By Amartya Prasad
In order to understand the meaning of secularism in contemporary India, it is imperative to look at the historical perspective. For this we need to go right back to 11th Century AD, when the subcontinent was first subjected to Islamic invasion. Before the 11th Century, numerous religions like Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and other local faiths co-existed peacefully without any major conflict or tensions, be it during the reign of the Mauryans or the Guptas for that matter. What followed was a seven century long subjugation of the populace by the rulers. Religious persecution, forced conversions, demolitions of temples, scores of women abducted and raped- and much more, more or less sums up the situation in the subcontinent for the greater part of Muslim rule in India. The death of the last Mughal emperor Aurangzeb and the arrival of European traders on the Indian coastlines marked the end of Islamic rule in India.
The British, too followed the tactic of “Divide and Rule” to conquer different corners of the subcontinent. This further widened the already existing divisions between the Hindus and the Muslims.
The Indian National Congress (INC), which was at the forefront of the freedom struggle, had a sizeable number of Muslim leaders, significantly larger than their share in population.
Despite this, a group of orthodox Muslim leaders led by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, felt that Muslims were being undermined and their voice suppressed in a nation with a Hindu majority. This led them to break away and form the Muslim League and subsequently demand a separate nation state for the Muslims, Pakistan.
After Independence, the Government of India made the best possible efforts to ensure that Muslims could stay in India with dignity and equal rights. In fact, Nehru was staunchly opposed to state involvement in religion or vice versa. He envisaged India as a secular country where a citizen’s religious affiliation would not matter.
However, it is perceived by many that this stand of the Congress Party began to change post the tumultuous 70s. It started to bank on votes from minority communities and other sections such as the Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims. An event of particular relevance was the Shah Bano Case in which a 62-year old divorced Muslim woman filed for alimony from her husband. The Supreme Court ruled in her favour. However, soon after, the Government, on the demand of a few Muslim fundamentalists, passed the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights of Divorce) Act, 1986 thus overturning the judgement of the Supreme Court. Large sections of the Hindu elite and the middle class started to view the Congress as a pro-Muslim Party. The BJP capitalized on this and began to project itself as a Hindu Nationalist party. This move fetched the BJP significant political gains the by the later half of the 90s, the BJP emerged as a real potential threat to the dominance of the Congress Party.
Another significant happening was the demolition of the Babri Masjid, a 16th century mosque believed by Hindu devotees to have been built by Mughal Emperor Babur’s General Mir Baqi after demolishing a temple that existed at the site of the birthplace of Lord Rama. The demolition of this Mosque by the kar sewaks exhorted by the BJP and RSS leaders fuelled communal tensions in many parts of the country in the early 1990’s. It sparked heated debates on secularism across the country.
Since then, the BJP and the Congress have emerged as the two main parties that dominate the Indian political scenario and the Hindu-Muslim secularism question has been one of the main issues of contention between the two parties. The outcome of this ideological conflict will determine the future course our nation takes.
At one end is the Congress which hasn’t been consistent vis-à-vis its stand on the involvement of the State in religion. Although Nehru had clearly expressed his opposition to the same, the Government (with Congress in power) made separate laws for different religions. Besides, the Congress has on several occasions gone out of its way to accommodate highly unreasonable and often chauvinist and regressive demands of Muslim Fundamentalists, to woo Muslim voters. The Shah Bano Case is a prominent example. The Congress claims to be secular, while at the same time practicing minority appeasement. Inevitably, any party that does not have anything concrete to show for it will have to resort to petty vote bank politics just to survive in a democracy.
At the other end is the BJP, which demands a Uniform Civil Code for everyone and advocates development for all, irrespective of religious affiliation. I believe that the BJP is the only truly secular party on the political horizon today. Now some of my readers might argue that the BJP is a pro Hindu party and therefore it is anything but secular. But the fact that a burgeoning majority of Muslim voters too has voted for the BJP, time and again in Gujarat is enough evidence that even Muslims are coming around to accept the BJP as a secular party that would work for the greater good.
My readers are free to disagreewith me and I’d love to see their views in the Comments Section.