In India, is it Secularism or minorityism?

If one protests acts of aggression against minorities, one is secular; if one points out  Hindus have been victims too, one is ‘communal’

Published: 17th April 2018 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 22nd April 2018 08:27 PM   |  A+A-

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In a recent keynote address to a history conference held by the Indian Council of Historical Research, Dr. R Nagaswamy affirmed, “Secularism in India means anti-Hinduism.” Is such a statement, coming
from an acclaimed archaeologist, epigraphist and art historian, justified?

Earlier (The Great Secular Confusion, March 19; Bogeyman of Majority in India, April 2), I argued that the Indian Constitution and state are unsecular, despite their claims to the contrary, as they neither enshrine nor practise equal rights and, instead, deprive a perceived but largely constructed “majority” of
privileges accorded to minorities. This, of course, has led to charges that India’s brand of secularism
rests on minority appeasement. Although I hesitate to use terms with such a historical baggage, “appeasement” is justified when one recalls a “secular” Rajiv Gandhi’s 1986 overturning of the Supreme Court’s judgement in the Shah Bano case, his ban two years later on Satanic Verses (which neither he nor his complainants had read), or the ban by seven Indian states on the film The Da Vinci Code, even as the Supreme Court rejected petitions to have its screening stopped.

Should these examples sound a little old, let us turn to Taslima Nasreen. The Bangladeshi writer was debarred in 2012 from the 36th Kolkata International Book Fair “following protests from fundamentalists”. Her crime? Highlighting atrocities against Hindus in Bangladesh. Last year, invited to the Jaipur Literature Festival, she called for the “urgent” implementation of a common civil code in India: “Why are Islamic fundamentalists against a uniform civil law? Is not having a uniform civil law democratic?” she asked. “What do you mean by secularism, does it require you to encourage Muslim fundamentalists?” The Rajasthan Muslim Forum promptly protested that Nasreen had “too much freedom” and declared they had secured an assurance from the Fair’s organisers that she would not be invited to the event again—which the organisers abjectly confirmed. When, six months later, Taslima
Nasreen landed at Aurangabad on a visit to Ajanta and Ellora, crowds awaited her at the airport: a leader of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen declared, “We will not allow her to step on the soil of our city.” The police had to send her back.

The recent case of the young Kerala actress Priya Prakash Varrier, of winking fame, appears tame in comparison, yet is symptomatic enough: Muslim groups from Hyderabad filed complaints against her and the film makers, objecting to a supposedly blasphemous (but actually Muslim) song that “outraged their religious feelings” and adding that winking is “forbidden in Islam”.

Did we hear indignant statements from our intellectuals and academics against such “intolerance” (of which hundreds more examples could be cited) and violations of the sacrosanct “freedom of speech”?
Did we witness national or international campaigns? I recall no such thing—yet such protests and campaigns occur with clockwork regularity every time a Hindutva group resorts to similar goondaism. As columnist Minhaz Merchant put it recently, “Islamophobia is rightly condemned. Hinduphobia though is acceptable in living rooms across upper middle-class urban India where secular poseurs are many in number.”

This “Hinduphobia” is conspicuous in the treatment of interreligious conflicts: by definition, minorities are victims while an imaginary “majority” is invariably the aggressor. If one protests—as one should—acts of aggression against minorities, one is secular; if one points out—as one equally should—that Hindus have often been victims too, one is “communal” or a “Hindutva” proponent. It is secular to condemn the 2002 riots in Gujarat; it is unacceptable to argue that they flared up in response to the unprovoked massacre of 59 harmless Hindu pilgrims at Godhra. No mainstream academic journal will entertain research papers on Hindu victims in Kashmir, West Bengal or Kerala (recall the massacre of eight Hindu fishermen at Marad, for which 62 members of the Indian Union Muslim League were convicted). No Indian academic will be invited abroad to speak on Islamist attacks on Hindu places
of worship, from Gandhinagar’s Akshardham temple complex (where 30 devotees were killed in 2002) to the Sankat Mochan Hanuman temple at Varanasi four years later (ten dead, with some eighteen more elsewhere in the city). If at all, those acts of aggression are treated apologetically: the attackers had been “provoked”. If some condemnation of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots has been heard, albeit quite tame, it is perhaps because Sikhs are seen as a minority. And expectedly, if Hindus happen to become demographic minorities, as in Kashmir or a few Northeastern states (and soon in some districts of West Bengal), no one clamours for their minority privileges to be enforced.

Such language is deemed offensive in our “liberal” intellectual and academic spheres. Yet all it does is to call for equity: an equal state treatment of all communities regardless of their religions, an equal condemnation of attacks on any community whatsoever, and an equally firm strike at the roots of all religious fundamentalism—which includes foreign funding to religious organisations.

Meantime, our “secular” political parties go on further creating minorities for their short-term gains. In 2001, the Rajasthan High Court rejected a plea by a Jain educational trust; Justice M R Calla warned, “If we go on making classifications like this, ... perhaps the pious concept of ‘WE THE PEOPLE OF INDIA’ would be defeated and frustrated and the people as a whole shall stand divided in innumerable parts.” Yet a “secular” UPA government accorded Jains minority status in January 2014, just as Karnataka’s Congress government recently did with the Lingayats. Justice Calla was right: division is indeed the rule of the game.

(Michel Danino is an author, guest professor at IIT Gandhinagar, and a member of the Indian Council of Historical Research. 


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