Secularism Perverted: Religion and Vote-bank Politics in India

Stephen R. Welch

For those on the left of India’s political spectrum, “secularism” is a rhetorical icon, righteously wielded much as “social justice” or “workers’ rights” is elsewhere. But for those on the political Right, including a great many among India’s majority Hindu community, it is nothing more than a euphemism for reverse discrimination. To these Indians, secularism is a dirty word.

This situation may seem drearily familiar to Westerners, and indeed, the temptation to fit Indian “church vs. state” politics within a European or American template is compelling. But the comparison is superficial. In Europe, secularism is challenged by the antisecular doctrines of a growing Muslim minority; in America, the Christian Right squawks that secularism is “hostile” to faith. Neither of these dynamics applies to India. On the contrary, secularism in India suffers a crisis of credibility precisely because it isn’t—nor has it ever truly been—secular.

In the West, secularism is an approach to governance characterized by separation of the state from religious beliefs and institutions. When genuinely secular, the state is assiduously neutral toward religion; it awards religious institutions no privileges or subsidies, and relegates religious beliefs to the private sphere, where they are protected as individual freedoms. In India, however, secularism is regarded as a form of state policy whereby all religions are entitled to equal treatment in the public sphere. In terms of governance, the Indian state is therefore expected to promote the interests of religious communities and, where religious minorities are involved, to proactively engage in positive discrimination on their behalf—that is, faith-based affirmative action.

The Indian state thus juggles a multitude of faith-based endeavors and pro-religion policies. These may range from symbolic acts, such as the open participation of government officials in religious rituals (for example, at the inauguration of public buildings), to more strident pro-religion entitlements promulgated through legislation and constitutional writ. For example:

  • There is no uniform civil code in India; Muslim citizens are subject to an Islamic personal law as defined by sharia, including polygamy and the triple talaaq method of divorce.
  • The government subsidizes discounted airfares for its Muslim citizens traveling to Saudi Arabia for the hajj pilgrimage.
  • A serial dramatization of the Hindu epic Ramayana has been broadcast for years on state-owned television channels.
  • The Indian constitution allows Sikhs to carry the symbolic kirpan dagger.
  • The constitution specifically protects religious proselytization.
  • The government owns the endowments of religious temples, churches, and mosques, and often “raids” these (usually those of the more well-endowed Hindu temples) for public spending.
  • The government can enforce caste-based enrollment quotas and dictate fee structures and curricula in Hindu denominational schools. Muslim and Christian schools are spared this government interference even though many of them receive state-subsidized grants.

Though the Hindu majority enjoys a number of benefits in this system, the most egregious privileges are extended to the Muslim and Christian communities. Unremarkably, these communities jealously guard their privileges as religious “rights,” while Hindu conservatives attack them as entitlements gifted by the state at the expense of the majority. But the discourse that swirls around this controversy is revealing. Both sides in the debate confuse secularism with “state protection of religious dogma.” This is seen when the government indulges both sides of the political spectrum with the censorship of speech or art that offends the religious feelings of any of their respective constituencies. It is also revealed in the labels with which each side paints itself and tars the other. For example, the communists and the Congress Party, who deem themselves secularists, oppose any threat to Islamic personal law as “antisecular,” while Hindu nationalists are regarded as “communalist” because they endorse a uniform civil code that would abrogate faith-based personal law. In India, secularism thus has come to mean its opposite—it is pseudo-secular.

Pseudo-secularism is both a product and cause of the divisive and intractable “vote-bank” politics in India, where faith-based privileges are cynically doled out to entire sections of the population who vote en masse along predictable religious lines. On the left of the political spectrum are the Muslim and Christian minorities, the communists, and much of the intelligentsia who dominate the country’s academia and English media. On the right is the grassroots Hindutva movement, including right-wing intellectuals, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and a coterie of other Hindu revivalist groups. The voice of any truly secular moderate in India is rarely heard, drowned out in the din of vote-bank politics.

The problem has its roots in the colonial era. To avoid chafing religious sentiments, the British made it their policy to avoid imposing a uniform code of civil law governing culturally sensitive matters such as marriage, inheritance, and divorce. After Indian independence, the nascent government, anxious to hold together the new country’s disparate communities, continued this practice. Objectionable religious customs and practices were deferred to their respective communities. While Hindu reformers managed to largely secularize Hindu personal law by outlawing polygamy, encouraging the adoption of girls, and placing daughters on the same footing as sons in terms of inheritance, the Muslims never accepted corresponding reforms for their community. Out of concern to reassure Muslims who chose to remain in India (rather than withdraw to Pakistan), the framers of India’s constitution—including Nehru, the original champion of Indian secularism—opted to acquiesce and permit India’s Muslim citizens to be subject to Islamic personal law. So, when article 44 of the 1949 Constitution was written, it promised that the state would “endeavor” to provide India a uniform civil code . . . at some future date.

Given the horrific communal violence and population displacement that occurred as a result of the partition of India and Muslim Pakistan only two years earlier, this constitutional lacuna was defended as necessary, even rational. But other compromises were made at the behest of far less fractious religious minorities. In outlining citizens’ fundamental rights, the draft constitution originally guaranteed that all persons were entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely “profess and practice religion.” After heavy lobbying by Christian representatives and their allies, the relevant article was then amended to read, “profess, practice, and propagate religion” (emphasis added). Though no other modern constitution had made such a sweeping concession, the right to proselytize—an entitlement distinctly sought by Christians, whose dogmas include a divine mandate to convert others to Christianity—was now enshrined in India’s constitution.

With these precedents established, appeasement of religious dogma in the name of “secularism” has continued apace, polarizing Indian politics intractably along a Hindu majority versus Muslim-Christian axis. Aligned with the latter are the communists: sacrificing fealty to Marx for political expediency, the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) has creatively a
mended its dogmas in order to extend its appeal among the Muslim and Christian vote-banks. In 2005, an official of the CPI-M went so far as to declare that Marx’s indictment of religion as the opiate of the masses has been “quoted out of context by the enemies of the party in order to propagate that Marxists are anti-religious.” It seems that some faiths remain more “opiate” than others, however. In the states of Kerala and West Bengal, CPI-M–dominated boards of education have instructed that “Muslim rule should never attract any criticism” in school textbooks—Hinduism, meanwhile, is portrayed as a tool of an oppressive “Brahminist” ruling class.

The most damaging consequence of pseudo-secularism, though, is not merely the hypocrisy of vote-bank politics. The perversion of the very meaning of the word secularism has fostered a corrosive cynicism in India’s public discourse. A depressingly typical example was the treatment by the press of the Godhra massacres. After a group of Hindu pilgrims were murdered by a Muslim mob near the town of Godhra in 2002, Hindu vigilantes killed thousands of Muslims in reprisals. Predictably, India’s “secularist” English media responded by downplaying the Godhra massacre as an “incident,” while it rightly condemned the massacre of Muslims as an atrocity.

As Jagdish Bhagwati warns, “[a]ll atrocities, even those involving a single life, must be denounced; playing favourites in one’s moral outrage is morally deplorable and, besides, can only encourage further atrocities.” Enthralled to vote-bank politics, pseudo-secularism panders to this kind of moral favoritism. It does not deserve the name “secular.”

Further Reading

  • Shourie, Arun. Eminent Historians: Their Technology, Their Line, Their Fraud. New Delhi: HarperCollins India, 1999.
  • Bhagwati, Jagdish. “Secularism in India: Why Is It Imperiled?” In Sumit Ganguly, ed. Six Decades of Independence. Journal of Democracy 18, No. 2, April 2007. Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Edamaruku, Sanal. “India: ‘Marxists Are No More Opposed to Religion.’” Rationalist International 143 (May 9, 2005).

Stephen R. Welch

Stephen R. Welch is a freelance writer based in New York. He writes regularly for Free Inquiry. His last article “The Importance of Being Blasphemous: Literature, Self-Censorship, and the Legacy of The Satanic Verses,” appeared in the October/November 2015 issue.

For those on the left of India’s political spectrum, “secularism” is a rhetorical icon, righteously wielded much as “social justice” or “workers’ rights” is elsewhere. But for those on the political Right, including a great many among India’s majority Hindu community, it is nothing more than a euphemism for reverse discrimination. To these Indians, secularism …

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