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The Disease of False Secularism in India: The Present and the Future

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With the Indian nation standing at the centre of a polarizing contest between forces new and old, we conclude our series exposing the disease of false secularism in India at this opportune time. Having deconstructed the bogey of false secularism in the country with its roots in political appeasement of the minorities, West-backed academic intellectuals and the sold-out media houses, it is worth questioning whether India had ever really internalized secularism as it is understood today. Had secularism – a Western import – really become a part of India’s collective consciousness, we would have been destroyed long ago. India is a country that harbours the third largest Muslim population in the world, is exceptionally prejudiced in favour of the minorities and is home to states like Kerala, Goa, Assam and Kashmir where elite Christians and Muslims are holders of the state power and Hindu communities and ideologues are routinely massacred without any publicization by the media.

These conditions are the consequences of false secularism that we had imposed on ourselves since the time of the freedom struggle. But if we had, in spirit, culturally adopted the idea of secularism, we would have been long finished. We would have degenerated into a Bangladesh or a Pakistan or the present Europe – burning centres of conflict. Our biggest misconception about secularism – embedded in the minds of the youth – is that India’s culture of diversity and pluralism flows from the secular ethos of our Constitution, from our freedom movement, and, to an extent, from our religious tradition. There could be no bigger misconception. As even many experts from the academic community have begun to recognize, secularism is among the most violent doctrines of modern times and is the parent of communalism.

As the data provided in the second article of this series has shown, the history of communal riots in India is closely bound up with the rule of the Indian National Congress and other ‘secular’ political parties. In fact, the rise and decline of secularism in India is a reflection of the trajectory followed by the Congress party. The party has often been designated as a movement since the time of freedom struggle – a movement which eventually transited to evolve broad-based organization and institutions that incorporated all diverse interests within its political fold – and shaped, at some point or the other, by famous leaders of all hue from Sri Aurobindo and Tilak to Gandhi and Nehru and Sardar Patel.

Yet, today, the party is staring at a bleak future, hurtling towards its own inevitable end. Regardless of all the immediate superficial reasons being bandied about, the real cause lies in the party’s deceitful policy of dividing and ruling the country for decades, through both physical oppression and appeasement through harmful ideas – mostly through a propagation of ideas that we find permanently embedded in our education system.

These ideas have destroyed our understanding of what true religion is supposed to mean. As Sri Aurobindo had said, “It is true in a sense that religion should be the dominant thing in life, its light and law, but religion as it should be and is in its inner nature, its fundamental law of being, a seeking after God, the cult of spirituality, the opening of the deepest life of the soul to the indwelling Godhead, the eternal Omnipresence. On the other hand, it is true that religion when it identifies itself only with a creed, a cult, a Church, a system of ceremonial forms, may well become a retarding force and there may therefore arise a necessity for the human spirit to reject its control over the varied activities of life. There are two aspects of religion, true religion and religionism. True religion is spiritual religion, that which seeks to live in the spirit, in what is beyond the intellect, beyond the aesthetic and ethical and practical being of man, and to inform and govern these members of our being by the higher light and law of the spirit. Religionism, on the contrary, entrenches itself in some narrow pietistic exaltation of the lower members or lays exclusive stress on intellectual dogmas, forms and ceremonies, on some fixed and rigid moral code, on some religio-political or religio-social system. Not that these things are altogether negligible or that they must be unworthy or unnecessary or that a spiritual religion need disdain the aid of forms, ceremonies, creeds or systems. On the contrary, they are needed by man because the lower members have to be exalted and raised before they can be fully spiritualised, before they can directly feel the spirit and obey its law.”1

Secularism, while striking at the roots of religionalism, made the mistake of itself becoming dogmatic and trying to finish religion itself. This is exactly what happened in the West. And now a vacuum has been created, unfilled by the modern, orthodox Christianity and the secular ideal, which Europe is unable to fulfil. And, as a result of its flawed practise of tolerance and multiculturalism, it is now staring at its own end due to multiple crises from all sides. Even the threat of Islamic terrorism that has overtaken the world is just another side of our universal practise of secularism, including in the Gulf states.

India has largely remained untouched by the extent of global degeneration of secularism. Despite the best efforts of some elements of secular political parties and the Indian academia, India could never internalise secularism. Due to the pervasive influence of the Indian culture, even the internal structures of parties like the Congress, at lower levels, continued to remain insulated from the damning secular commandments of the modern times. Yet, these parties were able to propagate a diffused idea of secularism nation-wide through the medium of vote-bank and politics of division.

A New Change Needed

This phase lasted for more than 6 decades, right from the time of freedom struggle. At the time, Sri Aurobindo had written that the first necessity for the youth of this country was to cultivate the habit of thinking and reflecting. We were so immersed in inertia and so enmeshed in our religious rituals that the entire social and religious outer crust of the Hindu system were crumbling and threatening the inner spirit.

But as Sri Aurobindo had said,  “These hollow worm-eaten outsides of Hinduism crumbling so sluggishly, so fatally to some sudden and astonishing dissolution, do not frighten me. Within them I find the soul of a civilisation alive, though sleeping. I see upon it the consoling sentence of God, ‘Because thou hast believed in me, therefore thou shalt live and not perish’.”2

The colonial rule, with its onslaught of modern, secular ideas, shaped the contours of the Congress-led national movement. As Sri Aurobindo had written, “A Church or a dominant sacerdotal caste remaining within its own function cannot form the organised political unity of a nation; for it is governed by other than political and administrative considerations and cannot be expected to subordinate to them its own characteristic feelings and interests. In India, the dominance of a caste governed by sacerdotal, religious and partly by spiritual interests and considerations, a caste which dominated thought and society and determined the principles of the national life but did not actually rule and administer, has always stood in the way of the development followed by the more secular-minded European and Mongolian peoples. It is only now after the advent of European civilisation when the Brahmin caste has not only lost the best part of its exclusive hold on the national life but has largely secularised itself, that political and secular considerations have come into the forefront, a pervading political self-consciousness has been awakened and the organised unity of the nation, as distinct from a spiritual and cultural oneness, made possible in fact and not only as an unshaped subconscious tendency.”3

The Congress, catering initially only to a small, urban elite population, wore the cloak of ‘moderation’ and sought to mimic the colonial masters and adopt their ideas and culture, leading to the enmeshing of the ‘secular’ parlance. With the advent of Gandhi, the party base spread to rural areas as well, but the language of Gandhi’s discourse projected Christian values like non-violence, cooperation and a Christian ideal of society, only superficially cloaked in Hindu terminology. The development of our national culture after Independence too was shaped by the Gandhi-Nehru legacy. With the gradual political fragmentation of power and the rise of regional parties from the 1970s, this discourse kept getting more and more vitiated. The mere language of secularism, representation and tolerance gave rise to the worst form of politics where division of society was encouraged on the basis of reservations and minority vote-banks became the new mode of acquiring political power.

While the repercussions of both communal and reservation politics is visible in the violence of today which is threatening to break-down what had been conveniently embedded since Independence, the movement towards such polarisation was also partially necessary. The credit for encouraging much-needed thinking, reforming of the ritualistic bounds of Hindu religion and ensuring greater democratization goes to the temporary and superficial movement of politics of division, on which Indian secularism was based.

Historically, this was because of our social order which could never be subordinated to a secular administrative agency. As Sri Aurobindo wrote:“The different result in India, apart from other causes, was due to the different evolution of the social order. Elsewhere that evolution turned in the direction of a secular organisation and headship; it created within the nation itself a clear political self-consciousness and, as a consequence, either the subordination of the sacerdotal class to the military and administrative or else their equality or even their fusion under a common spiritual and secular head. In mediaeval India, on the contrary, it turned towards the social dominance of the sacerdotal class and the substitution of a common spiritual for a common political consciousness as the basis of the national feeling. No lasting secular centre was evolved, no great imperial or kingly head which by its prestige, power, antiquity and claim to general reverence and obedience could over-balance or even merely balance this sacerdotal prestige and predominance and create a sense of political as well as spiritual and cultural oneness.

Even in India the people which first developed some national self-consciousness not of a predominantly spiritual character were the Rajputs, especially of Mewar, to whom the Raja was in every way the head of society and of the nation; and the peoples which having achieved national self-consciousness came nearest to achieving also organised political unity were the Sikhs for whom Guru Govind Singh deliberately devised a common secular and spiritual centre in the Khalsa, and the Mahrattas who not only established a secular head, representative of the conscious nation, but so secularised themselves that, as it were, the whole people indiscriminately, Brahmin and Shudra, became for a time potentially a people of soldiers, politicians and administrators.

In other words, the institution of a fixed social hierarchy, while it seems to have been a necessary stage for the first tendencies of national formation, needed to modify itself and prepare its own dissolution if the later stages were to be rendered possible.”4

Hence, the partial necessity of secularism and the decades of Nehruvian idealism after Independence that India has gone through. But even as this process of modernisation and secularisation was underway, it could not touch the cultural roots of the country. Despite the best efforts of the secular movement even at its peak and the politicisation of the worst injustices of the ancient system of caste, there could never be any large-scale secularisation of the Dalits and the OBCs. The communities continue to stick to their identity rooted in the Hindu religion. In fact, the rise of the BJP during the 1980s and its culmination in the Babri Masjid demolition, mainly by the Dalits, effectively consolidated the BJP’s lower caste base. It still relies on getting more than 40 percent of its projected votes from these castes. Similarly, despite the best efforts of the Indian academics to project otherwise, the basic unity between Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism has ensured their status as sub-parts of the eternal religion, the sanatana dharma.

It is, thus, clear that there was a necessary, albeit temporary purpose behind the rise of secularism in India, through the medium of the Congress party and the academic intellectuals. That purpose has now been served. When Modi came to power in 2014 he painted the finishing touches on the project of secularism by bringing in his development agenda. He ensured that the process of thinking and reflection that was supposed to have been cultivated by years of toil will now culminate in the actual involvement of people in politics. Thus, as is widely acknowledged even by his most rabid critics, Modi is the first political leader of this country who has actually got people talking about politics.

And, now that the people are actually involved in politics, secularism has just become another issue of debate – contrary to the belief of intellectuals and the discourse being projected by the Congress party, secularism and tolerance are no longer at the centre of a contest. The idea of a secular and an anti-secular front – like during the mid-1990s – is no longer relevant, because the idea has lost its power.

The Future

If secularism, as practised in Indian politics, has lost its relevance, then what are the factors that will shape the country’s future? It is clear that India, with the permanent decline of the Congress party and the secular front, has inevitably been hurled into a new phase. Our politics and nationhood will take a new shape or there may be more painful periods of transition, but an idea whose time is up will not come back now.

The future will be based on shaping our ideal of nationhood on the basis of the central principles of our civilisation, so that India can now take her place in the world. The current environment reflects conditions that are ripe for this.

The country is rife with debate on secularism, tolerance and nationalism, with people getting more and more vocal and aware, and India is taking strides in her domestic economy and foreign policy, stumping even neighbours like Pakistan by completely changing her approach under Modi’s leadership. And even as these struggles go on, Modi’s personal popularity remains untouched. All the occasional negative publicity is directly implicating only the BJP or the RSS, but not people’s faith in Modi. At the same time, the Congress has taken a severe beating politically and culturally. Its identity now stands completely dissolved. There are a million mutinies within that party and it is clear that the party can recover its identity, if at all, only through the exclusion of the Gandhi family.

Modi is bringing in sweeping changes within both the country and the BJP’s backbone, the RSS. It is now felt even at the highest critical political levels that RSS is increasingly becoming more democratic, with its traditional Maharashtrian Brahmin support base being ruthlessly upended by Modi to ensure that Gujarati Baniyas and lower castes get more voice. This is finishing the traditional religious rigidity of the RSS and, if you may, making it more secular and democratic, thereby influencing the ground-work which prepares it for national politics.

As Sri Aurobindo had written, “The direction needed was a change from the spiritual authority of one class and the political authority of another to a centralisation of the common life of the evolving nation under a secular rather than a religious head or, if the religious tendency in the people be too strong to separate things spiritual and temporal, under a national head who shall be the fountain of authority in both departments. Especially was it necessary for the creation of a political self-consciousness, without which no separate nation-unit can be successfully formed, that the sentiments, activities, instruments proper to its creation should for a time take the lead and all others stand behind and support them.”5

At the national level, under Modi, we are for the first time, seeing the unification of the religious and the secular authority that Sri Aurobindo had talked about. Our secular administration and policies remain the same, even as, through the instrumentality of Modi, it is ensured that India embraces her traditional Hindu culture, which itself shaped the practise of secularism and prevented it from degenerating as in the West.

The uniqueness of this Hindu culture and its relationship with nationalism is reflected in Sri Aurobindo’s explanation of the state of Hindu-Muslim relations and the nature of Hinduism as the eternal religion: “The Mahomedans base their separateness and their refusal to regard themselves as Indians first and Mahomedans afterwards on the existence of great Mahomedan nations to which they feel themselves more akin, in spite of our common birth and blood, than to us. Hindus have no such resource. For good or evil, they are bound to the soil and to the soil alone. They cannot deny their Mother, neither can they mutilate her. Our ideal therefore is an Indian Nationalism, largely Hindu in its spirit and traditions, because the Hindu made the land and the people and persists by the greatness of his past, his civilisation and his culture and his invincible virility, in holding it, but wide enough also to include the Moslem and his culture and traditions and absorb them into itself.”6

Under the present conditions, it is this nature of the Hindu culture that is coming to the fore and shaping the ideal of Indian nationhood. The writing on the wall is clearer than ever. The conflicts that are happening all over the country – secularism, JNU issue, cow slaughter, nationalism etc. – are, without anyone realizing it, actually breaking the back of the traditional secular forces that have vitiated the political discourse of the country. The alternative is emerging in the form of a secular polity based on strong nationalism and reclaiming of the fundamental principles of the Hindu religion.

References:

1. Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, Vol.25, pp.177-78, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry
2. Sri Aurobindo Archives and Research, Issue December 1979, p.200, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry
3. Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, Vol.25, p.378, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry
4. Ibid., pp.376-77
5. Ibid., pp.377
6. Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, Vol.08, p.305, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry

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