In defence of Indian secularism
When it is threatened, multiple identities are threatened. That is the lesson from the protests
The protests erupting across India since the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) are a testament to the centrality of secularism as the foundational principle that binds the country together and holds the key to India’s survival as a nation. The deathly blow that the CAA and its companion, the National Register of Citizens (NRC), have delivered to secularism threatens the foundations of India’s plural social fabric. When secularism is threatened, India is weakened. This is the lesson from the passage of the CAA, and the unrest it has unleashed.
Much has been written, including in this column, on the damage the CAA and NRC can do to India’s secular fabric. However, given its import, it bears repetition. The CAA offers fast-track citizenship to a specified list of non-Muslim migrants living in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, justified on grounds of experienced or fear of “religious persecution”. By introducing religion as a marker of citizenship, the CAA creates categories of citizens with differing pathways to citizenship based on religious identity. The amendment thus upends the constitutional promise of a universal, religion-neutral idea of citizenship. India belonged to all, irrespective of religion. It was this conception of citizenship that formed the foundation of our secular promise.
But the full import of the CAA can only be understood when viewed in conjunction with the promise of implementing a nationwide NRC. While the CAA deals specifically with the question of migrants and their claims to citizenship, the nationwide NRC will open up the issue of citizenship for all Indians. Designed as an administrative tool to, quite literally, create a registry of all “citizens”, and through this ,weed out “infiltrators” and “termites”, the NRC will effectively empower all arms of the administration to interrogate people and evaluate their claims to citizenship based on documents in their possession.
For those belonging to specific religious categories identified in the CAA, the Act will serve as a protection device. For others, read Muslim, their vulnerabilities will be further enhanced, condemning them to new, torturous paths of discrimination and dispossession. The political message is clear. Together the CAA and NRC amount to no less than a State-sponsored project of “othering” that strikes at the heart of India’s secular ethos.
In the days since the passage of the CAA, multiple protests across north and Northeast India last week. Ironically, these protests are themselves expressions of India’s overlapping multi-religious, multi-ethnic character that the CAA seeks to undermine. The mobilisations in the Northeast are about anxieties of ethnicity, culture and language as much as religion while the protests in Delhi, Aligarh and Lucknow are chiefly about religious identity and discriminatory exclusion of Muslims from the CAA.
It is the principle of secularism that has bound these multiple identities and sought forms of peaceful coexistence and tolerance. The resistance in the Northeast hasn’t been overtly framed in the grammar of secularism, nor are the protests seeking to defend it as a principle — the northeastern concerns are primarily linked to the historical in-migration of Bengali Hindus from from colonial India, and East Pakistan/Bangladesh post-Partition and its impact on indigenous culture and identities. Yet, it is the constitutional ethos of secularism that provided the framework for these multiple identity claims to be articulated and negotiated in the political sphere, in the first place. Secularism allowed India to both celebrate its many identities and defend them, when threatened.
The ethos of secularism, as political scientist Neera Chandoke has argued, found expression in India’s freedom movement as a necessary antidote to the politicisation of religion that fuelled communal riots and the competitive nation-building project of Pakistan. Religion had been politicised, making society vulnerable to violence. Secularism offered a pathway to peace. The secularism ethos — all religions are equal in the eyes of law and that the State shall not propagate one particular religion — provided the foundation for building a society that negotiated multiple identities and enabled them to coexist in security and harmony.
The current wave of protests have found voice precisely because when secularism is overtly threatened, so too are these multiple identities. This is the lesson that home minister Amit Shah and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ought to learn. India needs secularism to survive in peace and harmony.
Of course, India’s experiment with secularism has its flaws. Competitive party politics has sought to legitimise the blatant, entrenchment of religious politicisation in the name of “secularism”, rather than serve its cause. And it is in this abdication of the core principles of secularism that the BJP successfully appropriated the term, even defending the citizenship amendment as “secular” while accusing political opponents of being “pseudo secularist”.
The real challenge that protests and resistance to the CAA and NRC face today is that they are bereft of a vocabulary to defend secularism’s cause even though it is the threat to secularism that sparked these protests. India urgently needs to wrest and reclaim secularism, anchoring it in a new vocabulary that redeems its credibility. Our collective ability to do so will determine whether India will reclaim itself or stay firm on its current path toward a re-imagination of its foundations.