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In Good Faith : An Indian View of Secularism

I saw the moving drama of the Indian people in the present, and could often trace the threads which bound their lives to the past, even while their eyes were turned towards the future. – Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India

We are all a part of the Social Contract. We were not delivered here by our choice but now that we have chosen to call this our home, we are entitled to an honorable life–for each one of us. We, the people of India, have come of age. Today, after more than half a century of freedom behind us, we stand at the crossroads of our destiny. As responsible citizens we have to make some decisions together–to earn our fundamental freedoms and dignity of life. Who will grant us these rights? Who will ensure that we tide over our differences and move over the path of progress? Do we allow the storm of differences to divide us permanently or the breeze of solidarity to bring us together? How do we tame the enormity of our dissimilarities? When will we ensure justice, equality, liberty and fraternity to all our brethren?

The Wonder of the Past

Scarcely in the history of human civilization does one find a land as diverse and yet as promising as India. Since centuries, this land, ensconced within the commanding heights of the Himalayas and the deep waters of the Indian Ocean, has beckoned visitors from far and wide–alluring them with its variety and natural wealth. Home to some of the earliest civilizations of the world, human life prospered leisurely in its fertile plains. The warm landmass, home to the Indus Valley civilization was relentlessly sought by tribes and groups of people who poured in from the mountain passes and the seas. Fabled as the “Golden Sparrow” of the East, its fame inspired numerous adventurers during the medieval ages and later the European sailors during the Age of Exploration. As the Vedic religion emerged from the Aryan civilization, the land was frequented by numerous other peoples–Persians, Parthians, Bactrians, Scythians, Huns, Mongoloids, Turks, early Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians and Greeks. Later, from the rugged mountains of the North arrived the Afghans and the Mughals. Some came as conquerors; others came as visitors and scholars. Finally the majority was “Indianised”–absorbed in the philosophy and ethos of India. In the bargain, foreigners left their lasting impressions on the culture of the land. Thus the inclusive nature of India was evident throughout the progress of civilization. Lastly the Europeans tried their luck in India. The British stayed the longest, in the process introducing us to the mixed bag of Western mores. They left eventually, but not before sharing some customs with us. It is this remarkable feature of India that impresses the most–the ability to accept unfamiliarity, bear unsettlement, reinvent and emerge like the phoenix.

The Yoke of History

The same glorious past that lends us our cultural pride has bestowed upon us some of the darkest curses of mankind. Our inheritance has been flawed and imperfect. The evil of the caste system continues to irk us even into the twenty-first century. This fissiparous custom has kept millions subjugated and oppressed, denying them the dignity that we all seek. Officially illegal, the ghosts of the caste system continue to haunt the rural heartlands of India posing a huge challenge to social justice and development. The history of medieval conflict between Hindu and Muslim kingdoms, followed by the horror of Partition[1], continues to seethe the embers of communal hatred. Likewise the ugly chapters of violent evangelism and inquisition serve as fodder to the perverted mind. Nationalism often simmers up to fascist ideology and religious bigotry when it derives inspiration from such flawed perception of history. Routinely, extremist groups and religious bigots twist history to spread their divisive philosophy.

Apart from, communal tensions, class struggle, rooted in the antiquated caste system is very much evident in our country. Now it has assumed a much more complex nature with the benefits of economic reforms percolating in an asymmetric manner within the society. The Naxal movement[2] is a manifestation of this very class struggle. On a less severe scale, a number of dissimilarities and prejudices continue to berate our nationhood. Prominent among these are language chauvinism, moral policing and regionalism.

The Story So Far

Even as we hail the success of our democracy since our “tryst with destiny” began fifty-nine years ago, we grapple with the gross failure to cultivate a sense of togetherness among the masses. Our social fabric continues to be riddled with recurring cases of communal violence, intolerance, regional narrow-mindedness and discrimination. While the Constitution and various other canons provide for a just and secular framework, we have not been able to live up to the ideals espoused by our founding fathers. The easier option is to blame the government or the politicians but some would say the people only get the rulers they deserve. Progressive and tolerant voices have always spoken up against intolerance, even at the cost of being jeered and heckled as pseudosecularists. For long their voice was suppressed, for it was a weak voice, overpowered by the clamor of hatred and malevolence. Not anymore; after a series of communal clashes and incidents of violence, there has been a definite shift towards objectivity and justice in the Indian psyche. So what can we citizens do to strengthen this swing towards unity?

The Way Ahead

Hitherto the role of the Government has been limited to inclusion of “moral lessons” in school syllabi, advertisement campaigns promoting “unity in diversity” and maintenance of law and order. Unfortunately, instances are replete where the lawmakers themselves have turned a blind eye towards religious violence, caste discrimination and other forms of persecution. Though the Constitution guarantees us religious freedom and equality, nowhere does it encourage the state to promote religiousness amongst the people. As things stand today, religion is inseparable from the Indian way of life. It is precisely why we find some politicians and partisan interests dabbling in religion and creating a rift within society. The loud nature of religious activity in India is an antithesis to social harmony. Though religion and faith are often described as the sheet anchors of Indian consciousness; they should best remain a matter within the private domain of individuals. At most, religious rituals can be occasionally practiced to preserve the cultural characteristics of a community. The freedom to practice and preach any religion cannot be reduced to exhibitionism. This is not to suggest that atheism or agnosticism has to be promoted. As citizens we need to keep our religious leanings private and celebrations as unobtrusive as possible for others. The present scale of religious activism in India bears potential to create discord, especially amongst the socially deprived and uneducated poor. The opium of religion cannot be allowed to sedate the hungry millions who desperately need dignity, roti, kapda and makan.[3] Once the public appeal of religious ritualism weans down, the scourge of bigotry which feeds on the differences will tail away too.

The leadership crisis in the country can be tackled if liberal and educated citizens pick up the gauntlet against marginalization and divisive politics. Extremists and fundamentalists of all hues need to be exposed by the citizens themselves. Religious and community leaders representing the underprivileged must be goaded by aware citizens to shun divisive agendas. This can be the first step towards rejection of bias and rebuttal of fanaticism.

Differences can be softened very effectively when there is a convergence of economic interest. Perhaps, we Indians, through our years of Nehruvian socialism[4] and “closed economy,” completely missed this fact. Interregional business dealings, trading and overseas migration for employment bears potential to downplay prejudices and promote inclusiveness. In that regard, the economic reforms, resting on the precepts of globalization and liberalization, are a step in the right direction.

True to the democratic character of our polity, the print and electronic media have emerged as the powerful voice of the people. Certain publications and television channels have demonstrated astounding ingenuity and perseverance in their public-oriented reportage. We citizens owe a great deal to the men and women of the Fourth Estate who work for the common cause with missionary zeal. Through the space available to them in the media, citizens need to speak out when they encounter injustice or discrimination. Socially-responsive reporting wields the power of shaping public opinion and attitude.

The government on its part needs to empower the underprivileged with quality basic education and employment opportunities. Only then can the vast Indian majority become capable of grasping the nuances of civility and communal amity. We have come a long way as a nation state, managing our differences and similarities. On our run with the hare of progress we can ill afford to hunt with the hounds of intolerance. We owe a great deal to our founding fathers who envisioned a plural, just and vibrant society. To once again usher in the golden age of social harmony, together we must resolve to cut the Gordian knot.


[1] In August 1947, under the Mountbatten Plan, British India was divided into two independent states of India and Pakistan. Pakistan was created in response to the strong demand for a separate homeland for Muslims–a political agitation led by M.A. Jinnah of the Muslim League. The Partition resulted in one of the largest human migrations of recent times, when millions of Muslim and Hindu families moved from their native places in undivided India to their new countries–India and Pakistan.

[2] The “Naxal” movement is an armed political movement in certain parts of India based on the Maoist ideology. It is prominent in states such as Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, West Bengal and Jharkhand. Naxalite groups are officially banned by the Government of India.

[3] Roti, Kapda, and Makan (Hindi) literally signify food, clothes and shelter–the basic needs to sustain civilized humans.

[4] Nehruvian Socialism is a term used to describe the early economic approach adopted in free India, during the tenure of Mr Jawarahlal Nehru as Prime Minister (1947-1964). The chief highlights of the economic policy were creation of state owned “Public Sector” industries, heavy taxation and license regime for private businesses, and open discouragement to the import of consumer goods and foreign investment, purported to promote “self-reliance.”