Critics of the CAA claim that the CAA violates the secular spirit of the Indian Constitution.
Before we get into the CAA, its constitutional validity and secular credentials, we need to explore a few issues that have remained unresolved about secularism in the history of modern day India.
Understanding these issues will help us place the present situation in some perspective and find answers to what is right and who is right.
It was the year 2004. My dad was still representing a renowned US Daily’s South Asia desk in New Delhi.
On that mildly cold October afternoon, he was interviewing an editor of one of the leading media houses of India who was an eminent journalist himself.
In the course of the conversation, there was something that gentleman remarked that has stuck with me since.
He said – “In India, Muslims follow Islam, Christians follow Christianity, while Hindus have been trained to follow secularism.
Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru spared no efforts to shame the Hindus into docility in order to make the remnant leftover Muslims (too poor or too reluctant to migrate to Pakistan) to feel at home.
And all of this occurred in a land where Muslims had just voted overwhelmingly in favor of the Muslim League in the 1946 Indian provincial elections which would lead to the creation of Pakistan.”
Nehru had confessed, in a conversation with the French writer André Malraux, that one of the greatest difficulties he faced was ‘creating a secular state in a religious country’.
Back to the present day, 2020. As I saw in the news, the street protesters in India are demanding (of many things) a “Jinnah waali Azadi” (meaning, the type of independence that Jinnah obtained for his followers).
From what I see, most of the present day political parties in India spare no efforts to continue Nehru’s brand of secularism.
They bend over each other to appease the Indian Muslims whose population is now large enough to hold the country to ransom on issues that are projected by vested interests as undermining the “secular interests” of (sorry, not Indians but) Muslims.
So, do the secular interests of Muslims (or any other minority religion in India for that matter) differ from the secular interests of Hindus?
If so, has secularism been defined differently for Muslims as compared to how secularism works for Hindus?
If yes, then how did secularism develop such a perversion from its original meaning as defined in the West?
Throughout its history, Europe had seen such carnage in the clash between the monarchy and the church that they decided to bring a formal separation between the church and the state through the introduction of the concept of secularism.
But, in India secularism was reinvented to carry a separate connotation depending upon – if the religion it was being applied to was in the minority or majority.
It all happened through this process I prefer to call the secularization of India.
The secularization of India started post-independence.
During this phase, the very identity of the Hindu philosophy has been made to suffer near irreparable damage.
As I wrote in my article on Kashmir, there were a set of values carved out of lofty ideals handed down the generations by sages and philosophers of the land, that formed the DNA of the ancient Indian civilization.
These ideals ensured that the civilization would absorb and absolve all evil forced upon it through the ages, and yet survive through eternity.
These lofty ideals became a way of life for the inhabitants of this land. This way of life came to be known as Hinduism.
The welcoming open arms of this philosophy, this way of life ensured that every religion that came to this land was treated as just another legitimate path to worship and reach that “Supreme Being”, the invisible power that guides the cosmos.
These beliefs then became the pillars upon which the foundation of Hinduism as a religion, got established.
Unlike most other religions of the world, Hinduism grew organically guided by the scriptures and the wisdom of the sages down the ages.
There was no prophet that started it all, nor was there a specific day to commemorate the commencement of this philosophy.
Yet, in it’s true form, it represents the inherent goodness of man, his capacity to coexist in a world mired with religious differences and the very best that can come from being human.
Islam and my own religion Christianity are two of the three Abrahamic religions.
Both are major world religions today. However, both suffer from a chronic and incurable malaise wherein they perennially exist and survive in a zero-sum worldview of religious faith.
It is an all-or-nothing paradigm where for Islam to survive, the kaffirs or non-believers (non-Muslims to be precise) have to be either converted to Islam or eliminated.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) kaffir is a “noun used by Muslims as a pejorative term for a person who does not follow Islam – a use that is both considered offensive and intended to offend”.
Somewhat in conjunction with the term kaffir is another term in Islam called “shirk”.
The concept of shirk has been defined in various flavors by different Islamic scholars and theologians but it essentially means that there is no other idol or god that has the same validity as Allah.
Allah has no partners or rivals, so anyone worshiping an entity other than Allah is doomed to an afterlife in hell.
So, according to Islam not only is not being a Muslim a sin but worshiping a being different from Allah an act that is equally blasphemous.
Christian missionaries who have been operating in India for long, labor under the conviction that for Christianity to thrive, the heathen have to be baptized into the Christian faith.
The Hindu idol worshipers have to be sanitized of their “superstitions” and converted into the Lord’s way of conducting faith and worship.
It is not surprising, therefore, when Al Jazeera, the New York Times, BBC… the list is endless, self-righteously proclaim that the rise of Hindu nationalism in India poses a threat to the country’s secular fabric.
These media houses and their self-styled experts on Hinduism are programmed to believe that Hinduism subscribes to the same zero-sum religious worldview where for one religion to thrive, all others have to be subdued or vanquished or eradicated like a disease or some dysfunctional segment of humanity.
This leads these journalists and intellectuals to the apparently logical but utterly misleading, uneducated and farcical conclusion that for secularism to be firmly established in India, the Hindu majority has to be tamed into a state of perpetual docility and subservience to the other faiths that are in the minority.
Back to the present day, 2020. I hear intellectuals in India complain that Hindus are demonstrating intolerance.
Secularism as a concept was born in Europe.
So, what is the Western definition of secularism?
Let us visit the father of this concept in Europe – France. Laïcité (literally “secularity”) is a French concept of secularism.
It discourages religious involvement in government affairs, especially religious influence in the determination of state policies; it also forbids government involvement in religious affairs and especially prohibits government influence in the determination of religion.
In my own country, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”.
This is also alluded to as the Jeffersonian wall of separation as Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of the US had envisioned adapting the French version of secularism in the American context.
To sum it up, Western democracies define secularism as a complete separation of (or constructing a wall between) religion and the state. This definition is primarily built on four fundamental principles.
The one thing Nehru and Ambedkar agreed upon and the Constituent Assembly succeeded in instituting
The logical starting point for an analysis of Indian secularism is the Indian constitution.
The Constituent Assembly convened in 1946 and concluded its main work in November 1949, 116 sitting days later.
The document that emerged from these labors, was promulgated on Republic Day of 1950.
The word Secularism was consciously kept out of the first draft of the Indian Constitution, by the Constituent Assembly. Pt. Nehru and Dr. Ambedkar were opposed to the use of the word Secular, in the Preamble to the Constitution.
In Ambedkar’s words – “This country is inhabited by . . . many communities.
Each one has its special laws and merely because the State [has] desired to assume a secular character it should withdraw itself from regulating the lives of the various communities undoubtedly would result in nothing but chaos and anarchy. I certainly myself am not prepared to subscribe to that sort of proposition.”
Nehru and Ambedkar may not have seen eye-to-eye on may fundamental issues, but this was one where Nehru agreed with his compatriot.
Most members of the Indian Constituent Assembly were convinced that a Jeffersonian “wall of separation” between religion and the state was not conducive nor practicable in a country like India.
In their mind, they foresaw a need to balance the constitutional rights of the Hindu majority population with special privileges that they believed were needed for the Muslim, Christian, Sikh and other religious minorities so that all religions could coexist in harmony.
This understanding in itself mandated that the Indian state would from time to time exercise the right to formulate laws that would keep a balance in society between the majority and the minority religions.
Thus, the Preamble of the Constitution released on 26th January 1950 did NOT carry the word “Secular”.
The Preamble declared India to be a “Sovereign, Democratic Republic”, with no mention of being secular.
This model of Indian secularism, that strives to put all religions on equal footing through intervention by the government turned out to be a mixed blessing.
This flavor of secularism no doubt succeeded to a large extent in promoting religious freedom and a sense of equality among followers of different faiths in Indian society, to begin with.
But, as time progressed it also allowed opportunistic politicians in successive governments to enact laws and practices that could be used to grant favors to one religion over the other.
This formula of mixing religion into politics in the name of required intervention from the state created a position of equilibrium where the Hindu majority came to be precariously balanced against political favors heaped on the minorities, thereby violating the very principles upon which such a flavor of secularism was designed in the first place.
But, it was precisely to avoid such a situation that India’s founding fathers had hesitated to formally use the word Secular in the constitution’s Preamble.
The next generation of politicians began to look for a way to formalize this politically opportunistic formula (of appeasing minorities under the garb of secularism) so it could withstand constitutional validity.
That opportunity was created in 1977 by the ruling Congress Party.
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