Indians are reclaiming, and redefining, the idea of secularism | Opinion
They have withstood the government’s sticks and stones, threats of “revenge vows” and daily attempts to delegitimise and label them as “tukde tukde”, anti-national, groups with vested interests, creating a “fear psychosis”. For over a month now, India’s students, India’s women, and most prominently, India’s Muslims, have remained resilient in the face of brutal repression, armed with the Constitution, determined to reclaim their democratic rights.
One month on, what do these protests, now spread across many parts of the country, tell us about this current moment in India’s democracy? Are these protests no more than an inchoate and a leaderless response to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) that, in the absence of formal political organisation, will dissipate in the face of State repression? Or, do they hold out the possibility of shaping a new politics for India that restores meaning to constitutional values of secularism, equality and justice?
Writing in these pages days after Parliament passed the CAA and the protests began, I had argued that the greatest challenge for the movement against the CAA and its sinister twin, the National Register of Citizens (NRC), is that of reclaiming secularism and finding a new vocabulary through which to defend its cause. This is not an easy task. Competitive party politics has hollowed out the true value of secularism, leaving in its place an opportunistic politics of religion. Being “secular” has been reduced to a politics of religious appeasement and chasing vote banks, rather than affirming values of tolerance, equality and peaceful coexistence. Party politics has stripped secularism of its true meaning, and as a result, even committed “secularists” have shied away from the term, preferring the language of tolerance and pluralism.
But in this last month, secularism has slowly found its way back into the public discourse as a constitutional value worth fighting for. The word itself has made regular appearances on posters, and is now integral to the grammar of the current wave of protests. It has also made its presence felt loud and clear, in the repeated chanting of the Preamble of the Constitution, which is the rallying point of the protests. But it is at the now iconic Shaheen Bagh that secularism, and the idea of what it means for Indians to practice being “secular” in everyday life, has truly emerged with renewed vigour and meaning.
On January 12, thousands gathered at Shaheen Bagh to participate in a simultaneous inter-faith prayer. Verses from the Koran and the Bible were read out alongside a kirtan and havan and reading of the Preamble. The imagery was powerful. A Muslim-dominated residential area, demonstrating to India what the practice of secularism, of tolerance, of “Sarva Dharma Sambhava” (a doctrine with Hindu origins that defined the freedom movement and the idea of secularism in modern India) means to ordinary Indians. There is a powerful video doing the rounds that I would urge all readers to watch of Muslim women (identified clearly by what they are wearing) loudly chanting “Jai Sia Ram”. The symbolism of this image is inescapable.
This is how India is defining secularism. Shaheen Bagh is perhaps the first moment in independent India’s history that the idea of secularism is being defined and given meaning by ordinary people. This is not secularism as imagined by intellectuals, lawyers, or career politicians. This is ordinary people, finding ways to articulate what secularism means to them, on Delhi’s streets. And in this act, secularism has not just reappeared but being ascribed a more robust meaning, one that has deep roots in everyday Indian life.
Equally important, these protests are also witnessing a visible, unabashed assertion of religious identity, or more specifically, Muslim identity, including through the now controversial chanting of “La illaha illallah”. This religious assertion has made some supporters of the protests uncomfortable. This discomfort is misplaced. Rather than dismissing and wishing away the assertion of religious identity, it ought to be understood as part of India’s conversation with secularism and definition of its practice. Through the protests, Muslims are asserting their identity as Muslims and as Indians who believe in values of tolerance and harmony. This is India’s definition of secularism.
But does this spontaneous, protest-led reclamation of secularism hold the possibility of translating into a new politics, in the long term? Despite opposing the CAA and taking a strong stance at the state government-level , Opposition parties, particularly the Congress, have failed to seize the opportunity to generate a new discourse on secularism and democracy in to mainstream politics. This doesn’t leave much hope. But as sociologist Patrick Heller reminded me in a conversation recently, we should be careful not to reduce democracy to mere party politics. Democracy begins and its practice is strengthened in the interstices of associational life. What we are witnessing today is democracy in its truest sense. It may not disrupt the status quo immediately, but it holds the promise of a better future.
Yamini Aiyar is president and chief executive, Centre for Policy Research
The views expressed are personal