Communal Issues Threatening Indian Democracy

September 16, 2019

Rohit Dhankar

If one goes by news paper reports the Indian economy is performing the worst in last many years. GDP (whatever it might be!) growth is at the lowest in perhaps a decade, jobs are being lost, business is slumping down, and all indicators that matter are showing the worst performance. Health and education systems are in bad shape and no sign of improvement are anywhere in the sight. The communal rift is very high. In general, the country is doing badly almost in every sphere of public life.

And still there are reports that Modi’s popularity is not coming down. Personally, I do not believe that the PM’s popularity is not coming down. It seems to me that the impact of economic slowdown will take little more time for the public to realise what is happening. But there is also another factor that is obscuring the problem and confusing the people. The belief that human beings and nations live by bread only and governed by economic concerns alone is completely wrong. Humans, are creatures of wants and not merely of needs; they are creatures of imagined desirabilities, aspirations, dreams and what they see as right and wrong. In other words, they are governed by ideologies as much as by material needs. Often, I feel humans actually measure even their material conditions through ideological prisms. Ideas are as important to them as materials.

Currently, it seems the imagination of Indian masses is captured by some ideas and issues which are making them oblivious to the nation’s material conditions, though temporarily. Materiality will finally hit them in near future, and then they will have to re-evaluate their ideological desires. In this context I will share my take on some of the issues and ideas which are playing on the minds of the people today.

These are views of a non-expert Indian citizen, therefore, are from common sense point of view rather than being expertly churned political positions and theories. ‘Non-expert’ views may sometimes be closer to the public opinion and may also be more likely to be wrong! So, why such views deserve engagement? Well, a said above,  because they are likely to be closer to the public opinion, and therefore, deserve addressing (not necessarily agreement) even if wrong.

These issues stop people from paying attention to development agenda and more serious economic and peoples’ empowerment issues like injustice, inequality, curbs on freedoms, and poor state of education, health and availability of minimal facilities to citizens. Addressing these issues should function as removal of irritants and public gaze might be drawn to real issues in the country.

The six topmost communal ideas that need to be addressed and challenged if found wrong are listed below with very brief introduction or elaboration on each.

  1. The Ram Mandir-Babri Mosque

Currently the issue is under judicial scrutiny in our highest court. I do hope what I am writing here is in no way a disrespect to the judicial process of the country.

We adopted a secular democratic constitution on 26th January 1950. As an Indian citizen I believe we said good-by to bigoted practices of demolishing, harming, encroaching or converting places of worship of any religion. History cannot be undone; all you can do with it is understand it and take lessons from it. By accepting a secular democratic constitution, the Indian state also guaranteed protection of places of all religions in the country. On the day when we adopted the constitution, there was standing a mosque at the now disputed place. Therefore, the Indian state was (and is) duty bound to protect the status of that building as a mosque. It failed in that duty. Now it should restore the position we inherited on that day.

From the moral and constitutional point of view, it does not matter whether there was a temple, Rama Temple or whatever at that place before the mosque was built. It does not matter whether the temple, or whatever there was, was destroyed or not. All that matters is that we are out of that barbaric era and do not adopt the policy of using equally barbaric policies of destroying and/or converting religious places.

There are many mosques in India which stand testimony to barbaric policies and bigoted mind set of past Muslim rulers of India, we can not undo that now by the same methods. We are a constitutional and civilised nation, and are interested in knowing our history but are not interested in taking revenge or forcibly recreating the original religious places by removing what is there today.

Therefore, the land for Babri Mosque should be given to responsible Muslim representative body and the mosque should be re-built there with the money recovered from the Hindu organisations responsible for demolishing it.

Historical truth, however, is important. Therefore, it should be thoroughly investigated by whatever means and methods available, to ascertain if there was a template at the place of Babri mosque. And that should be known to all. And that brings us to the second irritant in the minds of many in the majority community.

  • Biased reading of Indian history

Harmony can never be achieved on the basis of falsehoods. Finely woven theories written in claver language do not necessarily make credible narratives. It is true that we can never know the past as ‘it actually happened’, but all narratives built around the available historical material do not equally approximate the ‘truth’.

Exonerating the ideology of Islam and Muslim kings from temple destruction and oppression against Hindus will not help build harmony. The atrocities visited upon them will only rankle in the public memory. The real way would be to distance ourselves from that era and those historical actors and stop blaming present day people for acts of their ancestors. Islam as an ideology and Muslim kings did perpetrate atrocities on Hindus including forced conversions, but Muslims of today are not responsible for that.

The dominant stance of history writing in India in the past about 60 years (more?) has been to hide and whitewash the atrocities perpetrated on the inhabitants of this land before Muslims armies conquered it. The spacious theories of ‘people living here did not have a consciousness of being a single community’, ‘they saw themselves in terms of panths and castes only’, ‘only those temples were destroyed which were playing politics’, ‘Hindu kings also destroyed Hindu temples’, and so on, do not adequately explain the hundreds temples destroyed, volumes written by court historians of Muslim kings, scars on the public memory and differentiated taxations on Hindus and Muslims living under Muslim kings. One can go into details of all this if one likes, but complete whitewashing will not work.

The atrocities of higher castes on shudras and lower in the Hindu social order, also, cannot be explained away by siting nice sounding quotations from Hindu shastras. The facts of atrocious, unjust and extremely oppressive social order Hindus created have to be admitted and has to be undone. This again is an issue of trying to whitewash other sins in the Indian history, this time by the other side.

Similarly, exonerating Islam and Muslims of all communalism during the freedom movement and after independence will not work. We need a more objective analysis which gives equal weightage to equal evidence which impartially states communalism enflamed by Hindus as well as Muslims.

The historian who tries to whitewash the history of Muslim kings and role of Muslim communalism during freedom struggle loses credibility to counter stupid claims like plastic surgery, stem-cell research and aeroplanes in ancient India. Even when these claims are obviously false and unsupported by any evidence. Therefore, we need a more robustly argued and more fairly interpreted historical narratives which stand their ground in terms of evidence and favour none.   

  • Cow protection

Cow protection and beef ban has become the biggest source of poison in the society. India should abandon the idea of cow protection and remove ban in beef eating in all states. If some Hindus don’t want to eat beef, it is their freedom not to, is some other people want to eat beef it is choice to make. No one has the right to dictate what others should eat or not eat. It does not matter whether beef was eaten by Hindus historically or not. It is completely irrelevant.

However, public display of cow slaughter should be banned. Freedom of religious practices does not mean public display of all those practices. Actually, public display of all cruelty to animals should be banned and dealt with stringent punishment.

The so-called economic reasons for cow protection are no longer valid. Worship of cow by some sections of Hindu society is their private matter. No one is stopping them from continuing their token worship of offering a roti to cows. But they have no right to dictate others to treat cow in the same manner. Therefore, eating beef and production of cow meet should be allowed exactly as production of goat meet is allowed. If some misguided Hindus resist it, they should be dealt with sternly and all state might should be used to curb any unrest they create.

  • Uniform civil code

Democracy is premised on the assumptions (i) that humans can learn to decide for themselves the kind of life they want to lead, (ii) that they can make efforts to realise the kind of life they choose, and (iii) that they can learn to bear the responsibilities of their choices and actions. Therefore, (vi) they should be given the maximum scope to decide for themselves. This leads to democratic values like freedom, equality, justice, fraternity, etc. The fundamental rights that emerge in this discourse are rights guaranteed for the individuals and not for the communities.

As a result, any custom or religious injections that are imposed by the communities, and which encroach upon fundamental rights of persons (as individuals) are necessarily unacceptable in a democracy. Which means that all citizens in a democratic country are to be governed by the same laws. A democracy can not afford different laws for different sections of people. Therefore, uniform civil code is a necessary condition for a democracy to function properly.

However, if some people want to live life according to their community codes, democratic state cannot stop them voluntarily surrendering some (not all, for example right to life cannot be surrendered) of their fundamental rights to the community structures. But the state can not recognise any alternative legal systems.

That leads to the conclusion that there can be no place for personal civil codes be they Hindu, Muslim and any other. No community, including Muslims, has the right to be adamant regarding personal civil code. No state within a state can be allowed. So, uniform civil code should be adopted by the country even if some adamant people continue to oppose it.

  • Religious Conversions

India is a secular democracy which gives every citizen the right to practice and propagate one’s religion. Therefore, freedom to change religion has to be protected, even if Hindus don’t like it. If they feel threated by conversions for genuine change of faith by an individual, they should strengthen their on social fabric and religious education. Blaming others will not do.

But conversion also has issues. Whether we accept it or not there are many conversions happening due to material allurements. And also, various kinds of pressures. Such conversions should definitely be stopped. In the process of conversion denigration and insulting remarks for religions and publication of false interpretations and deliberate lies are order of the day. Such practices have to be curbed.

At a different level, we should also recognise the violence inherent in attempts to convert others. Conversion is an act of cultural and social uprooting, and much of what goes in the name of social service when directed at conversions becomes an act of bigotry. However, it is constitutionally allowed, therefore, has to be protected. The zeal of Abrahamic religions to convert the whole world has shed much blood through out the world, and will be a continued source of tension in India for a long time. The state should make sure that there is no hindrance in changing one’s faith for genuine reasons and there are no pressure and allurements involved.

  • Freedom of speech

Indian constitution guarantees “liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship”. I am interpreting the ‘expression’ part as freedom to speak one’s mind, ‘freedom of speech’. We hear every day that the government is curbing freedom of speech, this claim is made in connection with intolerance of criticism of the government, BJP, RSS, and PM Modi. However, the loud proclamations of this statement itself and many other much harsher on the government and the PM give a lie to such claims. At the same time, there are TV channels which do not allow the counter view to be articulated at all, and I am sure that is because of the pressure from the government. That is because the media houses come under pressure from the government. Undoubtedly, here the government is guilty.

There are also channels which speak freely against the government and nothing more than BJP people not grating interviews and denying participation in debates on such channels is done to them. Denying interviews and participation is certainly a way of marginalization of these channels and journalists, and in such cases the government is guilty. Thus, as far as the criticism of the government is concerned a systemic marginalization of the critics is being practiced. This has to be resisted.

Since public opinion regarding the five issues I listed above cannot be formed rationally without complete freedom of speech, it is a very important issue for our democracy and secularism today. And citizens can certainly defeat any curbs by the government in the era of social media.

But there are other ways of curbing freedom of speech other than by the government, and to my mind they also do equal harm. One of these ways is concocted public outrage and the government’s failure to protect citizens’ right to freedom of speech. Religion today is not insignificant in India and in my view the greatest danger to our democracy and secularism comes from religion. If one criticizes Hindu practices and Hindu shastras then immediately there is a feigned outrage against such a persona and there might be threats form anti-social elements. If one questions Mohammad and Quran then there are immediate threats of beheading from another set of anti-socials. The Muslim threats are much louder, more frequent and brought to the violent protest on the road much more frequently than the Hindu threats. The state fails to protect the concerned citizens in both cases.

Unless we create an atmosphere of free and frank discussions on religions, unless we can ask harsh questions regarding Hindu, Muslim and Christian practices in this country, we will not be able to stop communal poison in the country. We have to discuss and critique all religious figures be that Rama, Krishna, Muhammad, Christ or Buddha with equal sharpness; with due respect for all believers but no reverence for the religious figures.

Another big threat to open society and cogent debates/discussions is the overbearing political correctness. Political correctness is a form of censorship to protect some lies, and is more dangerous that a direct and proper lie; because it can not be countered. If we want to save democracy and secularism, we have to drop political correctness completely and ask hard questions of all ideologies including religions.

It seems we have to short out these and other such issues before the genuine issues of development and social justice can gain public attention. ******

Is the cow still holy?

September 30, 2015

Rohit Dhankar

“The 50-year-old father of an Indian Air Force personnel was beaten to death by a mob on the outskirts of Delhi on Monday night, allegedly over rumours that he had eaten beef.
Mohammad Ikhlaq and his 22-year-old son were dragged from their house by around 100 villagers in Dadri in Uttar Pradesh and beaten with bricks. Ikhlaq’s son is critical.” From NDTV site, 30th September 2015.

Reading the news item makes it is clear that the killers knew the victims; they lived in the same area (is it a village?). One finds it difficult to believe that people known to each other will kill on such grounds. The announcement from the temple regarding a calf being killed indicates a plan. Who knows deep down the incident there might be some old animosity or grudge. Temple and holy cow may have been used as a pretence to attack the family. And that (if it happened to be so, I am only guessing in order to understand the bizarre incident) is much more dangerous and heinous than if the killers actually believed in ‘protection of holy cow’ and actually believed that the family has killed a calf. Pretended religious sentiments are more dangerous that actual. These inhuman schemes of the rogue elements may get concretises with the help of unjustified laws like beef ban. I am not discounting the larger communal politics here, rather am hinting that the larger divisive politics plays through personal animosity or old grudges among people known to each other.

The issue of cow protection is not new. Arya Samaj in the guidance of Dayanand Saraswati started a movement in 1882, and established cow protection societies all over India. This movement led to serious riotes in 1893. In independent India there was an anti-cow-slaughter movement in which the parliament was gheraoed by a mob of thousands in the leadership of Hindu organisations and Shankaracharya Niranjandev Tirth.

One of the problem in this issue is also the article 48 of the constitution, which is a directive principle; it states: “Organisation of agriculture and animal husbandry.—The State shall endeavour to organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and shall, in particular, take steps for preserving and improving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter, of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle.” It seems to me inclusion of the words “cows and calves” serves no purpose here as the article is about agriculture and animal husbandry. Organising animal husbandry on “scientific lines” may require protection of some animals for environmental and economic reasons; but it may also require slaughtering some animals for the same reasons. Specifically mentioning “cow and calves” here gives a religious tinge to this secular constitution. In my view it should be amended and these words should be deleted. But, all said and done, we should remember that it is only a directive principle, and by definition should “not be enforceable by any court”.

The present proponents of the beef ban, however, are no respecter of the constitution. The debate and thin justification mainly hinges on two kinds of arguments: one, that Hindus have always respected cows and never ate them; and two, that killing and eating cow by others hurts Hindu sentiments.

The first claim has two parts: ancient Hindus (Aryans?) respected cows and never ate them. Respected in terms of ‘valued’ might be true, as they considered them their wealth, and cows and oxen played an important role in their agriculture. The second part is certainly not true; as one finds references to eating beef as well as to declaring it a sin. Which is not at all surprising; Hinduism always had several views on almost all issues. There might have been people who happily ate beef, and there might have been another set who declared them sinners. Actually, who will declare a non-existing practice as a sin? And why? Declaring a practice as abominable or a sin also proves its existence, at the least till the time of declaration.

However, the debate regarding whether the Aryans and ancient Hindus ate beef or not is totally irrelevant in the present case. We have to remember that we are not living in ancient India. Even if the ancient Hindus did not eat beef it does not mean we should not or cannot eat it today. It does not mean at all that non-Hindus cannot eat it. Only about 200 years back Hindus motivated and sometimes forcibly burnt women on the funeral piers of their husbands in the name of sati; it was not considered a crime. Today it is a crime. Ancient Hindus did not allow shudras and women to study vedas; and if shudras were found studying vedas they were punished. Today, anyone including shidras can happily study vedas if they want. In the epic of Ramayana it is mentioned that Shambuka was killed by the so-called maryadapurushottam Rama simply because he was indulging in tapasya to gain power and he was a shudra. No maryadapurushottam can do that today. By the way, even Ramayana in this tale of oppression recognises that change is inevitable. It says that in Satayuga only Brahmans could do tapasya, in Treta Brahmans and Kshariyas were allowed, in Dwaper, when story of Ramayana is supposed to be situated, Brahmana, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas could do tapasya, but Shudras could not. It also mentioned that Shudras will be allowed in Kaliyuga, our own yuga.

We are living in a diverse and democratic country, and in kaliyuga, we have a constitution which gives us freedom to regulate our own personal lives. Eating what we like and not eating what we don’t like is our personal matter. So what ancient Indians (Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Ajivikas, Charvakas, etc.) did or did not eat does not matter and constitutes no argument today. Please also remember that Charvakas were as good Indians as Hindus, perhaps better, and I am sure, though have no proof, they had no problems with eating beef.

That brings us to the second argument in the current debate: that if others eat beef it hurts Hindu sentiments. This argument has several problems.

First, beef eating by others may hurt sentiments of some Hindus; but they are in a minority. Because there are plenty of Hindus who actually eat beef. And there is a greater number of those who themselves may not eat beef but nothing happens to their sentiments if others do. This brigade whose sentiments are hurt (if they are actually hurt, that is) is a small minority. They do not represent Hindus.

Second, the ‘hurt sentiment’ is a bad argument in a democracy. Jain sentiments may get hurt if you eat any animal flesh, Muslim sentiments may get hurt if you eat something as dirty as pork anywhere in their vicinity. Rajput sentiments were hurt due to Jodha-Akbar TV serial, Jat sentiments are hurt if their girls marry in their own gotra or a Dalit. In each case the rights of Indian citizens are trampled underfoot, and the state which should provide guarantee of liberty to act as per the constitutional rights fails. The ‘hurt sentiment’ argument is the biggest danger to our secularism, to openness in society and to freedom of expression.

This flawed argument has played havoc with the freedom of expression in India, even if we ignore rest of the world. The Indian society and liberal intellectuals have been either very tolerant or selective in criticism to this spacious argument. Let us realise that the ban on cow slaughter and ban on Satanic Verses, in spite of seeming different on the surface, basically use the same argument of hurt feelings/sentiments. In both cases one group wants to impose one’s own way of life on the rest of the people: one on what you can eat, other on what you can read.

This argument is basically a gift of our own distortion of secularism which we call sarvadharma-samabhava. The beauty of sarvadharma-samabhava is that if you accept an unreasonable argument of one religious community, you have to accept an equally unreasonable argument from another community. Thus a competition in being more and more unreasonable and to grab public space starts between the communities. Since the state want to be polite to religion it cannot stop the slide on the slippery slope. This is the defect in Indian secularism.

Professor Irfan Habib rightly said in an interview that “[i]t is absurd to say that if we treat all religions equally, then religion can play a part in the state”.  Professor Thapar, another famous historian and public intellectual, also said in a lecture that Indian definition of secularism is “limited and incomplete”. It seems to me that both, like many others, recognise the problem and its gravity. But they seem to see the damage it can cause only partially. They both claim, in somewhat differing terms, that this definition privileges the majority religion. This conclusion, in spite of the correct recognition of the problem, is only partially true. Neither one can build a theoretical argument to support it fully, nor is it corroborated by empirical facts.

The acceptance of religion based decisions in the public affairs and in the state policy basically opens the way for influencing the state and public decisions in favour of religions. It results in attempts to impose religious ideas and ways of living on unwilling non-believers. All religions in a democracy tainted with sarvadharma-samabhava can use that opportunity, and they actually do.

If one looks at the list of banned books and other public acts allowed or banned in the name of religion the list shows that Hindus and Muslims both have been using it quite frequently. The only solution, therefore, is that no legitimacy should be provided in the name of religion. If someone’s sentiments are hurt due to other citizens’ legitimate acts within the constitutional boundary it is their own problem. If A eats beef and B’s sentiments are hurt because of it, there is something wrong with B, not with A. May be B does not understand democracy and individual freedoms. Or maybe he wants to impose his ideas on others. Or maybe he simply does not know why, but feels terribly disturbed to the point of wanting to kill. Or he may not feel anything, just sees an opportunity to further his selfish ends and simply pretends. In all these cases it is the problem of education or general thinking in the society. It needs to be rectified, not appeased. It seem to me that most cases of hurt sentiments on religious matters are actually mob pretentions.

If we want to save secularism any law that legitimises imposition of ways of life of one group on unwilling others should be resisted. Beef ban is a dangerous step for democracy. Unlike banned books, it provides occasions to rogue elements in general public for settling scores and spreading violence. In the last decade or so there have been several incidents (remember five Dalits killed in Haryana, in 2002?)  in the name of cow; so much so that now it might start looking like ‘unholy’ rather than ‘holy’. [Please don’t read it as blaming cow. Cow is neither holy nor unholy, it is simply cow. The ‘holy’ and ‘unholy’ characterises the thinking of people in this controversy.]