Secularism Needs a New Definition in Modern India

Political discourse in modern India has consistently revolved around religion. With the ascension of Narendra Modi the debate over secularism and communalism has gathered even more momentum.

In the vitriolic attempt to paint Mr Modi in communal hues, and in efforts of exposing phony secularism of the ruling parties, both sides have completely missed a great opportunity to define India’s secularism in a meaningful way at the time, when it matters the most.

The Political Dimension

Indian National Congress and a slew of regional parties claim to hold the mantle of secular thought. Their claim however is rendered hollow, when one looks at the way they have turned religions and castes into a vote bank of their own choice. By erecting a scarecrow of communal forces, they have tried to keep minorities in their toes.

What they have completely neglected is the true essence of secularism. Secularism does not distinguish between different communities. It neither grants preferences to certain groups nor does it create a hierarchy of human rights. In secularism, there is an absence of religion in governance. In secularism, “human” takes the top billing over all sorts of different labels we attach to our existence. Secularism is the creed of empowerment, not of appeasement or entitlement as the secular parties of India make it out to be.

The other side, led by the BJP and its allies, misses the point, too. They oppose the politics of appeasement and entitlement. Fair enough. But by constantly alienating minorities from their political discourse, they have limited themselves to a majority oriented image. Merely reaching out to minorities and trying to establish a contact is a not a long term solution. It can a win an election or two, but it will go nowhere in seizing the opportunity they are presented with today. “India first” is a good thought, it indeed is. However it is not enough. They are guilty of never providing insight into their philosophy on the blend of politics and religion.

One cannot simply hope that election oriented strategies could even begin to demolish thousands of walls that have been created over the centuries. It cannot understand the evolution of modern India either.

A Society stitched together with many patches

For ages, we have developed a society, in which a newborn child is labelled with several stickers of caste, language, religion and regions before calling him or her an Indian. That child is a human being first is reduced to a “given” fact, which remains a footnote. For all progressive talk we often hear, it is a sorry reality that a Muslim family finds it incredibly difficult to buy a home in many plush urban localities. Our towns are still inhabited in segregated manner. Matrimonies catering to specific communities and castes are a thriving business. The fact is that we Indians almost willingly stick to the walls we have created, that we are too complacent to abolish them.

Our systems have been developed on the same lines. There is a unity of divisions, but not of the divided. Even today, an inter-religion marriage is riddled in so many legal complications that they remain borderline illegal for as long as it could last. And we are one of the very countries, where gay marriage is legal. That is called irony.

The fact is there has been little conscious effort to actually cultivate unity and humanity in our lives. In its essence, our politics has only reflected what we are as a society.

A March towards Modernity

However with a changing generational paradigm, the society is changing. Due to heavy migration of student population and information-technology revolution a force has been unleashed that can transcend all sorts of barriers.

Over the last 20 years, Indian youth has developed a strong interaction with western culture and lifestyle. In return it has given something to other cultures too. The youth across national boundaries has in fact adopted a common global culture to a large extent. That is why aspirations and preferences of an Indian youth are greatly similar to those of someone sitting in Philippines or to those of someone living in New York. A consistent cross-cultural communication has strongly affected the way perceive our identities. There is a heavy thrust towards individualism. There is an inculcation of modern humanism. There is a strong incline towards political correctness. This political correctness is somewhat superficial and phony at the moment, but with time it hast the potential of defining 21st century’s political discourse.

Unsurprisingly for a significant chunk of Indian youth, religions and castes do not form their identity. They are their own men and women. They have their own creed that can hardly be generalized. However these personal ideas share a common tenant of modern humanism.

I will digress here a bit to briefly elaborate on the idea of modern humanism. Corliss Lamont, a leading proponent of the philosophy defines it very beautifully, when he states that modern humanism is “a naturalistic philosophy that rejects all supernaturalism and relies primarily upon reason and science, democracy and human compassion.”

Such a massive change has resulted into a conflict equal magnitude between age old trepidations of Indian society and the ethos of modern life. And to make the matters even more intricate, a new player joined the game in the past couple of years.

Social Media: Harbinger of the New World

Contrary to what many feel, or rather hope, social media is here to stay. Social media is natural extension of globalized world, and hence, it is only likely to become more nuanced and stronger in the coming time.

The most curious consequence of the social media has been its impact on religions and associated identities.

It is a double edged sword. On one hand, it enables fundamentalist creed a loud and penetrative medium. There are people who use it solely in order to spew venom. Provision of anonymity ensures that one faces little consequences for a foul behaviour. Some more conniving individuals promote their agendas in more subtle manner. They offer their vitriol in an attractive package of politeness. But ultimately it could be seen through anyway.

The second side is far more engaging, where millions of people interact with each other without any consideration for cultural, ethnic and ideological identities. Some believe in a god, some in many and some in none. In this world, no barrier matters, except may be of a language. One could term these liberals. But it will remain an insanely vast term, which will blanket let wing liberals, humanists, capitalists and environmentalists. And even this label leaves out millions of people, who have absolutely no ideological orientation in the first place. The only common bind is again of humanism. Economic or political orientations take secondary place.

These people talk on issues that have hitherto been considered taboo. They argue, they have debates and they make friends. These people never see each other. They essentially talk to a computer screen. There is a good chance that the next person may not be what he or she proclaims to be. But they trust. We trust. And it is the same trust which is missing from many real world societies, one of which is our Indian community.

A good part of social media is world without any label. It is the ultimate manifestation of modern humanism.

Critics rightfully point out that noble intentions of netizens seldom translate into real world activism. But they need to understand that social evolution is not a process that fully blooms in one spring. It is a secular process that lasts for decades. First change takes place in ideas. Once a mind is influenced, mentality changes as well. And it is after that action takes place. No matter how much one glorifies action, without intent it is pretty much meaningless. Social media is still finding meaning. It is not even a decade old. So give it time before jumping to a conclusion.

The reason behind discussing this at such a length is that Indian youth forms one of the biggest contingents on the social media. And it is thus a part of broader evolution of modern generation. And this process is going to have a big impact on the discourse of modern India.

It’s Time to Change

Despite such massive disruptions, the Indian politics however has stopped at the same juncture. Congress and BJP have committed their biggest felony in neglecting the changing dynamics of India in the last 10 years. Forget adjusting to changing India, they have not even comprehended the change in the first place.

They are still playing petty games of secularism, when secularism has acquired a whole new dimension in the modern world, and amongst modern Indians. Merely putting up a boogeyman of Narendra Modi is not going to earn anyone a dime. Merely saying “India first” is not going to convince many either.

Politicians are utilising social media in political campaigning. With the sole exception of Narendra Modi to some extent, none has stopped, and thought of its effect on social philosophies, prevalent dogmas and their place in polity of India. By recruiting “trolls” and paid armies to upvote partisan comments, political parties are making mockery of social media’s power.

A debate has to take place to determine religions’ place in Indian politics. Politicians have to drop the gimmick of “messiah” of different communities, and show willingness to move beyond the politics of religion. To truly connect with the new generation, politicians across the board have to expound on their philosophies in a constructive manner.

There is a reason elections of 2014 are being so hyped up. It is not only about Modi wave or mass disdain of Congress. It is about India. The Indian society is coming of age. A whole new generation is adjusting itself in the driver’s seat. The future of this country rests on what happens in 2014. If things go awry, the entire generation will resort to cynicism. And a value of humanism will be lost, and the same walls will keep dividing us for decades to come.

At such a crucial juncture when the India of tomorrow is in the making, by singing the tune of the last millennium, politicians are doing a great disservice to the nation. The time is ripe for them to come of age. The time is now to redefine the secularism in modern India.

Politicians and their idea for India’s future are pivotal for the development of this nation and to the evolution of Indian society.

The sooner they grasp it, the better it will be.

(This article was originally published on now defunct isaidit.org on November 20, 2013)

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