India’s crisis of secularism

Published: August 25, 2017
The fact remains that Gandhi himself wove Hinduism into the freedom movement to broaden its appeal to the masses. PHOTO: REUTERS

The fact remains that Gandhi himself wove Hinduism into the freedom movement to broaden its appeal to the masses. PHOTO: REUTERS

The fact remains that Gandhi himself wove Hinduism into the freedom movement to broaden its appeal to the masses. PHOTO: REUTERS The writer is a development anthropologist. He teaches at George Washington University

It was great seeing on these very pages, a couple of weeks ago, a veteran Indian journalist and activist taking issue with the BJP’s denouncement of the outgoing vice-president’s statement that Muslims do not feel safe in India.

It is unfortunate to note the unravelling of secularism in India these days. While India may still be called the world’s biggest secular democracy, the underlying tensions between state, society, and religion within the country make it hard to accept the authenticity of such a label. Besides the prejudice and violence directed against Muslims, India’s minority religious groups more generally find themselves to be in an increasingly precarious situation, given the affiliation of mainstream political parties, particularly the BJP, with fundamentalist religious elements.

Although the Indian National Congress, managed from the 1930s on to build a mass anticolonial movement, it never quite succeeded in bridging all the major divisions in Indian society. Gandhi himself was killed by a Hindu fundamentalist, who thought him to be too soft on the Muslim issue. Yet, the fact remains that Gandhi himself wove Hinduism into the freedom movement to broaden its appeal to the masses. Gandhi’s intertwining of religious motivation into the anti-colonial movement, however, exacerbated alienation of Muslims and gave impetus to the two-nation theory.

‘Secular exercise’: Indian court says faith has no role in election

Another Congress stalwart, Sardar Patel, and his communal tendencies, also remain the subject of much debate. Although secular, the Nehru dynasty, especially the authoritarian reign of Indira Gandhi, and her suppression of the Khalistan movement, further enabled political ambitions to be defined along increasingly divisive lines.

While Gandhi, Nehru or Patel would undoubtedly chide the prevalent communal trajectory in India, the fact remains that communalism was also a problem during their times.

Communalist chauvinism, however, went into hyperdrive 25 years ago, when the Babri Mosque demolition took place. Since then, Hindu nationalism has been growing and the 2002 Gujrat massacre under Modi, and its political aftermath, raise serious questions about the Indian state’s commitment to secularism.

The BJP-led coalition government of A B Vajpayee refused to suspend or criticise Modi, and instead permitted him to campaign for fresh elections in his home state and beyond. The BJP under Modi has continued to use the communal card to gain leverage. The recent elections in Uttar Pradesh have resulted in a firebrand Hindutva leader becoming the CM. In a state with nearly 40 million Muslims, the BJP did not even field a single candidate from the minority community in the election.

The election of the new Indian president is also not encouraging in terms of India’s aspirations to be a secular democracy. While Indian lawmakers may have voted in a new president from the bottom of the Hindu caste system, he is not very tolerant or sympathetic when it comes to Christians and Muslims. Modi, however, has been keen to woo Dalit support, to secure another win for the BJP in the 2019 general election, since his party has largely alienated Indian Muslims.

Modi urges India to reject violence in name of religion

In the world of realpolitik, these alarming developments are not getting the attention that they need. There was a time that Modi and his role in the Gujrat massacre had made him an international persona non grata. Once banned from the US, Modi subsequently managed to develop very warm relations with the US under President Obama. Given its keenness to use India as a counterbalance to China, the current US administration is also not very concerned that Indian democracy has become hostage to those who wish to impose upon it a narrow-minded, divisive and communal vision.

To reassert, and to further evolve its secular identity, the world at large, including Indians, must not over-estimate their democratic credentials.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 25th, 2017.

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Reader Comments (24)

  • Vineeth
    Aug 25, 2017 - 9:57AM

    And Islamic Republic of Pakistan is the most secular and tolerant of nations.Recommend

  • Stephen Mumbai
    Aug 25, 2017 - 9:57AM

    The awkward moment when you see a Pakistani talking about secularism in India.. BTW what happened to that young Christian who was lynched few days ago…..Recommend

  • Manoj
    Aug 25, 2017 - 10:14AM

    70 years of policy of appeasement due to vote bank politics followed by mainstream parties has made majority hindus just like an elder child ignored by it’s parents who are more loving towards younger child Muslim.

    Now that Hindu majority is grown up and asserting it’s power and rights. Which is making muslim uncomfortable.

    Also, Secularism was never a part of Indian constitution. It was introduced in constitution by Indira Gandhi during emergency in a most undemocratic way and no other party had guts to remove it post emergency because of fear of losing muslim votes.

    Hindu sentiments are very badly bruised and offended in the last 70 years. Many Hindus now questions that If India was partitioned on the basis of religion and Pakistan became a muslim homeland then why the burden of secularism on rest of India. The present India must be Hindu homeland.
    though Hindus by nature is secular and liberal, but if secularism all party has to survive in India,concerned which include political party and minority leadership in the country must assure it that they do not want to insult and corner Hindus.Recommend

  • Rana
    Aug 25, 2017 - 2:35PM

    Are you sure that community can live peacefully even in any far away planet only with same community’s people???Recommend

  • Manika
    Aug 25, 2017 - 2:58PM

    When you start to write secularism as burden you are not honoring the idea of India. Recommend

  • jabir sultan
    Aug 25, 2017 - 7:59PM

    Look at the replies of Indians….name calling and refuting the facts and completely denying the facts. It just shows how intolerant your society is getting, that u even cant hear an opposing argument.Recommend

  • Amir Sultan
    Aug 25, 2017 - 8:54PM

    I don’t get why everyone is comparing India with Pakistan. Pakistan doesn’t claim to be a secular country; India on the other hand does. So the Indian trolls here should quit their whining.Recommend

  • Abhi
    Aug 25, 2017 - 9:31PM

    If Gandhi and Nehru were not secular enough, Modi doesn’t stand a chance. He has made a wise decision of not caring about such labels.Recommend

  • RepeatComment (from Germany)
    Aug 25, 2017 - 10:37PM

    India is a non-Muslim country. Period.Recommend

  • Haramullah Fattuddin
    Aug 25, 2017 - 11:38PM

    I think Manoj is talking about the appeasement policy of the state perticularly Congress the past.

    And it is also right if you are talking about secularism, only it is burden on non-muslims. So called leaders of Muslims in India like Owaisi and gang, wants others to be secular. Similarly author here wants others (non-muslims) to be secular (He never opposed the theocratic ism in Pakistan and wants others to be secular), because it is their responsibility and Muslims should only try to eat the fruits of secularism.Recommend

  • Steevan
    Aug 26, 2017 - 12:01AM

    @jabir sultan:
    We don’t need secularism lecture from Pakistanis.
    And if we were like you then muslims populations might have been down to 1% in 70 years the way hindu community has been in Pakistan. There are many minorities holding importance positions in Government institutions and else were. Minorities are treated very well in India.
    Can we see same thing for Pakistan minorities?Recommend

  • Lahori
    Aug 26, 2017 - 1:25AM

    He wasn’t lynched. He was arrested and police refused to hand him over to the mob. Disappointed?@Stephen Mumbai: Recommend

    Aug 26, 2017 - 2:19AM

    People from Islamic republic of Pakistan worrying about Indian secularism . Oh the irony !!Recommend

  • Oppressed Indian
    Aug 26, 2017 - 3:45AM

    Dear Indian Muslims:

    If you feel suffocated, feel free to leave India. We (Hindus/Sikhs/Jains/Buddhist/Christians) will keep working to make the country better. Your contribution (other than a few exceptions like A P J Abdul Kalam) in building of modern India is close to zero. All you have done is breed and create problems.

    An Oppressed IndianRecommend

  • V Gupta
    Aug 26, 2017 - 6:22AM

    The article is headed with a snap of Muslims – I suppose – burning Modi’s picture. Now think of Pakistani Hindus/Christians/Sikhs/Buddhists publicly burning a pix of their current PM, whatsisname……. Recommend

  • Greg
    Aug 26, 2017 - 7:49AM

    @RepeatComment (from Germany): Wish it was. Recommend

  • Komal S
    Aug 26, 2017 - 8:15AM

    Let me give a background so people know what is going on in India. At independence majority of Muslims stayed back in India, eventhough they voted for separate Pakistan. Congress has correctly called for secular India and the people questioning secular credentials were really few conservative Hindus from the so called upper castes. They had no political power. Post emergency and after 3 decades of Congress rule the country was still poor, alternative narrative started to take roots. To counter this Congress in the 80s and 90s leaned towards appeasement politics. It felt it need to guard minority and Dalit votes and hold on to caste politics to split Hindu votes. Meanwhile the opposition has been transforming from so called high caste focus to backward caste focus. Now with Modi the transition to backward caste is complete keeping high caste support intact. Now Modi is working hard on the transition to Dalits and you can see that he has been successful. BJP has realized they cannot be anti minorty. Their political process is to identify minorities who would campaign for uniform civil code, sing vande mataram and drive Indian nationalism. With time this transformation will be complete. Recommend

  • Mohit Badola
    Aug 26, 2017 - 8:24AM

    If secularism is the best policy than why doesn’t pakistan use it. Secularism was imposed on us by fake gandhi family…we are proud Hindus sikh Buddhist and jain….Recommend

  • wb
    Aug 26, 2017 - 9:00AM

    India can never be truly secular as long there are Muslims in India. Muslims are the biggest enemies of secularism across the globe!! The entire world cannot become truly secular as long as Muslims live on Earth.Recommend

  • wb
    Aug 26, 2017 - 9:03AM

    @Amir Sultan:

    That’s true. I completely agree with you. And that is why when a Pakistani (Islamist) criticizes Indian secularism, we are duby-bound to thrash him left right and center with words.Recommend

  • wb
    Aug 26, 2017 - 9:04AM

    The fact is Muslims have not lived in peace with anyone for 1450 years. In fact, Muslims have not lived in peace with other Muslims for 1450 years. Clearly, fault lies with Muslims and not with nonMuslims.Recommend

  • Manoj
    Aug 26, 2017 - 10:24AM


    India is not an idea. It’s a nation state built by sacrifices of million and 5000 years civilization. Israel / Pakistan and ME nations are idea or theme based nations.

    Once, Pakistan was partitioned based on religion for the muslim and by the muslims then certainly India should have been the Hindu homeland, only place to which persecuted hindus can look for shelter and dignity. which has been diluted and denied because of self inflicted injury of secularism.

    Secularism has become a tool in the hands of many minority groups who desire to break the country again on various identity idea.

    Our founding fathers were wise enough not to introduced the term Secularism in our original constitution, though Hindus by nature and character are liberal and accommodative of all faith and customs. Recommend

  • sam ganguly
    Aug 26, 2017 - 10:54AM

    I seriously believe that we need to learn how to be secular from pakistan.Recommend

  • PakPukudenguta
    Aug 26, 2017 - 10:19PM

    We have stopped aspiring certificate of secularism or good conduct from the world out side, especially from terror breeders. In fact, we care for our national interests more than such branding badges. In order to protect ourselves and to ensure prosperity of our country, we are ready to break everything and anything that suits our objective. Recommend

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