rather tellingly with the preparedness of people in Turkey to congregate in the millions whenever that principle is there seen to be in jeopardy. One would have imagined that,learning from Gujarat, and witness to the “majoritarian” rage now in evidence state after state, now would be a good time.



Thus it is that when the local head of the Bajrang Dal in Uttar Pradesh makes the public pronouncement that the strategic objective of this terrorizing arm of the RSS is to transform the secular republic into a “Hindu Rashtra” (Hindu theocratic state; see The Hindu, Thursday, October 2nd,’08) no cognizable offence is seen to have been committed. Not to speak of treason against the state as by law established.

Imagine, on the other hand, a call coming from some Muslim organization that they mean to turn India into an Islamic state. Within seconds, the organization would be banned and its members locked up as jehadi “terrorists.”

The crude and abiding fact is that the Congress party never really internalized the fatal truth of the insight that Jawahar Lal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, had voiced as far back as 1937.

Writing on “Hindu and Muslim Communalism,” Nehru had warned that whereas the communalism of the “minority” is patently what it is—sectarian banding together of a defensive nature—that of the Hindu “majority” is always likely to masquerade as “nationalism.” (See Nehru On Communalism, ed. N.L.Gupta, published by Sampradayikta Virodhi Committee, 1965, p.9). And, needless to say, that is then but a short step to fascism.

It is ofcourse a well-recorded fact that within the Congress leadership of those times, more than a few were not only members of the communal Hindu Mahasabha, but believed at heart that Indian social pluralism of centuries notwithstanding, India was at bottom a Hindu nation.

The penetration of the communal virus of those times must suggest something of the quality of the intellectual, cultural, and political battle that Nehru and a few others that notably included Muslim leaders (Abul Kalam Azad, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, Saifuddin Kitchlu, Asaf Ali, to name but a handful) and organisastions (Jamiat-e-ulema-e-Hind) put up against sectarian obscurantisms that disfigured both communities to ensure the founding of a secular republic.

It is to be noted that secularism was subsequently to be designated by a Constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court of India as one of the “basic” features of the Constitution not amenable to amendment by parliament.

Indeed, in an interesting book titled Nehru’s Hero, Lord Meghnad Desai records how during the Nehruvian phase of Independent India, the Nehruvian emphasis on progressive secularism and social pluralism was constantly reflected in the cinematic products of the Bombay Film Industry.



This faint-hearted lip-service to secularism on behalf of the Congress party after Nehru’s death in 1964 has meant that its fight against the fascist RSS and its hydra-headed front organizations has always been just that—a faint-hearted, proforma protestation, bereft of any stern ideological conviction or political will to confront it either through mass education and mobilization, or any hard operations of the state apparatus, however enjoined by the Constituion.

The politics of the Congress to this day suggests that much as it may berate the RSS/BJP of fomenting sectarian rioting come election time (Commission after Commission since 1947 has found the RSS complicit in communal rioting), the Congress nonetheless remains as cognizant of Hindus as a vote-bank as the BJP.

What is to explain the fact that no attempt has ever been initiated, not to say carried out, by the Congress organization, to dent or alter the socialized prejudices of India’s police forces?

Or the fact that these forces and the concomitant investigative/intelligence agencies have to this day next to negligible representation of Muslims, especially at higher echelons of decision-making?

Or the fact that challenges to the state that come from either the left extremists or the Islamists are dubbed “terrorism” while such challenges when they come from the Hindu right are willy nilly regarded as “nationalist” mayhem, and dubbed wrong-headed at worst?

Or the fact that whereas Muslim Indians arraigned in violent and “anti-national” activity are promptly enough dealt with, cases,, when they are instituted at all, pending against Hindu majoritarian marauders never seem to come to any conclusion? Or that police officers at the highest levels found complicit in pogroms against the “minorities” may be suspended for a while, but eventually are not only reinstated but promoted as well? A case in point here the findings of the Srikrishna Commission into the communal riots of Bombay, 1992-93; officers indicted by the Commission are well and truly in place and promoted under the aegis of a Congress-led government in Maharashtra. Not to speak of Gujarat.



With the incremental collapse of the shaping energies of India’s liberationary, pluralist, egalitarian ethos that informed the anti-colonial struggle, with the incorporation of India’s new upwardly mobile urban elites into market fundamentalism following the Washington Consensus—the Congress largely responsible in both instances—India’s secular nationalism came to be displaced by one based on adherence to race and religion (See Vijay Prashad, Darker Nations: A Biography of the Short-Lived Third World, Leftword publication, Delhi, 2008 for an incisive exposition of this transformation). After the criminal demolition of the Babri mosque in 1992 by fascist hordes of the VHP, a pogrom in which the best known leaders of the BJP were visibly participant, “cultural nationalism” came to be the new slogan of the Hindu right-wing.

Designed to alter the definition of the “nation”, this variety of “nationalism” was equally meant to keep in place the hegemony of the Hindu upper castes over the downtrodden Hindu masses, forestalling the possibility of their banding together on any alternate platform of social and economic exploitation.

It needs to be understood that what irks high-caste Hindus most about “conversions” is the suggestion that such a transfer of allegiance springs from the abominable oppressions of the caste hierarchy and its religious sanctions within Hinduism. And that Christianity should be seen by Dalits and Tribals as offering them an archive of existence wherein a modicum of social equality and avenues of educational and medical caring become available.

The Hindu upper caste crusade against “conversions’ has thus nothing to do with Hinduism per se; it has to do with asserting social dominance and answering the rebuke that is administered when another faith is preferred as a life-option.

Indeed, were this crusade to involve any introspection, the whole business could be sorted out by the RSS issuing a fatwa against the caste system, and declaring that Hindus of all castes will henceforth enjoy equal social and religious rights. Not about to happen.

Nor is it anything but a pathetic travesty to think that the crusaders against “conversions” truly believe that a grave demographic turn-over is in the offing. Even the RSS knows that the census of 2001 has actually shown a 0.6% decline in the overall population of Indian Christians!

So where are these hordes of converts? To this day not a single case of conversion by allurement has been actually demonstrated. If anything, evidences of “reconversion” to Hinduism on the strength of brute threats to life and limb have been publicly voiced by unfortunate Pana Christians in Kandhamal on India’s electronic channels. Remember also that such “reconversions” are in the first place a misnomer. The tribals thus “reconverted” have never been Hindus in the first place; they have always called themselves “Animists.” Nor is it ever made clear what caste these “reconverts” are meant to belong to after they are made Hindus.



Notwithstanding the public boast of the head the Bajrang Dal in Karnataka that he has been responsible for the anti-Christian mayhem there, or by the other BD local leader in Uttar Pradesh that the man who died while bomb-making in Kanpur had been a BD man, or the half dozen or more proven cases of bomb-making activity by BD cadres, the Dal proclaims loudly that not until the courts find them guilty may anyone raise a finger against them. Not even against those who have committed rape and murder in public view.

That argument on behalf of “due process” however, we are told, does not apply to Muslims or Christians.

For example, despite a publicly stated acknowledgement by the Maoists in the “badlands” of Orissa that they are the ones who killed Swami Laxmanananda, the Bajrang Dal has concluded from day one that Christians are the killers of the Swamy.

Indeed, at other times in recent history the Sangh Parivar has vociferously taken the position that matters of faith are not at all subject to judicial examination or determination.

This was to come most ringingly to the fore at the time of the demolition of the Babri mosque. Even the BJP aspirant to Prime Ministership has consistently avowed that the courts cannot decide on the Ayodhya dispute since it is a matter of faith. That it may be a matter of faith on either side is simply dubbed an “anti-national” argument designed to placate the Muslims.

Same about the Ram Sethu issue down south, where the Sangh takes the position that since, self-evidently—and scientific/archaeological evidence be damned—the sethu (Adam’s bridge in British times) was built by Lord Ram to cross over to Sri Lanka to fight Ravana, no secular, scientific,or legal determination can be made of the matter. Such privilege, needless to say, is however not available to the “minorities.”



The latest episode in the career of “cultural nationalism” (more responsibly, racist and religious fascism) is the one that concerns the recent “encounter” killing of two young Muslim students of the Jamia Milia Islamia university—an institution that goes back to Gandhi and Azad, and that has throughout functioned as a secular icon in Indian academe.

Despite penetrating holes punched in the police narrative about the incident by civil rights activists who include some of the country’s most reputed legal luminaries—if the police knew they were “terrorists” why wasn’t the place which has but one exit surrounded, and the “terrorists” challenged, or forced out by throwing in all the gases used in such cases, why was the deceased police officer not wearing a bullet-proof vest? And if the police did not know they were actually “terrorists” how did they so discover just by killing them off without the least interrogation or investigation? If they were “terrorists” why would they have reported on official police form, duly stamped, all the correct details of personal identity when renting the house? Why have no bullets been found that ostensibly killed the police officer? Why, as the forensic report says, were there no signs of scuffle, and why were some 21 and 17 bullet wounds found in the bodies of the two killed young students? If two “terrorists” escaped , as the police claim, where did they go and how did they escape, since there was but one exit and entry to Batla House?—despite all that, anyone asking those questions is to be understood to be abetting “terrorism” and demoralizing the police force. Indeed, one young man now in custody was provenly taking his exam at the time of the incident. He rushed to a premier TV channel office to report the incident, and was promptly picked up from the channel office itself as having been involved in the conspiracy.

After the arrests, all guidelines laid down by the supreme court in the matter of the rights of the accused in custody were strenuously flouted. And such redress had to be obtained by a civil rights lawyer from the court as explicit directions to the concerned authorities.

Nobody knows whether these young people are guilty or innocent; but surely nobody also has the right to skirt “due process” and pronounce them guilty ab initio, purely on the strength of religious affiliation.

Thus the Vice-Chancellor of Jamia Milia, a historian of high repute and a man of impeccable secular credentials (who had a few years ago been actually at the receiving end of Muslim obscurantism and had to leave the university), who has stood by the students, offering legal aid to them from funds collected voluntarily for the purpose, is likewise vilified as a protector of “terrorists.” Never mind that article 39 of the Constitution of India enjoins that legal aid shall be provided to any and everyone arraigned in any crime. Never mind also that it was the VHP which provided such services to their man, Dara Singh, again in Orissa, who was accused of burning alive the missionary, Graham Steins and his two children, and subsequently sentenced to life in prison.

Somehow, the whole argument about no-finger-to-be-raised-till-proven-guilty is not meant to apply to anyone who does not belong to the Sangh Parivar.

It needs to be recalled that in recent years the number of people arraigned as “terrorists” and then let off by the courts as innocents is a litany. Even when the draconian TADA and POTA laws were in place, the conviction rate never crossed the 2% mark! Nor for that matter has experience been any different world-wide.

On the contrary, the bravehearts who kill suspects in “encounters” dime a dozen are to be regarded as saviours and heroes. That some famous ones—Daya Nayak, Pradeep Sharma, Rajbir etc.,–were subsequently found to be in the employ of builders’ mafias and killing designated people for hefty sums, and passing them off as “terrorists” also makes no dent in the “nationalist” position.

The greatest danger to the Constitutional and law-abiding operations of the state and its agencies comes indeed from the instant approval that this “nationalist” position draws from the yuppy classes, and from a few electronic TV channels as well.



If by the “secular state” we mean that whole ensemble of operations that ought to be based on non-denominational citizenship, equality before the law, fair investigative procedures, and a demonstrated administrative and juridical culture that entertains no regard for religious affiliation, plus a civil and media back-up that refuses to take things on faith and never shies from asking the tough questions, India may well be a rapidly failing state.

It is a problem that is severely compounded by the inability of the organized Left to do anything more than make the right noises, with a proforma protest meet thrown in.

Any concerted attempt at a mass secular mobilization is conspicuous by its absence. That leaves only the conscience-keepers among civil society organizations to fight the menace. Indeed, in recent times, the likes of a Teesta Setalvad, a Prashant Bhushan, a Shabnam Hashmi, and the choice souls that work with them have borne the burden that rightly belongs to the state and the government of the day.

The all-important question is: how long?




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