Secularism - Retold

Secularism - Retold

by Siddhartha Chatterjee - Friday, October 21, 2011 12:17 PM IST
Secularism - Retold


Secularism is a code of duty pertaining to this life founded on considerations purely human and intended mainly for those who find theology indefinite or inadequate unreliable or unbelievable. Its essential principles are three
1 The improvement of this life by material means
2 That science is the available Providence of man
3 That it is good to do good Whether there be other good or not the good of the present life is good and it is good to seek that good

George J Holyoake in Origin and nature of Secularism

The above was George Holyoake’s definition of secularism as he saw it. As one can see he saw it as a combination of life-style, philosophy and belief system. But is not exactly what religion aspires to do in every human society? The answer is yes. Secularism stems from an effort of European freethinkers to evolve a combination of life-style and philosophy that is independent of Biblical morality. In that sense, it is in direct company of atheism although Holyoake himself was a self-declared agnostic. Indeed, there existed a stream of philosophers from Rene Des Cartes to Charles Bradlaugh who advocated the need to do away with the idea of God and stressed the need to develop a complete philosophy that is independent of any existing theology and biblical basis of morality. Atheism and Agnosticism went side by side in it’s long and arduous journey to discover and enshrine secularism in our modern society. But when this philosophy was to be planted in the solid ground of modern statehood, a peculiar mutation appeared. Today, we call this mutation secular state.

The ideals of statehood demand codification of rules that help a citizen who subscribed to secularism deal with a fellow citizen who would not agree to it. The modern state, in its spirit of equality for all, demanded the seculars and non-seculars to treat each other with the same consideration. In this quest, it sought to eliminate the role of scriptural influence in the statecraft and banished God (or those who were supposed to be chosen by Him) from the areas secular governments considered their own. God, therefore, became an attribute of personal life and eventually came to be referred as personal God. To codify this practice, secular state constitutions adopted two fundamental tenets

1) Separation of religious authority and state authority
2) Freedom of every private citizen to choose their personal religion (and, therefore, their own God).

As a subject, mathematics (and law to a certain extent) tends to define all the used terms in a limited scope, even the ones we encounter in our daily life. For a non-specialist, this may seem ridiculous but it helps to eliminate any scope of personal interpretation, and hence, personal bias. Problem with most other subjects including Philosophy is that it does not. Therefore, the fundamental inconsistencies hidden inside secular tenets of the modern state are often not discussed. For example, if each private citizen was to choose his or her religion, what happens to the separation of religion and state if the adopted religion demands the state authority to act in a certain way? What happens if, followers of religion X wants religion Y to be banished from the state as per the loyalty demanded by religion X? What if follower’s religion Z decides that religion X is a perversion of its tenets and therefore, religion X must get rid of certain practices.
When one looks at the antics of likes of Anjem Choudhury in UK or the long march of certain faithful community in the roads of Paris with placards calling democracy and secularism evil, one is actually looking at the inconsistency of secularism amplified by numerical compulsion that democracy impose.

For some, the standard answer to such dilemma would be to leave it to the state to decide how much interference each religion can have in public life. But does not that hurt the right of religion for every private citizen? But, more important is the following question – who gets to decide what religious practice be allowed and what is not? The answer begs another thorny question – what constitutes a religious practice and what does not? Holyoake, who was a prominent member of British secularist party did not have to face this question since the dominant religion in his country was protestant Christianity (in his book, rarely any other faith gets a mention) and canons of protestant belief prevent religious authority from interfering with statecraft. The founding fathers of America, the first state that adopted some of the ideals of freethinkers in its constitution, did not have to face this dilemma since almost all of them adhered to protestant Christianity.

The questions arrive when different religions get involved in the modern state. Few years back, a European politician kicked a political storm by suggesting that sending each other Christmas greeting card is not a secular practice. The suggestion is merely an argument in a long debate better known as Christmas War. The debate illustrates my question well. What practice should be termed secular and who gets to determine it? The question opens a can of worms. Is a song written to praise the country in the form of the mother secular enough to be considered national song of a secular state? The answer will vary wildly depending on whom you ask. While a Hindu nationalist would find no problem with it, certain other communities (nationalist or not) would be disgusted to sing it as a national anthem. So who would determine whether Vande Mataram to be sung or not? But even a bigger question remains. If a certain religion forbids their followers from singing anything other than the devotional music, what purpose national song would serve for a secular state?

There are other thorny examples too. Polygamy, especially when sanctioned (and at times, enforced) by a religion is a case in point. Once again, the answer depends on whom you ask. These cases conveniently demonstrate the role of bias in interpretation of secularism. Hold on to this thought for we are about to look at the role of this bias in shaping secular states around the world and, specially, in India.

The Mythology of Secularism

My readers may shake their head and blame me for ignoring the perceived benefit that secularism brought to the modern society. My question – what benefits are you talking about? Italy was the first state to adopt secularism in it’s constitution after a Jewish child was kidnapped and murdered by extremist followers of a God that has claimed to love everyone, especially children. But religious intolerance is found in abundance in modern secular Europe. Religious minorities in Europe were harmed severely in the past century, but European scholars learnt to cover the religious prejudices using sometimes-real-sometimes-imaginary race-based prejudices. Hitler may have been inspired by Aryan myth to send Jews/Gypsies to gas chambers, but gleeful supporters of his genocide were plentiful in Europe and America. Starting from progressive playwright George Bernard Shaw in UK to industrialist Henry Ford in USA, all played to the hype of pure Christian and Aryan Europe. The Vatican cheered it up but for reasons unknown, no Vatican official ever testified in Nuremberg trial. No secular thought bothered the supporters of concentration camp. But, as one of my German friends told me, are not all these past? Well, look at the Romas. A thousand year long torture on these people could not melt enlightened European heart to assimilate them. No multiculturalists would bother to stand against the resolution of French parliament to relocate them forcefully the same way they stood against banning of veil. So much for self-righteousness.

The people who are so hell-bent on the perceived benefit of secularism need to explain why Durga-puja is banned in Rome. Or why Bible is taught in all the schools of secular USA. Or why Vatican is still a member of secular United Nations. What benefit did religious minorities draw in America? One may point to the burgeoning mosques or huge Swamy Narain temples in different parts of USA. But let us accept the fact that certain communities among religious minorities are on an extremely strong ground in American public sphere as far as media light and focus goes. What about the minorities who are not well-represented? Were their rights preserved well? Native American tribes were worshipping nature and their religious doctrine can be considered severely anti-Industry and anti-development today. Even a cursory observation of history of governing body of Secular American Nation and native tribes show the behavior that will be considered genocide if committed by a third world country. What secular considerations their under-siege religious beliefs receive? Following quote from an atheist secularist objectivist Ayn Rand enlightens us:

For their wish to continue a primitive existence, their ‘right’ to keep part of the earth untouched, unused and not even as property, but just keep everybody out so that you will live practically like an animal, or a few caves above it. Any white person who brings the element of civilization has the right to take over this continent.

Did you get it? Any powerful group who thinks that they are civilized has the right to walk over others whom they did not consider as civilized. Rationalization is the product of self-interest and self-interest also breeds bias.

The truth is secularism only helped to eradicate the un-productive fight between different Christian sects fighting for domination. It is far less helpful in preventing violence upon religious minorities than it was projected. One can initiate a psychological experiment by projecting this inconsistent and half-baked idea out in another part of the world where most of belief systems fail to conform to the European template of religion and personal God. The experiment brings us closer to the focus of the article – India.

The Birth of a Bias

Let us start by observing a comment:

We must not forget that these little communities were contaminated by distinctions of caste and by slavery, that they subjugated man to external circumstances instead of elevating man the sovereign of circumstances, that they transformed a self-developing social state into never changing natural destiny, and thus brought about a brutalizing worship of nature, exhibiting its degradation in the fact that man, the sovereign of nature, fell down on his knees in adoration of Kanuman, the monkey, and Sabbala, the cow.

Let us compare this comment to the comment made by Ayn Rand in the above section. What do we find here? A strong disgust for nature worshippers and the perceived lack of progress that nature worshipping is associated with. So which “objectivist” wrote this? The name is Karl Marx, the atheist, the supposedly liberator of oppressed masses and one of the enthusiastic supporter of secularism. Marx may stand as a failed prophet today, but similar opinions about Hinduism plagued the writing of various enlightened Europeans in that age. Why did it have to be this way?

The Bible, apparently the only true versions of a true God, assigned Man the responsibility of governing the nature as man was made in the image of the God. Apparently, the creature made in the image of one true God did such a shabby job that this can only be compared to the shabby job of it’s creator. But the lure of this idea to a self-important civilization that for 1500 years believed sun circles around a flat earth of whose center lies Europe is easy to understand. The destruction of this house of cards that Galileo/Copernicus started was completed by Darwin who pretty much kicked the rear end of this mythical “man” and replaced it with a mammal who, all things considered, is little better than their cousins in African jungle. Ever since then it became pretty difficult to say man (specially the white man) is measure of all things.

But bad ideas promoted by powers that be are as powerful as good ones. Damage to the collective psyche is already delivered. The prejudice that a skin-pigment-obsessed and sex-obsessed Christian orthodoxy installed stayed there. No matter, how many certificates of enlightenment European intellectuals of past three centuries give to themselves, the biases installed and reinforced by thousand years of Christianity always clouded their vision.

Some of the Indians who went to west to study the new sciences, came back with new knowledge and old prejudice. It is not that all of the Indians who came back with new knowledge were hostile to Hindus. But a lot of them did not have the ability to separate milk from the water. The problem was well illustrated by a comment made by Dr. Mahendralal Sarkar, a well-meaning atheist who treated Sri Ramkrishna Paramhansa (Swamy Vivekananda’s guru). When he visited the great sage, he was worshipping Devi Kali. Dr. Sarkar called the idol “that Santhal whore” (Santhal refers to a very backward indigenous community near Bengal/Bihar/Orissa/Jharkhand with a black skin) and refused to lower his head in front of Devi. On the other hand, his work as a doctor saved thousand lives; he was a great proponent of female literacy and one of the people whose stress on scientific education would push Bengalis towards modernity. There are other such instances. Apparently, the obsession with skin-color and sexual purity are two gifts that west gave to the world and now they don’t want to talk about it.

Therefore, modernity came but it did not come as a successor to tradition, it came as something that was perceived to be a candidate for replacement of the tradition. However inadequate this replacement may be, in their zeal to see India turning into some form of Europe within decades, the “modern” people tried to molest whatever tradition they could find. Some may argue that it was necessary to correct the social ills pervading in the society at that time. But that hostility to tradition achieved nothing. The pettiness and smugness of the “modern” and “enlightened” people pushed those within the boundaries of tradition farther away. The Hindu reformers who actually made an impact (like Ram Mohan Roy for abolishing Suttee/untouchability or Ishwarchandra who sought the re-marriage of widows) were devout Hindus and extremely knowledgeable about Hinduism. Ram Mohan Roy’s speech in London shows that how he derided the “superstitious practices which deform the Hindoo religion have nothing to do with the pure spirit of its dictates!” If one compares such inspire speeches to the Marxist ideologues from Bhadralok clan, the pettiness of the argument pains the listening experience.

When these “modern” clan went on to dominate Hume’s club (which would re-christen itself as Indian National Congress), one can imagine how these biases will find their way to newer minds and alleys of power subsequently.

The Congress and it’s Secularism

Some people I know think that Congress’s main problems started with Indira Gandhi at the helm. They will blame likes of Kamraj or PN Dhar or Morarji Desai. I disagree. The smug elitism, patronization and a twisted secularism were in Congress DNA from the beginning. The elites who populated the club during the end decades of 19th century thought themselves as junior partners of the empire and therefore fashioned considered themselves such. Their ideological successors with their highly inflated sense of self-worth today call themselves think tanks. But I digress. As far as their inclusiveness goes, they were just to happy too get together with royal families/aristocrats from minority community and kidded themselves that they were helping to determine the fate of this large and very diverse sub-continent. This also helped them to be branded as secular liberals in the eyes of sympathetic British liberals who often displayed a penchant for mistaking the symbols for real thing.

Sri Shashri Tharoor once observed that every Indian is a minority. The statement is largely true for there are too many dimensions along which Indian societies to managed to align themselves with. Since symbols were important, it appeared to Congress worthies that the most vocal minority may symbolise the vast array of different minorities in the region. It is a different matter that the elites within this “symbol of minority” community would resent the very tag. When we say “minority” today, the image of Sikh or Buddhist community or all of them do not appear in our imagination for this very reason. Sri Mohandas Gandhi took the idea of symbolism to new level. So we are treated with new symbols of secularism – the skull cap, the iftar party and the gift of Quran.

In 1906, a new formal symbol of minority arrived. It was called Muslim league. If we just look at the founders, it would be clear what this “league” wanted to achieve and why. Certain Muslims did understand the problem correctly and approached Congress platform. But likes of Motilal Nehru was in more synch with likes of Nawab of Awadh than young and ambitious upstarts like Jinnah. By handing over the fate of Muslim community to Muslim League, Congress leaders started their long and arduous misguided adventure in symbolic secularism. After independence, the so-called progressive government would continue the tradition. Then one question may appear. If Congress leaders directly approached the Muslim commoners as common Indians, would the community accept? The question is misguided. Just like a all Sikh, all Buddhist or all Thakurs would not go with Congress, not all Muslims would have agreed to go with Congress. But Congress never tried. Even someone as well meaning as Sri Mohandas Gandhi introduced Jinnah as a young educated member of Muslim community. When Congress leadership would refuse to see Muslims as anything other than Muslims, why would they themselves deny seeing themselves as Muslims primarily? There were no incentives for them to think otherwise. Unlike the clan of “modernity”, they were not suffering from the disease of self-loathing.

But does that mean Congress decided to embark in the secularism misadventure alone. British government helped significantly. Take, for example, the communal award of 1932 that sought to create separate electorates for all religious and caste based community. Amid protest, the plans were dropped. The mythical White Man’s burden was, apparently, carried well. The other leg of symbolic secularism directly stands on the shoulder of prominent voices of Muslim community. It is interesting to see how reasonable voices within community keep getting lost inside a thick fog of jingoism. What made and sustained this fog? In my experience, traditional Islamic communities, even amid extreme poverty, share a social glue of haughty disdain for anything that is non-Islamic. This disdain is a direct result of being considered a member in global club of Ummah whose self-perception relied more on rhetoric and legend than documented facts. This is reinforced by a common lament about loss of an “empire” in India despite the fact that such an empire was never spread India-wide and even within the empire a common Muslim who could not fight was worse off than a common Hindu. This social glue, so far, has proven to be stronger than any pull generated from existing socio-economic processes.

Historically, when the Ummah power fell into decline to the point that hyperbolic rhetoric can not cover it up, local religious heads realized that the glue must be protected to face the world that they perceive to be hostile to their power/influence and, by extension, their incentive to propagate their faith. Powerful newer rhetoric was in the need of the hour. One principal plank of this propaganda was the denial of the Indian ancestry. In a Dawn article a noted Pakistani intellectual commented that after independence all Pakistanis invented their Arab ancestors. In the Montreal airport, I was once sold coffee by a Canadian Muslim of Bangladeshi origin. When it turned out that I am a Bengali from India, he suddenly added that his ancestors came from Saudi Arabia. Looking at the short height, face and skin of this man, I had to make an effort to conceal my smile. If this false identity is the only source of pride he was left with, I could not make myself challenge it. But this denial was to become one of the pillars of two nation theory (those who do not accept two nation theory, has a moral responsibility of denying these pillars also but these are also the same people who screamed loudest against Swamy’s DNA article that identified the denial of Indian ancestry as one main problems).

Secularism - Retold

It is not like community lacked people with vision. It is just that they stood alone. They stood alone not just because Muslim orthodoxy went silent about them, the “secular” Hindus did not care. Most Indians, even those within the Muslim community would not recognize their names. Bakshi Ghulam Muhammad, the “architect” of naya Kashmir, who was so irritated by Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah’s games in the Kashmir, went to Sardar Patel to request him to fix Kashmir. Sardar refused. After his death, in 1953, he went to Rafi Ahmad Kidwai and convinced him that in the interest of Indian Muslims, Sheikh’s game of deceit must be put to an end. According to then IB chief BN Mullick, Kidwai and Maulana convinced Nehru to sack the deceitful Sheikh. Nehru paid back by sacking him under the guise of Kamraj plan 11 years later. How many actually remember the name of Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, who complained to Congress leadership that “You have just thrown us to the wolves” after Congress committee approved the plan of partition? The fact that the tall pathan understood Muslim League politics better than any Congress leader is attested by his 37 year long stint in Pakistani jail. The great monks of non violence that surrounded Sri Gandhi did not care. The wolves turned his karma-bhoomi into World’s most dangerous place. We don’t even remember Nawab of Maler Kotla who ordered his army to shoot 10 Muslims for each Sikh killed. The brutal measure was extremely effective in curbing any blood-shed.

But the grand example of pre-independence symbolic secularism was played in Sindh. The governor of Sindh, Allah Bux Sumroo was a man of guts who chose to disagree with Muslim league. In 1943, Congress MPs toppled his government… supporting Muslim league MPs. He was assassinated by Muslim League thugs some months later. The supposedly secular Muslim league leader who demanded India’s partition refused the brief of the prime accused in the case. A small time Hindu Congress politician took the case and won. No heads rolled, only Sri Gandhi and Sri Sardar Patel expressed their displeasure. The Congress version of Secularism, as we can see, is restored.

Secularism in The New Republic

In his recollections of Nehru’s times, Outside The Archives, retired civil servant YD Gundevia describes a curious tale on page 209-210. Gundevia asked Nehru what would happen to the civil servant if, after being attuned only to Congress policies so long, the Communists were, tomorrow, elected to power in New Delhi. Nehru pondered long over the question and then said, “Why do you ever imagine the Communists will ever be voted into power at the centre?”
After a long pause, he said, spelling it out slowly and very deliberately, “the danger to India, mark, you, is not communism. It is Hindu right-wing communalism”

I recollected this tale the very moment I read about Gandhi scion’s blunders about Hindu extremists in Wikileaks. Having read about this man’s unfathomable vision of India’s future, I was horrified when I read from SR Goel’s Genesis and Growth of Nehruism, Chapter 3. I quote:

When Pandit Nehru rose to unrivalled power and position in India his toadies recommended this book as a reliable reference work for advanced students of history in our universities. As this book has been reprinted many times, translated into several languages of India, and poisoned successive generations of Indian intelligentsia, the ideas it lays down about Communism and Soviet Russia are of particular interest and deserve to be presented in some detail.

Goel hinted at the history of post-Independence Secularism in those plain three lines. Partition presented a great problem to Congress led by Nehru. Muslim league was nowhere to be found in new India. The aristocrats from North and Central India who funded the league mostly stayed in India however. But after the disastrous days of “Ladke Lenge Pakistan”, their foray into electoral politics would be a disaster. Apparently, Congress lacked an entity with which would negotiate with Congress at the political level and world can be presented with the picture of communal harmony. But how would Symbolic Secularism of Congress adapt to remain a relevant weapon in election?

The westernized Hindu intellectuals arrived with help. With British gone they needed to stay close to whichever power that be for butter of the state power is the only basis of their livelihood. Situation was similar in a Kingdom where all scholars have to visit King’s palace to receive money. When anti-Hindu bias of the elites and Congress edition of Secularism met a monster was born. This monster can be simply described as anti-Hindu = pro-Minority = pro-Muslim. At various points of time, some ambitious men from Muslim community could be found who were promoted as a minority leader close to the power. Muslim clergy class who has some ground support got multiple sops from the government and went happy. These were two obvious planks of the scheme but the genius of the new Secularism was to create the smokescreen in which this monster would look like an angel. The socialist cronies in the media completely disregarded the ground truth and as long as cash and free housing is provided, intellectual mercenaries joined in the feast of selling whatever political masters wanted them to sell. But this could not be sustained forever. To ensure that a constant stream of new sharp minds, elite institutions were created who will supply “intellectual” sounding bytes to the masses. So what if these elite institutes ate the lions share from basic education or basic health care? Could not poor unwashed masses wait for few generations when great socialist experiment was going on? To an outsider, this may look a theater of absurdity, but Indian elites always took themselves very seriously. They were, after all, building the nations. More correct statement would be that Nehru was trying to manufacture a thousand Nehrus.

Manufacturing he accomplished. In the great project of secularism and socialism, any and every obstacle was pulled out ruthlessly. SP Mukherjee died, RC Majumdar was hounded out; Nirad C was forced out of country; SR Goel was shut up. With great fanfare, elites went to construct an India that will be worthy of an upcoming socialist world under-written by Soviet and Chinese power. In that India, if you are a Hindu, you are a Hindu; your only option to be in the great project would be to trash your own tradition, religion and culture. No soft space was allowed. The results followed. Anything native is “dehati” therefore not sophisticated enough to talk about; you have a tika? You have sindoor? Is that red powder called Abir? You are not going to get certificates to be marked as an intellectual or “our-kind-of-people” or people-like-us. This can be observed today in the semantics and language used in TV debates and newspaper editorials. For example, “we” can not be used, it is Indians; “our country” can not be written, it is India (May god forbid, Bharat); anything Hindu, native, patriotic needed to be trashed since alternative is so alluring. In a project training, my trainer came to class wearing a tika. My colleague, who speaks English in an American tone for which Americans need an interpreter, complained, Soooo traditional minded, no? I was not sure whom to scream at – she or her parents.

The great Buddha observed that everything that has a beginning has an end. This exercise in venality and smugness will end someday. For anyone, who still wants to scream about benefits of secularism would do well to remember that only mosque that was broken in the subcontinent was done under a secular government, not a single Hindu King be it Shivaji Bhosle or Krishna Deva Raya or any other ruler of princely Hindu state allowed this to happen.

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