Would Indians prefer a theocracy?
Would Indians prefer a theocracy?
India has significant diverse minorities who are indigenous people belonging to different religious faiths, of which Muslims are numerically the most significant. There is little doubt that India’s constitution was deliberately given a secular character to reassure the minorities that they would never be discriminated against in the new republic. It was an assurance enshrined in the chapter on fundamental rights and is a part of the basic social contract embedded in the Indian constitution. But would we be something other than a secular polity if we were 100 percent Hindu? There are two aspects to this fundamental question. First, does our commitment to secularism merely stem from a constitutional obligation to our minorities? Second, why be secular if there is no such obligation to minorities? The answer to the first question lies in the second question.
The US gave itself a secular constitution at the time of its independence even though it had no religious minorities to speak of. It did so because no religion, ancient or modern, answers all the questions that we confront in our empirical experience. The Christian world began with the notion of equality of all men and universal brotherhood as opposed to slavery practiced by the Romans. It was the quest for personal freedom that enabled the Christians to overthrow the mighty Roman Empire. However, over time, using the basic tenets laid down by Christ at the inception, the Church’s clergy went on to stitch an elaborate and pervasive doctrine that governed every facet of one’s life. The Christian idea of redemption after life morphed into rejection of life in this world. Negativity reached such proportions that to bathe was a sin since it meant recognising one’s body as important in this world. Such is the power of a doctrine given a free run in the hands of ideologues backed by the coercive power of the state. If absolute power corrupts absolutely then absolute dogma maddens absolutely. It took a revolution spanning over some 300 years to reverse the monstrous dogma that the Church had fashioned out of the teachings of Christ. The sheer power, cruelty, and perversity of state-backed absolutist dogma is unimaginable today.
The communists in the 20th century copied the tactics of the Church to create a just society based on the teachings of Karl Marx. Despite land reforms and the like, the communists too ended up with a totalitarian state complete with a secret police that wielded supreme power accountable to no one but itself. The system stifled innovation and creativity and was simply unable to keep pace with the surge of ideas in other contemporary societies. Eventually it collapsed as ordinary people saw through the lies they were being fed by the state. India’s own experience with half-baked socialism in the 70s shows this ubiquitous proclivity of state bureaucracies to run away with the bit of dogma in their mouth given the coercive power of the state to back them.
Modern jurisprudence is all about arriving at a minimal set of rules, which enable citizens to live together, collaborate and compete for resources without violent conflict. That being so, even a 100 percent Hindu society would eventually tend towards the secular ideal. It would not matter if it began with religion-based ideology premised on some text or combination of scriptures. No such text exists but that is a different issue intrinsic to Hinduism. Nor does secularism interfere with the practice of any faith. On the contrary, secularism guarantees that the state will never discriminate against you for it. So why is a section of the religious right so vociferous in its rejection of secularism?
The reasons for the religious right’s attacks on secularism are more political than ideological. Muslims, who constitute 17 percent of the voters, tend to vote en bloc and do so tactically. This enables them to swing elections their way in a number of constituencies, which are said to number about 150. The Hindu votes are split into roughly four equal caste groups and tend to vote along caste lines. So any constituency may be modelled as a five-player game with equal votes. The political party that wins the support of any three players wins. The religious right has sought to wean away votes from all four castes of the Hindu vote by “othering” the Muslims and painting them as a civilisational threat to Hindus. This discourse uses a number of false but plausible myths to show that the Congress, as a secular party, is in cahoots with the Muslims to the detriment of Hindus. The religious right aims to create six players in the five-player game that draws support from all Hindu caste groups to offset the Muslim vote. The hope is that enough votes can be weaned away to more than offset the Muslim vote. It is a measure of the strategy’s ineffectiveness that it has proved difficult to win and retain even a quarter of the votes in each caste bloc. Worth noting too that in doing so, the Hindu right pits one section of the Hindus against another, the more secular minded being labelled lesser Hindus.
To polarise the four Hindu caste blocs along religious lines, a number of emotive issues are kept on the communal backburner to be brought to the fore at election time. These include hoary chestnuts like the Ayodhya temple/mosque issue, Uniform Civil Code, Gujarat and other riots, etc. From the right’s point of view these issues are best left unresolved because resolution robs them of their utility as emotive issues for polarisation. The Congress is too petrified of a backlash to resolve them so as to eliminate them from public discourse. It prefers the known devil to the unknown that might be introduced were the existing issues to be resolved.
Our constitutional fathers clearly recognised the need for a secular state but tempered the principle with what could be achieved given the education and socio-economic and political conditions at that time. Thus, in matters of personal laws, they allowed existing customs and practices to prevail over the ideal in order to forge a consensus over larger issues. That was pragmatic. They also made provisions for reservations for lower caste Hindus in education and government jobs in order to integrate them into society quickly. Separate legislation over personal laws for Hindus and Muslims, reservations, etc, were temporary devices but have continued as the consensus needed to eliminate them eludes us. However, that only highlights the pragmatism and foresight of our constitutional fathers who were able to resolve a large number of far more important issues while we cannot resolve a fraction of those even after more than 60 years of independence. It is rather churlish to blame our pragmatic fathers for the mess we subsequently created.
Politics must not degenerate into such a cynical game where competition between political parties begins to destroy the very fabric of our polity. Politics is not war by other means within a society. The Hindu right’s willingness to push their polarisation agenda far beyond the limits of sane and constructive politics is a cause for worry. Secularism, and the issues that go with it, are but a pretext for polarisation. There are encouraging signs that identity-based politics has outrun its utility. The younger voters are more concerned about development, jobs and quality of life issues. It is time, therefore, for political parties to move beyond the old school politics of caste and religion.
The writer is a trader. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @SonaliRanade on Twitter