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According to conventional wisdom, Hindus are innately secular. That, say the wise, is why the creators of the Indian Constitution thought it superfluous to include the word “secularism” in the original 1950 version.
And so it remained, unsaid but acknowledged, until 1976. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who had suspended the Constitution in 1975 during Emergency, decided to be explicit about where India’s values stood. She added secularism and socialism to the preamble of the Constitution.
The two words defined her economic and social worldview. Gandhi was wedded to a socialist economy. It delivered low GDP growth rates and high taxation (97 per cent for the highest income slab). The socialist model ended up making the poor poorer and the rich richer through a thriving black money economy.
Secularism was a key part of Gandhi’s social agenda. Condemned internationally for imposing the draconian Emergency that subverted the Supreme Court and imprisoned, without recourse to habeas corpus, over 1,00,000 journalists, opposition leaders, and activists, Gandhi needed all the support she could muster in India.
Muslims had long been Congress’ secure vote bank. However, the mass sterilisation campaign launched by Gandhi’s younger son Sanjay in early 1976, followed by the demolition of Mughal-era homes in Turkman Gate in the walled city, led to riotous violence between the police and Muslims. It threatened Congress’ most loyal vote catchment.
Gandhi moved swiftly. By the end of 1976, she pushed through the 42nd Constitution Amendment which added, among others, the word “secular” in the preamble to the Constitution.
Ten years later, in 1986, Gandhi’s elder son Rajiv did much the same thing, though in reverse order. To appease Muslims, he overturned the Supreme Court order on Shah Bano. To appease Hindus, he allowed shilanyas to be performed at the disputed Babri structure in Ayodhya in 1989.
Both attempts at secular balancing by Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi failed to impress voters. Gandhi was voted out of office in March 1977, months after the word secular was added to the Constitution. Rajiv was voted out in November 1989, weeks after the shilanyas in Ayodhya.
Secularism in India has a hoary history. The Mughals gave it short shrift. They targeted Hindus, converting lakhs to Islam by coercion or allurement. The British were equally oppressive. Charles Dickens, lionised by the Anglospheric literary world, wrote in a letter to Baroness Angela Burdett- Coutts on October 4, 1857: “I wish I were Commander in Chief of India. The first thing I would do to strike that Oriental race…that I should do my utmost to exterminate the Race and raze it off the face of the earth.”
Under the British, Hindus suffered disproportionately. Muslims were treated better. In return, Muslim leaders played a relatively small part in the freedom movement. Few Muslims were jailed. Indian Muslim League President Muhammad Ali Jinnah never saw the inside of a British jail except as defence counsel visiting a client.
In 1947, the Hindus thought deliverance had arrived. Surely, the Congress government would treat them at least on a par with Indian Muslims? But, of course, it didn’t.
Rattled by the horrific communal violence of Partition, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru thought discretion was the better part of valour. He had reluctantly agreed with Babasaheb Ambedkar and others to keep the word secular out of the Constitution. But Muslim-first secularism was enshrined after Independence in personal laws and elsewhere. Hindus, still innately secular, continued to wait for deliverance.
It came in 2014. Or did it? Passive, moderate, middle-class Hindus began to turn hostile towards Muslims. Upper-class Hindus, for whom the unquestioning embrace of secularism is a validation of their moral and intellectual self-image, reacted to the ensuing communal polarisation with horror.
To deal with that horror, here’s a five-point manifesto for the truly secular Hindu: One, secularism can be defined in four words: appease none, empower everyone.
Two, Muslims need jobs, not a manufactured fear of the “other”.
Three, don’t glorify Muslim terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir as freedom fighters. They are terrorists.
Four, don’t mock Hindu deities in film and literature just as you, rightly, don’t mock Muslim beliefs in cinema and literature.
Five, learn the value of balance. Despite an 80 per cent Hindu-majority population, Muslims in India are freer than Muslims in almost every Muslim-majority country in the world. Learn to appreciate the innate secularism of the majority.
The article was first published in ‘Open the Magazine’ on March 3, 2023. Opinions are individual.
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