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Rohit Dhankar

“I shall not therefore enter into the merits of the Constitution. Because I feel, however good a Constitution may be, it is sure to turn out bad because those who are called to work it, happen to be a bad lot. However bad a Constitution may be, it may turn out to be good if those who are called to work it, happen to be a good lot. The working of a Constitution does not depend wholly upon the nature of the Constitution. The Constitution can provide only the organs of State such as the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary. The factors on which the working of those organs of the State depend are the people and the political parties they will set up as their instruments to carry out their wishes and their politics.” BR Ambedkar, 25th November 1949

Ambedkar was prophetic in this statement. The insight expressed in the statement is not limited to constitutions; it is equally true for any other provisions in the law and principles in political ideology.

Nothing illustrate the truth of the statement more painfully than the misuse of two potentially positive ideas by the Indian politics in last more than 60 years. The two ideas I have in mind are: One, the idea of reservation as affirmative action for those who suffered deliberate deprivation by the powerful in the history. Under this idea, which is enshrined in the constitution, reservation in various positions in the polity, administration and government jobs are provided to the scheduled casts and scheduled tribes. The second idea I have in mind is interpretation of secularism as sarva-dharma samabhava.

Both these ideas are distorted by the political exigencies to the extent that they have become obnoxious tools to destroy social harmony and encourage communitarian competition which has made communities totally self-seeking gangs devoid of any ethical considerations. The distortion does not only create competitive animosity between communities, it also instills the value of selfishness in all citizens.

If the reservation would have been used properly for upliftment of deserving communities with other supportive economic and educational measures it would have not only helped the deprived community, but also would have contributed to the overall capabilities of the country by including a large section of population in national endeavors at appropriate places and with appropriate powers. But the political parties were quick to realize the vote-bank potential of the provision and used it to the hilt. Now we have communities like Patels (Patidars) and Jats, who are doing reasonably well, clamoring for reservations. The whole process of vote-bank use of the provision has helped caste becoming a political identify which is firmly entrenched in the Indian society for many decades to come, if not many centuries. Now even if the caste markers like ­ideas of purity, endogamy, occupation, etc. disappear the caste as a political power group will survive by reinventing itself. The misused idea of reservation has helped in giving a new lease of life to this ancient monster of Indian society.

The second idea sarva-dharma samabhava was itself a distortion of secularism. But still it could have functioned as a positive idea if we would have taken it in the spirit in which Gandhi defined equimindedness towards all religions. (For a brief comment on this see my blog https://rohitdhankar.com/2013/07/03/place-of-religion-in-public-schools-part-1/ )

In this blog I write: “But modern-day Indian sarvadharma-samabhava is equal capitulating in the face of all religions. One cannot interrogate and raise questions about religion. Hussain, Taslima Nasreen and Salman Rushdie are victims of this mentality. The current interpretation of sarvadharma-samabhava bans critique of religion, kills freedom of expression. It sets all religions in competition with each other for more and more preferential treatment from the state, more and more freedom to create public inconvenience in the name of melas, poojas, namaaz and muharram. If one religion encroaches on the road to build a temple, the current sarvadharma-samabhava attitude does not allow the law to take its course and declare that as an encroachment and act to remove it. Rather it prefers abject surrender to encroachment in the name of Mosques, Chapels and Gurudwaras constructions as well. It is a mindless bowing down in front of religious force and cannot be justified as a kind of secularism or even as Gandhian sarve dharma sambhava at all. However, the Constitution of India correctly interpreted, and if implemented in spirit, still has the strength to uphold secularism in its true spirit of equal distance from all religions.”

At one level it is a good sign that Indian intellectuals are recognising the problems in this Indian interpretation of secularism. For example Prof. Irfan Habib recently has said:

“Actually, one of the difficulties, ideologically, is that we have rejected the global notion of secularism. … It was first used by (George Jacob) Holyoake (in 1851), who said secularism is morality without religion, without any idea of after-life. He also said secularism is linked to the idea of welfare (of people). This is the correct notion of secularism.[1] Emphasis added.
Another very reputed historian and public intellectual Prof. Romila Thapar recently observed that “Secularism is the curtailment of religious control over social institutions, not the absence of religion from society. It is when our primary identity is of equal citizens of the nation, not as belonging to a particular religion or caste. But the Indian definition of secularism is limited to the coexistence of many religions …”.[2]

I am neither a historian nor have been following Professors Habib and Thapar, but it would be interesting to investigate if this understanding that Indian definition of secularism is incomplete and defective, and that it has created problems for us, is their recent discovery or their past writings also have been on the same premise. This observation of mine is just a politically relevant curiosity, and no accusation that they understood secularism differently in the past should be read into this.

However, be that how it may, they both are still determined to ignore half the truth and emphasise only the half that they like. Prof. Habib, after recognising the problem of Indian understanding of secularism says that this “idea of secularism opens the door to majority communalism” and that “It is absurd to say that if we treat all religions equally, then religion can play a part in the state. Since there is no abstract religion, then only the majority religion can play a part”. Thus the problem with this idea of secularism for him is that it could be used by the majority religion. Prof. Thapar echoes the sentiment, with some difference, when she says that “is incomplete because some religions can still be marginalised as they are”.

The actual situation is that this distorted definition of secularism open up a long contest between all religions to grab as much pubic space as possible, and to attack as many democratic ideas as possible, from their own perspective; be they minority or majority.

It is quite clear if we look at the recent history of religious attacks on the freedom of expression. If a Hussain paints Saraswati or a Ramanujam writes an article on Ramayana; one kind of bigots will be after their blood. If a Rushdie or a Taslima write something another kind of bigots will be after their blood. The state rather than protecting the fundamentally important democratic value of freedom to criticise will try to placate both. And open the doors for killing people who might criticise religion.

If a Namaz blocks a road every Friday, rather than stopping this public inconvenience the state will allow Ganapati Pooja or Krishna janamastmi to block the roads for days. This competition for grabbing public places escalated and due to this distorted understanding of secularism the government can stop neither this not that. We need to correct the definition but not because it privileges the majority religion, which it actually does not; but because this provides a convenient ground for all religions to attack democracy and freedom of thought.


[1] http://scroll.in/article/748241/irfan-habib-the-indian-variant-of-secularism-opens-the-door-to-majority-communalism

[2] http://indianexpress.com/article/cities/delhi/indian-definition-of-secularism-is-incomplete-says-romila-thapar/#sthash.1lbMj3Jb.no045bEe&st_refDomain=m.facebook.com&st_refQuery=/