Millennium Post

Redefining secularism

Regis Debray, Che Guevara’s biographer, friend, a journalist, and one, who was present with him when the Bolivian death squads – backed by the CIA – traced them down, had written once, ‘there is a hierarchy of the underground.’

Debray should know, because by 1981 he had been co-opted to the French establishment, first predictably, by the Socialist Party’s Francois Mitterand and in the 1990s, by the right wing president, Jacques Chirac.

Clearly, Debray was at ease within the strictly hierarchical ‘establishment’ for he had practice, honed during his underground years. Debray was a member of the 2003 Stasi Commission, named after Bernard Stasi, which examined the origins of the 2003 French law on secularism and conspicuous religious symbols in schools.

The law was in defence of French laïcité (separation of church and state), which aims to maintain citizens’ equality through the prohibition of religious proselytism within the school system. Debray, however, appeared to have encouraged a more ‘subtle’ treatment of religious issues within school level, history teaching in France.

The Indian establishment does not vary with their international peers in their memberships or methods. Pratap Bhanu Mehta, considered a leading intellectual of the country and also the president of the New Delhi-based, Centre for Policy Research, writing recently on ‘secularism’ in a leading newspaper showed how mental calisthenics can be played, with the concept, in the times of Narendra Modi. He dismissed the Left position of complete separation of governance and religion that has influenced the writing and reading of Indian history, in just five words, ‘narrow interpretations of the Left.’ He sought ‘crafting of a forward looking community of fate (could he have meant, ‘faith’).’

Without getting into the details of his exposition, one can safely say that he has craftily transformed the question of status of the ‘state and religion’ into an individualised conflict of secularist belief within the larger society. The point that this space had made six Mondays ago was a less subtler differentiation in political terms, of State’s complete divorce of religion, as its administrative subject. This writer had advocated a sledge-hammer tactic that was needed to at worst, reform the Indian Constitution and rid its classic paradox of advocating secularism and promising the ‘Right to Religion.’

For, an acknowledgement of the existence of ‘religion’ as a subject of Constitutional statute-making gives it a degree of official sanction, which creates social fault-lines that allows for political parties and leaders to avowedly ascribe religious symbols for political mobilisations.

And, when those practices get mixed with the sources of Capital, it produces a concoction, that is, what we witnessed a fortnight ago: the Narendra Modi road-show that falsely gave the sense he was using the platforms of various chambers of commerces for the welfare of the people, in terms of his ‘economic growth and development’ fundamentalism. It had led, another member of the Indian establishment, a media baron to quip that today’s Indian youth with all their ‘aspirations’ for middle-class ‘good life’ is politically ‘right of centre.’ If this would have been substantiated from such rigorous data collection and analyses of this section of the Indian communities, this column would not have had a problem with the formulation.

But the fact that it was not; actually framed the point this writer is making about conflation of Constitutionally sanctioned religious practices with the methods of Capital to bring to fore the political ideas. The destroyed Babri Masjid stands as a living proof of how the incendiary mixture of politics and religion, backed by Capital, can do to the social tapestry of the country. The point to make is this, had the Indian State been truly secular – not the supposed ‘equidistance’ of the Congress Party or the BJP’s clear Hindutva plank – politics on the basis of religion would not have been afflicted upon the country. There would not have been the individualised definitions of secularism, as Mehta touted, by various leaders, and certainly not mixing of Narendra Modi’s Hindutva with ‘nationalism.’

Recall his words; he created another deity for the Hindu pantheon of gods – the Bharat Mata – for you and I to prostrate before, ostensibly to prove that we identify with our country. So, whether it is the fawning ladies of the FLO (FICCI Ladies Organisation) or the media group’s conclave, would not have been almost destined to be the low hanging fruits for Modi to pluck, when he desired.

On the other hand, the opposition to the ‘narrowly’ defined Left position that the unequivocal separation of the State with religion would not have seemed would not have sounded so oracular or unchallengable wisdom delivered from a perch.

Of course, one can tell that the limited point of Digvijay Singh’s or Nitish Kumar’s apparently poll-equations driven ‘secularism’ would sound ‘hollow’ or ‘shallow’ or ‘callow’ – as Mehta had put it down to be, in the face of a post-modernist position of the medium being the message.

The BJP attempted that matrix in 1999, which succeeded during the poll, but failed the test when they elevated the message-making to policy level of eventually seeking to create a catch all ‘Shining India.’ Because you can fool some people for some time and not all people for all the time.

The author is a senior journalist
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