Mr Asaduddin Owaisi, the leader of MIM recently remarked in a media conclave that ‘Muslims are not coolies of secularism’. The statement made perfect sense for his politics. He is the leader a party that aims to mobilise voters on the basis of them being Muslim. The unprecedented success of Hindutva under Mr Modi in recent elections has upset many old electoral calculations, and opened new opportunities. Mr Owaisi is smelling a chance for the MIM to expand beyond its turf in Hyderabad, to regions where non-BJP parties have been getting the major chunk of Muslim votes with the slogan of secularism, seen principally as the promise of protection from riots. For Mr Owaisi, the remark serves multiple purposes. Average Muslim citizens are deeply disillusioned with a political process that has resulted in the utter marginalisation of their community. For such voters, the statement is intended to clearly distinguish his party from the so-called secular non-BJP parties. It is calibrated to raise a doubt in their mind, why should only Muslims be expected to vote for such parties, when significant sections of the Hindus have sided with the communal BJP? It is also a preemptive answer to his political competitors and ideological critics, who are likely to accuse him of being communal.
Otherwise too, the secular discourse in India has largely become a minorities’ affair. It is said to be under threat when minorities are attacked. It is claimed to be flourishing when minorities rights are protected. A corollary belief among major sections of the so called majority community is that India could have as well been non-secular if there were no minorities in the country, or if they are put in their place as the RSS political programme demands. It is not difficult to see that once secularism is equated with minority interests, the majority interests would be perceived as non-secular and with a passage of time the BJP style of politics would become the common sense of the majority. Should India remain, or rather become secular, only for minorities’ sake? Then, why should the majority be interested in secularism? Only because of their ‘good neighbourly’ sense, or to avoid civil strife of communal clashes? The tragedy and the farce of Indian secularism is precisely this, that ever since its initial conception and practice during the freedom movement, it has remained hostage to a majority-minority framework, and it has implicitly answered all the above questions in the affirmative. Nothing can be farther away from the real significance of secularism for a modern democracy. There have been many non-democratic secular regimes. Secularism though is a democratic imperative. What everybody, including minority citizens, lose in the absence of secularism are distinct democratic freedoms which only secularism can assure.
Secularism is most commonly seen as a particular set of state policies with reference to religious communities. In liberal democracies this set is assumed to have three components. Freedom of religion and non-discrimination by the state on the basis of religion are part of fundamental rights guaranteed to every citizen. Once these two are accepted, it follows logically that the state has to keep itself separate from any religion, or equidistant from all religions, otherwise the followers of the religion closer to state will have privileges denied to the non-religious, or followers of other religions. Secularism as state-religion separation is however, only a part of the secular framework. A liberal constitution like the Indian one, is a secular document not only because of the special features it shows vis a vis religious communities, but because of its very spirit and basic conception. There was some discussion in the Constituent Assembly to start the preamble with words like ‘In the name of God’. The proposal was not accepted, and ‘We, the People of India’ were placed as the sovereign, deriving their power to give themselves a constitution from no other real or imagined source. The people, who were giving themselves the constitution, were obviously an imagined entity, but imagined as a collective of thoroughly ordinary and mundane humans. What made them the People was the belief that they were equal among themselves in some fundamentally political ways, and that as persons they had certain in-alienable rights. This latter pair of beliefs is nothing but the core idea of citizenship.
Citizens have individual rights, and duties and responsibilities towards the collective. They are not bound by traditions and customs, because they are assumed to be morally and socially autonomous. They are agents of their own morality, which is their conscience. The freedom for the latter should be distinguished from the freedom of choice. Their conscience, as a moral guide determines what they take to be right or wrong. A person’s set of choices on the other hand can be random, need not have any internal necessity like conscience, and need not always involve moral decisions. Citizens may, or may not be religious, it has no bearing on their citizenship. This is a consequence of a fundamental change in political morality that does not rely on any transcendental source, and should be contrasted with religion based value systems like those of Manusmriti, Sharia or the feudal Christian ‘divine rights of the king’. In fact the freedom of religion in Article 15 of the Indian constitution comes as a part of the freedom of conscience. Hence, the commonly assumed characteristics of state secularism mentioned above, are a consequence of the endowments of citizenship, which is a thoroughly secular concept.
Once the secular foundations of modern democracy are appreciated, it is not difficult to see what is lost with secularism. Rather than being a burden, which religious communities have to bear, it is an enabling framework for every citizen’s freedom. The every day life in India continues to be undemocratic. It is largely directed by foci of authority in family, community, and political and economic power structures. However, freedoms guaranteed to Indians as citizens are also tangible facts of life, dear enough to many of them to be fought for, as they try to fashion their lives on their own terms. The freedom to choose one’s life partner, employment, place of residence; to live free of caste hierarchy and not be bound with gender roles handed down by custom, are personal freedoms that emanate from secular conception of citizenship. Of course, one can be religious and also enjoy these freedoms. In fact, the freedom to determine one’s religious affiliation is part of the bundle of freedoms. So, secularism in a democracy can not be said to be principally against religion. What is unique to it is the equality of freedom, including freedom of religion, given to all. This last universal qualifier is what religious communities find difficult to accept while dealing with others who do not share their sense of the sacred, the revealed book, or mythic history. Religion based moral codes often violate this universality as amply demonstrated in Manusmriti and Sharia. Of course, one can imagine a religiosity which too accepts this universality, as it can be argued Gandhi tried to do. The point however is that the moral world of citizens with universal rights can exist without any religious scaffolding, or foundation. This is its secular import.
After the recent political success of Hindutva, we are already seeing how in the name of protecting sentiments of the so called majority religious community efforts are on to control what individuals can read, how young couples should behave, what young women should wear, and children should study. Indians do not have to wait for full bloodied talibanisation of their society to see what everyday life would be under a non-secular regime, the shadows are already here. The similar set of steps in the name of minority interests, as has happened many times in India, is not secularism, but competitive communalism.
Associated with personal freedoms which arise under democratic secularism are modes of interpersonal engagements and community life. The right to associate, to be different, and to protest collectively are the core rights which place the social agency of citizens at the center stage and continuously renew the public domain. This much is appreciated and understood by everyone espousing democracy. Practical and conceptual difficulties and confusions arise in other areas. For instance, the first condition necessary for a community of rights bearing citizens is the recognition of others’ rights, while enjoying one’s own. This is not a question of mere law enforcement, but of conscious behaviour requiring changes in what we think of others, and our relationship to them. In situations of conflict, it is necessary for the community of citizens that threat and violence are avoided. Reasoning, persuasion, and acceptance of difference within a mutually accepted operational framework become the guiding rules. An impersonal criminal-justice system and election based systems of representation are examples of such frameworks. It is in these that the limitations of the liberal secular democratic state structures are most acute. Such frameworks are associated with state power, which in unequal societies is deeply implicated in extant hierarchies and inequities. Hence we see that criminal justice systems are rarely just, and representation mechanisms are mostly corrupt and actually dis-empower citizens. Nehruvian secularism is the classic example. Through its economic and social policies it actually perpetuated the hold of Hindu upper castes in society, as they cornered expanding bureaucratic, professional and political opportunities. Radical measures like the land reform, universal education and health care, which would have created conditions for the empowerment of ordinary citizens, were carefully avoided. Other examples can be given from the racism and imperialist barbarity of Western liberal democratic regimes, which have been as much guilty of erecting boundaries and exclusions as non-democratic regimes, even if with less violence. At the broader level all liberal democratic regimes are partners in the reproduction of the most offensive, immoral and authoritarian of all dictatorships, that of capital and property, which controls the physical basis of everyone’s life. Such failures react back on the secular democratic foundations of political life, setting up the possibility of disenchantment with the very idea of citizenship. We see its consequences at many places in the globe, in the success of Mr Modi’s Hindutva in India, or of Islamic conservatism of Mr Erdogan in Turkey, both of whom are enjoying unprecedented popular mandates. In this regard, it should also be noted that the world of universal citizenship while ensuring moral, social and intellectual autonomy to individuals is also very demanding. Recognition of others’ rights, though necessary for the reproduction of community life, is not an easy by-product of the law. From a human psycho-cognitive perspective, the call for a persons’ autonomy has been as old as Buddha’s last sermon to Ananda, ‘Be your own lamp’. However, from where the mass culture is twenty five hundred years later, it is not difficult to see that the condition of autonomy is not an easy achievement. In fact, the appeal of universal and secular citizenship is most intense during mass upsurges, national liberation struggles, phases of nation building, or socialism, and under conditions of personal security and livelihoods, briefly achieved during the phase of welfare capitalism in the West. The neo-liberal political economy currently ruling the world has scuttled all such projects. While on the one hand it converts state to a more blatant purveyor of capital’s interests, it also depoliticizes citizenship, so that ordinary citizens are seen at best as consumers of services provided by the state. The life of democracy is now closely related to the politics of contestation and protest.
Coming back to Mr Owaisi’s comment, when the establishment sees the people he claims to represent as only a minority community, against whom ministers of the party elected to rule spew venom and the man elected to lead the country issues only half-hearted reprimands, and when so many youth of this community are arrested and tortured on trumped up charges of terrorism, it will be disingenuous for anyone to claim that he has no right to play minority politics and question the utility of secularism for his community. Minorities in fact can compromise, negotiate, survive, and even thrive, as minorities,under non-secular regimes, as they did under many medieval multi-religious empires. But, living as citizens requires secularism. Others, members of the so called majority, have a more significant choice to make. Are they going to bargain away freedoms that come with citizenship in a secular democracy, for the angst, rhetoric, violence and mob frenzy of a majority ? Time is running out. Hubris catches up not only with individuals, but also with communities and societies. As examples of Fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany show, when societies get stuck in the cul-de-sac of popular regimes based upon hatred, vainglory and violence, they manage to get out only after wholesale disasters.
(Sanjay Kumar teaches Physics at St Stephen’s College, Delhi and is associated with the New Socialist Initiative, and People’s Alliance for Democracy and Secularism).