Published: 14th April, 2021, Wednesday
(This blog post is the longer unedited version of the article submitted to the Campus Voice Initiative of The Print, read here: bit.ly/3uRfBF8 ).
The preamble of our constitution proclaims that India is, and shall be, a sovereign socialist “secular” democratic republic. But has simply inscribing the word “secular” into our constitution helped us as an Indian society at all? Do our societal and governmental institutions really function on “the principle of separation of state matters and religion”, as the Oxford dictionary defines secularism? I aim to ask a more fundamental question, Can secularism ever be a successful experiment for India, or do we need something better?
Indeed, every country has its own core identity composed of a group of people and the ethos and values those founding fathers led their lives with. For the Americans, the people, principles and events associated with the American war of independence and then the civil war make the core values of their nation. For the French, the French revolution and so on. The case of the Indian society is however unique. In my opinion, the defining core of the Indian nation and society is far more distributed over a very long timeframe. One really cannot limit the Indian core just to any one single two-century episode of its history. Since we (as Indians) have been around for so long, everything from the mythological and Vedic age to all the events from recorded history (~600 B.C up to the Indian freedom struggle) have been adding up in some or the other way to our defining core.
Then can one at all be able to find any common thread that sews together this giant heritage spread out across three or more millenia? Or should one just buy the unconvincing argument that India is a modern post-colonial invention? Let me state, that there is indeed one common thread: Religion.
The reader may feel that I am going to present a very-RSS conditioned world view and argue about why the Hindu religion has to be and is the core of our national and collective identity. NO! That is not my point. What I mean by religion, is the basic urge of (wo)man to explain his/her relationship with the universe in metaphysical and spiritual terms. And this definition of religion is what I propose has been and is the very core of our Indian-ness.
First, see which historic figures do we look up to as a society to draw our identity. Sure, all Indians celebrate and respect the constitution writers, especially when elections are near. But who is it that really decorate our hearts and sanctum sanctorum of our homes? Of course, the religious saints! Now populations from different regions, religions, sects and linguistic cultures across India may have their own curated lists of these saints. For example: it may be Ajmer Sharif’s Moinuddin Chisti and other Sufi Pirs for the Indian Muslims, Guru Nanak ji for the Sikhs, the Tirthankars for the Jains, The Buddha and the Bodhisattvas for the Buddhists, and Sri Ramkrishna Paramhansa, Sant Dnyaneshwar, The Alvars etc. for the Hindus depending on their linguistic and regional identities. But notice the broader picture that we as Indians majorly derive our social identity shaped around religious and spiritual preachers from history and mythology as our forefathers much more than any other nation across the globe.
Second, I find a major trend. India as a region and as a society has always served as a healthy discussion platform for all philosophies and world-views. We always welcomed a new idea, studied it together and absorbed and assimilated it into our culture and outlook to embrace everyone. This has led to a constant organic evolution of the Indian mind. The Vedic pantheon of gods is no longer worshipped. Some say the god Shiva was adopted from the Indus civilisation. Space was made to accommodate a new radical philosophical world view of Advaita Vedanta at the end of the earliest scriptures of this land, the Vedas. Then Vedanta allowed healthy debate with the rising Buddhist and Jain perspectives. Even skeptical, materialistic and atheistic philosophies considered antagonistic to the very concept of religion in the west, have found a free expression under the umbrella of religious discussion in the oriental traditions of the subcontinent. Moreover, Islam and Christianity that came via the sea routes through trade with the Arabs existed peacefully in the Malabar for centuries. Only the later religiously driven Islamic invasions and atrocities in Northern India were met with fierce opposition. Not because the invasion brought a new stream of ideas, but only because the invaders refused to accept and coexist with any other ideology differing even slightly to their concepts. And therefore the war heroes who fought to sustain the basic pluralistic spirit of the land also form keystones of our identity. For example, the common Indian finds Chhatrapati Shivaji and Guru Gobind Singh as revered for they fought the tyrannous and fanatic Aurangzeb. However, Akbar and Dara-Shukoh from the same Mughal clan are also viewed respectfully for they protected and enhanced the pluralistic core of this society.
Therefore, if secularism is to mean indifference by the government and the people towards all religions equally, then I feel that such secularism is very un-natural and unhelpful for a society that has derived its identity so strongly from its religious ideas and experiences. Such a parochial secularism has only bred a reluctance to understand and accept each other. This narrow-mindedness and fearful avoidance of religion is starkly seen in all governmental and societal initiatives starting with the Indian Education system. Education today hardly touches the rich and diverse religious and philosophical grandeur that forms the backbone of this culture. Such a secularism has hence completely killed the cross-religious communication and dialogue which has been shaping and evolving the Indian mind, assimilating new visions and reformulating old ones. It has only deepened the communal divide by caging each individual in only one stiff religious identity unaware and unaccepting of anything that might exist outside of their own small puddle, thereby laying the seeds of all conflicts, riots and atrocities. Secularism has only become a garb to hide the mess of a splattered colorful palette of religious thought which has the potential to and has been painting a beautiful masterpiece on the canvas of Indian populace.
What should replace secularism therefore is what comes naturally to the Indian culture- pluralism- a positive approach to encourage everyone to study each other’s world view healthily and see deeply how Rumi, Guru Nanak and Adi Shankaracharya are all pointing to the same metaphysical truth of the nature of (wo)man and his/her relationship to the universe. And such a religion and pluralism is what I opine to be the real “Indutva”-core Indian-ness.