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June 16, 1997


Farzana Versey

Secularism, in our contemporary context, is not a virtue. It is a Necessity.

Laura Fernandes' illustration The best thing after patriotism is secularism. Of course, one can conveniently, like the good English bishop, say, "God said love your neighbour; he did not say love Marks and Spencer."

Roughly translated into our context, it could mean we may tolerate the bloke next door for his saffron or green colour, but we do not have to suffer the whole damned community.

The problem is we think we are being grand.

Secularism, in our contemporary context, is not a virtue. It is a Necessity. It should be propagated in the same way as family planning, self-reliance, ecology, health care and adult education, instead of a morally right position.

Those who marry across religions must be given similar privileges as those reserved for the scheduled castes and tribes. Their offspring should be provided state backup, whether in education, health or taxation. In fact, the state must encourage private elite institutions where these children can be educated without being tainted by our national obsession with party vengeance.

For secularism to be a success, it must work on the principle of reward rather than punishment. Very often, in the course of trying to sweep away the dust, we tuck it under the carpet whereas a positive wind of change can gently blow it away.

To antagonize any community cannot be the motive of secularism. As has already been understood, religion circumscribes various other realities and, in the process, subsumes them. As one commentator pointed out, we mistakenly equate freedom of religion with freedom from religion. In the current situation, this is not universally accepted. Even an open Hindutva supporter permitted himself some magnanimity when he stated elsewhere, "The Muslim belief in the finality of God's revelation in the Koran and in Mohammed's prophecy is at odds with the spirit of Indian civilisation. But Indian civilisation is large enough to accommodate it."

Which is where the issue of small fundamentalist organizations and secularism arises. We have to see this in the context of minority power. Were a black person to marry a white person in a predominantly white community, the white person would get all the applause as well as have to bear the brunt of the backlash. Evolution itself depends largely on the numbers game. While the majority can contain others, (and must, for magnanimity is possible only when you have the largesse) the minority has problems containing itself.

For example, the Islamic Sevak Sangh had to pluck its members from the madrasas (religious schools) and unemployment rolls in Kerala. And its founder has stated, on record, that the Muslim League had done nothing for the Muslim community. But the RSS has always had considerable support from the BJP and VHP. In this combine, it could, at least until recently, be respected by a large section of the middle-class intelligentsia.

But religion per se cannot give anyone an identity in the fluctuating late 20th century society. It can only provide the much-dreaded moral fibre and a mistakenly-interpreted formula for living. Besides, it does colour our interpretation of the world.

Illustration: Laura Fernandes

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Farzana Versey