Why now more than ever do we need a secular India?

Why now more than ever do we need a secular India?

Indian democracy has been unique in encompassing the plurality of religion, giving freedom to practice religion, recognising it as an essential part of Indian psyche and yet never declaring a state religion. The nation’s constitution-makers took care to adopt the term to plural and multicultural Indian sensibilities. Our secularism is thus unique as the Indian conception and meaning of the term are different from the western meaning of complete separation of state and the church. Indian secularism espouses the idea of Sarva Dharma Sama Bhava, embodying respect and equality of all religions.

Yet the term ‘secular’ has been contentious. The right has argued that the term was ‘unconstitutionally’ added later by the 42nd Amendment in 1976 and did not form part of the ‘original’ constitution. The arguments have ranged from declaring secularism to be some form of ‘pseudo-secularism’ to outright demand for ‘Hindu rashtra’ and demanding the term to be removed from the constitution.

It must be noted that even before the term was added (and retained through subsequent revisions after 1976) there is no doubt that the ‘original’ constitution was overwhelmingly secular in ethos. The fundamental rights guarantee the right to freedom of religion, which includes freedom of conscience and free profession, practice, and propagation of religion, freedom to manage religious affairs, freedom from certain taxes and freedom from religious instructions in certain educational institutes.

India might be witnessing a worrying destruction of secular principles today and that will not bode well for a nation that has prided itself on multi-cultural atmosphere and unity in diversity. Murders over cow vigilantism, love jihad, mandir-masjid issue, and the communal vitriol in political discourse and social media every day will destroy the nation.

On 6th December India woke up the horror of a video of a man Shambhulal Regar hacking and then set on fire a migrant worker from West Bengal, Afrazul. On the video the man shouts about ‘love jihad’ and its consequences, films Padmavati and PK and threatens to kill anyone in Hindu-Muslim relationship. This brutal murder came in the wake of series of similar murders by cow vigilantes. Since then the man has been arrested but campaigns have been on to fund his family and hold rallies in his support. It is reported that mobs have now gone on a rampage in support of the killer. That such violent erosion of secular ethos is not confined to isolated incidents only but garners such large-scale support from others is worrying.

The issue of ‘land jihad’ has recently come to light in Uttar Pradesh where a Muslim man was not allowed to take possession of a house he had bought in a predominantly Hindu neighbourhood. Members of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, the youth wing of ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, led the protest. Another Bajrang Dal member declared his intention to statewide campaign against letting Muslims live in ‘Hindu dominated localities’. If such campaigns are allowed unchecked proliferation they will do irreparable damage to harmonious living.

In another instance of intolerance, Amruta Fadnavis, banker, social worker, and wife of Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, was trolled online for supporting a Christmas/Santa related charity event. The trolls alleged that by doing so she was “encouraging Christian missionaries” and “luring Hindus into the fold of Christianity.” She clarified that she was a “proud Hindu” and celebrated “every festival.”

The above incidents cover the entire spectrum from online trolling to discrimination and murder in cold blood. While condemnation or even discussion of Rajasthan murder has been largely absent in the mainstream media, the news abounds in fake news, which further worsens communal tensions. Recently several prominent media outlets shared fake news about the death of a 21-year-old Paresh Mesta in Karnataka, claiming that he was mutilated, castrated and burned by boiling oil. Some claimed that it was an attack against Hindus. Even though channels later retracted this after post-mortem details came out, communal tensions spread in these areas. Another website spread rumour in Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh that ‘Muslims fed a bomb to a cow.’ Again, communal tensions were just about prevented by the local police.

The thinning veneer of secularism has meant that the smallest WhatsApp forward, a ridiculous communal Facebook posts and the most outrageously fake websites are able to stoke communal tensions and violence. Religious sentiments have become so sensitive that even films can cause threats of beheading and riots and historical emperors and their battles are repainted with religions colours.

India is a deeply religious nation where religion permeates aspects of personal, social and cultural life. It is also a country with many religions and varied ways of worship and faith. The people of different faiths have historically, mostly coexisted with mutual love and tolerance. They have adapted and adopted from each other and this has given India a richness of traditions, harmonious social fabric and democratic resilience. Any attempt to impose a monolithic identity on the country in terms of religion or language, or encouraging communal sentiments thus turning one community against another, will be severely detrimental to the secular fabric of the nation.

I want the freedom to meet and talk to the people I love: Hadiya

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NEWSD and NEWSD does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

Swati Saxena

Swati Saxena is a researcher at a non-profit organisation. She has a PhD in Public Health and Policy from University of London and MPhil in Development Studies from University of Oxford. She tweets at @SwatiSaxena1231

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