How To Secularise Secularism

Secularism, as we know it, is an idea whose time has gone. When home minister Rajnath Singh says that it is an overused term, and several people nod in sane agreement, the season has surely come to burn the leaves.

Religious tolerance, in its purest form, is hardly a bankable commodity on a social scale. Nowhere in the world have people become tolerant because of lectures on secularism. Humankind is flawed at the start, for no matter where we are, or how developed we are, we always believe that people other than us are intrinsically inferior.

Asking for tolerance is much like whistling for the moon; yet, in practice, actions against intolerance might work if you whistle for the police instead.Ultimately , secularism is not about the milk of human kindness, or about tolerance, but about an intolerant law that will not tolerate public intolerance.It is only when the administration gets flaccid on this count that our spontaneous tendencies surface, but we nearly always rush to the wrong address for help.

The one wrong address, for a very long time, was the Congress party , but there were others too. The more the administration gave in to violence against minorities, the more it talked about secularism as tolerance; just words, nothing in deed. As legal action did not follow with the right kind of vigour, the term pseudo-secularism gained credibility. It was all talk, as neither side had any intention of calling in the cavalry to implement the law.

This process got its ribbon-cutting start when Indira Gandhi introduced “secularism“ in the Constitution, much as one would a totem pole. It was revered from far but far from revered; caste politics and Sikh killings owe their origin to her brand of politics. Over time, and this had to happen, a full scale war of words ensued. This kept the fur and spittle flying, but the need to buckle down and punish the guilty never really surfaced.

Secularism, therefore, is not about good and bad people, but about an unflinching law that won’t brook public demonstrations of intolerance. It is never love, nor the urge to be hugged; secularism is just to make sure that ordinary people can lead ordinary lives without fearing what tomorrow might bring. When the law is on your side you don’t need eyes in the back of your head.

It is the law, not irreligiousness, or shutting up the church, that makes us secular. In fact, Henry VIII was hardly secular because he flouted the Pope, divorced and re-married. If the Vatican did not approve of his behaviour, it could go fly a kite. From this historical act a rather simplistic idea grew that secularism was about separating church from state.

Yet, one cannot cast Henry VIII as secular just because he defied religious authorities. Religious persecution continued in Europe, not because the church said smell, go, hunt and kill, but because it was now the king who issued such diktats. The unquestionable authority of the priests was now replaced by that of the king. Truth was still being handed down from above and the subjects continued their weary lives as subjects.

It is only with democracy that secularism truly appeared. This is not because we suddenly became good, and traded in our cruel hearts for loving ones. What made the real difference was that there were now legal penalties for communal and religious violence. Did all of this begin because those who birthed democracy were personally tolerant, packed with moral rectitude and goodwill? Far from it! What had changed was the need for massive numbers to overthrow monarchy and absolutist rule. A population divided by religion and sects was far too fragmented to topple the king; a united front was essential for this purpose. It was out of this seedling that citizenship emerged, but it had to toil its way up as it kept getting stamped upon. Massimo d’Azeglio, a mid-19th century scholar, put it nicely when he said: “Now that we have made Italy , let us make Italians.“

Secularism becomes a habit when the law works systematically , and without exception, against sectarian intolerance. It is this legal intolerance of intolerance that teaches us to be civil and not moral science in a classroom, nor sweet and inconstant political talk.Though it might still hurt to tolerate and make room for other communities, it would hurt a lot more to break the law.Take the law out of the frame and see hatred spew out in religious spirals even in advanced, “civilised“ democracy .Secularism

Across time, intolerance is spurred by social and economic insecurity . When jobs are scarce, when one’s self-esteem has got a hiding, we start blaming other communities and see all kinds of evil in them.How is this best combated, with words or with deed? Recall post-Partition’s hot and heady mood, and yet how Nehru succeeded in keeping religious passions from taking over our just born democracy .He succeeded, in large measure, because he promised jobs, dams and steel mills. He hardly talked of pure tolerance, or even secularism; he just did it.

If secularism and pseudo-secularism are bandied about freely , and abusively , today it is because partisans on both sides are clueless on how to develop our economy . This is bipartisanship for you, Indian style!

Source: TOI 30 Nov’2015