India and Her Secular Fabric
Sunday Magazine

India and Her Secular Fabric

Bhuvana Chandran Chelat

The world across, minorities live within the national mainstream recognising the privileges of religious majorities. No matter whether it is the US, Germany, the UK, Russia, Australia or Malaysia, every national party or government is majority controlled and establishes its strength.

It took more than 200 years for the world’s oldest democracy to elect a Black as her 44th president in 2008. All European nations had always a Head of State from majority and one cannot expect otherwise in a distant future. It is beyond imagination for it to happen otherwise in any Islam majority country, except for some years in Indonesia and more in India.

The difference in every majority-ruled country is that minorities accept their status in full recognition of the majority, but first get into the country’s national mainstream to be an equal citizen. They follow the religious faith but do not play any religious card above the country’s sovereignty and nationalism. This means that as long as minorities live nationalism above religion, there is pluralism and secularism.

For 17 years out of seven decades since independence, India had four presidents from minorities as head of State - Zakir Hussein, Fakhruddin Ali Ahamed, Zail Singh and APJ Abdul Kalam. Zakir Hussein, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed and Dr Hamid Ansari reigned as Vice-Presidents for 20 years. The country, always under question about her credentials of minority rights, surprised the world with Kalam, a Muslim as President, Dr Manmohan Singh, a Sikh as Prime Minister, and the most powerful political leader Sonia Gandhi being an Italian Catholic from 2004-2007, that too in a country with over 80 per cent majority Hindus. Dr Manmohan has a record as the Prime Minister for two repeated terms or 10 years,  after founder PM Pandit Nehru. Imagine that any other country would have taken this record in every global forum to boast of her secular nature, but India did not do that to counter any allegation on minority rights.

In 1947, Pakistan was separated as an Islamic Republic. Had it been anywhere else, the rest of the country would have remained as a Republic for the majority. But the founding leaders of the nation like Gandhiji, Pandit Nehru, Patel and Azad, who shared a highly elevated secular mindset, offered the referendum to all Muslims to choose migration to Pakistan or stay back as nationals under the world’s largest democracy with secular, plural and electoral doctrines. The majority Hindu nation could have declared herself a religious state but did not, which only proves the far-sighted vision of her founding leaders which none of the Hindu outfits opposed. That is tolerance; also that is resilience of the majority religion which makes this nation so unique. Had India been a majority of Jews, Shias or Christians, leave the rest to one’s guess!

In Pakistan and Bangladesh, the Hindu minorities had been reduced to 15 per cent since partition, whereas Muslim minorities swelled to 18 per cent of the total population here. India still accounts for the second largest Muslim population in the world after Indonesia, and the only country in the world subsidising Haj pilgrimage and special reservation for education and jobs as minority rights.

Would Jammu and Kashmir  have been more prosperous with Pakistan rather than aligning with India? No. Never. When it comes to human rights, gender equality and religious freedom, India is a more peaceful place than most other religious states.

The Islamic institutions in India can realise that what makes the minorities happy and prosperous in the world over is that they recognise and align with the majority and respect the nation’s heritage and culture. They have a choice to live as a minority, or to live the national mainstream by accepting what is intellectually right than being emotional by looking at everything from a religious angle. What is disappointing with national parties here is that if UPA appeases minority votes, NDA appeases forward castes of the majority, widening the religious difference.

India has a majority of Hindus who do not recognise and align with Hindu nationalists such as RSS, BJP, Shiv Sena, VHP, Sri Ram Sena and Bajrang Dal. Even during the last two Lok Sabha elections, the majority of Hindus did not vote for NDA which won the elections with 37 per cent backing of the electorate.

Congress has a history of socialist democracy whereas BJP follows a nationalist one. Ruling for 60 years, Congress failed to liberate the country from caste reservation, subsidies, illiteracy and poverty. On the other hand, BJP has followed a pro-majority model without taking minority institutions into confidence and solidarity.

Most of the religious violence in India were in retaliation. Gujarat genocide was in retaliation to Godhra inferno where none of the Islamists institutions was ever reprimanded. But it was prominent Hindu activists like Teesta Setalwad and IPS officers like Sanjay Bhat and RB Sreekumar who faced severe punishment and agonies afterwards. Had it ever happened in Pakistan or Bangladesh, whether any such Muslim personality would have raised voices on behalf of minorities, remains unclear.

Despite the fact that most terrorists belong to a minority community and control the gold smuggling and hawala rackets, there has not been a single mob attack by any Hindu outfit against them or or minority-run institutions. It only points to the fact that religion is not to be blamed for such few blemishes.

During the Malabar riots of 1921, followed by Tipu Sultan’s aggression, many forward caste Hindus lost their lives and got forcibly converted to Islam. But Hindus as the majority did not unite to retaliate. Though there were exceptions like a few Moghul emperors like Akbar, most Muslim invaders and rulers were treacherous and looted and destroyed Hindu temples and world renowned universities of rich heritage; but hardly was there any retaliation. This shows that India always stood for peace and secularity.

During the pre-partition days when a Hindu-Muslim violence in Naukhali led to burning of many houses and left thousands homeless and dead, a semi-clad fakir went on hunger strike by pleading to his fellow Hindus to give up in favour of Muslim brethren, though hardly with any Muslim leaders joined from the other side. By the time he was adored as Mahatma Gandhi by all national leaders, and addressed so the Congress meeting in Nagpur in December 1920, Jinnah addressed him as Mr Gandhi. This was despite a request from Maulana Mohammed Ali, the leader of Khilafat movement to address him as Mahatma. Gandhi calmed the situation saying that as long as one uses no defamatory name, he or she is free to address him as they wish. He was assassinated by Hindu hardliners for his 'softness' towards Muslims.

Independence through non-violence or Ahimsa liberated the nation from slavery. The apostle of non-violence died once it came to preserving and safeguarding secularism against religious violence. What makes Gandhiji an extraordinary leader is that he still lives as the most remembered, even 70 years after his death.

The nation was built on his secular vision and ideology and continues to be the same when she celebrates his 150th birthday in 2019-20.

The second largest populated country in the world, accounting for 16 per cent of the world’s people living in 2 percent of the total land, India has one of the highest rates of poverty, malnutrition and illiteracy. It is quite natural to see incidental mob violence incited by political or religious motives, often inflated and spread by the media. Interestingly, such rare incidents do not ever flare up to other areas, showing the secular structure of the country. Eradicating poverty and raising literacy levels can bring down such incidents which tarnish the country's image. Every minority religion in India is largely due to conversion with invaders doing very; hence, deeply influenced by the majority religion, civilisation and heritage. If followers of Islam, Christianity, Zorashtrianism and Jewism came through inward migration, Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism emerged from Hinduism.

After 30 years of Sikh genocide in Delhi, Supreme Court brought all offenders to the law and punished them. No political party or institution ever stood by this attack on Sikh minority. Political parties and separatists in Kashmir raised issues to drive out Kashmiri Pandits and favoured independence from India despite enjoying all financial support from the Centre. Yet Kashmiri youths get equal education in Indian universities and their traders are secure and enjoy equal rights in all parts of India.

Indian history as taught in our universities do not decry Muslim invasion, or destroying knowledge centres and universities, forceful conversions, ransacking of the temples or looting treasures. The majority has peaceful co-existence with minorities, and Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Goa and most parts of Karnataka and Maharashtra are classic examples for this. Wherever education has spread, it has strengthened the nation’s secular fabric. During the recent floods in Kerala, it was  enviable for all to see the humanitarian spirit in rescue operations and relief beyond any religious bias. Any art whether poetry, music, dance, sculpture, painting, cinema, etc is so secular, and is patronised and enjoyed beyond religious barriers. Bollywood, ghazals, Hindustani recitals and cricket set examples of India’s diversity, secular space as well as her ability to co-exist with all faiths.

Whenever there is a mob violence in the name of conversion, cow slaughter, worship place or Love Jihad, violence is very rare and always localised. This is clear evidence that the country as a whole is secular and peace-loving.

Demolition of Babri Masjid was done by a fanatic mob, which was not acceptable for majority Hindus or any national institutions. Based on extensive excavation and ASI records, there was the existence of a Ram temple which was destroyed under Moghul rule and a mosque was built. It has a historic faith linked to Babar but not to the prophet which is a point of dispute between Hindu and Islam religious trusts. The government and Supreme court did not allow any forceful encroachment for the last 25 years and now it is left for a final decision through mediation or a verdict. ASI has found that  several mosques and churches were built on ruins or destroyed temples. Most of the Islamic monuments are unique in structure, blending the best of Persian design and Indian artistry skills, making them stand apart like any such structure in Iran, Iraq, Egypt or Morocco. This shows India’s ability and willingness to adapt with an external culture.

When minorities cease to feel about their status and integrate with the national mainstream, it liberates the entire nation from religious violence and adds strength as a nation.

The US, France and the UK shelter the world’s largest share of minorities, mostly Islam, Hindu and Chinese origins without any religious conflicts, for a single reason that these minorities are well integrated with the host nation’s mainstream framework. Malaysia is another example, where Chinese and Indian minorities obey and recognise the special rights for the majority Malay Muslims. Singapore gives equal rights to all immigrant nationals. Muslim minorities in Germany, Benelux, Switzerland, or Italy obey the country’s reforms related to veils and civil codes. There is a majority of Indian Muslims in favour of common civil code, birth control and monogamy, though a few conservative and hardline institutions still misinterpret the reforms.

Indians make the largest migrants in the world, but never have interfered in the political or internal affairs of any host nation. When China annexed Tibet, India was generous to giving asylum to Dalai Lama at the cost of friendship with China.

During the first Modi Government, a large number of artists, celebrities and scholars, mostly Hindus returned their awards and rewards back in protest to a few incidents on intolerance and crimes related to suspected cow traffic and slaughter. At the same time, rarely any country can organise an overseas Indian (Pravasi) diaspora in a foreign country like the US, the UK or the UAE combining all religions, languages and jobs so successfully as done during the visit of the Prime Minister recently. As India is becoming the largest populous country in the world, birth control will be a very crucial step. As a democracy, the law has to push for gender equality by empowering women where polygamy will cease to exist and should not be interpreted as in conflict with her secular values.