Friday, May 2, 2014

Reclaiming Indian Secularism

Reclaiming Indian Secularism
Teesta Setalvad

It was as many as 21 years ago, after cataclysmic events had shaken our country and my city that I first started theoretical and academic deliberations (even as a journalist into the meaning and manifestation of the term secularism). The cataclysmic events I recall today bear some relevance to the dangerous pass we have been brought to, and the precipice we stand at. May 16 will decide whether we get a much needed breather or not.
Hatred and violence had been spilt on the streets of India’s districts and villages, a cynical plank ostensibly to build a temple in the name of lord Ram at Faizabad-Ayodhya (a town that already hosts over 300 temples to the Hindu God) had been sent in motion since 1986 first by the Rashtriya Swyamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Vishwa Hindu Parishad, later to be adopted at it’s official programme by the Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP). While the mandir was the plank, a penetration and attack on the foundations of India as a secular democratic republic was the aim, and the spread of calculated hatreds against India’s largest and not so largest minorities the dastardly means. It was in those horridly halcyon days of Advani’s lotus adorned rath yatra that was flanked by Modi as it set off from Somnath  in 1990 that the terms “tushtikaran” were coined and the edifice of secularism abused.

It would be good for the young to re-visit this trajectory. I had delved deep then and opined in a rather lengthy paper delivered at the Goregaon Seminary in 1993-1994 that it is the fundamentals of equality and equality before the law, and discrimination to none that gives life and blood to the term secularism. Openly manifest prejudice be it in the guise of the socially acceptable and unchallenged practices of rigidly ghettoized neighbourhoods, exclusivist classrooms and schools and rigidly supremacist workplaces are some of its worst manifestations. Closely observing this since 1989, Gujarat could well top this list in its urban and semi-urban centres being near one hundred per cent ghettoized but lets not fool ourselves, my Mumbai and our Delhi are not that much better. Ask young professional Muslims of the barriers they face as they join other Indians to partake of a modernized Indian cake and you will have the answer. Institutionalised bias or majoritarianism as I have been consistently writing and speaking of for over six years now shows up in the way not just the police functions (and this we at Communalism Combat can take legitimate credit to begin a national discourse on, see  but how the judiciary prioritises issues and delivers verdicts, how employers (public and private sector) assess CVs and bio datas of candidates applying for different job descriptions, how teachers teach in the classroom, what narrative and interpretation of history we have in our history and social studies textbooks.
On all these front, I would humbly submit the RSS-BJP combine has foregone all rights to speak as they, in the language of the courts are the prime accused. Accused in the people’s court of cynically and systematically targeting secular institutions and ideas and ensuring with their potent poison of majoritarian sentiment and communalism targeting the delivery of the Constitutional non-negotiables of equality and non-discrimination.
It is the other players, especially the major mainstream political parties who only conveniently don the “secular” hat, that will be historically adjudged in the people’s court as the next major offender. While holding power for the lion’s share of the years that this wonderful country of ours became independent and has existed, this formation has failed to uphold the world “secular” and “democratic” when assaulted by a systematic assault by the majoritarian rightwing. It is this cynical phenomenon that has led not just many younger professionals among Indians to abhor being linked with this older and more cynical brand of electoral secularism (that only seeks to save what should be the life-blood of this nation) when elections are near and its own power is at stake but in practice led to a cynical compromise with the principles of egalitarianism and non-discrimination.
The challenge before you and me, the voter and thinker, the activist and intellectual, every Indian committed to the ideals of an India based on the visions of Ambedkar, Azad and Nehru is to preserve the precious space required to fight that ultimate battle for a secular, democratic India in the immediate and ask the following inconvenient questions, the moment the future of India is decided at about 12 noon on May 16 2014.
Here are the questions that we need to ask:
Q. Will the Election Commission be pushed by “Secular Parties” to genuine probe and take a long-term, conclusive decision on the hate speech delivered by Giriraj Singh, Praveen Togadia and Ramdas Kadam? If the EC fails will the “secular” parties go to the Courts for a speedy decision on the violation of Indian criminal law (inciting hatred against one section) and election law (misusing religion for political ends)?
[We all know what happened in the Varun Gandhi and Narendra Modi cases, one gave a speech at Pilibhit in 2009 and the other at Becharaji, Mehsana in 2002; we also know that NO political secular opposition fought the cases to uphold decency of debate and public life and it has been left to us to battle the Courts, alone]
Q. Will the issues raised by the Sachar Committee, that is equality of job, living and opportunity be seriously dealt with by all “secular” parties and governments and a public audit of government departments and private sector be undertaken so that a National Diversity Index is made available –so that you and I know how many of which kind of Indian makes it to jobs in India’s corporate sector (India Shining!!!), India’s police force, India’s teaching community; India’s medical services, India’s government services, India’s police services?
[Or will it again be left to individual groups and formations to push this issue while the RSS-BJP continues with its calculated politics of denial of basic rights to a large sections of Indians?]
Q. Will the crucial issue of discrimination before the law—Courts and all—especially when related to unaccounted detention of youth as undertrials be it adivasis, poor, Dalits or Minorities be dealt with as an Institutional malaise that has crept into our systems of governance or again be non-prioritised by the so called “secular” political parties?
[We all know how the ATS of different states function included those ruled by the so-called “secular”parties]
Q. Will we continue to examine and agitate the bias present in India’s history and social studies textbooks, not just those used in Gujarat, MP, Rajasthan UP and Maharashtra bit also being supplied as supplementary materials in RSS/BJP run Shishu Mandirs and Ekal Vidyalayas?
[We all know the poison spread to ensure that young generations of Indians grow up believing in “othering” other Indians and not in upholding the Constitutional principles of equality and non-discrim ination].
Q. Will we devote time to the deliberation and creation of alternate forums of communication that sideline the pernicious role of private television owned by corporate houses that are backing only the majoritarian construct of India?
[Remember that today the major television channels are either directly or indirectly controlled by one or the other corpoirate house or by political formations].
It is in the consistent asking of these key questions after and between elections, if India is granted a breathing space of the next few years, that  we may find the answers. To resurrect India through an uncompromised understanding and affiliation to its foundations, as a secular democratic republic.


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