Out of a deep-felt concern at the alarming frequency at which false and wrong interpretations of the notion of “Secularism” are being bandied about, both in print and digital media, I herein assimilate the very notion of ‘Secularism’ for you to ponder.

Secularism, as an idea and a way of life, is too deeply ingrained in Indian psyche which cannot and should not be treated lightly as is being done today. Today, it has become fashionable to flaunt one’s secularism in someone else’s face and to brand others as ‘communal’ so as to score a point especially if their political leanings do not suit yours.

This propensity has come to the fore with alarming regularity immediately after the victory of NDA, under the leadership of Sh. Narendra Modi, in the General Elections of 2014. But before moving any further, let us briefly take a quick look at how our ancestors, the ancient Indians, practised secularism in their daily lives.

In the ancient country of Aryavarta, the enlightened Indian sages who were at the peak of their mental and metaphysical prowess and presented to the world the genius quartet of the Vedas, gave to the world the immortal and brilliant slogan of “Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam“ which loosely translates to “The entire world is but one family”.

The Indians of those times and later, welcomed unknown foreigners to their lands and homes and embraced them as their own. Ashoka the Great, around 2400 years ago,embraced Buddhism after the Kalinga War but he never differentiated between different religions and faiths. In fact, in one of his excavated plates, he says, ”There should not be honour in one’s own religious sect and condemnation of others without any grounds.”

secularism - vasudhaiva kutumbakam

The then religions in India such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism and different branches thereof, all co-existed and evolved together. Moving further, in the time of Emperor Harshvardhana, nearly 1400 years ago, he accepted and patronised different religions. The people freely practised their own religion without any fear of any sort of religious persecution. The physical proof of this peaceful co-existence and intermingling of people of different faiths can be witnessed in Ellora cave temples built by the Rashtrakutas and other dynasties in Maharashtra between 5th and 10th centuries. Here, the Kailashanatha temple jostles for our attention with the Buddhist and Jaina temples. These are a shining example of a syncretic culture which demonstrates the co-existence of religions and a spirit of acceptance of different faiths.

Now cut to the period of India’s freedom struggle in the 1920’s when Mahatma Gandhi had returned from South Africa for good and had taken over the mantle of leadership of the Indian National Congress. At this time, secularism was emerging as the most dominant principle and the leaders of the INC were deeply committed to this ideal, though each expressed it in his own particular manner.

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Gandhi himself put it very succinctly when he said,”I do not expect India of my dreams to develop one religion, i.e., to be wholly Hindu or wholly Christian or wholly Mussalman, but I want it to be wholly tolerant, with its religions working side by side with one another.” And so secularism became the mantra of the Indians who fought for their freedom unitedly with nary a thought of religion, caste, creed or gender.

After the attainment of independence, the Father of the Nation further said,”I swear by my religion, I will die for it. But it is my personal affair. The State has nothing to do with it. The State would look after your secular welfare, health, communications, foreign relations, currency and so on, but not your or my religion. That is everybody’s personal concern!!”

So you see, Indians had been secular for a long, long time, around 3000 years to be precise. This was a time when the high priests of Indian culture were extolling the virtues of universal brotherhood to the world while the ancestors of the western civilisation were going about naked in search of food and shelter.

The modern notion of secularism, as understood by the west, draws heavily from the writings of Roman and Greek thinkers like Marcus Aurelius and Epicurus. It further gained strength from the works of Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke, Voltaire, Denis Diderot, Spinoza, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and the like. It got its final shape and form from the works of recent freethinkers and atheists such as Bertrand Russell, Robert Ingersoll, and Christopher Hitchens.

secularism - all religions

Definition of Secularism as per Merriam-Webster Dictionary is “Indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations.“ Secularism is the principle of the separation of government institutions and persons mandated to represent the state from religious institution and clergy. On the one hand, it asserts the right to be free of religious rule and teachings while on the other, it is of the view that public activities and decisions, especially political ones, should be uninfluenced by religious beliefs or practices.India does not have an official state religion and so, secularism prohibits any government from imposing upon its people, any religion or religious practices upon its people. Though secularism was not part of the written Constitution of India, yet it was an intrinsic part of India’s body politic.

Then, all of a sudden in 1976, with the enactment of 42nd Constitutional amendment, the Preamble proclaimed that India is a secular nation. But the relationship between religion and stateis not defined neither by India’s constitution nor its laws. The laws implicitly require the state and its institutions to recognise and accept all religions, respect pluralism and enforce parliamentary laws instead of religious laws.

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For nearly 30 years, everything was going well in the country, with some minor skirmishes and conflicts between different communities, which are a part of any modern society with an aspirational population.  It makes one wonder as to what was the need to insert the word “secular” in the Constitution when India was already a secularism practicing country, both in words and deeds? Perhaps, we shall never know. Though secularism in India refers to the equal status and treatment of all religions today, it has become a divisive, politically charged topic.

Back then, in the 60s, my father, the scion of a zamindar family and a student of law at the prestigious Aligarh Muslim University, had the choice of staying back in the village and looking after his farm or to shift to the town of Aligarh to practice law. He chose the latter keeping in mind the future of his would-be family and children. The whole purpose behind the exercise was that his children should not be bereft of quality education which was not possible in a rural milieu. In due course of time, me and my sisters were born and as we came of age, we were admitted to a convent school run by a missionary order. We had a wonderful time there, discovering and learning things and getting educated in the process.

In the school, I had a wonderful set of friends which included Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, everyone. In fact, two of my best school chums are Muslims and I love them the same as I loved them when in school. We all had a brilliant time growing up. We all used to visit each other’s homes as one would go to one’s own home without ever thinking that it belonged to a Muslim, Christian or Sikh. We would have our quarrels and fights but we would make up in no time. We would eat anything at each other’s place without any negative thought. The reason for this was that we never even bothered about each other’s religious identity, leave aside any negative thought. This was secularism at its best and this was quality education, as understood by my father, when he decided to leave his village.

School batch mates
Another batch passes out from school – embarking on a search of their respective destinies

As we passed out of school, we all took admission at AMU, barring one or two who had left the town altogether. Some joined engineering, some joined medical while some, like me, took admission in economics , English literature etc.

Now we were all busy with thoughts of our careers and so our meeting with our school friends became less regular. But whenever we met, it was like a house on fire. All this while, new friends, both girls and boys, were coming into our lives and our meeting became further irregular, but we never forgot each other and the embers of love for each other kept burning. Then, our aspirations took over and our dreams of a sterling career propelled us all out of Aligarh. We didn’t even say proper goodbyes and just took off. Some went to US, some to Canada, some to Australia and some to the Gulf. I belonged to the last category. Busy with building our careers and in our respective families, we forgot about each other.

And then Internet, smartphones and WhatsApp happened, one after the other, and we all zoomed back into each other’s life and into our shared childhood and bonds of love. When we met after a decade and in some cases, two decades, no questions were asked and answers were expected. It was same old bonhomie and once again, without any thought of religious affinities or political leanings. It was at such one meeting which set me thinking as to who are responsible for all the muck on TV which I get to hear every single moment of the day. I and my extended group of friends together, happily enjoying each other’s company, were the shining example of secularism in practice and in deeds, by simply not mentioning anything about it at all.

About a day or two before, I was watching TV and doing my work simultaneously when I heard psephologist Yogendra Yadav say that “Secularism is the biggest hoax played on India by its political parties”. How true!!

And how gullible we are to be fooled by the so-called virtuous words of the so-called secular parties.  They cannot be exonerated from the charge of trying to fool us and wishing to be our well-wishers.  After all, who spread this poison of communalism into our society and body politic? In the present age of Internet, anyone can access any information on any topic. People are no fools and know as to who overturned the court’s decision in Shah Bano’s case and who opened the gates to Ram Janambhoomi Shrine/Babri Masjid.

Did these so called secular parties not create minority vote banks and provide any quality education to the minority communities so they could progress and stand on their feet. No sir, they did not and the reason being that if they did so, these communities would see through the smokescreen, would cease to be their pocket boroughs and the game of these parties would be over, once and for all.

Another group who claim to be the saviours and sole pall bearers of secularism are the jhola types (I’ve seen them and observed them in JNU), NGOs and the people sitting at the helm of some obscure institutions, about which no one would know even if one were to come across it. Bowing themselves in reverence to the government of the day would let them retain their position of power and pelf, allowing them to do as they chose to deem fit. One may also add the curious case of the “Award Waapsi” gang with their moral indignation and outrage over selective cases of an absent intolerance.

Yes, fanaticism does exist in the body politic of India but who is to blame for all this? At the time of elections, as was recently done, most of the political parties completely forgot the noble ideal of secularism and tried their best to woo the voters on communal and caste lines. This was not done out of ignorance, but due to compromise of convenience.

So what is the solution?

The solution is to rally behind the political forces which really profess and practice secularism. Secularism in the Indian context implies respect for pluralism as respect for diversity is the real guarantee of unity as it embodies the real democratic spirit. As I know, by now, that secularism lies in the heart of every individual and there should be no feeling of “otherness” as we all share a common history. India is a secular society thathas many traditions whose origins are lost in the mists of time. Besides, nearly all the religions and faiths of the world have co-existed and evolved here for long and have given rise to a syncretic and shared culture which belongs to us all and to no one in particular. Bhakti saints and Sufidervisheshave brought about a cultural acceptance for each other. So, one must not let it all go waste and stop listening to false messiahs who would let us get killed for their political careers rather than concentrate in making India of our dreams where our children enjoy in a just society, free of every kind of prejudice and pre-conceived notion about fellow human beings.

Disclaimer: The information, ideas or opinions appearing in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of N4M Media.

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