The very backbone of Indian secularism is under fire from every corner of the religion-centric society. Be it the issue of ‘300 Ramayanas’ or Salman Rushdie or… whatever, the underlying fact is that religious fundamentalism is active and much influential more than it was during any other period in the history of India. It was not a coincidence that CPM Kerala State Committee organized a seminar on “for a secular democratic culture” at Thiruvananthapuram when there are many such burning issues of declining tolerance level on the part of religious groups and clergy. Instead this is the most appropriate occasion, I would say. That is precisely why attempts are being made to mar the conference through controversies related to the usage of Jesus’ image.
During the conference Hamid Chendamangalur rightly pointed out that India is not really a secular-democracy in its substantive sense. Though we are procedurally secular and democratic, according to him, we are actually becoming a theocracy where the government is hostage to the dicta from the religious heads – the Indian ayattollahs from many belief systems.
But the seminar did not gave much emphasis to the debate on the kind of secularism which we need today – the western idea of secularism or an Indian style of secularism? The western idea is for blanket exclusion of religion from public sphere with no exceptions. But Indian conception of secularism is peculiar due to its multicultural, multi-religious composition. It stands for equal protection and equal patronage to every religion. Though it looks wonderful in theory what happens in practice is that State legitimise religion and belief without offering an opportunity to critically approach the concepts of religion in general and not any particular religion. The State is indoctrinating the children with a preconceived understanding that the concepts like God, religion etc. are absolute, unquestionable and hence legitimate.
Yes, it wasn’t morally correct and politically feasible to adopt the western conception of Secularism in the initial years of the Republic. But that doesn’t mean that State had to institutionalize religion by wiring it into the political psyche of the average Indian. This institutionalisation and legitimisation of religion in public sphere has led to the enslavement of the State to the theologians. Praveen Swami recently wrote in The Hindu : ”India cannot undo this harm until god and god’s will are ejected from our public life”. But what is happening or what has happened so far is just against this. Ideas like God and God’s will are increasingly heard in the public domain. Not only that radical voices which questioned the usurpation of public sphere by such metaphysical conceptions and related institutions has weakened in course of time but also that these forces has become immensely powerful so as to keep the governments under hostage conditions.
When someone talk bullshit in the name of religion there should be the freedom to call it bullshit. Sadly that is not the case now. Instead of religion getting ejected from the public sphere it is getting more and more involved in the public sphere. The only way out is to provide a secular space for the children to think about by using the inherent critical reasoning ability. Rather than compelling them to do YOGA, they should be granted the freedom of choice. Attempts in this direction, at least in Kerala, had been faced with vehement opposition.
If there is any one cause for which all “pillars” of the democracy work in tandem that would be for carving out more space for religion in the public domain. We have a judiciary which gave verdict on the lines of “faith” rather than constitution. Our media is instrumental in cementing the foundations of religious revivalism . Interestingly this revivalism has a negative gender bias together with a conducive nature towards market consumerism. That is why bull-shits like “Akshaya Thritheeya” is being celebrated by media. When these media houses print 4 page supplements on the birthdays of the self-proclaimed Godmen (and women), how can we expect them to take a rational stand based upon critical reason?
So who can play a role? Without doubt the progressive political and social movements can make a change here. But they also has to show the courage to adopt a concrete stand on the kind of secularism they would like to follow. If they continue to say that by secularism they mean the cohabitation of many religions but silent on the influence of this thing called “religion” (all varieties combined) on the society and politics, we will have to say that they are also statusquo-ists.