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Secularism vs. Pseudo Secularism
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Equating Lord Ram and Babar

Closely linked to the politics of minorityism, indeed providing a justification, is the distortion and perversion that has taken place in the concept of secularism. Increasingly, it is being interpreted and practiced in terms that negate the essential cultural and civilisational personality of India. In the context of the Ayodhya movement, Lord Ram and Babur were sought to be equated in the name of secularism, disdainfully ignoring the sentiments of crores of Hindus. ‘Can you prove that Ram was born exactly at this site?’ asked Communist intellectuals disparagingly, something they would never do in the case of a dispute concerning a non-Hindu community.

In an interview to a Hindi journal Vama in 1987, I had said that for any section of Indian Muslims to identify themselves with Babur ‘is like the Christians of Delhi picking up a quarrel over the replacement of a statue of George V with that of Mahatma Gandhi on the ground that George V was a Christian. Now, Gandhiji may have been a Hindu by faith, but he belongs to this country and George V does not. Similarly, Ram belongs to this country whether you call him a mythical hero or a historical personage. Even on the issue of history and culture, I would plead with the Muslim leadership of this country that if the Muslims in Indonesia can feel proud about Ram and Ramayana, why cannot the Indian Muslims?’

Bhakti Sangeet is ‘anti-secular’!

I have had many experiences in my political life showing how selfstyled defenders of secularism interpret it in an irreligious or anti-religious manner—of course, their secularism is almost always anti-Hindu, and never against any other faith. I recall an instance from 1970, when I was first elected to Parliament as a member of the Rajya Sabha. Every ministry in the Government of India has a consultative committee attached to it, comprising MPs from both Houses. These Committees discuss matters pertaining to the ministry, make recommendations, but do not take any decisions.

A new MP is offered the option of working in a committee of his or her choice. As a journalist by profession, I opted for the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting. At the very first meeting of the committee that I attended, I had to participate in a discussion which I felt was queer. A Congress member had raised a strong objection to the Bhakti Sangeet programme, featuring devotional songs, on AIR every morning. The ambience generated by such programmes is intensely Hindu, he argued, and ‘a secular state like ours should not permit this’. The member’s arguments did not carry conviction with the committee, and so, in that forum he did not pursue the matter further. I later gathered that some time earlier this MP had taken a delegation to Rashtrapati Bhavan to plead the same issue with our then President Dr S. Radhakrishnan. After listening to their plaint patiently, the Rashtrapati commented: ‘Let me tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that I generally do not listen to All India Radio except in the morning hours. The only programme I do like to hear is Bhakti Sangeet!’

In his writings and speeches, Dr. Radhakrishnan strongly stressed that a secular state simply means a state which views all religions with equal respect, and treats all citizens equally without any discrimination. However, he underscored that a secular state is not an irreligious state. When Mahatma Gandhi spoke of ‘Ram Rajya’ or when Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore invoked the prayer for ‘Eka Dharmarajya hable a Bharate’ (Let there be one Dharma Rajya, a just and moral order, in India), were they proposing a theocratic or anti-secular state? What both Gandhiji and Tagore meant was that without Dharmic underpinnings—meaning, thereby, spiritual and ethical guidance—the Indian State and society cannot attain their desired goals.

‘No coconut-breaking, no lamp-lighting; we are a secular state.’

When Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister, he invited me, as President of the BJP, to serve as a member of the National Integration Council. At one of its meetings held in September 1986, there was a heated discussion on what is meant by secularism in India. I had asked fellow members: ‘Is it negation of secularism if a new Indian ship is launched by breaking a coconut against its keel? Or should it be done by opening a champagne bottle? How should a VIP formally inaugurate an exhibition—by lighting a lamp or by merely cutting a tape with a pair of scissors?’ Many members concurred with me that there was nothing wrong about breaking a coconut or lighting a lamp at functions.

However, C. Rajeshwar Rao, an eminent leader of the CPI, reacted sharply to my views, saying: ‘No coconuts, no lamps, we are a secular state.’I could not resist joining issue with him. A Marxist with his conviction that religion is the opium of the masses would understandably be allergic to customs and traditions which have even a remote association to religion. But I felt that the concept of secularism, which India’s Constitution makers had in mind, had nothing in common with this Marxist approach. It is not secularism, but pseudo-secularism.

In fact, I insisted that, unlike in communism which banished religion even from private life, Indian secularism has its roots in religion—in the Hindu view that all roads lead to God, as enunciated in the Vedic dictum ‘Ekam Sat Vipraha Bahudha Vadanti’ (Truth is One; the wise interpret it differently). I reminded Rao and others at the meeting about what Gandhiji had said: ‘Politics bereft of religion is absolute dirt, ever to be shunned.’

One of the most comprehensive studies of Indian secularism has been done by Donald Eugene Smith in his book India: As a Secular State. It succinctly sums the differences between Gandhiji and Nehru on the issue of secularism, and describes how this divergence sometimes created problems for the government in the early years of Independence. Sardar Patel, Dr Rajendra Prasad, C. Rajgopalachari (Rajaji) and Dr K.M. Munshi belonged to the Gandhian school. I have explained this in detail in narrating the story of the restoration of the Somnath Temple in Gujarat.

What is deeply disconcerting, however, is that the Congress, under its present leadership, has become far more insensitive to the proud symbols of our nationalism than was the case at the time of Nehru or Indira Gandhi. The most shocking example of this is how the Congress party indirectly supported a recent vicious campaign against Vande Mataram by Muslim fanatics and Marxists, who alleged that India’s national song has communal overtones.

The culture of any ancient nation is bound to be composite. But in our country, emphasis on the composite character of Indian culture is generally an attempt to disown its essentially Hindu content. Even though an outsider, Donald Eugene Smith has taken due note of this, and perceptively observed that, despite the composite nature of Indian culture, Hinduism remains by far the most powerful and pervasive element in that culture. Those who lay great stress on the composite nature of Indian culture frequently minimise this basic fact. Hinduism has indeed provided the essential genius of Indian culture.

The Ramayana and Mahabharata may evoke feelings of piety and religious reverence in the Hindus. But do they belong only to Hindus? As invaluable treasures of India’s cultural heritage, shouldn’t every Indian — Hindu, Muslim or Christian — ought to feel proud of them? Breaking a coconut or lighting a lamp may be part of a religious ritual with Hindus but over a period of time these have become distinctive and graceful Indian customs. Only someone who bears a deep-rooted allergy to religion can object to these practices. A secularism that entails hostility to anything that has a Hindu tinge about it would not be acceptable to India. Indeed, so ingrained is the Indian concept of secularism in our national culture that it did not even occur to the architects of our Constitution that they should specially mention it as one of its preambulary principles. It is only during the anti-democratic Emergency rule (1975–77) imposed by Indira Gandhi that secularism found a place in the Constitution through the route of amendment without any discussion in Parliament. How could there have been any debate when almost all the main Opposition leaders were imprisoned and the press was gagged?

Chaplain’s prayer at the House of Commons

I recall visiting London in 1990 as a member of a parliamentary delegation led by the then Lok Sabha Speaker Rabi Ray. The Speaker of the House of Commons had invited our delegation for dinner at his residence. We all turned up on time. Our host and some select members of the House of Commons were all there. Even after we were seated at the table, the service would not start. ‘Are we waiting for someone?’, I asked the Labour Party MP sitting beside me. His name was Greville Janner, and he replied: ‘Yes, the Chaplain of the House is still to arrive. Dinner will commence only after he comes and conducts the prayers.’ I turned to my Indian colleague sitting on the other side, a senior Marxist leader, and asked: ‘If something of this kind were to happen in India, what would you do? Walk out?’

Incidentally, when the House Chaplain finally arrived, and prayers were being said, Janner looked at me and, tongue-in-cheek, observed: ‘Mr. Advani, you are a Hindu, and I am a Jew; I hope he is including us also in his prayers.’ Ever since this dinner meeting, Janner and I have been close friends. He visits India quite frequently, and on no occasion have we failed to meet. I too meet up with him on my trips to London. He has been trying to foster good relations between different religions, both in Britain and abroad.

 

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