In the wake of Covid-19, We Must Reclaim our Secular and Inclusive Legacy


     Faizan Mustafa in his recent piece, appeared in The Indian Express, March 21, 2020 titled, “Let us be frank on Secularism” argues that some kind of Hindu Rashtra (which will bring out values like liberalism, modernity, equality and cultural freedom) would help to bring out ‘peace’ and protect the rights of minority communities including Indian Muslims.

For him, this kind of Hindu Rashtra would not be whole heartedly accepted by ‘Hindu fanatics’. While critically engaging with Mustafa’s formulations of Hindu Rashtra, I disagree with him and put-forward that any kind of Hindu Rashtra whether soft or hard version , is contrary to the egalitarian and inclusive values enshrined in the Indian Constitution; and progressive values which were cherished by Babasaheb, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Maulana Azad during the formative years of nation-building. Before critically engaging with Mustafa’s views on Hindu Rashtra, let me express my deep solidarity with those people who have died and currently affected by incurable diseases like coronavirus worldwide including in the context of India.

Currently, most of the countries are passing through the critical phase, because we are presently witnessing huge risks and challenges from coronavirus (medically known as covid-19, which initially started from China) has now engulfed completely and spread out at the global level. As a result, several thousand people have died and death tolls are increasing exponentially. Besides, several lakhs of people got affected by this virus across the world. In this respect, India is also facing huge risks and India has witnessed 9 deaths till now and more than five hundred have got affected by covid-19.

As a member of civil society, I strongly an appeal that it is our social responsibility to co-operate and together fight against this national disaster, irrespective of caste, class, ethnicity and nation etc. To understand the causes behind an unprecedented expansion of coronavirus, several articles have been written by the medical experts and scientists who suggested some preventive measures (like social distancing, washing hand at regular interval and keep ourselves in isolation from large gatherings) to fight against this ‘global epidemic’. Some scholars have said that we have to inculcate ‘scientific temper’ and follow the evidence-based solutions rather then rely on supernatural, superstitions and unscientific methods to address this epidemic.

A section of conservative and orthodox minded people in our country are still telling the people to adopt the superstitional techniques (often based on unscientific and orthodox belief system).  For instance, through the urine of a cow, we can cure the coronavirus, as proposed by a section of our conservative Hindu society. Here, I am not going to give any ‘value judgment’ which path is correct or incorrect, it is the task of the scientist community to decide and give suitable advise and what steps should be taken as preventive measures to fight against global menace like covid-19. As social anthologists have reminded us that when man-made crisis arose which usually divide the people while when natural calamities (for instance, coronavirus) took place, often unite the people across cultural and social lines. This is happening in our country where everybody (irrespective of caste, religion, and class) in our society contributing to their own capacity to fight against the exponential spread of coronavirus.

In this essay, I will limit myself to discuss the man-made crisis which has already divided and polarizes our society on communal and religious lines. However, I am not here underrating the huge risks of the said virus as reminded by our Prime Minister on 24th March at 8 pm.  Rather I will be confined to critically engage with Faizan Mustafa’s recent article titled, “Let us be frank on secularism”, The Indian Express, dated March 21, 2020.  In this article, he underlined that a kind of Hindu Rashtra (if implemented will disappoint to ‘Hindu Fanatics’), which will not different from the ‘Secular state’ and will not disenfranchise minorities. To elucidate this, Mustafa Saheb writes,

Hindu Fanatics will be hugely disappointed to know that the Hindu rashtra will not be entirely different from the current secular state. It will neither disenfranchise religious minorities nor will it take over their religious places or deny them the right to property, nor will it deport Muslims to Pakistan” (See  Faizan Mustafa, The Indian Express, p-13)

Political theorists and historians have put forward the idea that given the divers and plural nature of our society only secular state, enshrined in our Constitution will help to protect the rights of minorities and will strengthen communal harmony among religious communities. However, for Mustafa some kind of Hindu Rashtra (which he has not explained explicitly what constitutes Hindu Rashtra) can bring out ‘peace’ and protect our country from the path of ‘self-destruction’. To explain his points, Mustafa says,

 “If Hindus really threatened from Muslims and Christians, we must address their concerns and not shy away from discussing the possibility of a Hindu rashtra. Minorities, too, are now fed up with this façade of secularism with all state institutions tilting towards one religion. Perhaps some kind of Hindu rasthra can help us bring peace and save the country from the path of self-destruction” (See Mustafa, The Indian Express, p-13).

However, his distinction and binary for instance, (a kind of soft Hindu Rashtra vs hard Hindu fanatics’) needs to be critically examined in the light of Indian history and syncretic culture.  For Mustafa, secularism has now become a ‘façade’ word (for instance, appeasement of Muslims and against Hindus) in Indian politics and no one including secular political parties (mainly after the rise of PM Modi) are interested in safeguards and foreground the secularism as the principle which is also a part of the basic structure of our Constitution.

So, the question needs to be asked- Is the principle like secularism has now become irrelevant and therefore, should be deleted from the Indian Constitution. It is to be noted that words like secularism and socialism were added in the preamble of our Constitution during the rule of Indira Gandhi. That might be the reason why Hindu nationalist forces since the 1980s, consistently opposing and pushing the demand for deletion of both words (secularism and socialism) from the preamble of our Constitution. Before engaging with Mustafa’s peace, I would like to add a little caveat here. To note that when the BJP government has recently passed the CAA (citizenship amendment Act) on 13th December 2019, the people of India in general and Indian Muslim, in particular, have launched a nation-wide protest ( Shaheen Bagh was an epicenter of protest) against said Act and exercise of NRC-NPR. For protesting masses, anti-constitutional Act like CAA violates the basic principle of secularism enshrined in our Constitution. It is to be noted that protests at Shaheen Bagh and Jamia which have completed more than 100 days, ended in the wake of covid-19, on 24 March 2020. Having stated that now let me come back to the arguments given by Mustafa saheb in his article.

I am not fully persuaded by arguments given by both Mustafa saheb and the Hindu nationalists (because of given deep diversity and plural nature of our history and societal culture) that words like secularism and socialism have now become unfit and redundant in Indian society and hence, treated as alien concepts. Like others, Mustafa has said that some kind of Hindu Rashtra will bring out ‘peace’ and the concept like secularism is an alien in nature. In my view, Mustafa’s arguments are historically untenable. As secular historian like Prof. Romila Thapar and others have shown that the Hindu community (sociologically speaking, Hindu community is deeply divided into lines of caste, sects, class, and region, etc.,) is an imagined religious community which came into existence in the 18th and 19th centuries after the arrival of colonial masters. While contesting the arguments of noted academics like Ashish Nandy and T.N. Madan; Prof. Thapar says, it is not entirely true to accept that concept like secularism is an alien to Indian culture and civilization. As Thapar writes,

“It is held that secularism is altogether alien to Indian culture. My[ Thapar] contention is that if one is less selective choosing the texts from early periods, then it is apparent there were discussions among the various groups on issues that do relate sometimes directly and sometimes  obliquely, to what we regard as significant themes in secular thinking.” (See Thapar, ‘Is Secularism alien to Indian Civilization?’ in Akash Singh and Silika Mohapatra (edited) ‘Indian Political Thought: A Reader ’, 2012, P-77).

Historian of modern India have consistently noted that colonial state through census enumerations and ethnographic studies had constructed the communal narrative and strengthened communal feelings among Hindus and Muslims. As a result, earlier nature of ‘fuzziness’ (as Prof. Sudipta Kaviraj has reminded us in his writing) of community identities (which were based on ‘liminal’ and multiple identities such as caste, sects, ethnicity, and region) had been constructed as communal identities by colonial intellectuals and ethnographers. Along with the British policy of divide and rule, the role of communal organizations likes the Hindu Mahasabha and the Muslim League would not be ignored, as far as sharpening ‘communal divide’ among the subaltern class is concerned. In doing so, communal outfits as mentioned above had consolidated Hindus and Muslim religious identities, to get political mileage.

Keeping secular and inclusive legacy of freedom struggle against the colonial regime (which was jointly fought by secular-minded Hindus and Muslims together under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi) in mind, it is theoretically untenable to provide persuasive arguments in favor of the Hindu Rashtra. Contrary to Mustafa saheb, I argued that Indian conception of secularism (which is different from Western and European models of secularism) has now become more relevant for the diverse and plural society like India. Theoretically speaking, now Indian conception of secularism is seriously considered by the certain quarters of western academia and included in their several universities syllabus; the point is recently shared by Prof. Bhikhu Parekh during private conversations at Jamia guest house.

Like Nandy, and Madan, Mustafa saheb has also in somehow accepted that concept like secularism (which had emerged from the separation of Church and State in the Europe) is an alien one. And hence, it is not suitable for religiously grounded a society like India. However, for political theorists like Prof. Rajeev Bhargava and Prof. Neera Chandhoke both have consistently argued that unlike Western secularism, Indian conception of secularism is not against religion per se but committed to protecting the minority community and their culture/religion from the threat of majoritarianism. In other words, the Indian version of secularism is based on the idea of “Principled Distance” where Indian state will only intervene depending upon the social context to promote values like freedom, liberty and equality and provide good conditions to initiate internal social reform, as pointed by Bhargava. In doing so, form him, Indian state must eliminate religious dominations, for instance, both intra-group and inter-group as well.

In a similar way, Chandhoke has argued that Indian secularism is committed to protecting minority rights and an integral part of democracy, substantive equality, freedom and justice. Unlike Mustafa and others (while keeping the insights of political theorists and historians, as stated above in mind), it is not wrong to say that Indian secularism is deeply rooted in our history, syncretic culture and duly enshrined in our democratic Constitution. Therefore, an alternative conception of Indian secularism is extremely relevant in the context of Indian, mainly at the time when we have recently witnessed horrendous communal riots in Delhi in 2020.

To conclude, given the deep diversity and plural nature of our history and society as stated above, one could argued that idea of Hindu Rashtra as hinted by Mustafa and often championed by the Hindu Right, whether soft or hard kinds are not a viable option  before secular and plural society like India. In other words, the project of Hindu Rashtra is contrary to progressive and inclusive ideas of Dr. Babasaheb, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Maulana Azad etc., which were emerged during the freedom struggle.

Let me end this essay, the arguments given by Babasaheb long ago, which was entirely against the project of Hindu Rashtra. In his writings,  Babasaheb had advocated a liberal democratic state to protect minority rights and committed to the welfare of the people through the ‘state socialism’ ( Indian state must have commanding height as far as agrarian, industrial and social development is concerned). Contrary to Mustafa’s proposal of some kind of Hindu Rashtra (not so much different from the secular state as stated by him), it can bring ‘peace ‘and avoid ‘self-destruction’ in the current socio-political settings. However, Dr Ambedkar had reminded us long ago, the danger of the Hindu Rashtra in following words:

“If Hindu Raj does become a fact, it will, no doubt, be the greatest calamity for this country. No matter what the Hindus say. Hinduism is a menace to liberty, equality and fraternity. On that account, it is incompatible with democracy. Hindu Raj must be prevented at any cost.” (Dr. B.R Ambedkar)

Keeping the Ambedkar’s insights in mind (and in the wake of covid-19), we the people of India must articulate and reclaim  our diverse secular legacy of Indian republic and thereby reject the any kind of Hindu Rashtra, as proposed by Mustafa in his recent peace.. In doing so, we as a citizen of secular nation, will be able to fight collectively with huge challenges and national disaster including from coronavirus in times to come.

The author is a research scholar at university of Delhi.   I am grateful to Dastagir Khan (former student of Jamia Millia Islamia) for reading the draft carefully.




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