The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
Email This PagePrint This Page
- The principal question is whether India can preserve its secular character

Most social sciences have a blind spot which shows itself in their search for a rational explanation even for developments which defy all logic. Whether it is an erratic behaviour of the market, a freak turn in politics, a paranoid streak in foreign policy or an unabashed use of terror in a religious conflict, resourceful academics, specializing in one discipline or another, always manage to fit it into a cause-and-effect chain or even a theoretical framework

The explanation may be phoney and the theorizing may be full of holes. The surprise is that there is nothing too bizarre to pass muster with a large part of the left or right intelligentsia. The German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, never felt any remorse for having flirted with the Nazi regime for some time. And Jean-Paul Sartre, while selling a Maoist paper in the streets of Paris, never paused to look into the character of the so-called cultural revolution which was in fact beating the daylights out of the very notion of culture. The great leaps forward in science, far from spreading the light of reason, have made large sections of the intelligentsia more gullible and more ready to serve as tools of demagogues and hucksters.

The West has found a flourishing market for its ideas as for its arms and technologies in south Asia. Even the jihadis have had no compunction in buying the idea of nationalism from the infidels and accepting the boundaries of the nations to which they belong, often drawn arbitrarily by former colonial powers. The image of a would-be martyr like Mohammad Atta drinking vodka in a New York restaurant, with a ticket to paradise in his pocket, on the eve of his Satanic venture, holds up the mirror not only to religious bigotry but also to modernity in so far as it has turned science and technology into means of both mass destruction and more potent forms of neo-colonialism.

Many social scientists tell us not to blame new science and technology for the spread of vile forms of fundamentalist terrorism. But then the weaponry the militants use was not invented in seventh century Arabia. Nor were, for that matter, the new techniques for brainwashing people into expressing their sense of frustration through acts of mindless violence and self-destruction. In any case, did not the United States of America, in a fit of moral idiocy, finance the madrasahs and use the fundamentalists as tools of its policy in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan' And would the ostensibly anti-American Islamicists have such conspicuous presence in the newly elected Pakistan national assembly if the US’s best bet in that country, Pervez Musharraf, had not given, through an ordinance, the fanatical products of the madrasahs the status of graduates to enable them to contest the elections'

Let social scientists look for valid explanations for all these developments and search for the missing links in the cause-and-effect chains. All that the not-so-learned can see in all these curious happenings is the triumph of unreason. Was it not a dying artist who said, in a flash of insight, that no amount of dialectical reasoning or logic-chopping could conjure away the original sin' Indeed, never before in history has the lust for absolute power, for dominating all global hegemonic structures, for subduing nature to the point of putting the very survival of human life on the planet at risk and disciplining those who dare defy the only superpower, put on so brazen a show.

So far as south Asia is concerned, the course of events that led to the partition of India on communal lines will remain the subject of endless contestation between historians. Yet, there is no disputing the fact that the experience of independence has been disorienting for all the three successor states of what was once British India. The evil legacy of Partition has pursued them like a fury, giving religious conflicts a new edge, engaging Pakistan and India in wars four times, burdening both of them with bloated defence budgets they can ill afford and thwarting their economic development.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of their continued antagonism, it ought to be clear to both that their survival as going concerns depends on peaceful co-existence. There is no viable alternative for either apart from learning to live in amity with each other. This does not necessarily mean that India has won the right to speak to Pakistan from a higher moral perch. It can undoubtedly take some credit for not harbouring any terrorist groups as instruments of its policy. Even so, it has not been able to prevent all too frequent outbreaks of communal rioting or to build the kind of secular polity to which its Constitution commits it.

No social scientist has been able to specify how and at what point to cut the chain of violence and counter-violence which has kept both India and Pakistan prisoners of the evil legacy of inter-religious hatreds. If events like terrorist raids on the Akshardham temple in Ahmedabad and the Raghunath temple in Jammu continue to feed the forces of Hindu nationalism here, the post-Godhra carnage in Gujarat and the bid by the Narendra Modi government to polarize the state into two hostile religious camps, in the hope of consolidating the Hindu votes in his party’s favour in the forthcoming elections to the assembly, have been matters of grave concern to all those who rightly feel that nothing can do more harm to the country than further queering the pitch for peaceful co-existence of the two main religious communities.

This is the reason why both the prime minister and the deputy prime minister have had second thoughts about their party’s electoral strategy, backed the Election Commission’s ban on further yatras, which were likely to whip up communal feelings to a feverish pitch, and asked Narendra Modi and his cohorts to pipe down, even at the risk of widening the rift between those who want to go ahead with the Hindutva agenda at any cost and the rest who wish to keep any agitation on this score in a low key.

It is perhaps too late in the day for the Bharatiya Janata Party to contain the adverse fallout of the squabbles in its ideological family. The open criticism of the two main government leaders as “pseudo-secularists” and the demand for the ouster of the prime minister’s chief aide by loudmouths in the sangh parivar cannot but further cut into the government’s authority at a time when its image is already badly tarnished because of its indecisiveness, George Fernandes’s reinduction into the cabinet even before his name has been cleared of the odium attaching to it because of the Tehelka disclosure, its gross mismanagement of some of the leading financial institutions which required huge bailouts, its stalling of the economic reform process and its shamefaced display of its inability to govern.

What worries the central leadership of the party even more than the drubbing the BJP’s image has received after the explosion of the latent differences between the sangh parivar in its face is the detrimental effect this can have on its fortunes at the national level. The party knows that it has been in decline ever since it reached the peak of its career in 1999. It is also painfully aware that most of the ground it has lost has gone to the Congress, though in the kind of splintered polity the country is stuck with, it is difficult to say to what extent Sonia Gandhi’s gains will get translated into additional seats in the Lok Sabha.

The most pertinent question in the fast changing contexts, both national and international, is whether India can preserve its secular character amidst all the new threats to it, both internal and external. Being a deeply religious society, India did not subscribe to secularism in the Western sense of a complete separation between state and religion. In the more positive sense, it interpreted its commitment as sarvadharmasadbhava, equal regard for all faiths, and in the negative sense as dharmanirapekshita, the state’s neutrality in all religious matters. Few can claim that India has fully lived up to its commitment. Yet, in the face of great odds, most governments here so far have sought to follow it in letter if not in spirit. What made their task more difficult in the last 20 years, was first the militant path taken by some groups in Punjab for almost a decade and then the separatist demand in Kashmir, backed by several terrorist groups, for an even longer period.

The question whether the secular ideal is viable or not in practice, as some social scientists wonder, is irrelevant in the case of a pluralist society like India’s since there is no other way for it to maintain its cohesion. Even those ruling Pakistan must remember that, on the very day of his victory, the founder of their republic, without realizing the irony of what he was doing, demolished his two-nation theory and told his people that from now on they must give primacy to their citizenship over their communal identity. Just as the Congress betrayed Gandhi in accepting Partition, the Pakistanis have been letting down the creator of their nation in treating his advice with contempt.

Email This PagePrint This Page