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The Threats to Secular India

When, some months ago, “The Idea of India” was agreed on as the title of my Nehru Lecture at Cambridge,1 I had not imagined that the subject would be as topical as it, alas, has become since the terrible events of recent months. The idea of a secular India, tolerant of different religions (and of people who believe in none), which had been taken for granted since independence, has been severely damaged by extremist Hindu political groups.

The present round of events began on December 6 with the destruction of a sixteenth-century mosque—the Babri Masjid—in the northern city of Ayodhya, by politically organized mobs of activist Hindus, who want to build a temple to Rama on that very spot. That outrageous event has been followed by communal violence and riots across the country, in which around two thousand people or more have perished—both Hindus and Muslims, but Muslim victims have far outnumbered Hindus. Some of the worst incidents have taken place in Bombay. In what is usually thought to be the premier city of India, a relatively small but thoroughly organized group of extremist Hindus went repeatedly on the rampage; the police frequently failed to protect Muslims under attack, and were often far more violent in dispersing Muslim mobs than Hindu ones.

It took quite some time for the nationwide condemnation that followed those events to move the government of India to take a tougher stand on law and order, and even now the determination of the government is far from clear. But on February 25 it did manage to prevent a huge and dangerous Hindu political demonstration in New Delhi, which could have easily brought communal riots to the nation’s capital. Stopping the demonstration unfortunately involved suspending the civil right of free assembly. But in view of the highly provocative nature of the planned demonstration (for which Hindu activists had converged from across the country), and in view of the fact that the confrontation was managed by the police with no loss of life, the Indian government has not had to face much criticism for these violations of civil rights, except, of course, from the Hindu parties themselves.

The extremist Hindu political movement that spearheaded the present turmoil has gone on to demand an official end to Indian secularism, to be replaced by the recognition of India as a Hindu state. This proposal, if accepted, would involve a dramatic alteration of one of the basic principles of the Indian constitution, and a radical departure from the idea of India—a pluralist, tolerant, and secular India—which was central to the Indian nationalist movement and which was reflected in the legal and political structure of independent India. It is that idea and the challenges it faces that I want to discuss. I shall argue that these challenges include quite distinct components, making it inappropriate to analyze the emergence of Hindu extremism as a single phenomenon: for example, the communal murders and, thuggery in Bombay are driven by rather different forces from activist religious politics in Ayodhya; and each in turn differs from the general increase of Hindu sectarianism among the urban middle classes. It is as important to understand the different forces underlying the distinct components as it is to appreciate their deep interconnections.

Secularism as a Part of Pluralism

It may seem extraordinary that a largely passive idea like secularism can be central to the conception of modern India. Is secularism really an important issue, or is it just sanctimonious rhetoric? When British India was partitioned, Pakistan chose to be an Islamic Republic, whereas India chose a secular constitution. Does that choice make a real difference?

The distinction is certainly important from the legal point of view, and its political implications are also extensive, applying to different levels of political and social arrangements, going all the way up to the head of the state. For example, unlike Pakistan, whose constitution requires that the head of the state be a Muslim, India imposes no comparable requirement, and the country has had non-Hindus (including Muslims and Sikhs) both as presidents and in other prominent and influential positions in government.

But secularism is, in fact, a part of a more comprehensive idea—that of India as an integrally pluralist country, made up of different religious beliefs, distinct language groups, divergent social practices. Secularism is one aspect—a very important one—of the recognition of that larger idea of heterogeneous identity. I shall argue that the sectarian forces that seek to demolish Indian secularism will have to deal not merely with the presence and rights of the many Muslims in India, but also with India’s regional, social, and cultural diversity. Toleration of differences is not easily divisible.

Muslims in India

Are Muslims marginal in the Indian population? Even though four out of five persons in India are formally Hindu, the country still has well over a hundred million Muslims, not much less than Pakistan has, and rather more than Bangladesh. Indeed, seen from this perspective, India is the third largest Muslim country in the world. To see India just as a Hindu country is fairly bizarre in view of that fact alone, not to mention the fact of the intermingling of Hindus and Muslims in the country’s social and cultural life.2

The religious plurality of India also extends far beyond the Hindu-Muslim question. There is, of course, a large and prominent Sikh population, and substantial number of Christians, whose history goes back at least to the fourth century AD (considerably earlier than in Britain). India also had Jewish settlements since shortly after the fall of Jerusalem. Parsees have moved to India from less tolerant Persia. There are also millions of Jains, and practioners of Buddhism, which had been for a long period, the official religion of many of the Indian emperors (including the great Ashoka in the third century BC). Furthermore, the number of people who are atheist or agnostic (as Jawaharlal Nehru himself was) is large too, though census categories do not record actual religious beliefs—atheists born in Hindu families are classified as Hindu, reflecting their so called “community background.”

The framers of the Indian constitution wanted to make sure that the state would not take a biased position in favor of any particular community religious conviction. In view of the heterogeneity of India and of the Indians, any alternative to secularity would be unfair.

Diversity Within Hinduism

The issue of religious plurality concerns not only the relationship between Hindus and followers of other faiths (or none). It also concerns the diversity within Hinduism itself. If it is seen as one religion, Hinduism must also be seen as thoroughly plural in structure. Its divisions are not those only of caste (though that is tremendously important), but also of school of thought. Even the ancient Hindus classification of “six systems of philosophy” acknowledged highly diverse beliefs and reasoning. More recently when the fourteenth century Hindu scholar Madhava Acarya, head of the religious order in Sringeri in Mysore wrote his famous Sanskrit treatise Sarvadarsana Samgraha (“Collection of all Philosophies”), he devoted early of his sixteen chapters to the different schools of Hindu religious postulates (beginning with the atheism of the Carvaka school), and he discussed how each religious school, within the capacious body of Hindu thought, different from the others.

Seeing Hinduism as one religion, fact, is a comparatively recent development. The term Hindu was originally used mainly to signify location and country rather than a homogenous religious belief. The term derived from the river Indus (the cradle of the Indus Valley civilization going back to 3000 BC), and that river is also the source of the word India itself. The Persians and the Greeks saw India as the land around and beyond the Indus, and Hindus were the native people of that land. Muslims from India were at one stage called “Hindavi” Muslims, in Persian as well as Arabic, and there are plenty of references in early British documents to “Hindoo Muslims” and “Hindoo Christians,” to distinguish them respectively from Muslims and Christians from outside India.

Ramayana and Rama

Plurality is an internal characteristic of Hinduism as a religion; it is not just a matter of the external relations between Hindus and non-Hindus in the secular polity of India. The Hindu activists who last December demolished the sixteenth-century mosque in Ayodhya, wanting a temple to Rama instead, have yet to confront the fact that, even among those who see themselves as religious Hindus, a great many would dispute Rama’s divinity (not to mention his preeminent divinity).

Certainly, in parts of the country the name of Rama is identified with divinity. Ironically, perhaps the most famous incident in recent times in which the name of Rama (or “Ram,” as the word is pronounced in contemporary Hindi) was invoked as synonymous with God took place when Mahatma Gandhi was murdered on January 30, 1948, by a Hindu extremist who belonged to a political group not entirely dissimilar to the ones that destroyed the mosque last December. The leader of modern India, who was a deeply religious Hindu but whose secular politics had earned him the wrath of the extremist zealots, fell to the ground, hit by a Hindu bullet, and died saying “Hé Ram!”

The identification of Rama with divinity is common in the north and west of India, but elsewhere (for example, in my native Bengal), Rama is mainly the hero of the epic Ramayana, rather than God incarnate. Ramayana as an epic is, of course, widely popular everywhere in India, and outside India as well—in Thailand and Indonesia for example (even Ayutthaya, the historical capital of Thailand, is a cognate of Ayodhya). But we have to distinguish the influence of the epic Ramayana—a great work of literature—from the particular issue of divinity. In fact, in that ancient epic, Rama is treated very much as a good and self-sacrificing king rather than as God, and on one occasion he is even lectured by a worldly pundit called Javali: “O Rama, be wise, there exists no world but this, that is certain! Enjoy that which is present and cast behind thee that which is unpleasant.”3

One of the Hindu political leaders described the demolition of the mosque, with evident reverence, as “Hanuman’s mace at work,” referring to the monkey king Hanuman who was an ally of Rama, as told in epic Ramayana. No doubt this is how the destruction appeared to him, but he could scarcely ignore the fact that Hanuman is not much revered among hundreds of millions of Hindus in many other parts of India, or the fact that in popular plays in, say, rural Bengal, Hanuman is a riotously comic character—affable, amusing, and wholly endearing, but hardly endowed with any holiness. Indeed, in his Vision of India’s History, Rabindranath Tagore singles out the epic hero Rama for special praise precisely because Rama, as Tagore put it, “appeared as divine to the primitive tribes, some of whom had the totem of monkey, some that of bear.”4

  1. 1

    For helpful suggestions, I am most grateful to Sudhir Anand, Peter Bauer, Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, Akeel Bilgrami, Sugata Bose, G.A. Cohen, Edward Desmond, Keith Griffin, Ayesha Jalal, Kumari Jayawardena, Azizur Rahman Khan, V.K.Ramachandran, Tapan Raychaudhuri, Emma Rothschild, and Antara Dev Sen.

  2. 2

    On the importance of anthropological understanding in seeing the need for secularism, see the powerful analysis of Nur Yalman, “On Secularism and Its Critics: Notes on Turkey, India and Iran,” Contributions to Indian Sociology, Vol. 25 (1991).

  3. 3

    English translation from H. P. Shastri, The Ramayana of Valmiki (London: Shanti Sadan, 1952), p. 389.

  4. 4

    Rabindranath Tagore, A Vision of India’s History (Calcutta: Visva-Bharati, 1951, reprinted 1962), p. 32.

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