The Tribune - Spectrum

, December 1, 2002
Lead Article

Shackled to communalism
Is “the secular Indian” an oxymoron?

The communal clashes that accompanied our Independence enforced the belief that secularism was the only viable means of forging an India that would be vibrant and democratic. But has it really worked out the way it was envisaged, ask A. N. Wadehra and Randeep Wadehra

Democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people — Oscar Wilde in The Soul of Man under Socialism.

DEMOCRACY and secularism were the cherished ideals for our freedom fighters, influenced by the idealism generated by the socialist movement in Europe. Discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, religion, caste, region and gender was sought to be banished. The communal clashes that accompanied our Independence only enforced the belief that secularism was the only viable means of forging an India that would be vibrant and democratic and where all citizens would have equal opportunities to lead a life of security and dignity. It is true that Nehru injected some emotional content while promoting the idea of secularism. Given the composition of our society, the attempt couldn’t be dismissed off merely as mawkish tenderness for the minorities.

In fact, secularism is an absolutely practical creed that reduces the potential for social friction. It advocates that regardless of a person’s background or denomination, he should be provided with the best that the society has to offer. This credo may well have come from the French and the Bolshevik revolutions. There is also the contention that the secular ideal is a homegrown archetype. People from different parts of the world came and settled in the subcontinent. The locals were friendly and accommodating. History tells us that democracy had taken roots in ancient India and explains the catholic worldview of our ancestors. In due course, the intermingling of races began as a natural corollary to mutual tolerance and a peaceful coexistence. Thus in the same clan or caste, one could see the traces of Harrappan, Aryan, African, Mongolian, Semitic, Slavic, and Latin genes. India can actually be described as the original melting pot — and a successful one at that.

Complications arising out of ethnic diversities were manageable in the beginning. The various beliefs, rituals and gods brought in by diverse settlers gradually merged into a harmonious whole. However, real faultlines developed with the onset of Buddhism, arguably the first organised religion, along with Jainism, in the subcontinent. This was probably the first serious challenge to the established priesthood that had turned overbearing. This is when Ashoka experimented with secularism as a sheer socio-political necessity. He enunciated certain principles or codes of conduct in the form of Dhamma that would help administer the diversities and manage the contradictions.


Much later, Akbar tried to use Din-i-IIahi as an instrument to forge a secular polity — when the religious-ethnic vicissitudes had become far more complex and daunting. He too wanted to do away with the dogmatic clergy. These are but two examples of our secular heritage, history is full of them.

After Independence, it was natural for us to go for a non-ecclesiastic democracy as the right path towards national self-fulfilment. Despite the communal riots and the two-nation theory propounded by the Muslim League, our leaders bravely stood by their commitment to a secular India. Hindu hotheads were marginalised. But now what has happened to that commitment? Why does the secular fabric resemble more a rag with gaping holes in it than a resplendent flag proudly fluttering in pleasant, liberal and liberating breeze? Perhaps it has something to do with the degeneration of the earlier earnestness that became a cynical convenience over a period of time.

Whether rightly or not, the average Hindu is convinced that he must forsake his religious identity in order to prove his secular credentials. He must be prepared to turn either an agnostic or an atheist and take the onus for forging a secular polity while his counterparts from minority communities can freely flaunt their respective sectarian selfhood.

The majority community has come to believe that it has been sidelined for the benefit of the minorities. It is not difficult for demagogues to convince the educated unemployed that the jobs, which were rightfully theirs, have been given away as political favours to the ‘other side’. It is so easy to convince frustrated juveniles that the only way they can live with dignity in their own homeland is by wiping out those who are "not like us". The earlier ‘minority-ism’ has now been replaced with an arrogant form of ‘majorityism’.

Today, the term Indian conjures up the image of a barbarian who resorts to bloodletting at the merest provocation — and sometimes just for no reason other than his bloodlust. Steeped in medieval dogmas, he projects the image of being the primal passions’ slave. No longer is he being looked upon as the paragon of virtues, the personification of all the values the citizen of a civilised nation possesses. This is an image that was created by the likes of Vivekananda, Gandhi and is a part of our cultural-historical heritage.

The term ‘secular liberal Indian’ is a paradox today. Whither the moderate Indian? Is he an anachronism already? Was he, since Independence, running after the mirage of secularism" — falling down the hot hostile desert dunes, getting up and dusting off the scalding sands of suspicion and hatred only to resume his evidently hopeless quest? There must be an oasis somewhere. An oasis that would offer him cool sweet water and rejuvenating rest in the shade to keep him going in search for the idyllic world where children shan’t be burnt alive, women won’t be raped and dismembered; and the vulnerable shall feel safe. Isn’t there any such panacea on this planet that will wipe out bloodlust and frenzy forever?

"A riot," observed Martin Luther King, "is at bottom the language of the unheard". This is not always true. In the modern world, a riot is a madness that methodically cleanses out the unwanted. We saw this in the Nazi Germany and other parts of Europe eventually enabling Hitler to come up with the Final Solution; we have observed it in Kashmir where the ideals of Sufism have been sacrificed at the altar of fundamentalism; in Palestine, Bosnia, Bangladesh and countless other places where the will of God is sought to be undone.

Godhra is part of this global derangement, as is its aftermath. Numbers matter in a convoluted manner — 58 Hindus burnt alive in the Sabarmati Express, so at least ten times that number of Muslims must be consigned to the inferno. The reaction is much more than equal and opposite to the original ghastly action. Teach them a lesson: Ten eyes for an eye and let the nation damn well become blind. But the blind seldom reach their destination. And what is our destination?

Right from our schooldays onwards, it has been drilled into our heads that we are morally superior to other nations where racial, religious and all other forms of intolerance rule the roost. We are a hoary civilisation with profound ideals to uphold. The moral highground that we have come to occupy, thanks to the likes of Gandhi and others before and after him, now seems to be slipping away from under our feet.

George Bernard Shaw wrote in Common Sense About War. "We turn our Temples of peace promptly into Temples of War, and exhibit our parsons as the most pugnacious characters in the community. I venture to affirm that the sense of scandal given by this is far deeper and more general than the Church thinks, especially among the working classes, who are apt either to take religion seriously or else to repudiate it and criticise it closely. When a bishop, at the first shot abandons the worship of Christ and rallies his flock round the altar of Mars, he may be acting patriotically, necessarily, manfully, rightly; but that does not justify him in pretending that there has been no change, and that Christ is, in effect, Mars. The straightforward course, and the one that would serve the Church best in the long run, would be to close our professedly Christian Churches the moment war is declared by us."

Lord Rama was the apostle of tolerance and self-restraint. He forgave Ravana who had abducted his wife. And went even further when he asked Lakshmana to seek wisdom at the dying enemy’s feet. No indignities were heaped on the opponent who fell in the battlefield. The movement for Ram Janmabhoomi would have gained wider acceptance if a similar dignified restraint and respect for the minority’s sensibilities had been displayed. As for the Muslim hardliners, it will not be out of place here to mention that mosques have been pulled down and shifted to other places even in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Islamic states to suit more urgent needs of the society.

It is time now for introspection. To forgive and forget. To repair the damage done to our secular superstructure. To regenerate mutual love, trust and respect. The nation has more pressing problems than undoing the medieval injustices or rewriting history. It will be crassly foolish to halt our march towards a postmodern India. Our leadership’s goals ought to be nearer to the genuine aspirations of the common citizen of India. For this we need peace and positive action. Let us come out of the darkness of mutual recriminations and distrust and move towards a brilliant future.

It is possible even at this stage.