In Defence of Secularism

September 28, 2010
Indian Liberals

Following two of my recent blog posts on Ayodhya (here and here), I received a fair share of flak from the Hindutva brigade. One of the commentators on another blog where I was arguing my case said:

Fellow commentators... have blown to smithereens the arguments put forward by pseudo-sickular NRI Ashish Deodhar, whose attitude unfortunately is akin to an ostrich's with its head in the sand, totally oblivious to the, to quote from XYZ's above comment, 'expansionist and exclusivist' of the desert cults, that have and will spell doom for Hindus in India. (comment edited to conceal other commentators' identities!)

This is not the first time I've received this kind of response. Those who have spent some time on the blogosphere would have come across many of these usual terms used to refer to secular liberals - "sickular", "liberal fascists", "Macaulayite" and so on. A general perception of secularism being created by the Hindutva brigade is that the concept is a) foreign and therefore "imposed" on India and b) determinedly anti-Hindu. Having spent a fair amount of time interacting with these people, I am certain that at least some of them know that not to be true but most of the rest have simply fallen for the propaganda.

What alarmed me most is the following comment by someone who I came to realise did not subscribe to the Hindutva ideology:

'Secular fascism' is the only correct word designed for you special people..who give every story a spin and find a new meaning of secularism. Essentially this means select a community and impose a skewed idea of secularism only on them questioning their identity, tradition and evolution!
This was alarming because I felt that the Hindutva propaganda machinery was actually doing a fairly good job of demonising secularism. And despite the aggressive attack on secularism and liberalism, I didn't see a single blogger or blog post trying to defend the concept of secularism. Hence, I felt it was high time to counter these efforts and try to impress upon those who have genuinely misunderstood the concept of secularism that it not what it is being made out to be.

Having said that, this post is not an attack on the Hindutva brigade. The real culprits have betrayed the true ideals of secularism and the Hindutva machinery is only capitalising on that. I don't see anything wrong with it. If I was on the other side, I think I would have done the same!

So to set the context straight, this post is addressed to those who have genuinely misunderstood secularism. I hope to convince some of my readers that secularism is not be to demonised or mocked at but instead the only rational and sensible way of social engagement. Some of you might find nothing new in this post and my apologies for wasting your time.

What is secularism?

Let's take the most common definition of secularism - the separation of Church and state. This implies that the Church has nothing to do with the state and vice versa. This is the biggest misconception of secularism. Sure, some countries such as France and Turkey have adopted this definition of secularism but this is not what secularism is. There are many countries with "state churches" and yet extremely secular in their behaviour. Surely, secularism has to be a lot more than mere separation of Church and state.

That brings us to the second misconception - that secularism is treating all religions equally - the sarva dharma samabhav types. I have been told on multiple occasions by the Hindu right-wingers that this is the difference between "western" and "eastern" secularism. True, there's a difference between these two misconceptions but that's nowhere near the real meaning of secularism. This "treating all religions equally" simply leads to the state poking its nose in matters of all religions and increases the state's involvement in religious affairs. This, sadly, has been the problem with Indian secularism - handouts to every single identifiable religious group, curbs on freedom of speech on account of "not hurting religious sentiments" and so on. This definition of secularism goes against everything secularism stands for.

So what is secularism then? UK's national secular society offers a very succinct definition - Secularism, like democracy, involves treating people as individuals, not as members of a group. According to the NSS:

Secularism supports the individual against the pressure of the group and the individual conscience against the dogma of the group.

This is the most rational and sensible definition of secularism that I've ever come across. This is the definition of secularism that holds an individual higher than his/her religious associations. Naturally, this is the only definition that advocates equal opportunities, freedom of speech and publication and human dignity. This is what secularism truly is - pro-freedom, pro-progress and pro-democracy.

The problem of pseudo-secularists

As I said earlier, there's a clear misconception in India that secularism is decidedly anti-Hindu and pro-Muslim in particular, and pro-religious minorities in general. And there's some reason behind this misconception! For whilst secularism itself is not anti or pro any religious group, the pseudo-secularists, especially the politicians, have definitely helped create and foster that impression. I find it hard to fathom that people such as Mulayam Yadav get away by calling themselves secular. For here's a man who has carved a political career out of blatant Muslim appeasement. The Congress party is nothing better than the likes of Mulayam - the many handouts offered to various religious denominations is one example of Congress's secularism! The UPA government led by the Congress consists of parties such as All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen and Indian Union Muslim League among many other communal parties. So flagrant is Congress's mockery of secularism!

These communal and pseudo-secular parties claim to fight the communal forces in India (read Hindutva politics). Yes the Hindutva forces are communal and they need to be fought with all our energy but we can't fight one form of communalism with another. And definitely not with the form of communalism that assumes the garb of secularism!

Appeal to the readers

So to sum up, secularism is not anti or pro any religion. It is definitely not anti-Hindu and pro-Muslim. My first and foremost request to the readers is to clear this misconception. Secularism is pro-individual, irrespective of his/her religious, social, political affiliations.

I can understand the anger against pseudo-secular forces in this country but don't let this anger fuel the communal politics of the Hindutva brigade. That's my second request.

And my final, but not least in any way, request is to fight for the ideals of secularism. A secular political party in India is a far cry but I am absolutely sure that we have far more non-partisan people in India than those who constantly try to divide us along communal lines. This majority needs to come alive and stick its neck out for secularism.

I will conclude with another comment on one of my previous blog posts:

I feel secularism is a beautiful & much-needed-to-be-implemented concept. I don't want it to be hijacked by dishonest people with ulterior motives.
IndianLiberals is a group for all liberals of India to unite in favour of freedom, liberty, equality, human rights, tolerance and non-violence. This place is a platform to discuss, develop and promote liberal values in India and organize a resistance movement against all communal, socialist and communist forces in our country.
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