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At the tragically ritualistic annual meeting of the National Integration Council (NIC) a few months ago, the wise and compassionate philosopher-lawyer Fali Nariman made a moving intervention that shook the audience out of its usual stupor. “I was born in a pluralistic, tolerant India, but I fear I may not die in one,” he lamented. The council, of which I am also a member, was meeting in the aftermath of the riots in Muzaffarnagar, where at a sanitised distance of less than three hours from the national capital, infants were still dying in the bitter cold of makeshift camps.
For weeks politicians had snarled at each other in disagreement over which community had first provoked the violence. But while local representatives of the BJP, the BSP and the Samajwadi Party were all implicated in the rabble-rousing, the incontrovertible truth was that it was the administration of Akhilesh Yadav that had presided over the displacement of Muslim families with startling insensitivity and incompetence. And the same Mulayam Singh Yadav, who had once worn the title of ‘Maulana’ as a badge of ‘secularism’, was today defiantly cavorting with cinema stars instead of reaching out to riot victims. He didn’t even believe the riot victims existed. The ‘secular’ distinction that his party had historically claimed in the political clutter now appeared to be farcical. The mere refusal to negotiate an electoral alliance with the BJP clearly did not make him a genuine benefactor of the state’s Muslim minority.
After listening to the impassioned presentation of Fali Nariman, my own question to fellow members of the NIC was this: If we agree that our pluralism and diversity is at the heart of the idea of India, how have we reached a point where secularism has become almost a bad word — mocked as ‘sickular’ by the ultra-right wing online, re-cast as pseudo-secular by LK Advani and others in the 90s, distorted and mauled by the expediency of polarising politicians such as Mulayam and embraced as a defining principle by those struggling today to preach beyond the converted?
Personally the idea of pluralism is sacred to me; bigotry in any faith is repulsive and the religious ghettoisation of some of our cities absolutely dismaying. For my oft-expressed belief that large democracies owe a greater sense of security to their minorities to avoid being defined by majoritarianism, I have routinely been sneered at by online extremists who insist on twisting the syllables of my name to ‘burkha’ to suggest what they claim is an unreasonable affinity with the Muslim community.
That I find framing the debate around secularism in such prejudiced terms unacceptable, doesn’t stop me from simultaneously acknowledging that by itself secularism as a political script has few wins at the electoral box office. If there is one thing that the 2014 campaign has brought home with certitude it is this; for the outgoing Congress government mired in the mess of misgovernance and paralysed by ineffectual leadership to fall back on secularism as its only distinctive offering to the electorate, subverts the value of genuine secularism even further.
It is certainly now redundant to frame the political debate around secularism in terms of opposition to or support for Narendra Modi. Does J Jayalalithaa, who describes the BJP’s prime ministerial contender as a “good personal friend”, become more secular because she has a seat-sharing pact with the Left parties? And how ‘secular’ is Ram Vilas Paswan, who stormed out of the NDA because of the Gujarat riots only to return 12 years later, unable to disguise his glee at being back in the headlines? Does Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar get to claim a special place in the secularists’ corner because he openly challenged the might of Modi but still waited several years before walking out of the alliance? The dynamics of coalition politics have created a permanent floating vote that is transferable between alliances led by either of the two major national parties. This arrangement of electoral mathematics has weakened the political relevance of secularism. The BJP has some reason to be smug in the belief that if it crosses the 200 threshold, the allies will troop in as well.
To not recognise this is the miscalculation of the Congress campaign. Secularism has political value if it is coupled with a muscular leadership, charisma, vision and a capacity for efficient governance. By itself and used as a compensatory ideology for all else that is missing, it will yield no return. It will merely sound like an excuse. And as 1984 and 2002 permanently book-end every debate around accountability for riots and pogroms, the voter will get increasingly cynical and disconnected from the notion of secularism as a basis for voting preferences. Salman Khurshid may well call the Gujarat administration “impotent” in 2002 for failing to save innocent lives, but beyond the question of whether the language he used is appropriate, he must be willing to use the same adjective for the Congress-led governments in Delhi in 1984 and in Maharashtra in 1992-93.
Pluralism is a precious principle of the Indian republic and central to our very existence. But political hypocrisy has weakened the idea of secularism instead of strengthening it. As Indians invested in our multi-faith diversity we need to wrest secularism back from the political establishment and re-claim it as our own, reviving it with our own personal experiences of cultural co-habitation and syncretic inter-dependencies. Else, secularism will be a slogan for election season, strong on rhetoric and weak on reality.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, NDTV
The views expressed by the author are personal