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Secularism died before it came in vogue

Secularism died before it came in vogue

Author: Prafull Goradia
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: May 10, 2002

Secularism has become a political slogan with few of its users being clear about what it means. The 16th century European definition was a separation between the church and the state; the non-interference of the clergy in the affairs of government.

The Marxist concept was to try and abolish religion from the life of the people. On the other hand, tolerance has been a hallmark of the Hindu ethos since its beginning. The question, therefore, of introducing secularism into the affairs of India appears to have been unnecessary. In fact, its practice has distorted the spirit of tolerance. Hindu-Muslim riots are a symptom of this distortion.

One of the directive principles of policy contained in Article 14 of the Constitution requires the introduction of a common civil code; one law common to all citizens. 52 years after the Constitution was adopted, there is no sign of the country having one personal law. If the Muslims were to insist on their own distinctive personal law, why should the state not also ask them to accept the Shariat with regard to criminal law? Minority educational institutions are allowed to run freely according to their societies but are heavily subsidised by the state. Whereas, Hindu institutions are denied such subsidy. So discriminatory is this law that the much respected Rama Krishna Mission was driven to claim that it is a minority organisation.

Why was the Minorities Commission established? Their institutions could certainly have been looked after by the National Human Rights Commission. Evidently, there was a systematic intention by the Government of India at some point to keep lit the flame of minorityism lit. Perhaps, it was felt that if they got integrated into the mainstream, they might cease to be of electoral benefit.

It is unlikely that the Muslim community or its leadership ever demanded such favours from the Indian state. Who would understand the Muslim aspirations better than Qaid-i-Azam Jinnah, especially in the years around Independence and Partition? It is not widely known that Jinnah entered into a written agreement with the All India Hindu Mahasabha, whose general secretary at the time was Raja Maheshwar Dayal Seth.

According to the agreement, the country was to be partitioned soon after Independence with the help of a plebiscite. There was to be no corridor between the Muslim areas of the Northwest and Northeast of India, although they could form a single sovereign state. Government machinery was to be provided for facilitating the transfer of populations. Above all, it said in the event of separation the Muslims shall not demand any safeguard for the Muslim minority in Hindustan. It will be open to the two Indias (East Pakistan was not mentioned) to arrange on a reciprocal basis safeguards for religious minorities in the respective states. (page 301, Indian Muslims; A Political History by Ram Gogal Asia Publishing House, New York, 1959).

How the minorities were dealt with subsequently by Pakistan is well-known. Dr Rafiq Zakaria, in his recent book, The Man Who Divided India (Popular Prakashan, Mumbai, 2001) has described what happened in that country. "Some Indian Muslims living in India asked Mr Jinnah on the eve of Partition: 'What is to happen to us who are being left behind?' He assured them that if any harm came to them, Pakistan would retaliate against the Hindus under its control. But he could not have been serious about that for he must have known that after the hate campaign he had unleashed against the Hindus, few of them would have dared to stay on in his Pakistan. And they did not; they fled in the most excruciating circumstances - many died on the way, the rest reached India with nothing." Although the expression ethnic cleansing was not used, what happened in the western wing of Pakistan was just that. In the eastern wing, something similar has been happening but in a chronic or gradual rather tha n an acute manner.

In fairness to the Muslim League and the community it represented, it was forthright about its non-secular credentials ever since it was founded in 1906. One of its essential rules was that only a Muslim could become a member of the party. The League's demand for separate electorates was conceded by the Lucknow Pact which was signed between the Congress and the Muslim League. While writing in his journal Al Hilal during 1913, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad had said that no Muslim need join any political party. Islam itself is a party whose name is Hizbullah. The Imam and the Sultan are rolled into one and this integrated concept was personified by the Caliph or the representative of the Holy Prophet. But for the Congress party to concede separate electorates for the two communities was to bury its secular credentials.

Whatever hope might have been left in the practice of secularism, in India, was finally dashed when the Congress conceded the League's demand for Partition. Pakistan for Muslims and Hindustan for the rest was the understanding of the League led by Qaid-e-Azam Jinnah. The League leaders had made repeated declarations that the exchange of populations was an integral part of Partition; that all Muslims should immigrate to Pakistan while all non-Muslims should come across to Hindustan. In the context of these events, it was appropriate that there was no mention of the word "secular" in the Indian Constitution, which was ratified in 1950. The word was smuggled into the great document during the Emergency, 1976, when most of the opposition MPs were in jail.

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