ARTICLES FROM THE SUNDAY GUARDIAN
Copyright. All rights reserved. Ram Jethmalani. 2019.
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It was inevitable that India's traumatic history over the last millennium would leave its scars and injuries on its society. Conquest and political subjugation not only broke the soul of Hindu society, but also prevented its natural and spontaneous evolution, which happens in any society and religion. It is during such an evolutionary process that accompanies advancement of knowledge, education and prosperity in a society, that burdensome and inequitable baggage is shed off from social and religious norms, and unscientific dogma and superstition impeding social progress is discarded. Instead, the retreated Hinduism with its back to the wall shrank into autism and stagnated. The caste system that should have been diluted, and gradually obliterated by economic progress (as class was gradually in the West), became more rigorous and cemented. Instead of experiencing a renaissance, the conquered Hindu society glued itself to greater superstition, irrationality, and ritual, something that has become so ingrained, that it is hard to get rid of, even today.
The British conquerors inflicted grievous economic trauma and further compounded India's historical trauma. They cordoned us off from the Industrial Revolution, and brutally attacked the mode of production for two and a half centuries, silently and irretrievably killing opportunity for indigenous economic development, for accessing scientific skills and for incremental human development among the people of India. British economic imperialism perpetuated caste divisions of labour, and froze opportunity, employment and income to the level of subsistence. Over the centuries, these have cumulatively become the foundation for India's chronic and stubborn poverty that continues to persist until today. The symptoms are clearly seen in the illiteracy and superstition, gender inequality, ill-health and malnutrition, dependence on land that has become an unviable livelihood. Holdings have progressively fragmented, and there is a clear lack of opportunity for vocational and social mobility. India has still not recovered from the economic crimes committed by imperialism, as we continue to lag behind socially and economically by at least two centuries.
However, history has also showered its bounty on us. We skipped the bloody, tortuous conflicts between monarch and citizen, and between religion and state. History bequeathed to us on a platter, the fruits of centuries of social, political and religious trauma and bloodshed of western societies, without shedding a drop of blood for them — democracy and rule of law, and the pristine concept of secularism.
However, having got them so easily, many of our people still do not realise their value; and neither did it take our rulers very long to vitiate these jewels that we inherited at independence. The value of democracy is perhaps a little better understood by people, including the less aware, because of the periodic ritual of the election and the ballot, and the inducements that have now come to be attached to them. Even so, our democracy has progressively turned rogue, where numbers can be bought, sold and traded. But "secularism" is a word that is not understood at all by many, and not correctly understood, by even the literate and well informed. Secularism is enshrined in our constitution, but the Congress Party has ensured that it has become bonded to our rogue democracy — through buying and selling votes and freebies in the name of religion and caste, and nurturing and leveraging vote banks towards their electoral benefit. In India's political terminology, the word "secularism" remains undefined by the Congress Party and its allies, and has been deliberately distorted and misused to mean pro-minorityism and anti-majoritarianism. I have written earlier that one of the greatest propaganda successes of the Congress Party has been spreading the canard that they alone are "secular" and capable of being custodians of minorities, and that the BJP is communal. Of course, no further explanation or evidence is ever put forward to substantiate these statements. This is the Congress' doctored definition of "secularism", which seems to have continued unquestioned for a long time by intellectuals, political commentators and the media.
I would like to remind the learned sections of the Congress that the true content of "secularism" constitutes complete neutrality by the state in matters of religion, neither supporting, nor opposing it; treating all citizens equally regardless of their religion, without favouring or giving preferential treatment to any particular religion or non-religion; constitutional bar against the state adopting any religion as its state religion; no mixing of religion and politics for vote banks, as religion is a matter of personal faith. Undoubtedly, social values of all communities are bound to trace their origins to religion, but these must pass the test of rationality and public good.
Let us put an end to the heavy communal overtones that the UPA government is imprinting on our polity through their medium of communal secularism. Hear the communal message of the Prime Minister when he states that the first right on India's resource lies with the minorities, and not on the needy, regardless of their faith. Or the viciously communal message inherent in the Communal Violence Bill, which permanently indicts the majority community. Is the UPA on a mission of permanently disenfranchising the majority community politically, and heading next towards imposition of another version of the infamous jazya?
India is a land of many faiths. If it is serious about securing its place as vanguard of emerging modern nations in the 21st century, it must first de-rogue and de-criminalise its democracy, and place the tenets of true secularism at the top of its agenda. For this, political parties and politicians should be prohibited by law and by the Election Commission from invoking religion or caste in principles of governance, or creation of vote banks. Likewise, they should be prohibited from making any pronouncements that reveal bias against any religion, minority or majority, in the domain of policy and governance. The word "secular" forms part of the Preamble to our Constitution, and its legal and constitutional meaning is well established and universally accepted. It might even be well worth the while to file a PIL towards this end.
Instead of dividing our nation of many faiths on communal lines, future governments should state inter-faith harmony as a national priority, and a cardinal principle of governance of our democracy. Inter-faith mechanisms should be put in place from the national down to district and taluk levels, involving leaders of various faiths, and using their good offices to propagate religious peace and harmony among their followers. These principles are inherent in every religion; it is for leaders of all faiths to instil them among their followers.
Religious leaders of the Hindu faith, numerically in majority, have a greater responsibility towards this. Modernising Hinduism for the 21st century is indeed a complex task, as its philosophy and praxis exist at so many different levels. There is the lofty, metaphysical, monotheism of the Vedas and Upanishads that reigns supreme in the world of philosophy across the world, having passed the test and trauma of time. There is the colourful, anarchic, devotional polytheism knit together with legend and tradition, which is so dear to the day to day lives of the people. The third is the lowest level, constituting of superstition, inequity and exclusion, distortions that got cemented during the period of Hinduism's retreat and stagnation. It is the third level that needs to be exterminated.
Hindu religious leaders, who command a sizeable following, should establish a conclave to start the process of reform, of unity and inclusion within Hinduism; of inculcating a scientific temper, propagating caste and religious inclusiveness, and eliminating inequity. No society can be dynamic and secure, if certain sections, for whatever historical reasons, remain disenfranchised. History also informs us that it is the disenfranchised that formed the first circle of support for invasion and proselytisation.
Serious attempts towards a reformed, equitable Hinduism will result in better social cohesiveness and strength, and put communal secularists on the back foot. Gandhiji, truly secular in the most modern sense, bravely proclaimed and took considerable pride in his self-identification, "I am a proud, staunch Sanatan Hindu". For, he saw in Hinduism everything noble and elevating, tolerant of all faiths, and non-violent - a vast, spiritual vision beckoning man to rise to the highest heights.
Let this process of reform and true secularism begin. It is time for the nation to act.