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Home > News > Columnists > Ramananda Sengupta


Who needs secularism?

August 26, 2005

Show me a 'secular' person, and I'll show you a liar.

Because no human being on this planet, no matter how erudite, educated and enlightened he or she or it may be, is truly and absolutely secular.

For starters, the word means different things to different people.

A deeply religious person can think him/herself to be secular because he/she accepts that there are other religions than his own, and is willing to live with that.

An atheist/agnostic believes s/he is secular because s/he does not grudge or deny religious people their beliefs.

A radical revisionist might merit the moniker because s/he hates all religions, equally.

All of them would be wrong.

For being secular is not about acceptance, or tolerance, or even resignation.

Like perfection, it is something to be strived for, but never achieved.

I have no issues with Hinduism. But I cannot accept that Brahmins are a superior race. Or that Sati is a good thing.

I have no issues with Islam. But I do have issues with the burkha, which I believe promotes a patriarchal system at the cost of women's rights.

So when push comes to shove, will I merit the secular tag?

Having said that, I would like to argue that while individuals cannot be secular, the state must be.

That age old maxim about separation of the Church and the State is still valid. In fact, it's something worth fighting for.

Individuals have the right to religion. Governments do not.

As an Indian, I have often wondered what our leaders had in mind when they 'solemnly resolved to constitute India into a Sovereign, Socialist, Secular, Democratic Republic.'

Sovereign I can understand. Also Socialist and Democratic. But what precisely did they mean by secular, which was added by then prime minister Indira Gandhi's government?

Were they saying the new-born government would never interfere in matters religious?

Or was it just a knee jerk reaction to the horrors of Partition along religious lines, without much thought being given to the implications of the word?

The word secular has been much maligned and misused in our country. At the moment, it is sadly identified with 'minority appeasement.'

That is because the politicians -- Rajiv Gandhi's capitulation in the Shah Bano case is just one example -- have gone out of their way to ensure a certain strident section of Indian citizenry gets away with ridiculous demands. Or at least, that is the impression gaining ground.

In fact, I have a problem with the word 'minority,' because it perpetuates the Us and Them syndrome. We are all Indians. Whether we practice atheism, monotheism or pantheism is nobody else's business but our own.

I am all for religious freedom, but I sure don't want the government to run or subsidise my places of worship. The only rider: anyone promoting hatred and terror should be dealt with very very severely. And any place of worship being used for such purposes should be shut down summarily.

In an article in Foreign Affairs titled 'Europe's Angry Muslims,' Robert S Leiken, director of the immigration and national security program at the Nixon Center, notes that 'Today, no place of worship is off limits to the police in Secular France. Hate speech is rewarded with a visit from the police, blacklisting and the prospect of deportation. These practices are consistent with the strict Gallic assimilationist model that bars religion from the public sphere (hence the headscarf dispute).'

We in India should be collectively proud of the immense diversity that permeates our great land. I would be prouder still if we could all say that we will never seek favors from the government on account of our religious faith, or caste, or creed.

I will never forgive V P Singh. That man should have been jailed for dividing our country by formalising the caste system, something the government officially wants to abolish.

Reservations? Sure.

But only for education, and only for people who need it. Never because you happen to belong to some caste or religion. Because this will only breed further resentment.

Coming back to secularism, we must ensure that citizens of our country are all treated equally under the law, regardless of their faith. We must ensure that no-one can cite religious norms to promote practices which violate basic human values and dignity.

Then, and only then, can we call ourselves a secular nation.

Ramananda Sengupta


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