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Hindu Liberal or Conservative? Heartless or Brainless? | Sujoy Sur

Sujoy Sur

There are always certain objective rules of the society which are appropriate to the cultural and institutional trends of the system for the governance and well being of that society during a particular time and space. You see, at the very essence, we live a life of shared fiction. Be it gender, the government, the nation, the religion or Harry Potter. It is our ability to share this fiction and base our ideas upon this shared fiction which creates our identity. This identity is also always contextual. This conclusion of our ideas, thus our actions, being contextual might be dismissed by many as well worded philosophy but it does find its root in subjects such as psychology and behavioral economics.

As the world progresses and cultures increasingly intertwine, the rules of the society change drastically. This rule change, however, is incongruent with the ethos of many societies who were and are still not well versed with these rules. Of course, this leads to friction, dread and insecurity. A typical modern education, which allows people to be ‘liberal’ and accept things as they are, does a good job at watering down this insecurity, but sometimes it falls short. One such important cornerstone rule of the society is the idea of ‘secularism’. This debate becomes especially important in our times. With so much happening in the name of religion and religious identity, it becomes even more pertinent when we talk about secularism in the Indian context. But before coming on to India, we must understand what secularism is and why is it important to us culturally and institutionally.

There is no standard, go-to definition of secularism. One simple, common place definition is that it is a principle of separation of State from religion. Secularism, then, basically is a philosophy which believes that the State, its institutions and mechanisms should be free from religion and any kind of religious influence. The need for a secular country is old and well founded. Historically, the Westminster style of administration of State can be said to be a basis for having a secular State. Back in the 17th and 18th Century, when Europe was in turmoil, important officers of each of the States came together and established 4 basic tenants upon which a State must be founded (The history is much more intricate than this but for the sake of paucity of space, this summation fits well)[1]. These principles are – Populations, Territory, Government, Sovereignty. The first 3 are tangible, concrete concepts while the concept of sovereignty is a derived one. This principle now finds a place in international law and is one of the most well established and unquestionable principles of modern day State formation. If one observes closely, all the 4 concepts are objective concepts i.e. they cannot be influenced by subjective considerations of the ruling and the ruled. You see, a government can be a legitimate government if it is autocratic (a subjective consideration of the ruling) and not only a democratic one (a subjective consideration of the ruled). A territory is a territory, irrespective of its size or its impracticality. People are legitimate people irrespective of their religious identity (being different from the State) or whether they pay taxes or not. Secularism neatly sits in between these ideals of Statehood as it is a call for neutrality in religious beliefs of a State. One can always argue that in the beginning the colonial masters pushed for a certain religious identity, a certain manner of government; but to be fair, these ‘movements’ were not unusual when you look back at them as ideas which were congruent with the ethos of those times. Also, all these colonial laws never had a religious preference defaulted in them. The perfect examples are the Indian Penal Code, the Indian Contract Act, the Indian Evidence Act, etc. Yes, the British and other colonialists in different parts of the world did try to mobilize the crowd in the name of religion but those were tertiary rules of enforcement for the benefit of the ruling class. The primary rules of recognition were never religious in nature, which is why when the era of imperialism ended, States increasingly became secular in the smaller spheres of rules and enforcement as well. This secularism allowed States to be free from the quagmire of religious identities and tastes and focus on one thing alone – governance. Many eastern philosophers have rightly argued that this idea was and still is an imposition of western ideals on the cultural ethos of the eastern crowd, but they forget this resentment is a futile exercise. Most of the nations founded independence on the ideals which were originally propagated by their colonial masters. Democracy, as we know it today, is a western concept. So is republicanism. Most of this resentment comes out of pride of accepting the current reality of our failure due to not resenting at the right time in the right manner. It should be accepted that the West was successful in its expedition and the world of today is a globalized commune centering around western ideals. But history has no end to it. The East is rising up and it will leave its own foot prints on the sands of time once it comes out of its self-subjugated state of things, but it cannot denounce its own historical past, however humiliating it might be. The first step towards betterment is coming to terms with our current reality, therefore, these ‘western’ ideals must be accepted by the east (especially India). This rant about East-West conflict is important because secularism as an idea is being misinterpreted and misunderstood with a natural reaction to it being that we must restore our original Hindu identity because if we accept secularism then we must lose our ‘original’ Hindu identity.  A system which has formed over centuries must be accepted as a whole and then rebuilt accordingly. We cannot pick and choose democracy, republicanism and denounce secularism.

Secularism becomes important for many other reasons. If a country is culturally, institutionally and administratively made religious in accordance with one religion then it becomes easier to debase the State by changing one thing alone – it’s religious ideology. Religion seeks faith and beyond a point disallows us to ask questions. If the masses stick to this kind of rationality then it becomes all the more easier to make a country change its religious ethos by changing its core religious practices. If India is made to be an outright Hindu Rashtra then it also becomes easier for some parts of India, where Hindus are in a minority, to  make them Muslim, Sikh or Buddhist dominant areas, respectively. Also, it becomes easier to uproot Hinduism from India by making the country follow an alternative religion by use of force as what would be needed is a mere change in doctrine and no change in rationality. It is arguable that Vedic religions are essentially different from Abrahamic ones, therefore, this would not work but it is time to accept that Hinduism is practiced in India as shallowly as any other religion anywhere else in the world. And this is because of the unchanging, unparalleled homogeneity in economy, administrative goals, and political ideology which cannot be overhauled come what may. Thus, if one is not taking sides with the majority in this regard, then it is not ‘pseudo-secularism’ or ‘liberalism’, it is just common sense.

Coming on to India, there is a strong, rather violent movement in India towards heeding the needs and practices of the majority of the populace as the majority believes, or is made to believe, that its interests have been highly undermined since decades and centuries. It is suddenly all about the much asked question of ‘why should only the minorities be appeased at the cost of the majority?’. As per the majority, such a trade-off is unjust, and to the extent such trade-off truly comes to exist, they are right. Appeasement politics in India has been a bane for Indian politics, therefore, it must be ended. But it is a great concern when it is the majority instead that demands a fair bit of appeasement from the happy-to-oblige politicians. There is a lack of effort in getting to the bottom of the problem and ask the question ‘why’? Any idea which goes against this confirmation bias is labelled as ‘pseudo-secular’ and ‘liberal’ propaganda. The common thread in this narrative is the existence of a narrative itself. The ‘Hindutva’ narrative, the ‘Musalman’ narrative, the ‘Indian’ narrative. An oversimplified  history of India is laid down, along with its major cultural practices and ideology being Hindu in ethos and a narrative is based around it. Anyone who disturbs this ethos becomes an invader. Anyone who supports this ethos becomes a hero. Hinduism is a polytheistic religion. The evolution of religion in different places has occurred differently. In the Balkan peninsular and the Indian subcontinent a pantheistic approach was taken of religion. Different beings and things for the sake of giving them importance were subscribed to different Gods. Even a hundred years back, a human life was highly localized. Most of us worked, married, died in the same society in which we were born. Places with excessive concentration of population due to their agricultural fertility and political outreach had small regions within them with their own Gods in accordance with their local needs and customs. Indians, just like the Romans back in their day, had realized the futility of imposing ‘One’ true God on a population so diverse. People were allowed to practice their own Gods and this led to a practice of including more and more Gods which went with cultural ethos of India of those times (which is why Hinduism has more than 300 million deities). One should not forget this also included atheism as well. Jainism, Budhism and Cārvāka are atheistic philosophies which flourished in India. This is the reason why India had a beautiful and an inclusive principle of treating the world as one family (“Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”). Thus, what we understand from this is that the basis of a polytheistic religious philosophy lies in its inclusive and accepting approach towards other ideas and religious practices. If a single, streamlined narrative of Hinduism is propagated then it would actually be an insult to Hinduism and not be its true revival. Secularism goes hand in hand with “Sanatana Dharmic” tradition of inclusion and “live and let live”. Of course, the State cannot endorse Hindu principles and ideology directly, as an endorsement is never partial in nature but allowing different religious behaviors and practices to flourish with a strict intent of not allowing any of it to interfere in the institutional framework of the State is the way the Indian State must go about imposing the philosophy of secularism.

The most important aspect of enforcing secularism in India is also riddled with complexities. This is the trickiest part of the bargain. In India, secularism is held to be a philosophy by which the State must treat all religion equally; the State should not prefer one religion over the other, accepting all religions equally in all spheres. This goes against the basic principle of distancing the State from religion. There is no clear disassociation per se in India. We see this involvement of religion in varied spheres by this assumed reverence for religion and religious entities. Right from religious institutions being exempted under the Income Tax Act to the freedom of propagation of religion, the Indian State has not exactly distanced itself from religious influence but embraced it whole heartedly. What this has allowed is to create leeway for indirect imposition of religious and cultural ideology on others and passing it off as necessary by supporting it with the narrative of ‘State knows the best’. This has allowed people to make tacit promises on the basis of religion, caste, and creed during their campaigns, allowed the State to pass religious laws in the name of welfare and has made people think along sectarian lines, which is the worst scenario of them all. The appeasement of minorities for their vote bank is now being countered by appeasing the majority’s idiosyncrasies. While appeasement should not be done at the cost of majoritarian sentiments, one must not mistake the inclusive approach of Indian philosophy to behavioral and ideological differences of others. While democracy is being cited as the basis why majoritarian actions are not incorrect, one must not forget India is a republic too, which allows for the protection and equal fulfillment of the needs of the minority. A reaction by the majority will never be met by the acceptance of majoritarian sentiments by the minority but a counter-reaction which will further push the country towards chaos. Such chaotic faultiness, therefore, must not be created at all. It is not that the majority should be ignored. People do not realize but the majority has in the past, currently does, and will continue to influence the cultural and socio-political practices of India. If it feels threatened by the minority instead of welcoming their practices with the intent of assimilating them within the cultural web of the majority, this destructive mindset of ‘religious’ competition will continue forever. And we have learnt from history that co-operation always beats competition in the long run.

Secularism should not be denounced selectively but must be embraced with an open mind. Secularism is a fiction which is of utmost importance in the current context of our civilizational progress, and it is one which can stand its own ground if it is interpreted and understood correctly. If the idea disturbs a certain section of the people, then it must be altered but it surely cannot be discarded for its underlying philosophy is one which not only goes along with India’s cultural past, but will also allow it to embrace its heterogeneous present to make India a force to reckon with in the future.


[1] H. Kissinger, Chapter 1, World Order (2014).

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