One of the first images seared into my brain is of Ajji, my grandmother, swaying back and forth on her bed in the room my brother and I shared with her. It is a warm, summer night on the Deccan plateau in the early 1970s, and I watch her trying to shoo away the bugs drifting in through the open windows, as she buries herself in a book. Ajji, an illiterate mother of 10, is teaching herself to read, alphabet by faltering alphabet. Her text of choice is a Marathi version of the Ramayan, that ancient story of right and wrong and the strength and frailty of Gods and humans.
I cannot recall precisely what Ajji said to me, but I faintly remember a lot about bearing no ill will. Sharing a room with a religious grandmother — many times a day, she closed her eyes and prayed — and accompanying her on many temple visits grounded me in religious matters quite early. When my parents travelled the length and breadth of India by train, we always visited centres of Hindu pilgrimage. We climbed Shankaracharya Hill in Srinagar, washed our feet at the holy tri-junction of seas in Kanyakumari, stood in line at Tirupati and did aarti in Madurai’s grand Meenakshi Amman temple.
At home, the Ganesh puja was — and is — an annual event, and another memory that will forever stay in my mind is the family singing “Sukhakarta dukhakarta, varta vighnachi...”, an auspicious Marathi invocation.
You will forgive my ramblings about childhood because they are relevant to what I am not, religious, and what I am, secular. Don’t get me wrong. I may not any longer visit temples, but I do regard myself a Hindu, in the broad sense of tradition, pride and culture, a position not far from the fashionable position of the newly triumphant religious Right.
Where I tend to be unfashionable is in holding the view that India should never be a Hindu nation, a religious counter to Pakistan, and that religion should remain a personal matter, scrupulously scrubbed from government offices and the public sphere. So, yes, I was not pleased to see Narendra Modi visit the ghats of Varanasi for a Ganga aarti — although I am happy with his directive to fans not to touch his feet.
I emphasise my position because we live in a time, after Modi’s triumph, when being secular, or ‘sickular’— as those on the Right might call me — and liberal increasingly appears to be something to be ashamed of, to be hidden, to be scorned. So, what does it mean to be a liberal by the resurgent Right?
To me, it means many things, but it does not mean what they insist you stand for. For instance, as a liberal, I do not automatically become a ‘Left liberal’.
I believe in free markets, in dismantling the public sector, reforming labour laws, paying government officials much more — oh, and abolishing at least half of government — in drastically reforming our leaky, multibillion-dollar safety nets. I do think, though, it is important to keep safety nets because even if Modi delivers all that he promises, it will take a very long time to do so.
I believe that hauling in young Muslim men as suspects and often killing them in extrajudicial ‘encounters’ is illegal, counterproductive and just wrong; as is torturing or branding anyone with leftist leanings a ‘Maoist’. I also believe in intensifying the fight against the Maoist insurgency and, yes, I do believe in the death penalty. I get a lump in my throat each time I watch the Republic Day parade, I believe our armed forces are brave, underfunded and underequipped, but I do think those responsible for excesses must be punished and special protective laws that allow rape and assassination in peacetime in places like Kashmir and Manipur must be withdrawn.
I do believe women hold up more than half the sky and that we do terribly by our wives, daughters, sisters and mothers; we revere them falsely as goddesses and blame everything and everyone for their woes, when the truth lies inside our hearts and minds — in our refusal to let them get ahead.
I believe homosexuals have a right to get married and have families and nowhere in our scriptures or values does it say they cannot.
Speaking of families, I do not find anything wrong with a uniform civil code. After all, Hindus thought it was the end of the world when their laws were codified after Independence by the Constitution’s creator, BR Ambedkar. Women in Muslim communities across India often face the worst of not getting the full protection of the law, and Rajiv Gandhi did them a great disservice by using Parliament to overturn a Supreme Court judgement that provided maintenance for an unfortunate woman called Shah Bano Begum.
Speaking of Rajiv Gandhi, I have always believed the Congress responsible for a lot that is wrong with India, from Indira Gandhi’s cynical exploitation of Sikh separatists, to her son opening the locks on the Babri masjid, to his sly condoning of those who slaughtered the Sikhs after her assassination. I also believe that Modi — far from answering for his acts of omission and commission — got away with 2002 (and, no, the Supreme Court has not yet given him a clean chit; we await its ruling).
After his triumph, many liberals now seem chary of even acknowledging their beliefs. Secularism, sociologist Shiv Vishwanathan wrote recently in The Hindu, gradually became a ‘repression’ of the middle class, enabling Modi to defeat liberals like him.
Funny, I don’t feel defeated. The force of numbers never made anyone right. I am not always right either, but I will not hide the fact that I am a secular, liberal — and proud — Indian, who bears no ill will to anyone. I think Ajji would approve.
Samar Halarnkar is a Bangalore-based journalist
The views expressed by the author are personal