Seculars Vs sickulars

Ambika Shaligram
Monday, 14 August 2017

Whoever coined the word ‘sickular’ has deliberately plunged the discussion around secularism, putting principles of liberty and equality in the backburner. It’s time we comprehended the various meanings of secularism. Ambika Shaligram talks to three eminent citizens of this country and they explain their views on it

‘There is treasure to be found in Hindu-Muslim unity’

Kiran Doshi, A retired Indian diplomat, is the author of the prize-winning novel, Jinnah often came to our House

It is said that secularism is an alien concept to India. How has secularism helped us?
To be frank, I wish the words ‘secular’ and ‘secularism’ had never been invented.   

But to answer your question, if, to be secular means (as I believe it means) to be tolerant, humane and hospitable, India has always been secular — and thereby created the greatest civilisation the world has ever known.  

It stayed secular even after the holocaust of 1947, when the urge to become the mirror image of Pakistan was great. It has stayed secular through all the provocations of Pakistan down the years since then.
There have been deeply disturbing developments elsewhere too in our neighbourhood — and within India itself. India has not let its essential secularism to be twisted by any of them. Of course there have been moments in our history when we have lost our heads but we have also found them again quickly, often learning useful lessons in the process.  
Why has ‘secular’ become a bad word now?
We owe this transformation to our leaders. It all began when the Congress decided (in 1976, at the height of the widely unpopular Emergency) to include the word secular in the Preamble of our Constitution, thereby exposing itself to the charge of indulging in ‘vote bank politics’ and ‘appeasement’ of minorities, specially Muslims. As it should happen, the Congress lost the very next General Elections, and though it came back with a bang barely three years later, lost and regained power again, the charge of vote bank politics never left it. And the word secular has become a football in the field of Indian politics.  

As for the charge of appeasement of Muslims, the Congress turned out to be even more inept. The lot of Muslims did not improve during its long years in power. Of course there are many reasons for this, and not just the ‘incompetence’ of the Congress. Sadly, few people seem to be particularly interested in tackling the real problems.  

The debate on secularism has become only sharper after the BJP came to power three years back. To the historian in me, many of the points raised in the debate are depressingly reminiscent of the Jinnah-Congress tussle in the closing years of the freedom struggle and its terrible twin, the call for Pakistan.

So what is the way out? In my view, our first need is to stay secular, emphatically so. At the very least we should do everything that we can to ensure that no harm is ever caused to the person, property and dignity of anyone belonging to any minority community in India. There is no advantage in becoming like Pakistan, contemptible and ultimately hollow. I don’t fear that it is likely to happen any time soon, for secularism in India has deep roots, but...

There is also the other need, one that can be met only by the leaders of the Muslim community in India. And that is to begin a sort of reformation of the faith. No, I am not talking about triple talaq and such matters, which are best left alone, for the community itself to tackle. I am talking about the way they look at Hindus. Try to look at Hinduism without the prism of dogma. Look specially for things to admire in it. There are plenty of them. Who knows, that may also persuade Hindus to look for things to admire in Islam. There are plenty of those too.  

And there is a treasure to be found in Hindu-Muslim unity. Maulana Azad, when he was made President of the Congress in 1923, said in his speech that if a farishta were to come down from heaven and promise India instant freedom, provided it relinquished Hindu-Muslim unity, he would turn down the offer, for delay in swaraj would only mean a loss of a few years. Relinquishing Hindu-Muslim unity would be a loss to the whole mankind. 

Re-establish the legitimacy of secularism

Dr Hamid Dabholkar,
Rationalist and medical practitioner, believes State should be separate from religion  

The core of secularism as granted by our Constitution is that an individual has the right to practise his/her  religious faith as s/he deems fit. But the State (both the Union and State governments) has no religion of its own and will not give any one religion a preference over others.
I think in this concept  the separation of State from religion is necessary and apt for our conditions and society. It also means that we, the citizens of India, should learn to discern between our public and private activities pertaining to religion.

On other hand treating all religions equally or on par, is a different concept and can be considered quite apt from a humanitarian outlook. But the underlined rule is that the State should not follow one particular religion. Whenever a State advocates a certain faith, it reflects on our political and social attitudes and sentiments, it devolves down to how we live our lives; infringing on our freedom and liberties, on what we eat or don’t, for instance. This is what is happening in recent times.

To me the path towards secularism has to go through the step of constructive criticism of religion. We should have the right to come out of the overarching shadow of rites and rituals. Religion has ruled over the minds and hearts of people for several centuries, so spirit of inquiry and dialogue are necessary to step out of its fold. This doesn’t imply that people give up their faiths or following their customs and rituals. This approach is more important, because a dialogue involves everyone, or at least a cross section of the society. If you don’t agree with certain principles or concepts, then questioning their legitimacy, distorting their meaning, is uncalled for. This is why we are engaging in a secular vs sickular debate.

Having said this, it’s also true that the major political parties of the country have used the concept of secularism to push their agenda. Congress is pragmatically communal, while BJP is programmatically communal. If your agenda is to install or run a government within the confines of one religion, then you cannot call yourself a secular party.
At this juncture of our nationhood, it is essential that we reestablish the legitimacy of ‘secularism’. In the past, activists and leaders like Jyotiba Phule, Dr Ambedkar and in recent times, Hamid Dalwai and Dr Narendra Dabholkar have shown that this is the way ahead. Dalwai tried to introduce social changes in Islam through his work in Muslim Satyashodhak Samaj; Dabholkar tried to bring about social awareness by staying within the confines of constitution.

Both the approaches, in fact, they are the movements through which we can move towards true secularism. In my opinion, the concept of secularism (separation  of state and religion) also needs support of two other sub principles. First is any exploitation under the guise of religion or religious rituals should be opposed; second is that those who are doing humanitarian work should be applauded.

The goodness of human beings

Arun Kakatkar,
Broadcast journalist, who worked in Bal Chitravani and Doordarshan, says the core principles of all the religions have been exploited by social and political forces

Is there something bigger than practising religion/s? There is. And, that is humanity. There is nothing wrong in practising your faith; provided you do it within the confines of your home. Mixing religion with public discourse simply results in intolerance, chaos and political oneupmanship.

For long now, the core principles of religion have been twisted and exploited by social and political forces. It’s the hunger in their belly that allows people and the poorest of the poor to be exploited by such forces. And, so more and more atrocities are committed in the name of religion.

Why would Allah endorse the killing of innocent school kids in Peshawar?
When I lived in Mumbai, I would take a bus to work; on the way, at Dadar, a mandir, a masjid and a church stood on a triangular axis; each structure, to me, reflected the common pursuit of goodness and humanity. A communal riot did take place there; but by and large it has been peaceful.

In India, it is difficult to separate religion from public life. Hence, I prefer to follow those human beings, whose work upholds the true teachings of all religions. Like Sant Gadge Baba and Baba Amte. Bahinabai, a saint, through her writings, has preached that we search for ‘manushyatva’.

I have tried to search and connect with the goodness in people. Once, my cameraman and I, were travelling to a village in hinterland, when a tyre of our car got punctured. Our driver left us behind to go in search of a garage. After sometime, a villager came and knocked on our window. He had come to invite us for a meal at his hut. My cameraman hesitated, thinking that the man was upto no good, but I urged him to come along. It wasn’t a lavish meal and certainly not in the best of ambience. But what has stayed with me all these years was the kindness that the poor peasant showed to two stranded travellers. I am not sure if the family ate anything for dinner. I suspect they offered their bhakari-bhaji to us. Such gestures and innate goodness is what we need. Not the clanging of bells, or azaan, to call upon the faithful.


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