Saving secularism from the ‘secularists’
In 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appointed the Sachar committee to study the social and economic condition of India’s Muslim community. In 2006, the Prime Minister said that minorities have the “first claim on India’s resources”. In the same year, the government tried to conduct a survey on the religious affiliations of India’s soldiers. In 2009, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government enunciated the Right to Education (RTE), from the provisions of which minority schools are exempted but with which most “Hindu” schools must comply. In 2011, the UPA government brought forward the Communal Violence Bill, which did not recognize communal violence committed by minority communities against the majority community.
In March 2013, Union home minister Sushilkumar Shinde wrote to minority affairs minister K. Rahman Khan that special Muslim-only fast-track courts would be set up for trial of terror cases. In January 2014, in an astounding display of New Delhi’s executive interference in the functioning of states’ police and judiciary, Shinde wrote to all chief ministers asking them to set up special screening committees to look at cases where minority youths had been jailed, following up on a communication in September 2013 by the home minister that told all chief ministers to ensure “wrong arrests” of minorities were not made.
In January 2014, Jains were declared a “minority” community by the government, the same month when the Union minority affairs minister said the government was seriously looking into religion-based reservations for minorities. Like in the case of the RTE, the government is creating incentives for the balkanization of society, since becoming a “minority” results in benefits flowing from the minority affairs ministry, and various exemptions become available with minority status under existing laws.
This has happened before, when in 1980 perverse incentives forced Swami Vivekananda’s Ramakrishna Mission to try and declare itself non-Hindu in a bid to escape the Indian state’s intrusive hand. As early as 1951, T.S.S Rajan, a minister in the Madras state government, had said that it was the wish of Jawaharlal Nehru, that paragon of “secularism”, that there should not to be any private temples. This thinking cemented government control on Hindu temples, but allowed “minority” places of worship to remain outside the state’s influence.
Uttar Pradesh, which has been run by a “secular” Samajwadi Party government since 2012, has been creating Muslim-only welfare schemes. The state government has an education scheme only for Muslim girls—spare a thought for the Hindu girl denied aid because of her faith. The government has created special tribunals to expedite the hearing of cases relating to Muslim-owned property. The Akhilesh Yadav government went so far as to attempt unilaterally dropping charges against those accused of terrorism—something it had promised it would do before the 2012 assembly elections—but was restrained from doing so by the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad high court. In August 2013, Yadav announced that 20% of the share in all 85 state-administered development schemes would be reserved for minorities.
Andhra Pradesh, under Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy (YSR) and the unquestionably “secular” Congress party, set a new benchmark for persistence in the pursuit of minority appeasement. As Arun Shourie documented in an Indian Express article titled “Chasing that bank of votes again”, the Reddy government tried relentlessly to create Muslim job reservations, starting June 2004, but kept being rebuffed by the judiciary which held that such reservations were unconstitutional. The state government eventually secured religion-based reservations within the other backward classes (OBC) quota for a subset of “caste” Muslims only.
The YSR government also created a special allowance for Christians to visit Bethlehem, on the lines of the Haj subsidy provided for Muslims, besides doling out taxpayer funds to Christian organizations for the refurbishment and construction of churches. YSR’s son-in-law, Christian evangelist Anil Kumar, held large-scale evangelism programmes with assistance from the state government.
In the most tragi-comic manifestation of Nehruvian economics combined with “secularism”, government-controlled temples in Andhra Pradesh were so inefficiently managed that they were unable to deal with the large number of cows being donated by devout Hindus and stopped accepting such donations. In the most grotesque illustration of the YSR government’s insensitive attitude towards Hindus, it has been reported that such cows may have been auctioned to slaughterhouses.
West Bengal, also governed by the “secular” Trinamool Congress, provisioned a monthly allowance for Muslim clerics and imams, costing a near-bankrupt state government Rs.126 crore per year. In October 2012 the Mamata Banerjee government also gave Rs.50 crore to Aliah University, a Muslim-only university, in addition to creating six Industrial Training Institutes and six polytechnic colleges exclusively for Muslims. The chief minister also gave 794 bicycles and over Rs.5 crore in loans and scholarships to Muslim students.
In January 2013, Banerjee complained that she could only allow job reservations for Muslims under the OBC quota and not directly because “the Constitution does not allow it”, citing the experience of the “secular” YSR government in Andhra Pradesh. On 12 September 2013, the state public prosecutor told the courts that cases against rioters who ran amok in Kolkata in 2007 and attacked writer Taslima Nasrin should be dropped.
This was a riot in which the army had to be called in to control the violence and arson, and in which the president of the All-India Minority Forum, Idris Ali, who demanded that the writer be deported, had been chargesheeted. Ali was in the news again in December 2013, when he managed to get a TV serial written by Nasrin banned with Banerjee’s help.
Where was the army of self-described secular-liberal intellectuals and activists when a state government dropped charges against arsonists and rioters to appease religious bigots?
Most recently, the West Bengal chief minister declined to meet the US ambassador out of fear of antagonizing the minorities—she immediately received plaudits from the powerful shahi imam of the Tipu Sultan Mosque, who said “she will get the results in the general election” and “secure maximum votes” from minorities. More recently, the imam has also endorsed Banerjee as “prime minister material”.
Karnataka, which used to be governed by the “communal” BJP till May 2013, has also turned suitably “secular” since the Congress government led by Siddaramaiah took office. Within two months of taking office, the chief minister announced a housing scheme for homeless minorities, financial assistance of Rs.50,000 each for marriage of minority-community girls, and minority-only education scholarships too. The state Congress chief G. Parameshwara said in October 2013 that it didn’t matter if minorities did not repay loans to the government and “it was part of the development process”.
By maintaining a studied silence in the face of all these episodes, India’s secularists have helped discredit the ideal of secularism—and this stems from their flawed conception of what secularism actually is. Secularism should mean the state treating all citizens equally irrespective of their religious identity. But under a template pioneered by Nehru that all India’s “secular” chief ministers follow dutifully even today, secularism has been perverted to mean discriminating between citizens on religious grounds. Absurdly, for example, no intellectual seems to think that government control over Hindu places of worship is a violation of the principle of secularism.
Secularism has come to mean government showing favour to specific religious groups and those groups in turn voting to keep the political party showering such favours in office. This is nothing but bribery, and those who raise their voice against such bribery are immediately deemed “communal” by the keepers of the “secular” flame. As elections come closer, journalists, historians and activists of the Nehruvian ilk are going to town warning Indians about “secularism” being in danger should “communal” forces win.
Indian voters should be on guard—they should not allow themselves to be misled by hypocritical intellectuals and journalists who are in cahoots with the “secular” politicians. These politicians should have been held accountable for their perversion of secularism by intellectuals and journalists in the first place.
India needs a government that works for the development and security of all citizens without any regard to religious identity, and enunciates laws that are the same for all individuals—only such a government would be worthy of being called secular.
Rajeev Mantri is co-founder of the India Enterprise Council.