Analysis: Do Indians care about secularism anymore?

Published: April 8, 2014
During election time, many of India’s ethnic, linguistic and religious groups that are otherwise marginalised, are courted by political parties.

During election time, many of India’s ethnic, linguistic and religious groups that are otherwise marginalised, are courted by political parties.


After Imam Bukhari’s press conference, in which the imam of India’s largest mosque announced his support for the incumbent Congress party, religion has again resurfaced as a divisive, potentially decisive factor in the Indian elections kicked off this week.

“We have to fight unitedly against communal forces,” Bukhari said in New Delhi last Friday, alluding to the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its controversial leader and candidate for Prime Minister, Narendra Modi.

During election time, many of India’s ethnic, linguistic and religious groups that are otherwise marginalised, are courted by political parties that identify them as potential voting blocs and pools of support. As unified constituencies, the ‘Dalit vote’, the ‘Muslim vote’ and the ‘backward (referring to castes and adivasi tribes that the Indian constitution recognizes as underprivileged) vote’ become crucial to determining a candidate’s success.

In that respect, the only reason why there is still a competition between Congress and the BJP is the ‘Muslim’ vote’s ambivalence, if not hostility, towards Modi for his alleged role in the Gujarat riots of 2002 that killed at least 1,000 people, mostly Muslims.

Violence between religious communities in India is not new, and it is recurrent. Isolated incidents of violence happen frequently with varying levels of intensity. Last year, communal violence in Uttar Pradesh left almost 50 people dead, and thousands, mostly Muslims, without a home.

Congress presents itself as the antidote to this sectarianism. The head of the party, Sonia Gandhi, is an Italian-born Catholic; the current Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh is Sikh; former president APJ Abdul Kalam is Muslim. It has been carrying its secular character since modern India’s inception in 1947 under the first Prime Minister of India – and avowed atheist – Jawaharlal Nehru.

Yet, Congress has also got its hands dirty in India’s violent communal politics. Violent riots in Delhi after Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984 killed 3,000 Sikhs – and Congress’s aversion to taking any responsibility was similar to Modi’s. “When a big tree falls, the earth shakes,” was former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s infamous response to the allegations of Congress-led violence against the Sikhs.

Congress’s consistent attacks on the BJP for its role in Gujarat then, have seemed hollow as Rahul Gandhi struggled to dismiss the analogies between the BJP and his own party’s role in 1984.

Despite having a spotty communal record itself, Congress has struggled in this campaign primarily because many voters say they just haven’t been provided with good governance. Clinton’s adage, repeated time and time again, rings true in India as well: It’s the economy, stupid.

India’s growth has been anemic; its corruption, rampant; its rulers, unaccountable. Modi’s management of Gujarat, on the other hand, has been anything but. For many voters, the battle for India’s theological identity is less important than the condition of the air they breathe, the quality of the healthcare they are provided, the belief that they have a government that cares for their well-being.

That is perhaps what political upstart Arvind Kejriwal had in mind when he launched the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), since in his understanding, neither Congress nor BJP has been delivering in multiple stints in power. He must undoubtedly believe what Khalid Anis Ansari, a researcher has said, “The secularism-communalism binary is a conspiracy of the Indian upper-caste elite, be they Hindu or Muslim, to keep the poor and the low caste where they are.”

Published in The Express Tribune, April 8th, 2014.

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Reader Comments (28)

  • SM
    Apr 8, 2014 - 3:16AM

    Indian secularism is a myth – it was a myth a hundred years ago when we were all fighting for freedom and it is a myth today.

    It was a ploy by the Congress to keep a United India – the myth has since perpetuated but India is and will be a Hindu India.


  • Narsingh Rao
    Apr 8, 2014 - 3:57AM

    That’s what I’d call surface skimming. There’s not much depth of information, forget any intellectual analysis in a sociological, political, economic or anthropological context. How is the structure of domination or exploitation or repression different every corner of the earth? Are religion and caste the only axes through which these are manifested. If so, India (or any country, for that matter) would truly be blessed. I don’t know what purpose this OpEd serves except to inform the very, very ill-informed or make some partisans might happy about their own situation however meagre.


  • Raj Kafir
    Apr 8, 2014 - 6:10AM

    India is a great secular country. Rajiv Gandhi son of Firoze Khan ( Gandhi ) was the first Muslim Prime Minister of India.


  • Naren
    Apr 8, 2014 - 9:18AM

    Secularism is a part & parcel of today’s Indian. It has its own meaning to all the individuals, where any body can not cross the Laxaman rekha of the Indian constitution. Its not the secularism which will unite the nation, it will be socio – economic condition of the society will decide the future of India.


  • Raj
    Apr 8, 2014 - 9:20AM

    Wondering .. if this is satire or comedy


  • Apr 8, 2014 - 10:17AM

    Secular or no secular but where India’s integral part J&K gone,trip to mars.If so bring it from mars BJP is comming.


  • mimi sur
    Apr 8, 2014 - 10:36AM
  • Apr 8, 2014 - 11:04AM

    India being secular or not is a very important question for Pakistan, for it was created on the assumption that minorities, especially Muslims, are unsafe and will not progress.

    But, after the Ahmadis were declared non-Muslims, 3 Million Bengalis killed(mostly Muslim) by West Pakistanis, 50,000 dead in the name of Religion, this ought to be a moot question for Pakistan.

    But, alas its not.

    India’s laws do not discriminate against anyone. That is what a truly secular nation means. No man can change that. If it were that brittle, it would have fallen long ago.


  • Feroz
    Apr 8, 2014 - 11:31AM

    When secularism is in the preamble of the Constitution which guarantees protection to all religious minorities it really does not matter who governs, right, center or left. Therefore in India secularism becomes an issue during elections to create insecurity and fear in the minds of voters for polarizing the vote and electoral gain.
    The loot raj of the CONgress alongside economic stagnation and misgovernance has made it clutch at straws so it is natural it will call its opponents communal. create insecurity and use secularism as an antidote. With each passing election this strategy is losing traction because economic progress and upliftment has gained priority over other non issues. The growth of regional parties also points to the failure of national parties to connect with people on local issues at State level.


  • Blunt
    Apr 8, 2014 - 12:38PM

    @mimi sur:
    Before reading this one , I was reading a report on Wikipedia.


  • Sarita Talwai
    Apr 8, 2014 - 4:24PM

    Just saying… President Abdul Kalam was selected by the B.J.P as president.


  • Constitution is supreme
    Apr 8, 2014 - 4:30PM

    @blunt one major difference though.
    Constitution and judiciary protects the rights of minority and majority both under law. All are equal before it. Religion has no place while delivering justice. A person is viewed as a victim. Not Hindu or Muslim by court.
    Its not the same in Islamic republic Pakistan. All are not equal. Religion plays important role in solving matters. Making it biased to one religion community even before the case starts.

    Violence happens everywhere, even in america and other first world countries. What’s important is you have fair impartial secular constitution not biased one.


  • 1984
    Apr 8, 2014 - 4:36PM

    Congress presents itself as the antidote to this sectarianism. The head of the party, Sonia Gandhi, is an Italian-born Catholic; the current Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh is Sikh; former president APJ Abdul Kalam is Muslim.

    FYI, APJ Abdul Kalam was nominated by BJP during the NDA rule and when his term was over,he was refused for a second term by the “Secular” Congress who instead appointed that maid Pratiba Patil who spent thousands of crores on foreign trips….

    Hope you do the research before publishing the article


  • G. Din
    Apr 8, 2014 - 5:28PM

    Today’s headline: Arvind Kejriwal was slapped yet again!


  • vinsin
    Apr 8, 2014 - 5:31PM

    @Constitution is supreme:
    India is not a secular country but a religious country with laws based on religion. Indian laws do discriminate against atheist and any new religion. With the current structure muslims are having upper hand.


  • Ali S
    Apr 8, 2014 - 5:39PM

    The vast majority of India and Pakistan are right-wing and conservative in their social, political and cultural outlook. Considering that an overwhelming population of India is Hindu with a huge variety of cultures, languages, sects and religions – it’s still holding up a lot better than Pakistan, and regardless of whether BJP or Congress are in power that’s not going to change. The statistics are out there – just compare the number of Muslims killed in sectarian violence in the past two decades in Pakistan and India, then compare the population of Muslims in these countries.


  • Constitution is supreme
    Apr 8, 2014 - 7:35PM

    Indian constitution discriminates against atheist,new religion? What new religion, all religion and practices are covered under it unless it’s a religion born yesterday.
    Btw Can you explain discrimination against atheist how?I am an atheist myself nobody finds problem with it. And why would government bother with me being atheist? How does that affect my job? Many Hindus are atheist. Statement is totally false and baseless.
    “Muslims have upper hand” you feel that because.. Family, marriage, inheritance matters, the constitution has allowed laws according to their religious practices/ laws. Which means Muslims can follow polygamy,marriage age difference, while all rest Sikhs Christians Buddhist Hindus etc cant and follow monogamy and have marriage age as 18. You feel india has one rule for others and one for Muslims giving them advantage right?
    Fundamental right in indian constitution ” right to religion and religious practices” allows Muslim to follow their own laws which covers polygamy and other difference etc.
    Constitution has never given any upper hand to anybody. People of india have different race,ethnicity,lang etc as well as deeply spiritual and religious. But constitution is not, it’s secular and keeps all in check..


  • Narendra Singh
    Apr 8, 2014 - 9:26PM

    Muslims have become President, PM & Vice Presidents, even superstars but when will they b’com Indians & stop supporting Pak. I don’t think that’s ever possible.


  • vinsin
    Apr 9, 2014 - 6:07AM

    @Constitution is supreme:
    Tribune has not allowed my answer.


  • Amazed!
    Apr 9, 2014 - 3:29PM

    @narendra singh when did they support pak? Supporting peace and good relations between both countries is supporting Pakistan to you? Most superstar support peace and exchanges. So do I, so I am a Pak supporter/anti indian? Wow


  • Lalit
    Apr 9, 2014 - 4:13PM

    secularism in its present form has been introduced in India post independence. ancient India had a concept of sarva dharma sambhav(an equal treatment to all religions),where most of the rulers granted equal rights to all the sects like Shaiva,Vaishnava,Carvaka and nastika offshoots like Buddhism and Jainism.Hindu kings granted lands for the creation of Mosques and Churches to the incoming Muslim and Christians.spirit which teaches-vasudhaive ch kutumbakamie whole world is a family, has been a cornerstone of Hindu civilization.similarly Akbar was among a few Mughal rulers who showed respect towards, and in turn got respect from his contemporary Hindus.Core of India as a society is sarva dharma sambhav,while the state is secular beyond any doubt.and rest assured it will remain so for eternity.


  • mayur
    Apr 9, 2014 - 8:46PM

    the news paper published from the country which is formed on the basis of religion has no right to talk about secularism… as far as india , it will be secular as constitution of india protects the secularism of nation, so dont worry about india, worry the conditions of your country..


  • jssidhoo
    Apr 10, 2014 - 7:48AM

    A P J Kalam was elected as President as he was the BJP candidate and they had the numbers.In spite of being the most popular President ever he did not get a second term because his candidature was opposed by the “secular” Congress. Please do some research before you publish such crucial info .


  • Simpleton
    Apr 10, 2014 - 1:06PM

    Please don’t equate 1984 pograms & 2002 riots. Not a single non-sikh(congressi) died in 84. Yes, almost 1000 innocent muslims(who had nothing to do with the train) died in 2002. But also about 250 innocent hindus(who had nothing to do with riots) also died apart from 58 burnt in train. If you think what I said is wrong please do argue. All that shouldn’t have happened. But it does happen in our world. More so in developing countries. I only wish that all criminals have to be punished. Many are not ready to believe the parties who initially tried to say that the train burning was an accident, but do believe the SIT report. When Modi requested for cops from neighbouring Congress ruled states they weren’t provided. I don’t think its easy to contain large riots(which used to occur every decade in Gujarat) within three days, in a country which took a whole day to get forces to Mumbai on 26/11 .
    @ ET mods, you might think this is communal, but I’m only saying that there are criminals in all communities, who have to be punished by the courts.


  • Komal S
    Apr 11, 2014 - 1:34PM

    @Sarita Talwai:
    While we are it, Secular Congress did not want to extend his term when everybody knew he was one of the most popular president in recent times.


  • Rakib
    Apr 11, 2014 - 2:19PM

    @Komal S:
    @jssidhoo: So far as I know out of the 13 so far there has been only one person who got two successive terms as Prez of India: Rajendra Prasad. Nobody else got it. Why should anybody? Radhakrishnan was no less popular in his days but even he was not invited. There was absolutely no reason for APJ to have been given another term. In fact, even BJP did not want him any more once he confessed that he had invited Sonia Gandhi to become PM, giving a lie to bogus claims of Subramania Swamy. Anyway,it is risky to have a Supreme Commander of Armed Forces that becomes too popular!!


  • Rakib
    Apr 11, 2014 - 4:49PM

    @BruteForce: (India’s laws do not discriminate against anyone. That is what a truly secular nation means. No man can change that.)

    There are ways; if you recall what Rajiv did with Shah Bano matter. Laws are based on a set of Principles; non-discrimination being one such that you allude to. Principles do not survive in vaccume or in tomes; they thrive within Personalities & in Practice. It’s the Personality of the Ruler, be it Nehru or Modi, that determines how or whether at all the Principles are practiced. Nehru was a secular democrat; Modi is a Hindu nationalist autocrat. That matters. Besides, NO Law in the world is a protection against collusion between at least two arms of the republic: a captive legislature with solid majority & a subservient executive. Judiciary than becomes toothless.If Parliament is dominated by BJP & Cabinet is in the pocket of Modi, RSS can do practically anything thru Modi.


  • Apr 11, 2014 - 7:03PM


    What Rajiv Gandhi did was truly unsecular, but the Muslim Law itself is unsecular. This is something the minorities are demanding.

    How can you call something unsecular, when the minorities are demanding it for themselves?


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