Hear it? Indian secularism is both enduring & audible

Published on Sunday, December 7, 2014

The article under above title written by M J Akbar & published in The Times of India on 7th December 2014 is copied and pasted below. The visitors may find the contents interesting. -Bhaskar

As the debate continues to swirl around secularism, albeit with ebbing intensity, but still provoking a loose nerve or two, an intriguing question demands an answer. Is India secular because Gandhi was secular, or was Gandhi secular because India is secular? What precisely do we mean by secularism?

The western definition has two origins: the French Revolution, which separated church from state; and communism, which erased religion from political and social life. Between Voltaire and Karl Marx, religion was marginalized into the grey space of "unreason" from Europe to China, with ramifications that extended far beyond the extent of state power.

Indian secularism is a very different story. It neither ignores nor excludes religion. It insists on equality of all faiths, irrespective of its following. The religion of those in power at any point of that rolling dice called time does not matter, for Indian secularism is far more than the law. It is a fundamental social right.

India, therefore, is a country with "audible secularism". You can be a Muslim in Washington and London, and go to a mosque of your choice, but you will not be able to hear the call to prayer. In India, dawn is welcomed with the wafting lilt of the azaan, followed by the music of temple bells, the harmony of the Granth Sahib being recited in a gurdwara, and the peal from the church.

Mahatma Gandhi and Swami Vivekananda, who was only six years older than the former, helped nurture the philosophy of India into the principles of the modern Indian democratic state. As Vivekananda often said, the sun shone equally on Hindu and Buddhist, Muslim and Christian. No one was superior or inferior. His message had clarity: help, do not fight; peace, not dissension. If you were born a Hindu, he preached, be a good Hindu; if born a Muslim, be a good Muslim: for if you were true to your faith you would be a good Indian. From individual moral strength would emerge a powerful India; a nation would be built through the home. The challenge before Hinduism, a Vedantic way of life, was to rescue its inherent rationality from layers of superstition and "mumbo-jumbo". Those who believed in regressive practices like child marriage or untouchability were doling out ditch-water instead of amrit.

Gandhi began his epic quest for freedom by saying that politics without religion was immoral. This brought him to the approving attention of Muslim leaders, who believed in their faith as a private and public resource. Gandhi's belief system overlapped seamlessly with Indian Sufi Islam, which reminded Muslims of the Quran's instruction that there could be no coercion in faith (Verse 2:256), and that Muslims should respect the pluralism of prophets and accommodation. This was the Islam of the influential 13th century scholar Ibn al-Arabi, who urged Muslims to practise their faith, but not condemn the rest.

When Gandhi made Ram Rajya the symbol of his secularism, he was not suggesting a single-faith destiny. The Muslim League mocked Ram Rajya only because it had moved away from the fundamentals of Indian culture. Gandhi's vision was inspired by love; the League preached the polemics of hate and claimed supremacy for one faith above others. It poisoned a thousand years of history to divide our geography. Perhaps Jinnah was able to distort religion only because, as an agnostic from the intellectual traditions of Europe, he had no understanding of any faith, either his own or that of Gandhi.

Jinnah left for Pakistan, but the fear of another Jinnah never quite left the Congress, even after Independence. And so, our secularism shifted from equality of all faiths before the law to a dualism. The most startling example is in the legislation that brought gender reform to Hindu society by the mid-1950s. When Jawaharlal Nehru was asked by Taya Zinkin, correspondent of the Manchester Guardian, why he hadn't pushed through similar reform for Muslim women, he admitted ruefully that the time was not right. The time had still not become right when the Shah Bano case, over a husband's refusal to give a pittance as alimony, stirred the nation in the 1980s.

Nevertheless, change has come in India, even if slowly, and through piecemeal fits and starts. The democratic and modernizing impulses of India are too strong to permit stagnation or regression. Gandhi is an icon of every political formation apart from Communists because he fashioned a future from the deep roots of India's civilizational past. His legacy endures, while the separatism of Jinnah has disintegrated into evident chaos. An ideology of partition will constantly search for fresh pastures to divide, creating multiple civil wars that break structures at both the macro and micro levels; while the sagacity of shared space will propel the unity that can promise prosperity.

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