Redefining Indian secularism

Perhaps no term has been as used, misused and abused in Indian politics in the last decade and a half as ‘secularism’. When the word was included in India’s constitution in 1976, it was supposed to imply equal respect and recognition for all religions by the state. This was in stark contrast to the French interpretation of secularism, referred to as laicite, which  denotes strict separation of the church and state.

Over the past few years however, secularism has lost its ideological relevance in India. Ever since the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and the Gujarat riots of 2002 it has  become synonymous with the Congress and non-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) parties forming ‘secular’ alliances/fronts against the BJP,  and creating a fear psychosis in the Muslim community, that only a non-BJP (Congress-led or supported) government can protect the community.

The above events were shameful to say the least, and caused immense damage to the pluralistic fabric of the country – as envisioned by our founding fathers. Yet, the last few weeks are a perfect reminder of the fact, that if the BJP is communal, the Congress party’s secularism too is based purely on political calculations, and no genuine love for the idea of secularism or the rights of any religious minority.

If this was not true, then the party would not shy away from taking on Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi for his government’s inaction/tacit support for what happened over a decade back. Instead, the party is worried that an onslaught on Modi would inevitably result in a polarisation of the electorate which would only help the Gujarat CM. The Congress party’s reservations on this account are spot on, as in 2007, Sonia Gandhi’s maut ka saudagar remark helped Modi who capitalised on it to the fullest. But for a party which claims to be the guardian of secularism, does this not epitomise political opportunism?

The Congress party’s Gujarat campaign is not the only example of its disingenuous secularism. Another strong example of the above point is its inability to punish any of the perpetrators of the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom, which the prime minister himself has dubbed as shameful and as a ‘negation of nationhood’ in 2005, during the discussions on the Nanavati Commission Report in Parliament.

It should be mentioned here, that only recently while TV channels were engaged in debates, last month, about whether or not militancy would raise its head in Punjab, one story which was glossed over was the recommendation by the Delhi government to pardon Kishori Lal, who was convicted for the murder of seven Sikhs during the 1984 pogrom.  

While Kishori Lal was awarded the death sentence thrice by trial courts, and on each occasion, it was converted to life imprisonment by the Supreme Court. What is shameful is that the New Delhi government has been trying hard to protect him.

The Shiela Dixit government condoned his life imprisonment in one case earlier and this time went ahead by condoning it in two other cases. Support provided to such individuals is unfortunate, because Singh’s apology to the nation, in 2005, came as a breath of fresh air, not just because it assuaged the feelings of the community in general and the victims in particular, but because it sent a message that the party genuinely empathised with the victims of the 1984 pogroms. The prime minister’s apology also gave the party a moral edge over the BJP, which has always tried to free itself from the taint of 2002 by referring to 1984.

Unfortunately, Singh’s desire to apply a balm on the wounds of the Sikh community has not found resonance with sections of the party.

There is no other explanation for letting of Kishori Lal and not showing more urgency in bringing the culprits of the 1984 riots to book. Nothing for example, stops the setting up of a Supreme Court-led Special Investigation Team (SIT) as has been recently suggested by H S Phoolka, a senior lawyer who has been fighting cases for riot victims. But the Congress party naturally seems to have other ideas, since the setting up of an SIT may actually put individuals like Jagdish Tytler, close to the first family, in the dock.

The Indian prime minister has been able to convince the party on issues such as the Indo-US Nuclear deal and more recently economic reforms. In doing so, he has had to cross swords with sections of the party which have still not come to terms with a post cold war era. It is time, that the PM also took a firm stand on pushing for justice for the victims of 1984 something he had promised seven years ago. Such a step would ensure that never again will the country have to witness such a heinous carnage.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based columnist

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