Mainstream Weekly

Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2019 > Reclaiming Secular Democracy in Today’s India

Mainstream, VOL LVII No 35 August 17, 2019

Reclaiming Secular Democracy in Today’s India

Monday 19 August 2019, by Gargi Chakravartty


Secularism is under serious threat today, as the ruling dispensation’s narrative of the concept is totally different from what our national leaders of the freedom struggle had professed and taught us. The Hindutvavadis proclaim that secularism means appeasement of minorities, mainly Muslims, and denial of their much-hyped Hindu identity and Hindu Rashtra. They with all their affiliates spread their own narrative of a Hindu society mounted on an anti-Hindu state and try to convince ordinary people that the secular state of India proclaims to be neutral, but in reality it is far from neutral. Basically they consider the officially neutral state as anti-religious and pro-Muslim.1 The general assumption that has been created in the minds of the people is that secularism means absence of religion. Religion is a core element in the life of most people. Therefore secularists are presumed to be atheists and non-religious. Secondly, whoever tries to protect the interests of the minorities is targeted as a pseudo-secularist and now during the last five years she/he is considered pro-Muslim, an agent of Pakistan and therefore anti-national. According to their perception, one follows from the other. The word pseudo-secularist was first coined by the veteran BJP leader, L.K. Advani, during the 1989-92 Ram Mandir movement to attack the vast sections of liberals who tried their best to protect the historic monument of Babri Masjid.

Religion or religious interests played a decisive role in the growth of various nationalist movements in the colonial period. The interplay of religion and politics virtually split the country and the fallout was the partition of India in 1947. In spite of the tide of militant religious revivalism along with violent massacres on both sides, our national leaders did not opt for a theocratic state on the model of Pakistan; rather they stood firm to draft a Constitution that would not have any state religion. This could happen because of the strong secular legacy of our mainstream national movement and the firm conviction of our national leaders.

Though Gandhi, the central figure of our national movement, was a devout Hindu and religious in his personal life, that faith remained within his private domain. So far as the anti-imperialist movement was concerned, as a leader of the Congress and the nation, he promoted Hindu-Muslim unity and joint struggle since the beginning of his political life. His non-exclusivist Hindu philosophy played an important role in ensuring the secular foundations of the anti-colonial Indian struggle. The Congress, with all its ups and downs, maintained a secular position. It has been rightly observed by a political scientist that “Despite occasional lapses in practice, this ideal (of secular nationalism) was the dominant one in the Congress movement, and it continues to be an important foundation-stone of the secular state of India”.2

Pakistan initially opted for a theocratic Islamic state. In India, due to the secular nationalist legacy of the independence struggle, our leaders rejected the model of theocracy to the utter disappointment of the Hindu Mahasabha and RSS, whose leaders expected constitutional recognition to Hinduism as a religion of the majority. Their leaders like Savarkar, Golwalkar often talked about the Hindu nation. In fact Savarkar was the architect of the controversial two-nation theory, which led to the bifurcation of our country. Much before the Pakistan resolution was passed by the Muslim League under Jinnah’s leadership in 1940, Savarkar, the Hindu protagonist, initiated the two-nation theory at the 19th session of the Hindu Mahasabha at Ahmedabad in 1937. He said: “Let us bravely face unpleasant facts as they are. India cannot be assumed today to be a Unitarian and homogenous nation, but on the contrary, there are two nations, the Hindus and the Moslems in India.” The Hindutvavadis were unhappy with the Indian Constitution and since then they campaigned and worked to spread their idea of India based on Hindu nationalism.

The Congress on the eve of independence had leaders like Nehru, Patel, Maulana Azad, who were all ardent believers in secular nationalism. Dr B.R Ambedkar, though not a Congressman, was a stalwart in Nehru’s Ministry, and given the task to draft the Constitution. Unlike Gandhi he was a strong critic of the Hindu religion, which for him was based on Manusmriti and replete with caste hierarchy and therefore a breeding ground for social inequality. Much before the actual partition, he was vocal on his rejection of the idea of a Hindu Rashtra. He wrote: “If Hindu Raj does become a fact, it will no doubt, be the greatest calamity for this country. No matter what the Hindus say, Hinduism is a menace to liberty, equality and fraternity. On that account, it is incompatible with democracy. Hindu Raj must be prevented at any cost.”3 Though the BJP/RSS ruling dispensation is often seen appropriating Ambedkar for Dalit votes, we have never seen them quoting Ambedkar in their speeches.

Ambedkar repeatedly talked about the tyranny of the majority over the minority. While analysing the challenges before parliamentary democracy, he said: “There is no other thing which I think is very necessary in the working of democracy and it is this that in the name of democracy there must be no tyranny of the majority over the minority. The minority must always feel safe that although the majority is carrying on the government, the minority is not being hurt, or the minority is not being hit below the belt.”4 How true it is for functional democracy! While discussing the concept of a secular state in India, we need to delve deep into the ideas of Ambedkar. For him, democracy and secularism were inseparable. While taking part in a debate in Parliament, he said: “It (secular state) does not mean that we shall not take into consideration the religious sentiments of the people. All that a secular state means that this Parliament shall not be competent to impose any particular religion upon the rest of the people. That is the only limitation that the Constitution recognises.”5 Ambedkar always proclaimed that in democracy, the minority does not become the victim of the tyranny of the majority.6 (That is, the Opposition in minority must also have a place)

What we have been witnessing particularly in the last five years of Modi rule is a tyranny of the majority over the minority. Majoritarian appeasement is a well-thought out strategy of the Hindutvavadis to consolidate the Hindu people for electoral gains. The BJP/RSS has made it very clear that it does not require the 14 per cent Muslim votes. The whole cacophony of Islamophobia is their political agenda to whip up Hindu communal sentiments. There are instances of well-known BJP leaders asking Hindu women to produce ten children, other-wise the country will be flooded with the Muslim population. What a mindset! In a country with almost 80 per cent Hindu population, this kind of idea and campaign is meaningless. Religious majoritarianism of imposing ‘Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan’ is what Ambedkar long back made us cautious about while referring to the tyranny of the majority. Today religious chants are used as political slogans. Ambedkar, Nehru, Patel, Azad and many others of that genre would have been appalled by the behaviour of elected Members of Parliament who, while talking oath in the swearing-in ceremony as MPs, shouted religious chants — Jai Shri Ram, Jai Ma Kali, Allah- ho-Akbar in absolute violation of the decorum and sanctity of Parliament, the epitome of our secular state.

Protection to the minority community does not mean appeasement to or partiality towards the minorities. This has been made amply clear by Gandhi at the end of his life after independence while he was on fast in 1948. He said: ‘My fast, as I have stated in plain language, is undoubtedly on behalf of the Muslim minority in the Indian Union, and therefore, it is necessarily against the Hindus and the Sikhs of the Union and the Muslims of Pakistan. It is also on behalf of the minorities in Pakistan, as in the case of the Muslim minority in the Union.’7 It meant that he would take up the cause of the Muslims as the minority community in India and similarly of the Hindus in Pakistan. The message is explicit that the majority community has a duty to be protective about the minorities. This cannot be branded as appeasement or partiality towards the minorities and so this cannot be termed as pseudo-secularism.

Precisely for this kind of stand, Gandhi was considered pro-Muslim by the RSS/Mahasabha groups and there had been five attempts on his life. The conspirators were successful when finally, on January 30, 1948, he was shot by Nathuram Vinayak Godse, a close associate of the RSS/Mahasabha. It was not merely the death of Gandhi but a blow to the secular idea Gandhi had himself professed. It is an irony that, on the one hand, the ruling dispensation at the Centre is celebrating the 150th birth anniversary of Gandhi and, on the other hand, some of its elected Members of Parliament like Sakshi Maharaj from UP and Sadhvi Pragya from MP openly praised Godse as a patriot. There are temples and statues built in his name, and many more are to be built soon. It is a fact of history that sweets were distributed by their predecessors to celebrate Gandhi’s killing. Sardar Patel, the icon of the Hindutvavadis, as the then Home Minister, banned the RSS for its role in Gandhi’s assassination. He wrote to Golwalkar on September 11, 1948: “.... All their speeches were full of communal poison. It was not necessary to spread poison in order to enthuse the Hindus and organise for their protection. As a final result of that poison, the country had to suffer the sacrifice of the invaluable life of Gandhiji. Even an iota of the sympathy of the Government or of the people no more remained for the RSS. In fact, opposition grew. Opposition turned more severe, when the RSS men expressed joy and distributed sweets after Gandhi’s death. Under these conditions it became inevitable for the Government to take action against the RSS.”8

Sardar Patel, for whom a huge statue has been built recently by the present Government in Gujarat, is their political idol. Their leaders openly proclaimed that Sardar Patel would have been a far better Prime Minister than Jawaharlal Nehru whom they detest for his advocacy of secular nationalism. But the irony is that they ignored what Sardar Patel spoke on October 7, 1950 in favour of the idea of a secular state. He said: “Ours is a secular state. We cannot fashion our policies or shape our conduct in the way that Pakistan does it. We see that our secular ideals are actually realised in practice.....Here every Muslim should feel that he is an Indian citizen and has equal rights as an Indian. If we cannot make him feel like this, we shall not be worthy of our heritage and our country.”9

Every Muslim should feel safe, that’s what Patel meant. But today what are we witnessing in India? We have seen harassment of Muslims in the name of ghar wapsi, on the pretext of love-jehad and all kinds of moral policing by various affiliates of the RSS. We have seen the lynchings of Muslims out of suspicion of beef being stored or cattle being smuggled or gazing at a Hindu woman. We have seen the visuals of Mohammad Afrazul, a Bengali Muslim from Malda, being lynched in Alwar in Rajasthan where he was working as a labourer, and who was thereafter burnt alive and the accused, Shambhulal Regar, asked somebody to videotape the whole incident so that he could show that as a matter of pride for his action. This video went viral. The memories of Mohammad Akhlaq, Pehlu Khan, Junaid Khan are still fresh in our minds. There have been incidents of Hindus being killed and those are to be equally condemned. But there is a difference. The accused in the killings of Muslims are more often acquitted and even welcomed with garlands or seated in the front row at the rally of UP CM Yogi Adityanath. If we follow the message of Gandhi during his last prayers, we, the secularists, cannot be accused of being selective in taking up these cases. We need to raise our voice to protect the minorities particularly when they are victims of religious majoritarianism.

Another recent phenomena which have shocked us are forcing Muslims to chant Hindu religious slogans. These are not confined to the horrific lynching of Tabrez Ansari, a forty-year-old Muslim, in Jharkhand who succumbed to his injuries and died. There are many more cases across the country and it is like a virus spreading from the cow belt area to such parts where there used to be harmony and friendly co-existence earlier. These are not just cases of mobocracy because the crowds and their actions are the outcome of a long standing brainwashing by Hindu nationalist organisations. Their actions are not strongly condemned by any of their leaders but, on the contrary, encouraged. These are not the work of fringe elements of the ruling dispensation as some of the people try to think and convey, but manifestations of the mainstream elements indoctrinated with an aggressive poisonous ideology of violence and hate. Otherwise how would one explain C.P. Singh, a BJP Minister of Jharkhand, compelling Congress MLA Irfan Ansari to chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’ after an Assembly election. He told him: “You all were converted to Islam, otherwise your ancestores used to praise Ram. None among you is born from Babar or Genghiz Khan’s lineage, so you should not hesitate to say Jai Shri Ram.”10 What he told him, however astonishing it may be, was accepted without any protest! Otherwise he or she would have been accused of tarnishing the image of our country, labelled as traitor or anti-national. He is not one of those illiterate mobs who know nothing about Ram’s benevolent form as Maryada Purushottam. This religious slogan of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ is being used as a form of intimidation and threat to the Muslim community. These Hindutvavadi leaders are playing with fire. If ever incidents of coercing a Hindu to chant ‘Allah-ho-Akbar’ happen, the country would be on the verge of a civil war. The Hindutvavadis have taken for granted their majority strength and are using it as a weightage to bully the minority. This kind of hate culture not only goes against the secular ethos of our Constitution and, therefore, our country, but aims at dismantling the age-old social fabric of mutual harmony and acceptance of each other’s religious faith. The militarisation of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ or weaponisation of Ram Navami are new phenomena, not to be brushed aside by ‘an incipient appropriation of Ram by illiterate mobs’.11 The recent call given by Sadhvi Prachi of UP to boycott Kanwars made by Muslims or similar such utterances are now day-to-day features. And herein lies the death-knell of our secular values.

It is extremely sad to find how children are affected by this hate culture. Nazia Erum’s book titled ‘Mothering a Muslim’ is replete with stories of rampant bullying of Muslim children in many of our country’s top schools and boarding houses. A six-year-old Muslim child faces segregation in classrooms, often being taunted as a ‘Paki’, even as a ‘terrorist’. Schoolmates of Faizan had said pointing out to him: ‘Yeh toh Atankwadi hai.... Yeh toh Pakistani hai... Ise Maaro (He is a terrorist, he is a Pakistani, hit him).’ Let me quote from the book: “It had been just another argument during a basketball game. But the boys had ganged up against Faizan. He was the only Muslim boy in his dorm and he faltered when the sharp accusations came his way. He felt insulted, embarrassed, singled out, cornered and unsure of how to respond.”12 So this hate culture is not confined to illiterate mobs; rather it has percolated deep into the society, spread through the hierarchical levels of all classes. Again this is something very new, something which we have not encountered in our childhood or even two decades ago. Who is to be blamed for this?

Personal faith is one thing, but when faith is turned into hate towards the other, or community consciousness is transformed into communal frenzy, it becomes extremely problematic for a secular state. In a multi-religious, multi-cultural, multi-lingual country like ours, one religion, one culture, one language cannot be imposed on others. This religious dominance and arrogance will kill our country. Our ethical secularism taught us Sarva Dharma Sadbhava, acceptance of all religious creeds and social cultural norms. In political secularism, as envisaged by our predecessors, religion has to be separated from the political domain. Public institutions, administrative governance occupy a huge space where one’s personal religion should not have any say. “Religion is a personal matter, which should have no place in politics.”13 These words of Gandhi may not have any importance since Godse is considered as a patriot by many followers of the BJP; but what about their icon Sardar Patel who had said: ‘Religion is a matter between man and his maker and its mixing with politics would be a dangerous business.”14

Today for politicians and public figures, even space scientists, it has become almost a ritual to go to places of worship, often being encircled with sadhus and sadhvis. Rahul Gandhi and many other leaders of the Congress and various secular parties are seen following the same pattern of appeasing the Hindus. In fact, the entire Gandhi/Nehru family has drifted away from the path of secularism of Jawaharlal Nehru who as a principled person never veered from that position. The media also intrudes a lot into the private space of public personalities. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s image of meditation in a cave in Kedarnath on the last day of the election had gone viral through television, print and social media. It did not remain confined to his private space. Is it befitting for a Prime Minister of a secular state to allow the media to follow him and cover his personal monologue with God? As a follower of Sardar Patel, mixing his personal religious moments with his political life through media coverage, the Prime Minister had misused the religion to serve the political ends of his party.

It is a hard battle to fight against a state machinery imbued with non-secular ideology. At all levels from institutional, educational, administrative and political to social and cultural, religion is playing a negative role in dividing the country between ‘us’ and ‘them’, in fostering a hate culture, creating an ambience of suspicion, intolerance and violence. In fact the BJP leaders, during their election campaign, repeatedly asserted to have a Congress-mukt Bharat. Now it seems that their aim is not only to create a Congress-mukt, but also Opposition-mukt and finally Muslim-mukt Bharat. Within a hundred days of their second coming, the manner in which they have passed various contentious Bills in Parliament with a bulldozer-type aggressive mentality, smells of dictatorial authoritarianism which is tantamount to fascism. Democracy is not the rule of the majority, rather it is the rule of the people at large which includes Opposition and those who differ from the government. The BJP/RSS followers on the street are shouting slogans of killing the traitors and send them to Pakistan. (Gaddaro ko goli se maaro aur Pakistan bhej do.) That means that those who will differ from the BJP/RSS’ political moves are immediately accused as traitors, anti-nationals, anti-patriots and agents of Pakistan! Hindu majoritarian nationalism is detrimental to our secular heritage and composite culture.

It is imperative now to reclaim secularism through a strong people’s movement to challenge those elements who are often seen distributing sweets and carrying national flags to attack the opinion of dissent. We need to tell them that we are proud to be true secularists, protectors of the minorities in the interest of our nation. We want to carry forward the legacy of secular nationalism propounded by Gandhi, Nehru, Azad, Sardar Patel and thousands of freedom fighters. We cannot let the sacrifices of those who went to the gallows and languished in British jails for years, in the prime of their youth, to go in vain.


1. For details, see Rajeev Bhargava, ‘What is Secularism for?’ in Rajeev Bhargava, edited, Secularism and its Critics, OUP, Delhi, 1998, p. 487.

2. D.E Smith, ‘India as a Secular State’ in Rajeev Bhargava edited, op. cit, p. 190.

3. B.R Ambedkar, Pakistan or The Partition of India, Thacker Publishers, Bombay, 1945, p. 358.

4. Bhalchandra Mungekar, edited, The Essential Ambedkar, Rupa, New Delhi, 2017, p. 297.

5. Quoted in Shyam Chand, ‘Dr Ambedkar on Democracy’, Mainstream, Vol. XLV, No. 51, December 11, 2007.

6. Ibid.

7. D.G. Tendulkar, Mahatma, Vol. 8, Publications Division, New Delhi, p. 259.

8. Home Political Proceedings, Government of India, National Archives of India, quoted in Neerja Singh, Patel, Prasad, Rajaji: Myth of the Indian Right, Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2015, p. 82.

9. Sardar Patel’s speech at Hyderabad, quoted in Neerja Singh, op.cit., p. 78.

10. The Times of India, July 27, 2019.

11. Pavan Kumar Verma, ‘Weaponising Ram’, The Times of India, July 23, 2019.

12. Nazia Erum, Mothering a Muslim, Juggernaut, New Delhi, 2017, p. 38.

13. See Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 76, 1972, p. 402.

14. Patel’s speech at Travancore, May 13, 1949, quoted in Neerja Singh, op. cit., p. 77.

The author is a former Associate Professor in History, Maitreyi College, University of Delhi. She is the Vice-President of the National Federation of Indian Women.

ISSN (Mainstream Online) : 2582-7316 | Privacy Policy|
Notice: Mainstream Weekly appears online only.