September 24, 2006

Are we Indians truly secular?

(Asian Age
24 September 2006)

Are we Indians truly secular?

by Kuldip Nayar

I have no doubt that Al Qaeda had a hand in the Malegaon bomb blasts. The Mumbai police’s charge that the cat’s paw of Pakistan was Lashkar-e-Tayyaba is also correct. The authorities can probably claim that they have sorted out the mystery of 7/11 Mumbai blasts. My question is a larger one. How do such elements find in India people who are ready to give them all the assistance — shelter, guidance and money — in the name of religion?

The fact is that even after 60 years of independence, we have not been able to establish a secular polity which we thought we would after getting rid of the British rulers and parting company with those who wanted to establish a separate, religious polity. Our freedom struggle projected pluralism as its ethos. The Congress and the Left have been working towards it. Where did we go wrong? This was the question I raised in my maiden speech at the Rajya Sabha in 1997. I still have no firm answer.

Either the seed of separatism has been sown so deep that we have not been able to uproot it, or we have left things as they were because we did not care. Our main interest was independence, and once we got it, we were hardly bothered to establish a secular society. True, we have adopted a Constitution which has given all communities equality before law. But to make this meaningful, we have done little, neither in the field of education nor in employment. The effort to blot out old prejudices or rectify communal thinking has seldom gone beyond paper. We have stayed more as Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs than Indians.

I do not know why after every bomb blast, whether at Mumbai in a Hindu locality or at Malegaon outside a mosque, or elsewhere, we, particularly the media, resoundingly say that there was no communal riot. One leader after another repeats in more or less the same words that terrorists have failed in their nefarious purpose to disrupt Hindu-Muslim unity. So far the refrain has been that terrorists have no religion. But after the Malegaon blasts, most Urdu newspapers said that the bomb blasts were the handiwork of Hindu fundamentalists. Probably so, but if in the past the comment has been that terrorists have no religion, why change the stand now? It does reflect anger, but also smacks of parochialism. The Urdu press is increasingly going in that direction.

If the blasts are engineered by a particular community, it is bad enough. But when it conveys the message that the Hindu-Muslim unity is superficial, it should make us think. The two communities, leave the elite apart, live in their own localities. They have practically no social contact and very limited economic dealings. Why should we feel that the blasts were used to disturb communal harmony? The absence of conflict is not unity. We are confusing it with co-existence. Our approach has been sectarian and it has remained in the same form, in one way or the other. There were always terrorists in our midst. Otherwise, how do we explain the Gujarat pogrom, the 1984 killings of Sikhs or even the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948?

We have not imbibed the spirit of togetherness which a secular society demands. That is the reason why most of us do not feel revolted against blatant acts of communalism. Some of us even give shelter to terrorists, foreign or Indian. We lack commitment to secularism. Take for example Vande Mataram. It is a song which has stirred national feelings for years. To use it for political purpose is fatal. Union minister Arjun Singh, a top Congress leader, was the first to hurl the brick, making the singing of the song compulsory at government-aided schools when Vande Mataram is supposed to be 100 years old. Congress president Sonia Gandhi would have done the country proud if she had said that she was not compelled to sing it. The party’s explanation that a particular date was not historically correct damaged the Congress still further. The message that a person does not become less patriotic if he does not sing the song went awry.

The BJP, which has no other programme except to communalise every facet of India, feels happy that it has embarrassed the Congress. This may well be true, but by communalising the issue, the BJP has pulled Vande Mataram down from its national pedestal. The question is not whether the Congress has lost or the BJP has won. The question is whether the Indian nation has won. It has not. The BJP may have scored a point, but at the expense of Vande Mataram.

On this I was amused to read the statements made by the Muslim Personal Law Board and some Islamic organisations. They do not have to teach the nation that Islam does not worship anyone else expect Allah. After living together for centuries, all Indians know that. Yet, nearly 70 years ago, a committee comprising Jawaharlal Nehru, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Subhas Chandra Bose decided in favour of singing Vande Mataram’s first two stanzas. Why didn’t these organisations leave the matter at that? They made it a religious issue and played into the hands of the BJP.

I think former Union minister Arif Mohammed Khan wrote a commendable article in support of Vande Mataram and stood by the side of former Prime Minister Inder Gujral in public to sing the song. But some "custodians of Islam" have run him down and compared him with the late Union minister M.C. Chagla, a Muslim who joined politics from the judiciary. It has become a fashion with the urbanite Muslims to look down upon liberals in the community. The mullahs, maulvis and their ilk used to call Abul Kalam Azad "a Hindu show boy" before partition because he was the leader of the Congress, then paraded as a Hindu organisation. They are indeed fundamentalists, but go on swearing by secularism to hide their real colour.

A society does not become secular by enunciating that it is secular. It requires commitment to the principle of tolerance and accommodation. Above all, it needs conviction that one’s religion is not superior to others’. All people, belonging to different religions, should realise that their separate entities merge into one entity, that of India. See America where there is only one civil code, no personal law for any community.

What is disconcerting is that the Congress is politicising issues and institutions and the BJP is communalising them. Both parties have only election and power in view and they care a hang about the country. The BJP never had any secular traditions. The Congress has. But the latter’s behaviour shows that it does not know how to retrieve society from parochialism.