The place of secularism in Indian politics

Until a few years ago, there existed a clear 'secular versus communal' binary. Today that is much less apparent

A supporter of India's ruling party Bharatiya Janata Party, behind a mask of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, celebrates after hearing the initial poll results at the party headquarters in New Delhi on March 10. Reuters

A decades-long struggle for the soul of modern India seems to have been both won and lost.

Those on the left of the political spectrum have long argued that India has a secular constitution, which means the state is duty-bound to protect religious minorities and ensure their equal status in the eyes of the law. Those on the right have vociferously pushed back against that notion, pointing out that India’s population is 80 per cent Hindu, making it a “Hindu rashtra” – or a Hindu nation where religious minorities should not be given special consideration and should adhere to the majority's will.

Today, people on the right believe they have won that argument by virtue of who is currently in power.

The Bharatiya Janata Party, a Hindu nationalist entity, is not only running the union government, but is also in power in 17 of India’s 29 states. Its supporters – and the far right more broadly – point to the fact that the BJP has displaced the avowedly secular but fast-declining Indian National Congress as the country’s pre-eminent political party.

While acknowledging the shifting political zeitgeist, the left nonetheless insists that India continues to be a secular republic on paper – and that should count for something.

They have a point. Despite being in power for eight years, India’s current leaders have made no attempt to rewrite the country’s constitution or replace any of its national symbols, including the flag and the national anthem – symbols that represent its egalitarian ideals. However, do they even need to?

In form, India may be secular. But what about in substance?

Anyone who pays close attention to Indian politics and society will concede that in recent years the nation’s character has transformed into a majoritarian state where Hindus sit at the apex of an inverted demographic pyramid.

As the Delhi-based political commentator Asim Ali pointed out in a 2019 op-ed for the news website The Wire, substance always trumps form. It does in China, which is communist in principle but state capitalist in practice. It does in the UK, which has two officially recognised churches yet is secular in everyday life. Likewise, it also does in India. “What matters,” Ali wrote, “is the content of the Hindu rashtra – a state where … leading [right-wing] organisations enjoy, in practice, extra-legal powers to coerce and intimidate.”

Indeed, religious minorities in today’s India are often subjected to attacks from vigilante groups. Lynching, rapes and illegal demolitions of property are regularly documented. Their audacity is increasingly concerning, given that few if any of these groups have been brought to book. Little justice has been delivered in the highest courts of the land for those who have been wronged.

Earlier this year, the BJP-run government in the southern state of Karnataka banned hijab-wearing girls from entering school premises.

All this has had a chilling effect on religious minorities.

The polarisation of society has been one of the pillars upon which the ruling party’s many electoral successes have rested in recent years. Despite overseeing an underperforming economy even in the years leading up to the pandemic, the BJP has been a consistent vote-catcher in large part due to its consolidation of the Hindu vote cutting across regions, ethnicities, castes and linguistic backgrounds (with some exceptions in southern and eastern India).

Most opposition parties, including the Congress, have taken notice of this winning formula amid India’s unmistakable tilt to the right – and they seem to be changing their own strategies in order to survive. The political landscape, as a result, is being radically reshaped.

Until a few years ago, there existed a clear "secular versus communal" binary that provided one of Indian politics’ most predictable fault lines for decades. Parties on the right, notably the BJP, would appeal to religious identity, while Congress, along with a slew of socialist and far-left parties would focus on caste, class or regional identities.

Today, thanks to decades-long, well-organised grassroots movements across the country led by right-wing and religious groups, many of these overlapping, and sometimes conflicting, identities have been subsumed under the unifying identity of the “aspirant Hindu”. And most mainstream parties – perhaps with the exception of the "Left Front" – have determined that the only way for them to remain relevant in politics is to appeal to this aspirant Hindu.

Their leaders have gone about this task in a number of ways, from making public visits to temples, singing hymns on national television, promising to fund or subsidise annual pilgrimages, and claiming to be worthier custodians of Hindu culture than the BJP. Many leaders have also been careful not to be photographed with representatives of minorities, whether it is for celebrating their festivals or providing succour to grieving parties. While these gestures are in and of themselves benign, the strategy has a troubling side to it.

Muslims walk in a rally protesting the razing of a number of Muslim-owned shops following violence in New Delhi, on April 22. AP

When communal flare-ups occur, as they have frequently in recent months, these so-called secular parties have largely remained silent. They would, at the most, release mild statements condemning the violence “on both sides”, no matter that the victims are usually disproportionately from religious minorities.A case in point are the 2020 Delhi riots that left more than 50 people dead, two-thirds of whom were Muslim. Far from promising to deliver justice, the ruling Aam Aadmi Party kept mum, likely for fear of retribution from Hindu voters at the ballot box.

Delhi became the stage for communal tensions again last month, when a series of flare-ups culminated in the demolition of shops and residences mostly belonging to Muslims in an area of the city. The demolition was carried out by municipal authorities no less, in defiance of a Supreme Court order. It was instructive that the only politician who appeared at the scene to confront the authorities and show solidarity with the homeless was a senior leader from a left-wing party.

The only way to overtake the BJP, according to opposition parties, is to shift the focus away from social and cultural wedge issues that they believe they cannot win on, to issues pertaining to the economy and overall governance. Will their strategy pay off? It is hard to say.But what is evident is the changing of Indian society amid flagging support for its minorities. Apart from this being a huge moral problem, growing divisions if allowed to fester can ultimately threaten national security.

In an op-ed for The National, Michael Goldfarb wrote that almost two decades after the 9/11 attacks, America’s greatest national security threat has emerged from within – in the form of profound racial and cultural tensions in society. Even as New Delhi focuses on what it considers to be its greatest threats, from neighbouring China and Pakistan, a tragedy of the kind Goldfarb worries about could well befall India if its politicians are not careful.

Published: May 02, 2022, 2:00 PM