Friday, July 31, 2015

Is Indian Secularism completely unsatisfactory ?

[Warning: Very long rambling piece, so don't recommend reading unless you have quite some time to expend - TLDR type].

India's religious fault lines were once again brought to the fore over the last few days with the the drama surrounding the hanging of Yakub Memon. To me this has brought up the question: Is India's secularism  a complete farce that satisfies no one ? 

Over the last few days, an incredible amount of moral confusion has been spread by conflating the basic issues of the validity or otherwise, of capital punishment with the merits of the case of Yakub Memon. However, by the end of it all, it seems to me that champions of India's Muslim community, both in politics - such as Naqeeb e Millat  - Mr. Asaduddin Owaisi, and India's leading "Secular-liberal" intellectuals are making a number of very serious charges against the Indian State and its institutions, but also perhaps at the "very Hindu" government at the center.  After all, the Yakub hanging has led to both, discussions at chai -stalls as well as leading op-ed columnists expressing that he got a raw deal because we have a Hindu government.

The narrative is One Smart Line

It is worth mentioning that India's  "liberal" intelligentsia, which has for some time had a symbiotic relationship with left of center, "secular" parties, is now locked in an increasingly shrill battle with what they perceive to be the "fascist", "communal" forces of the Sangh Parivar.  In these times of Social Media, this influential civil society which is the "Sec-lib" intelligentsia, comprising of prominent members of the media, the legal fraternity, the arts and so on, has come across a new stumbling block - the disorganized but rambunctious online supporters of the Right, who will not take things lying down. Call them Internet Hindus or Sanghis, or as is in fashion these days, "Bhakts", they are certainly giving a run for the money to the established Main Stream Media voices who have been used for long, in controlling the narratives. The arrival of the Modi Sarkaar has notched up the volume of our daily debates, for better or for worse.

Now, coming back to the earlier point, some of the charges being made by our secular champions are:

  1. The Indian State is biased against Muslims when it comes to criminal justice.(Sometimes Dalits are also being combined into the argument, for added impact: For Eg this has been thrown around a lot recently:  A recent study by the National Law University shows that a mindboggling 94 per cent of people on death row are Muslims or Dalits
  2. This is happening in a number of ways. For eg:  Criminals/ Terrorists - who happen to be Muslims - such as Afzal Guru/ Yakub Memon - have got the death penalty, but similar punishment is not being meted out to criminals/ terrorists who happen to be non Muslim - for eg: Killers of Rajiv Gandhi and Beant Singh, or the likes of Mayaben Kodnani/ Aseemanand/ Sadhvi Pragya etc.
  3. Another charge is that the police/ other investigative agencies should varying degrees of interest during investigations in incidents in which Hindus are the prima facie bigger guilty party as opposed to those which have prima facie - more Muslims as the guilty party. So for eg, incidents such as the 92 Mumbai riots are seen as not having been investigated with the same alacrity as the 93 Mumbai bomb blasts.
  4. The deep rooted bias displayed by the Indian state through its law enforcement and justice systems is also a day to day affair demonstrated in things such as the general poor treatment of Muslim youngsters by the police for any alleged law & order violation.
In addition to the above points which are part of the debate in the instant case relating to Yakub Memon, Muslims are also victims of several other societal discrimination. They also are a regular victim of discrimination when it comes to looking to rent houses (serious issue in my opinion), to facing the brunt of what they perceive to be the tyranny of majoritarioism in terms of having their patriotism questioned every now and then (take the case of Hamid Ansari, Vice President for example  - yet another truly unfortunate thing), having Yoga or Vande Mataram or Gita being thrust upon them as unwilling participants (trivial & easily fixable issues IMO) or things like the beef being banned (A Holy Cow for many Hindus - literally).

All these points, put India's claim of being a secular state in question. Secularism, enshrined in India's constitution, is supposed to ensure that people of all religious faiths are equal in the eyes of the state, thereby protecting the minority communities from being at a disadvantage. The net effect of the charges and claims made by the champions of India's minorities, is that they are heavily disadvantaged and being discriminated against by the state and the government and the very lofty promise of secularism, is essentially an empty one, not translated into reality. In other words. we have set ourselves a goal, a standard, which is almost impossible to meet.

If India's minorities, especially the Muslim community, are so thoroughly disadvantaged as the claims suggest, one might then extrapolate that India's insufficiently secular structure would be something that is satisfactory for the Hindu Right. But as we know it is clearly not. Consider the following points

  1. The Hindu Right feels frustrated at an emotive level on a number of points: Starting from not having a Hindu nation-state despite being the only country in the world with a significant Hindu population and hence the sole homeland of Hindus, and being a numerical majority of ~ 80%, The sheer feeling of impotence and incredulity of being unable to build a Ram Temple at Ayodhya - the birth place of Lord Ram and so on.
  2. Secular projects like the Uniform Civil Code are not supported by yes, so called Secular-liberal parties because they would rather be in the good books of the WAKF Board and their ilk.
  3. The practice of so called secular politics, and the cultivation of Muslim vote banks - has led to the a feeling of alienation of ordinary Hindus - who's interests are completely sacrificed at the alter of secularism - a point particularly true in the Hindi heartland (See linked article below).
  4. Having been out of power for most of independent India's history, the Hindu Right Wing is also discovering how "the game" has been completely rigged against the Majority community when it comes to Education through the disastrous Right to Education Bill, or that the wealth of Hindu temples is often in the hands of the state and not Hindus themselves (unlike say Mosques/ Churches).

What I described above, are just a few points of bias that both sides of the divide face and the discontent they have on several issues. But the lists above were merely illustrative and by no means complete. One side cries for the "State violence" and Human rights violations in Kashmir while the other laments the exodus of Pandits under threat of Mass Murder.  One side is threatened by Love Jihad and Ghar Wapasi, the other worries about demographic changes/ conversions happening in several states. One fears a murderous spate of riots by Hindutvawadis, the other - terrorist attack from Jihadists - both internal and external, especially in context of a post 9/11 world. This can become a never ending list of wrongs and issues faced by each side and a cause for mutual distrust and antipathy.

So here's the incredible irony of the whole situation created by India's secular framework. Over the years, the "secular-liberal" establishment led by the Congress Party, has nurtured the Muslim vote bank, essentially created a Muslim veto on pro Hindu issues of law and civil society, and thereby created & strengthened, what some consider a reactionary, Hindu Right Wing; at the same time failing to both improve the lot of minorities economically, and also provide them with a level playing field in terms of criminal justice matters - essentially undermined by what is human bias of officers of the Indian state. Or to put in very crudely - while Hindus (and especially upper caste Hindus) have become disadvantaged in the eyes of law on various civilian matters, it seems to be the case that they are at an advantage when it comes to escaping punishment in terms of criminal matters.

The above described situation seems to be a status quo under a UPA Type government, but things are a little different now. Just before Modi becoming Prime Minister, Rohit Pradhan had written this piece which gives an interesting take on the equation of Modi with Muslims. The below extract from there is very instructive.
The core Modi supporters believe that Muslims are a pampered lot who run amok in the name of secularism and disproportionately influence the political discourse to the detriment of the more numerical but hopelessly divided Hindus.  The principal idea here is to make the Muslims realize their place in the society. And once they are cognizant of their diminished influence, there would neither be any need for violence or any display of overt religiosity. In other words: the silence of the graveyard.
Modi would perhaps be the first Prime Minister elected in the express and rabid opposition of Muslims. They are likely to greet his rise with sullen indifference further accentuating the religious cleavages in the Indian society. The sense of being let down by the mainstream ‘secular’ parties would only encourage the rise of Muslim fundamentalism leading to their further isolation from the mainstream of the Indian society. It has dangerous portends for India’s long-term stability but perhaps is an inevitable course correction to the excesses of her ‘secularism.’
It is the greatest indictment of Indian secularism that it has always rested on the bedrock of Hindu caste divisions. Modi with his outreach to hitherto ignored groups within the larger Hindutva project is challenging that. Muslims have thrived politically only because the Hindus have preferred caste divisions to religious appeals except in the most exceptional circumstances. It remains to be seen whether Modi can permanently bridge the caste divisions within the Hindu society but even if he is partially successful, he would fundamentally rewrite the rules of Indian politics. 
So, what exactly changes for India's status quo with regard to secularism under Modi. It is quite simply this: While for India's champions of secularism: It is the fear that the inherent systemic bias against Muslims will now be multiplied by active discrimination by the Modi Sarkaar; but while for the Hindutva Right, this is of course a time of hope that core issues of Hindutva agenda will be taken up and worked upon.

Personally, despite the fears of the one side and the hope of the other, I do not see any dramatic shifts in the status quo. What will happen is that the inherent systemic bias that goes against India's minorities will be increasingly attributed to Modi, of course, but that's just something called politics. 

Do we have a way out of this - theoretically yes, but practically no. Theoretically it is working towards a better, more professional police force and a more fairer judiciary that gives a better sense of justice; while at the same time reduction in appeasement driven politics and policies. Essentially the idea of pitting interests of one community versus the other through zero sum games has to stop, while always working to find areas of common interest and mutual benefit. I do also wish that our internal debates become a little less fevered, that folks don't go on ratcheting up the rhetoric that it appears that they would actually prefer the next riot or attack happen so that their theory is proven right. But then again, who am I kidding.

 It is quite possible though that the cacophony of both mainstream & social media is an exaggeration, and that most folks, who put down their heads and work to earn a living are far more sanguine about things. Economic growth of the country and individuals is possibly a great solution for it seems - the better off you are, the better both society and law treats you.

So, to conclude while it is quite clear that India's Secularism is shoddy and unsatisfactory, is doing away with it even an option ? 

What I am perhaps asking is : Is it better for minorities to be in an unsatisfactory secular state which fails to live up to its promises vs a state which clearly has a religion and thereby sets its expectations accordingly. This is something I am curious to know. 

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