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Understanding Indian secularism, and skullcaps

No discussion on secularism in India is complete without mentioning religious minorities, namely Muslims and Christians.

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Understanding Indian secularism, and skullcaps

During the AMU-Jinnah controversy, author and senior journalist Dilip C Mandal asked me to throw Jinnah’s portrait out of the students’ union Hall of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). He argued that AMU students were playing in the hands on Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) by allowing them to use Jinnah’s 91-year old portrait as a political tool to deviate people from real issues of the country. In his latest piece for The Print, he seems to subtly suggest that Muslims should let go of their claim over Babri Masjid. Of course I didn’t listen to him then, and Indian Muslims wouldn’t listen to him now.

In his article, Mandal compares and unconvincingly tries to prove how veteran politician of Samajwadi Party and Member of Parliament (MP) from Rampur, Azam Khan is a ‘secular’ leader than other Muslim leaders like All India Majlis e Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) chief Asaduddin Owaisi and All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) chief Badruddin Ajmal. To support his claim, Mandal, attempts to argue that BJP hates Azam Khan more than other Muslim leaders, especially Asaduddin Owaisi. He goes on saying that BJP hates the ‘secular’ Azam more, because unlike Owaisi, he doesn’t wear skullcap, he doesn’t speaks about lynchings and atrocities against the minority communities, and that Azam has distanced himself from the movement of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya.

The argument Mandal here is trying to make is that by wearing a skullcap or by speaking against the lynchings and atrocities against the minorities, the conservative Owaisi is helping BJP to press more on Hindu-Muslim binary. Similar allegations have been made by Congress chief Rahul Gandhi last year in his rally in Telangana where he said ‘Owaisi and his AIMIM is the ‘C team’ of BJP and its role is to split anti-BJP and anti-TRS votes’.

When the public display of religious symbols either in form of attire or language by minorities are taken as conservatism or anti-secular, we surely need to revisit the idea of Indian secularism.

The paradox of secularism in India is that state has created the illusion of separating religion from the state affairs, while forcing the entire population to adjust their religious beliefs in accordance with the religious cultures and customs of the majority.

But who constitutes this majority? To address this question, I shall first refer to Ambedkar’s ‘Pakistan or the partition of India’ where he writes, ‘conversion to Islam or Christianity will denationalize the depressed classes’. This is also reflected in the Hindu Law. Hindu Law, as a historical term, refers to the code of laws applied to Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists in British India. Even after the partition, the Hindu Marriage Act (1955) applies to Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists.

Thus, through these examples it is evident that there exists a preexisting concept of ‘Indian nation’ that does not include Muslims and Christians. In the premise of Indian secularism, when I say that Hindus constitute majority of the Indian population, I argue that all the Indic religions namely Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists be counted in it. Similarly, only Muslims and Christians largely constitute the minority population.

This Hindu majority has its own religious thinking, symbols, practice which holds enormous social significance in the Indian state. How often have you seen a journalist, a political party or a voter differentiating a Sikh with turban or a Sikh without Turban, a Hindu with a tilak and a Hindu without tilak? On the contrary, there are people like Mandal who would differentiate between a Muslim with a skullcap and a Muslim without a skullcap. Abiding by the social cultures of the majority and denouncing their own religious symbols would make Muslims secular, abiding by their own social cultures and wearing religious symbols of Muslims would make a Muslim communal.

No discussion on secularism in India is complete without mentioning religious minorities, namely Muslims and Christians.

Secularism in India is more than often viewed as a tool to safeguard the interests of religious minorities. This viewpoint is not only flawed but also problematic at many counts. Before going into the detailing of this flawed viewpoint, we must understand what secularism actually is.

Secularism is a political philosophy that addresses the relation between religion and state: put briefly, it advocates the separation of religion from state. Secularism advocates that state should not be interested in the affairs of religion and religion should not be interested in the affairs of state.

However, there is a difference between secularism and secularization, as in the secularization of society. Confusing these two terms may be one reason why some people conflate atheism with secularism or religion with communalism. Secularism can be summarized as a political philosophy advocating separation of religion and state, whereas, secularization is, in a sense, a turning away of society from organized religion.

Indian secularism is not a political philosophy but has unfortunately turned out to be a process of secularization through which the religious thinking, symbols, practices and socio-religious institutions of minorities, namely Muslims and Christians, lose their social significance. Indian governments have a long history of inaugurating public properties by doing ‘Arti’, ‘Bhoomi Pujan’ or by breaking ‘coconuts’ and that comes within the framework of Indian secularism. Almost all the autonomous institutions of the state like Supreme Court of India and Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) have taken direct verses from Hindu scriptures as their official motto or taglines. Government funded schools like Kendriya Vidyalaya (Central Schools) have Sanskrit shlokas from Hindu scriptures as official morning prayers.

The fact that the imagination of secularism without mentioning religious minorities has been impossible itself reveals the hoax of Indian secularism.

When secularism becomes only about minorities, the burden of secularism comes on the minorities themselves. It becomes a double-edged sword, where the ones in minorities have to constantly prove that they are secular and the ones in majority have to prove that they are not anti-majority. Owaisi with a skullcap will become anti-secular and leaders from majority community wearing skullcaps and organizing Iftar parties will become anti-majority. Just as Mandal suggested throwing Jinnah’s portrait or giving up the claim on Babri Masjid, the current framework of Indian secularism will demand minorities to give up their rights to restore secularism time and again.

The author a student of Political Science at Aligarh Muslim University.

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