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Mainstream, Vol XLVII No 19, April 25, 2009

Kandhamal Violence: Secularism and Democracy under Siege

Sunday 26 April 2009, by Sunny Jacob


In the light of the recent violence in Kandhamal every right thinking person of this country must be concerned of the dangers to democracy and the secularist ideals of our nation. The violence that started in December 2007 had already destroyed the backbone of the minority Christian community of Kandhamal. The killing of the Swami, which from day one the Christian leaders and churches condemned in the strongest terms, and unequivocally stated that they had no role in it at all, was used as a lame excuse and as part of the larger conspiracy of the fundamentalist organisations that went on attacking innocent Christians all over Kandhamal and many other parts of Orissa. Even after the claims by the Maoists that they have done the crime, the goons of the fanatics went on destroying the Christian churches, properties, houses, people and their belongings. This second phase of violence has shocked the entire Christian community in India and shaken the basic foundation of our democracy and secularism.

The magnitude of vandalism perpetrated by the religious fanatics indeed reveals that a section of Indian politicians have no faith in the secular and democratic Constitution of India. They simply do not believe in the sanctity of our Constitution. Otherwise how can any one justify the violence and arson, rape and looting, attacks and obstructions, threat and use of muscle power? It is consoling to know that all these are done by a minuscule section of the Hindu community who are the foot-soldiers of the Sangh Parivar. However, what is sickening and shocking is the stoic silence of the majority who know the truth about all these happenings, yet prefer to do nothing against the fundamentalist forces which are bent on destroying not only the minority communities but also the essence of Hinduism itself. The utterances of Sangh Parivar leaders and the writings of so-called intellectuals like Swapan Dasgupta and Chandan Mitra are in fact destroying the very foundation of our cherished democracy and secularism. These so-called intellectual faces of the Sangh Parivar are not far too different from the Hindutva mascots like Narendra Modi and Varun Gandhi. They are merely an expression of a deep ideology that is fundamentalist and fanatic. Knowingly or unknowingly they are attacking the very foundation of our secular nationhood.

The Indian Constitution guarantees the freedom of religions. It does not protect or promote any particular religion. In fact it remains neutral to all religions. Secularism seems to have created some doubts in the minds of some people. The main cause for this confusion is the deliberate work of the Hindutva forces in general and the BJP in particular. They coined the word ‘pseudo-secular’ to brand all the secular political parties and defame them in order to create confusion among the public at large.

The meaning of secularism is derived from the word secular, which means worldly or material, not spiritual or religious. It is a concept of social and ethical value; therefore, it is defined as a view of life based on the premise that religion and religious considerations should be ignored or purposely excluded in order to evolve a system of social ethics based upon a doctrine.

This shows clearly that there is no religious and spiritual involvement on the part of the state. According to Prof S.N. Dhyani, “in the civil management and administration of the state, religious or spiritual considerations should be strictly excluded”. Therefore, secularism is a modern progressive philosophy which is mainly based on independent rational thinking with a scientific temper. In a secular society religion, to a great extent, is a personal matter, which has no place in socio-political issues because that is what breeds what we call communalism and sectarianism. Today, unfortunately, communalism and sectarianism are the dangers to our great nation, and these give rise to both terrorism and extremism.

The idea of secularism, in fact, originated in the West. The secular understanding separates the State and Religion in such a way that one does not impinge upon the other. The concern is to make sure that religion does not divide people on social and political matters. In theocratic countries the state fulfils religious ideals and politics is subordinated to religious ideals and tenets. All relations between the state and individuals are essentially regulated and governed with reference to state religion.

India has a long tradition of pluralism. This country not only gave birth to many religions but it has been hospitable to many other alien religions. Besides, today Article 25 of the Constitution of the Indian Republic guarantees to the followers of all religions the freedom to practise and propagate their religion. India is the only country in South Asia where secularism is not only the basic feature of the Constitution but also the symbol of its composite culture, tolerance and equalitarian social order. The state shows neutrality in its policies regarding the religious matters of individuals. The state gives equal treatment, recognition and position to all religions. No discrimination is displayed in employment, educational, political and economic matters on the basis of religion. The laws of the state are formulated, implemented and analysed on a secular basis. It is clear now that the attitude of impartiality towards all religions is made secure by the Constitution. There is no ‘state religion’ in India. There is not just the separation of state and religion, but ‘sarvadharma samabhava’ is the vision of Indian Constitution. This is the meaning of Indian secularism.

Democracy theoretically means the rule of the majority. But this rule enshrines the spirit of the rule of law and consensus, not merely the rule of numbers. An ideal democracy guarantees unambiguously freedom to save life and full opportunity to every section of society, especially minorities, to blossom and prosper, lead a dignified life with full freedom to assert their own welfare.


However, there are many anomalies in the practice of democracy in our country. The powerful classes and castes had always framed their own methodology to remain in power and maintain the status quo. In a democracy the majority always matters. In India the majority is always poor. But the ruling class has explored ways and means to divide their unity in the name of religion, caste, ethnicity and language. The more the number of political parties are, the more divided they become. A modern state exists only because it adheres to a certain fundamental ethos of civil society. No nation worth the name can survive without this ethos. It gives the state legitimacy. When this legitimacy is threatened and defiled, no democratic nation or state can function and hold its ground. Thus in order to have a democratic state, we need a democratic social order. Hence, the principles forming the basis of a democratic social order would also govern the state.

Fraternity, equality and liberty are the essential principles forming the basis of a free democratic social order. Fraternity is the disposition of an individual to treat men as the object of reverence and the desire to be in unity with his fellow beings. If this is undermined there cannot be any democracy. It will be like letting the violent mob to rule over the country. Signs of that are seen in Kandhamal, Mumbai, Karnataka, Assam, Manipur, Darjeeling, Bihar, and J&K. In fact fraternity is the other name of democracy.

Equality meant exactly a free social order, where equivalence in measure, amount, number, degree, value or quality rests. Ambedkar emphasised the idea of equality of consideration which meant none would have a claim to better treatment than another, in advance of good grounds being produced. Liberty falls under two classes: civil liberty and political liberty. Civil liberty refers to i) liberty of movement; ii) liberty of speech, through reading, writing, and discussion; iii) liberty of action, which had to be formal and real. Political liberty consists in the right of the individual to share in the framing of the laws and in the making and unmaking of governments. The government has to, therefore, derive its power from those whose rights it is charged to protect.

Today the concepts of secularism and democracy have been sought to be converted into mischievous slogans. They are put forward as forcible concepts rather than moral and spiritual values. The incidence of communal violence is the most disturbing phenomenon for secularism and democracy. After 70 to 80 years of work the forces of Hindutva have not brought any equality in society. They worked hard to politicise Hinduism but never to democratise it. The BJP, RSS, VHP and BD together under the umbrella named ‘Hindutva’ are a big threat to secularism and democracy of India. Why?

Their declarations of India having only one culture, one language and one religion and being one Hindu nation are nothing but sheer calls to destroy secularism and democracy in the country. The Sangh wants to change the Indian Constitution and abolish the rights of the religious minorities and promote their mono-cultural vision. Any party that does not respect the values enshrined in our Constitution by their actions is striking at the very root of the democratic state order.

A social order based on the values of equality, justice, liberty, dignity and fraternity is the vision of our Constitution. No doubt ours is a sovereign, secular, democratic state. Not merely separation of religion from the state but equal respect to all the religions is the vision of the Indian Constitution.

But Hindutva regards secularism and democracy as threats to its growth. Distorting their meaning and doing away with secularism and democracy are the only weapons left in the hands of Hindutvavadis for their survival. Hence Hindutva poses a major danger to secularism and democracy. Our nation cannot afford to be ruled by fascist forces. We cannot allow mob mentality to be a norm for our governance. We cannot even imagine a repeat of Kandhamal anywhere in the country.

Sunny Jacob S.J. teaches at Loyala School, Bhubaneswar. His e-mail is:

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