Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.
— George Bernard Shaw
In an unfortunate sequence of events, a Union minister - who is known for stoking divisive sentiments and spewing incessant venom - recently said that the ruling party has the power to “change” the Constitution by sheer virtue of the colossal majority it enjoyed in both the Houses. He later apologised "to those who may have been hurt by his remarks".
With the rise of the right wing, one of the distinctive values of India - secularism - has been facing constant attack. It has not missed a single opportunity to mock, condemn, shame, reproach and ridicule the very concept on every possible platform. Very often, seculars are monikered as “sickulars”, implying that seculars are sick and impaired citizens. This attitude is certainly targetted, and inadmissible. However, this disposition is both, disturbing and worrying when it is endorsed by the well-read and elected representatives, from whom, the nation has higher expectations.
A gentle reminder
The Indian Constitution has been amended 101 times. The word “secular” was introduced in the Constitution’s Preamble through the 42nd Constitution Amendment Act, 1976. It is understandable that the then Opposition termed this amendment as cowboy constitutionalism, because it was undertaken during the Emergency when most of the Opposition leaders were in prison on grounds of preventive detention. Expectedly, when the Janata Party came to power in 1977, under the legal watch of the then law minister Shanti Bhushan, the party executed the 44th Amendment, which successfully nullified considerable impact of the 42nd Constitution Amendment.
However, it must be noted that the word “secular” was spared the wrath of the polity. It was retained in the Preamble, indicating that the Janata Party government, (in which Atal Bihari Vajpayee held charge of the external affairs ministry and LK Advani was the information and broadcasting minister; Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley, Subramanian Swamy as party workers) was on the same page with the Indian National Congress on this front. The endorsement did not end there. In the 45th Constitution Amendment Bill, the Janata Party proposed to define “secular republic”, to ensure the idea is not malleable or vulnerable to interpretation. History tells us that this amendment was rejected by the Rajya Sabha, where Congress party was in majority, primarily because the two forces did not agree on each other’s version of secularism. In essence, Congress introduced and Janata Party preserved “secularism” in the Preamble.
Communalism versus appeasement
Unfortunately, we have not been able to carry the collaborative legacy forward. Secularism is torn between protrusive camps, where they accuse each other of communalism and minority appeasement respectively.
On one hand, there is a camp that uses every possible opportunity to incite conflagrant tendencies. On the other, there is a reticent association, whose intention, gait and communication belie its very genesis. Without delving into the details of the tendencies or their genesis, both the groups have accomplished little for three reasons. One, both have failed to consummate progress for their respective audience. Despite symbolic actions like having a Dalit president on two occasions, a grassroots Hindutva Czar at the helm, an onerous Hindutva machinery whose roots are all pervasive, Hindus continue to live under poverty, replete with dowry deaths, untouchability and unemployment.
As many as 21 dowry deaths are reported across India every day, with a conviction rate of 35 per cent. Similarly, I wonder if there was an appeasement at all. As per the Sacher Committee Report (2006), 31 per cent of Muslims in India continue to live below poverty line. A World Bank Report states that in 2009-10, in rural India (Muslims: 36.2 per cent; Hindus: 33.5 per cent) and in urban India (Muslims: 34 per cent; Hindus: 18.7 per cent) were below the line of poverty.
Two, these are not electorally sustainable strategies, for the real issues that plague the nation - health, education, employment, hunger and shelter are quite agnostic to the religion or faith of the citizen.
Three, vitriolic narrative has an expiry date. It is not able to galvanise the electorate each and every time; after a certain threshold, it sounds repetitive and inconsequential. Moreover, every electorate appreciates a leader who can take a bullet for them, not one who is eager to pass the buck to history. Clearly, lives of Indian citizens are secular. They may bow to a different faith, but their prayers are secular.
Idea of India beyond religion
It would be imbecile to attach binary identities to citizens of India, or even food, lifestyle, customs, or monuments for that matter. Each one of us is an exquisite concoction of multiple identities crammed together. We are seduced by our pluralism beyond comprehension. Every time there is a conversation about authentic kebabs, we will proudly boast about that Muslim friend who invites us for the special Eid feast. We don’t worry about the religion of our neighbours, because they are the only company our ageing parents have. How many times have you checked the name tag of your doctor before letting him access your body? Did you manage to check the faith of the farmer, who harvested the rice on your plate? Our pride has no faith when a cricketer wins a match for India; our remorse has no religion when infants die due to poor healthcare. After repeated efforts by multiple agencies to divide us across every available variable, India stands united in grief and happiness.
This is a telling message to everyone who has written the obituary of secular India - politics of secularism may have taken a beating, but secularism continues to thrive and progress in Indian civilisation.