Should Gandhi’s Idea of Secularism be Reshaped for Today’s India?

What was Gandhi’s idea of religion, state, and secularism? Why are so many in disagreement with it?

5 min read

(This article was first published on 1 Feb, 2020, and has been reposted from The Quint’s archives on the occasion of Mahatma Gandhi's birth anniversary.)

There is a bustling temple down the road, just a stone’s throw away from where my parents live. Every morning, the temple’s pandit turns on the microphone and sings bhajans for an hour. The loudspeakers face outwards for the so-called benefit of the entire community. What is meant to be a beautiful start to the day, quickly turns into a blaring cacophony.

It would have been fine, even enjoyable, if the pandit could sing well. The tolling of bells is adulterated by an overdose of his incomprehensible sermon. When the distressed neighbours request the pandit to keep it down, he threatens them with divine retribution.

The complicity of the local police, the patronage of the unemployed youth, and the pandit’s irrefutable designation as an ‘agent of God’, make him immune. The temple sits on illegal land, and drainage that can no longer be cleaned. The stench wafting from the drain below cannot be subdued by the scent of incense burning inside the temple.


Of Zealots, ‘Sickulars’ & Intolerance

Every year, the temple seems to grow a little, to further encroach on the quietude of the neighborhood. Its business activities include peddling marijuana and snacks to the unemployed youth who double up as local hoodlums. Never mind that the elderly are trying to rest, never mind that the children are trying to study, the pandit’s relentless singing and sermonising must bellow through our windows with clockwork precision.

The pandit’s activities are wrong on so many levels, yet no one can reign him in. Religious zeal so inextricably intertwined with identity, has surged across the world. India is no different. Between politics and nationalism, religion is increasingly getting squeezed into a dark narrow alley of hate and intolerance.

In this backdrop, having a secular ideology is like wearing funeral attire to a wedding. The vanishing secular tribe that I am part of is looking remarkably out of place, almost outlandish.

We are walking on thin ice. For one, we have to face the hostility of our friends on social media who accuse us of being ‘sickular’. The first time I was called ‘sickular’, I thought it was a typo. Then I realised that it was an insult. The secular ideology’s transition from a progressive thought to an expletive has been a quiet plunge. It’s like waking up to realise that the earth is round, when we thought that it was flat all along.

Secularism, Religion & State

Not since the Mandal Commission has the country been subjected to such a raging public debate that is centered on a core question. Is India a secular country? Over a year after the spontaneous protests erupted all over the country to protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), political pundits and constitutional gurus are still scratching their heads.

‘To be or not to be secular’ — is dividing India right through the middle. Maybe not exactly the middle, but the fault lines run deep. While some are clinging onto the vestiges of the notion of secularism that is enshrined in the Constitution of India, those who oppose secularism feel that it was never really foundational to our Constitution. It was added in 1976 as a way to combat rising Hindu Nationalism.

The underlying assumption of secularism — in its Latin roots and Western upbringing — is that the State ought to be disassociated from religion.

It is true that the rise of secularism in Europe was directly proportional to the advancement of science and technology. Causality expounded by science spawned a rational world view, which in turn gave credence to secularism. It was also used to resolve problems that emerged from nation-building. Nation-building was invariably powered by majoritarianism. Nationalism almost always deliberately crafted the notion of the ‘other’ that needed to be excluded or accorded fewer rights. Secularism as a political construct was a reaction to a conflict between the majority and the minorities.

Yet, in reality, the State is far from blind to religion. While the blindfolded Lady of Justice has regularly featured in Bollywood courtroom drama, the court itself can’t entirely cut itself off religion. The oath we take involves the Bhagavad Gita, the Quran, or the Bible. Moral and ethical values that underpin justice and State welfare have historically been drawn from religion.


Hard to Separate the State from Religion?

It is hard to separate the State from religion in absolute terms. The United States has unequivocally adhered to this separation. Yet, Christmas is an official federal holiday. ‘In God We Trust’ is their official motto. If the State were to declare its relationship with religion, ‘it’s complicated’ would be apt.

In India, contrary to popular belief, secularism was missing in the Gandhian and Nehruvian vocabulary because of their firm belief that religion was intrinsic to Indian society. Mahatma Gandhi deviated from the western concept of secularism. He chose the pluralistic Vedantic belief, Sarvadharma Sambhav. He felt that ethics emanated from one’s religion.

He spoke of ‘Ram Rajya’, a notion that post-Independence Left-leaning historians had a problem with.

Gandhi’s reference point would naturally emanate from his own religion just as the Khilafat movement — that arguably was more political than communal — had adopted the theological symbolism of the Khalifa. The alliance between Khilafat leaders and the Congress helped forge a degree of Hindu-Muslim unity through the non-cooperation movement.


Of Inclusion & Exclusion

Gandhi’s pluralistic belief was much misunderstood. His version of secularism was so broad that ironically everyone found in it a reason to dislike it. It was, perhaps, this very ‘pluralistic secular belief’, that led to his tragic assassination, and Godse’s anointment as a ‘patriot’ by some sections.

India has a complex history of inclusion and exclusion. During Durga puja, many Muslim artisans make the magnificent idols, and people of any faith can participate in the Dhunuchi Naach. Yet, marriages are preferred within a caste or religion. Hence, secularism needs to broaden its ambit to recognise pluralism as its realistic middle path. Syncretic secularism could be more bearable for even the staunchest opponents of secular India.

(Shalini Verma is CEO of PIVOT technologies, a Dubai-based cognitive innovation company. In her spare time, she writes on technology and society. She is a weekly columnist for Khaleej Times and a contributor to Forbes. She has authored a self-help book ‘Pole Pole Kilimanjaro: A Little Extraordinary in an Ordinary Woman's Life’. She also works to further the mission of SKILL Foundation, a non-profit organisation that educates underprivileged children for free. She tweets @shaliniverma1. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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