by Minhaz Merchant in the Times of India
Dr. Amartya Sen compels me to return to a subject India should have long buried: secularism. Dr. Sen’s definition of secularism is as misty-eyed as that purveyed increasingly by secular liberals who – in the classical sense of those terms – are neither.
As I wrote in The Ayatollahs of secularism - part 2, Indians six decades ago had to make a choice between a theocratic Pakistan and a secular India: “On a cool spring day in 1950 at a California college campus, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a tall, angular man of 22, was in a garrulous mood. He told my father: ‘Ah, Pakistan. See what we will do with my wonderful new country.’ My father, like young Bhutto, a student at the University of California, Berkeley, was unimpressed. ‘A country founded on theocracy,’ he told Bhutto, ‘will never work.’ Bhutto walked away in a huff.”
Sixty-three years later, has India lived up to its secular promise? The short answer: yes. The larger question: why is India secular? The answer: because the majority community is intrinsically secular. If it wasn’t, India would have been, in Shashi Tharoor’s words, a “Hindu Pakistan”: the kind Bhutto would have understood.
So what is Amartya Sen’s definition of secularism?
In his 2005 book, The Argumentative Indian, Dr. Sen devoted 23 pages to explaining his views on secularism – without coming to a definitive conclusion. This is what he wrote in one passage:
“Secularism in the political – as opposed to ecclesiastical – sense requires the separation of the state from any particular religious order. This can be interpreted in at least two different ways. The first view argues that secularism demands that the state be equidistant from all religions – refusing to take sides and having a neutral attitude towards them. The second – more severe – view insists that the state must not have any relation at all with any religion. The equidistance must take the form, then, of being altogether removed from each.
“In both interpretations, secularism goes against giving any religion a privileged position in the activities of the state. In the broader interpretation (the first view), however there is no demand that the state must stay clear of any association with any religious matter whatsoever. Rather what is needed is to make sure that in so far as the state has to deal with different religions and members of different religious communities, there must be a basic symmetry of treatment.”
Symmetry of treatment is crucial: What does symmetry imply? Clearly, equality for all, special privileges on the basis of religion to none. That is not Dr. Sen’s conclusion at the end of his 23-page chapter on secularism. And it is certainly not the secularism that – for example – the Congress practises today.
In an interview with The Economic Times, on July 22, 2013, Dr. Sen said he would like a “secular person to be prime minister” and added: “I would not like to see Narendra Modi as India’s prime minister and I’m speaking as a citizen of India.”
Dr. Sen, on being probed further, clarified why not: “(He) generates concern and fear on the part of minorities.”
But surely it is parties which preach secularism but practise an insidious form of communal separateness which feed a false fear among Muslim voters?
Such “secular” parties don’t care for Muslims. They care for Muslim votes. If they had “real concern” for Muslims – a key quality in a prime minister according to Dr. Sen – Muslims would not be as poor, as deprived, as backward, as alienated and as stigmatised as they are today.
After 54 years of Congress governments, each preaching secularism but practising the opposite, the appalling state of Muslims is a telling indictment of faux secular governance.
* * *
Dr. Sen is surprisingly coy about Rahul Gandhi. When The Economic Times asked him what he thought of Rahul, Dr. Sen parried the question instead of taking it head on as would be expected of an independent mind.
Here’s what he said: “I haven’t assessed him in that way. I know him as a different figure (not a politician). I know him as a likeable young man who was a student in Trinity College (Cambridge). We have met when I was Master of Trinity. We spent a pleasant day together. I did ask him then if he was interested in politics or not. At that time he wasn’t. However, I haven’t assessed him as a politician or a potential prime minister.”
That’s an extraordinary answer. Rahul, the Congress vice-president, has been in electoral politics for over nine years and Dr. Sen, so knowledgeable and outspoken otherwise about Indian politics and economics, hasn’t “assessed him” yet as a politician or a potential prime minister? Surely, Rahul deserves more of Dr. Sen’s attention.
Dr. Sen’s kerfuffle with Professors Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya of Columbia University over growth vs. inclusion is meanwhile a red herring. Good governance is the real answer: both economic growth and inclusion are intrinsic to it.
The real issue is entitlement vs. empowerment. Profs Bhagwati and Panagariya rightly argue that economic growth, allied with welfare schemes which build productive capital assets (rather than the NAC-Sen-Dreze formula of handouts which create dependencies) is the most efficient development model for India.
Who can best create that model? Certainly not those who advocate a policy of entitlement with its attendant fiscal profligacy that has so severely damaged India’s economy.
On a cool spring day over 60 years ago in California, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a tall, angular man of 22, was in a garrulous mood. He told my father: “Ah, Pakistan. See what we will do with my wonderful new country.”
My father, like young Bhutto, a student at the University of California, Berkeley, was unimpressed. “A country founded on theocracy,” he told Bhutto, “will never work.” My mother, among the first Indian women-students on the Berkeley campus, agreed. Bhutto walked away in a huff.
Those were heady days after independence. Bhutto went on to become Pakistan’s youngest Cabinet Minister, at 30, in 1958. My parents returned to India after four years at Berkeley and got married. My father took charge of the family’s petrochemicals business which, thankfully, he was later liberal enough never to coerce me to join.
The difference between Pakistan and India today is the story of how a great religion, Islam, has been distorted by those entrusted to protect its liberal ethos. Pakistan and several countries in the Middle-East have used Islam not to liberate but imprison their people. But it is in “secular” India that the damage has been most insidious.
Jawaharlal Nehru was a secular man. He would have been mortified at what passes off as secularism in modern India. In its purest, most classical sense, secularism requires treating religion as a private matter. It must not enter the public domain. Pray in public or pray in private. But keep your faith at home.
Politicians who have little to offer by way of development – 24-hour electricity, water, housing, sanitation, roads, infrastructure, jobs – will use religion to divert the attention of the common man. According to the latest National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), over 60% of Indians consume less than Rs. 66 a day in cities and less than Rs. 25 a day in villages.
These form the poor whose grandparents were promised Garibi Hatao by Indira Gandhi during her victorious 1971 Lok Sabha election campaign. It should shame the Congress that, 41 years later, the constituency Feroze Gandhi – Indira’s husband – first entered the Lok Sabha from in 1952, Rae Bareli, and from where succeeding generations of Gandhis, including Indira and Sonia, have been elected, is one of the most backward in India. Over 70% of children below the age of 5 in Rae Bareli, for example, are moderately or severely stunted due to malnutrition (The Ayatollahs of secularism – part 1).
But secularism, not development, has been an article of faith for the Gandhis. The poor and the Muslims – the Muslims in particular – have been entrapped into a fear psychosis that warns them: vote for “the other” and you will not be safe.
The riots in Gujarat on February 28, March 1 and March 2, 2002 following the burning of kar sevaks on February 27, 2002, have come especially handy in deepening this paranoia.
Muslims from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, from Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, are in effect given this false choice: do you want to be with a “secular” party like the Congress that can guarantee your physical safety but not one square meal a day? Or do you want to be with a party where you must forever live in fear though you will have 24-hour electricity, good housing, roads, jobs and a reasonable standard of living?
Rich electoral dividends have flowed from such fear mongering. In the process, over the decades, regional parties have grasped the fraudulent secular baton from the Congress: the Samajwadi Party (SP) may be the most notorious of these but others like the Telegu Desam Party (TDP) and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) have all dealt the duplicitous Muslim card.
Just as they eagerly copied Indira Gandhi’s destructive dynastic politics to enrich their future generations while impoverishing India’s, regional parties have effortlessly morphed into “secular” family firms engaged in exploiting Muslims by cocooning them.
* * *
My daughter, a budding designer, often visits areas in Mumbai to source raw materials for her work and commission artisans. Most of these artisans are Muslims. Most are very poor. Most live in buildings which could collapse any moment. She asked me: “Why doesn’t the Congress-NCP government in Maharashtra, which wins elections based on votes from poor Muslims, do anything to improve their lives?”
The answer: because poor Muslims who have no time to think beyond the next meal will not have time to think of governance and development and how both have been sacrificed at the altar of secularism.
But then of course this isn’t secularism. It’s communalism, masquerading as secularism. What really can be more communal than keeping nearly an entire community of 175 million people in poverty for over six decades?
Theocratic countries like Pakistan have more liberal laws for their Muslim citizens than India has for its Muslims. Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia have also reformed medieval Islamic canons.
Why not India? Because the Congress and its regional copycats fear the true liberation of the Muslim mind. That liberation could set off unintended consequences.
Electoral defeat haunts the Congress and its allies more than issues of governance and development – or even justice. That is why it has moved glacially to deliver justice to the victims of the 1984 Sikh pogrom in which over 3,000 Sikhs were killed by Congress-led hooligan-politicians.
At the same time, po-faced, it uses the 750-plus Muslims killed in Gujarat in 2002 in a riot (not a one-sided pogrom), where over 250 of the dead were Hindus, to extract cynical political advantage with the help of its NGO cottage industry.
Muslim leaders have been willing accomplices in this tragedy. Mullahs issue regressive fatwas against Muslim women and edicts against sensible civil laws. Instead of condemning such fatwas, the government maintains a studied silence, tacitly encouraging extremism and keeping ordinary Muslims stuck in a time warp.
The two real enemies of the Muslim – communal politicians masquerading as secular politicians to win votes and Mullahs deliberately misinterpreting the holy book to retain power over their flock – form a natural alliance. Together they have enriched themselves but impoverished India’s Muslims, materially and intellectually, in the name of secularism. These are the Ayatollahs of secularism.
* * *
That brings us to the third angle in this infamous triangle: the liberal, secular Hindu. Where does he stand in all this? He is naturally secular in the truest sense of the word: religion is a private matter, he rightly believes. It has no place in politics.
But he is also swayed by the plight of his fellow-Indians who happen to be Muslims: impoverished, illiterate, ghettoized, discriminated against. For every Azim Premji and Aamir Khan there are millions of weavers in UP and spot boys in Mumbai who have no place in corporate India’s organized labour force.
Liberal, well-meaning Hindus ask why. And the answer they come up with is: communal discrimination. Yet the liberal Hindu doesn’t dig deeper. The more politicians sequester Muslims into vote silos, the more the middle-class Hindu (not the liberal, well-meaning, Stephanian Hindu) resents them. Discrimination, petty or large, mounts.
The real culprits – communal politicians dressed up as secular politicians – get away scot-free in this narrative. The liberal, secular Hindu’s anger against anti-Muslim communalism is therefore misdirected – far away from these real culprits.
The liberal, secular Hindu meanwhile points to “Hindutva” as the real fount of communalism. Is he right? This is how the Supreme Court defined Hindutva when specifically asked to do so in December 1995:
Considering the terms Hinduism or Hindutva per se as depicting hostility, enmity or intolerance towards other religious faiths or professing communalism, proceeds from an improper appreciation and perception of the true meaning of these expressions. These terms (Hinduism or Hindutva) are indicative more of a way of life of the Indian people and are not confined merely to describe persons practicing the Hindu religion as a faith.”
* * *
Today it costs a candidate between Rs. 10 crore and Rs. 50 crore to fight a Lok Sabha election. Over the next 18 months, political parties will need to raise over Rs. 20,000 crore to contest 543 Lok Sabha seats. The potential from future scams has shrunk. Corporate cash donations have been hit – ironically – by the government’s own economic paralysis. Team Anna's decision to fight elections has introduced a new political calculus.
For "secular" parties, 2014 is an election in which they will now have to rely more than ever on raising a fear psychosis against leaders like Narendra Modi who threaten their hold on power – and the financial pipeline that accompanies it but never finds its way into developmental projects, especially for Muslims. After all, they matter only once every five years.
* * *
Influential sections of especially the electronic media, suffused with hearts bleeding from the wrong ventricle, are part of this great fraud played on India’s poor Muslims: communalism dressed up as secularism. The token Muslim is lionized – from business to literature – but the common Muslim languishes in his 65-year-old ghetto. It is from such ghettos that raw recruits to SIMI and IM are most easily found.
Sixty years ago on that Berkeley campus my father told Zulfikar Ali Bhutto why Pakistan would fail as a state. Today, my daughter, as she visits Muslim-dominated ghettos for sourcing her raw materials, sees how Muslim India too has failed. The single biggest cause: communalism – but in quite the opposite way the Congress, SP and other “secular” parties define it.
Indira Gandhi introduced the term secularism in the preamble to the Constitution with the 42nd Constitution Amendment Act, 1976, during the draconian Emergency.
Twenty-six years earlier, in 1950, the framers of our Constitution, led by Babasaheb Ambedkar, had not felt it necessary to include the word – despite the recent horrors of communal riots following Partition.
Ever since, the Congress has used secularism and socialism (a term also introduced into the Constitution by Mrs. Gandhi during the Emergency) to define itself as the party of the aam admi.
So how has the aam admi fared in over 53 years of Congress governments, 36 of them under Indira and Rajiv Gandhi and their appointed CEO-Prime Ministers, P.V.Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh?
Badly. Poverty remains endemic. India is placed 134th on the Human Development Index (HDI). Over 14,000 farmers across India commited suicide in 2011. Malnutrition persists. The Naandi Foundation released a report in January this year – at the hands of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh – on widespread child malnutrition (http://www.naandi.org/)
In an edit page piece in The Economic Times (Rich MPs, Poor Voters), I wrote how, even as children and farmers die, politicians have become ever-wealthier.
Who is to blame? Obviously, the Congress. It has run India for roughly 81% of independent India’s history. The Opposition, especially in the states, must share some responsibility for the Congress’ failure. But make no mistake: the responsibility for the poverty and malnutrition India suffers from 65 years after independence lies squarely at the doorstep of the Congress.
It has misused the term socialism to enshrine poverty, not eradicate it. The poorer the voter, the easier it is to win his vote without bothering about real development issues.
The second Emergency-origin term the Congress has misused is secularism. The word for “secular” in Hindi is panthnirpeksha. In 1977, when Mrs. Gandhi’s government was voted out soon after the Emergency was revoked, the new Janata Party government introduced a Constitutional Amendment Bill. The word “secular” was sought to be defined in the Constitution as “equal respect for all religions”.
The Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha where the Janata Party held a majority. But it was defeated in the Rajya Sabha where the Congress had a majority. Why did the Congress reject 35 years ago the 1977-79 Lok Sabha’s definition of secularism – “equal respect for all religions”?
Consider now what UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi said during a lecture at the Nexus Institute in the Hague on June 9, 2007: “India is a secular country. The term means equal respect for all religions.”
How does Sonia’s definition of secularism differ from Narendra Modi’s? Who is really more secular? Modi? Or Sonia? Or Nitish, Digvijay, Lalu, Paswan, Mulayam, Karunanidhi, Omar Abdullah and Owaisi?