The Secular Road to Hell

Date: 22 Jan 2008


The Secular Road to Hell
Ramananda Sengupta,
Sify News
I have always wondered how such a seemingly innocuous word has turned into such a politically loaded noun in India. By definition, the word essentially means separating religion from matters of state. 
‘WE, THE PEOPLE OF INDIA, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a SOVEREIGN SOCIALIST SECULAR DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC and to secure to all its citizens,’ goes the first line of the Preamble to our Constitution. 
But hold on a second. 
The original framers of our constitution did not put the word Secular there. 
It was added by the Indira Gandhi government during the Emergency, through the Constitution (42nd Amendment) Act, 1976, along with 58 other changes. The word ‘Socialist’ too was added, while ‘Unity of the nation’ was changed to ‘unity and integrity of the nation.’ 
Perhaps, just perhaps, it was well intentioned. 
But the road to Hell, they say, is paved with good intentions. 
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After having inserted the word, however, the ‘secular’ Congress Party blocked all subsequent attempts to officially define it. And that has been the bane of our polity - and our nation - since then.
Because without a clear definition, secularism means nothing. Or rather, it means different things to different people. 
For politicians, it means liberty to play vote bank games based on religion. In the same way that VP Singh, the 10th Prime Minister of India, brutally and callously divided the nation along caste lines for political mileage in 1990. 
For religious leaders, it means liberty to exploit politicians for their own petty gains, in return for assuring them the vote of ‘their people.’ 
For the common man, it means confusion, chaos and often violence spawned by the viciously divisive ‘Us and Them’ philosophy promoted by our religious and political leaders. 
Attempts were even made recently – on the basis of something called the High Level Committee for Preparation of Report on Social, Economic and Educational Status of the Muslim Community of India, better known as Rajinder Sachar Commission Report — to introduce this division among the most secular institutions in the country, the Indian Army. Thankfully, the Army would have none of it. 
But we haven’t heard the last of that yet; because reservation for minorities is seen as a sure way to get their vote. 
This divide and rule policy that our politicians practice ensures that We the People of India, as the framers of our constitution so grandly described us, cannot agree even on things that are obviously good for us all. 
Like secularism as the dictionary defines it. 
Instead, even as we proudly tout our so-called secular credentials, successive governments have clearly used religion for political gain. 
But how can we be a secular state when we have separate laws based on religion?
How can we be a secular state when the government selectively funds pilgrimages and religious institutions?
How can we be a secular state when the government allows schools and colleges to have quotas based on religion, and actually tries to extend that to the corporate sector and even to the armed forces?
How can we be a secular state when politicians campaign on purely religious platforms, and win?
And most importantly, how can we be a secular state without clearly defining what it means? 
Yes, we are certainly better off than some of our neighbours, like Pakistan and Bangladesh, and perhaps even Nepal, till recently known as the only Hindu kingdom.
Pakistan and Bangladesh (and a host of nations in the Persian Gulf and Africa) proudly declare Islam as their state religion, and make no pretence about being secular. 
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Pakistan was born because Indian Muslims — egged on by the devious departing British — demanded a separate state for themselves. And despite separating from Pakistan in 1971, Islam is the state religion of Bangladesh too. 
Which explains why the non-Muslim population in both these nations is rapidly dwindling. 
Our politicians, however, in order to prove that we are secular, and of course, in order to garner our votes, have gone to the other extreme, taking steps which can easily — and in most cases correctly — be construed as “minority appeasement.” 
Things have reached such a pass that whoever uses that last phrase is immediately branded as ‘anti-secular’ and a right wing bigot. 
Things have reached such a pass that some years ago, some Muslim men prevented firemen from rescuing a woman from a burning Kolkata tenement, saying it would be against their religion to let an unknown male touch her. The woman burned to death. 
Instead of booking the men for murder, as any ‘secular’ state would have, however, the West Bengal government grandly declared that they would induct women fire fighters to assist in such cases.

This peculiar brand of secularism trumped free speech, also enshrined in our Constitution, when it came to Taslima Nasreen, a rather insipid but feisty writer who invoked the wrath of the mighty Maulanas of our Islamic neighbour, Bangladesh.
Her crime? To attest that “If any religion allows the persecution of the people of different faiths, if any religion keeps women in slavery, if any religion keeps people in ignorance, then I can’t accept that religion.
”Taslima fled, and finally landed on Secular India’s shores. But not to be outdone, our very own Maulanas too started baying for her head. And we all know what happened since: Goodbye free speech. Hello secularism. 
Many many moons ago, I came across an old school friend of mine whose family owns a large, upmarket tailoring shop in Kolkata. He was going to get married, he told me; for the third time. 
“My Maulana has told us that being a democracy, we can turn India into a Muslim country purely on the basis of votes. And we will. Perhaps not today. But someday, our children will rule, for sure. 
Nothing can stop us,” he said matter of factly, before going on to explain how that would be a wonderful thing, where the rule of God and the rule of the land would be synchronised. A land where everyone could live without fear, and so on. 
At that time, I had laughed out loud, saying that he obviously had not paid attention during our classes on “civics”, where we had learnt all about “unity in diversity” and the unflinchingly Secular ethos of our nation. 
Today, I flinch when the word is mentioned. 
Secularism should be made of sterner stuff.

Related stories below:
  **   Pseudo-Secularism @

  **   SECULARISM  dies in J&K

  **   Taslima issue exposes  hypocrisy

  **    On Tasleema Nasreen  

  **   The myth and truth of Godhra 

  **  Ayodhya and After - K. Elst 

  **  Is Secularism: A fraud?