May 9, 2002


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Amberish K Diwanji

Secularism and appeasement

A complaint often made is that secularism in India is flawed at best and minority appeasement at worst. Granted Indian secularism is not perfect. But just as we cannot have true secularism through minority appeasement, we cannot have it through minority bashing or majority appeasement either. The need of the hour is for better secularism. So what is it that makes for better secularism and appeases no particular religious section of society?

The tragic fact is that in India today, its laws do appease different sections in different ways. So if Muslims are 'appeased' through personal laws that allow them four wives in complete disregard of women's emancipation and liberty, Hindus too have contrived to ensure that various laws in the country appease Hindu sentiments, and perhaps the best, and most controversial, example is the law that bans the slaughter of cows, but not of other bovine creatures.

One of the single biggest grouse is the existence of different personal civil laws for Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and Parsis in India. It has been pointed out how in the United States or other Western country, the law is common for all, regardless of race, creed, or faith. And has been rightly pointed out, in no major country in the world do such personal laws exist which means that before law, all men and women are not equal.

The founders of our Constitution agreed to personal laws to give various communities time to evolve so that the particular community's social practice comes close to the law of the land. For instance, there were some Hindu tribes where a man had conjugal rights over his sister-in-law since she was considered married to the family! The idea was to give such communities time to change rather than force change on them.

But it is also a fact that communities rarely change unless there is some external pressure. The best reforms in Hindu society came during the turbulent years from 1850s to 1950s, till about when some Hindu laws were codified in 1956. Since then, Hindu society and laws have stopped reforming, and the reason is the lack of external pressure. Similarly, expecting other religious communities in India to reform could imply an eternal wait.

Tragically, the existence of the personal laws is seen as a source of identity today, and any move to abolish or amend them is bound to raise a hue and cry, mostly by the terribly bigoted so-called leaders of the Muslims, the Syed Shahabuddins and the Imam Bukharis. Yet, there is no doubt that India, like other liberal, secular societies, must have a uniform civil code that is secular, liberal, equal (especially between the sexes), promotes fraternity, and ensures justice for all. That is the foundation of a modern nation. It is not just a case of Muslim man being allowed four wives but the fact that a Muslim woman lacks the right, like her Hindu counterpart, to not share her husband with another woman. The law is more anti-Muslim woman that pro-Muslim man and the fact that many Islamic republics too do not practice it clearly shows that this particular law is outdated.

Then, there is always a hue and cry about the fact that the Government of India subsidies the Haj pilgrims, a practice no one has thought fit to abolish. The money spent on subsidizing the Haj is needed far more desperately to educate poor boys and girls, including many Muslims who, in the absence of schools, turn to madrasas. Similarly, why should a Hindu undivided family get tax benefit but not a non-Hindu undivided family? It is not the duty of the State to subsidise religious programs or exempt united families from taxes.

Yet, a secular society does not end with abolishing the different personal laws but by bringing about civil laws that benefit the individuals, not a section of society. And much as certain Muslim laws and practices need reform, let Hindus not absolve themselves of all blame. For instance, during some religious festivals, often areas or cities in India simply shut down. Roads are taken over for processions, loudspeakers blare late into the evening and civic and working life is badly affected. The fact that India is a poor country that cannot afford to lose working days is no one's consideration, least of all the government that simply does not have the will to fight communal forces of varying denominations.

For instance, in Mumbai, during Ganesh Chaturthi and a month later, during Navratri, citizens are subject to blaring loudspeakers set up in every nook and corner. There is very little religion here, and a lot of commercial considerations. Though there are laws governing the use of loudspeakers, they are rarely applied for fear of 'offending religious sentiments.'

India needs laws that ensure that religious festivals or practices do not disturb or restrict the common man in any way. Religious processions must be kept extremely short and on specific routes that cause minimum hindrance and do not force a city to shut down. Namaz cannot be reason to stop traffic on Friday afternoons. Loud speakers need to be banned or severely limited, especially on the decibel count, including the loudspeakers atop mosques. The muezzin's call is a throwback to the days of yore when watches did not exist, today with watches so ubiquitous, any pious Muslim would know when to go to the mosque and hardly needs summons from a loudspeaker.

Secularism means to live and let live, and when there is a conflict, to back liberty and the individual. It is not secularism when one community forces another to abide by its belief systems.

The tragedy with the call to stop minority appeasement is few have cared for the many laws that appease the majority in India, the Hindus. India also has laws that, for the sake of the Hindus, impose restrictions on non-Hindus in India. Such laws have no place in a democratic and liberal India. To raise an extremely contentious issue, why are so many Hindus hell bent on ensuring that cow slaughter is banned? Are Hindu sentiments that revere the cow superior to that of non-Hindus, or even those Hindus who eat beef? After all, if Hindus can demand that their religious sentiments be respected, why can't the Muslims ask that their religious sentiments be respected by allowing them a distinct personal law based on the Sharia? And just as some aspects of the Sharia may appear outdated, so does the reverence for the cow today.

India has the world's largest bovine population. Hindu piety has not ensured these cows a decent life -- they are left to die because the owners have no use for them, and Hindu farmers along the borders are known to sell them across to the neighboring countries. There are hundreds of thousands of sterile, useless cattle; religious sentiments means that while they are free to roam the streets and chomp up vegetables that could feed hundreds of thousands of hungry Indians. Such cows lead a pitiable existence, yet there is no question of controlling their numbers, all because of 'religious sentiments.' This amounts to majority appeasement but no one seems to have raised this point.

There is no doubt that India's secularism has its flaws and needs remedial action. And it is time to make the necessary changes. Asking the religious leaders to reform their religious practice and bring it at par with a modern worldview is akin to asking the Pope to support abortion: it will not happen. It is the duty of the State to intervene on the side of the individual, not on the side of the community. The tragedy is India does not have any political party that can actually take on the communal forces: if one seeks to appease Muslims, the other seeks to appease the Hindus. No one cares to appease the Indians.

Amberish K Diwanji

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