Is secularism as practiced in India dharmic?
As has been explained before, secularism was brought about in the Christian West to save atheists from being looked down upon by Christians and to allow a definition of goodness done by people that is absolutely shorn off all religious connotations.
In the Indian context though, this concept as enforced by the state, is redundant. SinceIndiadoesn’t have an institution equivalent to that of the Church, what secularism came to be meant was that the majority should not encroach on the rights of the minority. But the Indian society has always understood pluralism and has respected people of differing opinions as well as traditions. It has sheltered Parsees, Jews and Syrian Christians from their persecutioners and even today shows the capacity to accommodate people of different walks of life. It has also sheltered people having a remarkably different outlook of life than the traditional view namely people of Carvaka and Samkhya whose views, to summarize, can be called atheist or agnostic, and thus had already understood secularism in the western sense centuries before the west ever did. While a case can be made against ill treatment of Dalits and lower castes, any amendments that need to bring the Indian society up to speed with modern times need not more than some reforms rather than injecting an alien concept into the society.
As far as current knowledge goes, the traditional Indian state (even the clannish type states) was never concerned with secularism. The traditionalist compass by which the Indian state was recognized was that of ‘dharma’ which has many meanings but for the purpose of this post, we will take it to mean as an upholder of law and order. States were expected to dispense justice to all regardless of their outlook of life. In fact, the state in the traditional order was very lightly burdened with issues related to the people. As comes across from Dharampal’s writings, the state never even concerned itself with public education and health; this was left for the people to manage themselves. Not only that, as far as preserved Gujarati wisdom goes, the state never interfered with businesses as well, it is said that if the King does business, the subjects would remain poor.
Fast forwarding to this age, we are seeing that not only is secularism redundant, but its practice by the state is causing major damage to Indian polity. First of all, popular perception of majority and minority is blurred, in that the majority is often considered Hinduism and the rest as minority. What is not seen is that within certain regions, this relation can be skewed and Hinduism could be a local minority whereas any one of the other religions could be a local majority. Besides, the concept of secularism as practiced inIndiadoes not consider that Islam and Christianity could never be taken as minorities in the real sense since half of the world population is following those traditions. Unfortunately, they are considered as minorities and because of their lungpower, heavy wallets and influence/support from abroad, they have exploited the doctrine of secularism promised by the Indian state to the hilt and have been demanding larger shares of the state pie and are overturning what Indians have always understood to be the duty of the state, i.e. to be the upholder of dharma. The doctrine of secularism also doesn’t address situations wherein conflicts are between minorities. And of course, the smallest minority of all, the individual, is given zero regards in the current scheme of secularism.
Secondly, the introduction of secularism has resulted in a misplaced compass of secularity of a person coming into being. So now, the viability of a person in politics is tested on the whether he is secular or anti-secular. Once this comes into being, it is very easy to conflate a judgement against a vociferous community, even if based on dharmic principles as being anti-secular. As a result, there is a very high risk of dharmic principles being forgotten and the state following a concept that is completely alien to the Indian people.
And therefore, it is not tough to see why the first example where the Indian state abrogated its traditional duty of practicing dharma came very soon after secularism was inserted into the constitution (in 1976) in the controversial Shah Bano case. In this controversial divorce lawsuit, Shah Bano a 62 year old Muslim woman and mother of 5 fromIndore was divorced in 1978 and denied alimony. Mohammed Ahmed Khan, a person whom she had married at 16 had met the fundamental Islamic requirement for divorce: saying talaq thrice. According to the provisions of Muslim personal law, the husband has only to settle the bride price paid at the time of marriage, which in this case was an amount equivalent to US $ 66 and provide the bride a maintenance period of 3 months, known as the ‘iddat’ period. The case reached the Supreme Court (SC) at the end of 7 years, and SC intervened with the Article 125 of the Indian code of Criminal procedure and required Mohammed Ahmed Khan to pay Shah Bano a sum of Rs. 500 per month under secular law.
Here, the bogeyman of being anti-minority and not secular was raised for the first time, in a case that apparently was more about viewing all citizens equally in the eyes of the law. Muslim conservatives were all agog about what seemed to them an intrusion in their fields and started protesting. A powerful state believing in the principles of dharma would have stood up to this bullying and protected the rights of the individual. But because we left it to the state to manage majority-minority relations in the name of secularism, coupled with vote bank compulsions of a democratic system there had to be a breakdown of the system since the state has to think of whether it is appearing anti minority or not before enforcing the law rather than just going along with the latter. The Rajeev Gandhi government, faced with the prospect of impending elections, passed through a Muslim Women Act that reversed the Shah Bano decision and purported to look into exclusively cases of divorced Muslim women’s maintenance. Proponents of this act have claimed that many women have got lump sum amounts after their divorces, but this still doesn’t explain the inherent discrimination in that an issue affecting women from one particular religion are addressed by a law distinct from what is preserved for the rest of the women. While there could be a case for personal religious law, shouldn’t the state be able to extrapolate implications of such laws affecting the quality of people’s lives and thus be able to interfere in such issues based on the premise that it is seeking to improve the quality of life of the average Indian? From where then does the opposition to dowry and sati come when abhorrent practices in other religions are allowed?
With the brazen bending of law in the Shah Bano case, majority-minority relations have steadily gone downhill as the state has been accused of minority protectionism and the majority inIndia(namely the Hindus) feels left out. There have been several instances where the state has abrogated its dharma of being the upholder of law and order for the sake of appearing secular, for instance, allowing the persecution of Kashmiri Pandits in their homeland, overlooking demands of their rehabilitation, stalling the legislation and implementation of bills against religious conversions, hounding out Taslima Nasreen and Salman Rushdie instead of protecting their freedom and so on. In some cases, the very principle of secularism as practiced in the West itself has been breached, such as recent instances of Church appointing candidates for elections in Kerala. Once the state assumes the role of minority protectionism, these things are bound to follow. Moreover, the majority too will cite the abrogation of law for the minorities and it too will transgress the law. The result: chaos.
So, we come back to the question of whether secularism as practiced in Indiacurrently is dharmic or not. As we have seen above, it (at least as a promise of the state to maintain majority – minority relations) is not dharmic. The Indian state has to shed the shackles of secularism in order to function according to the time honored traditions of the Indian society. One might be tempted to ask at this juncture, “what would then maintain majority-minority relations?” It has to be understood here that the society itself is able to maintain these relations and keep them amicable, mostly by trade relations between communities. Moreover, when it is a community’s own responsibility to maintain steady relations with others, it is bound to have a good conduct. When a state takes up the duty to protect a minority, the minority is freed of this intrinsic duty and will perform recklessly. The majority can be kept within bounds merely by maintaining a good law and order situation. Add to this the Indian philosophy of “sarva dharma samabhava” and you can get a perfectly pluralist and peaceful society. The only thing that the state needs to care about is that there is no hatred taught to children in schools, no religion propagates distrust of the other at traditional institutes of learning and worship and maintaining law and order. Another thing that is worth implementing if we truly want to be considered secular is the Lemon test to check for secular nature of a particular law. These alone would be sufficient to makeIndia the peaceful state that secularism purports to make it, but currently repeatedly fails at it.
Image from here.