I used to laugh at the ignorance of people who said things like ‘we should never have given secularism to these Muslims’. These days, however, I just want to cry. But first, a bit of history. Jawaharlal Nehru, MK Gandhi and Congress were opposed to the two-nation theory. The British, however, accepted MA Jinnah’s assertion that Muslims could not live in an undivided India and divided the country, giving Jinnah its Muslim homeland.
Our founders now had two choices. They could turn India into a mirror image of Jinnah’s Pakistan and make it a Hindu homeland or they could stick to the ethics of undivided India and treat all Indians as equal citizens regardless of their religion. Given their views on diversity and pluralism, it was not surprising that they rejected the idea of a Hindu homeland.
But there was also the question of pragmatism. In the areas the British partitioned in 1947, around 14.5 million people crossed the new borders to join the religious majority. This massive migration, unprecedented in history, led to bloody riots in which at least two million people died.
If more Muslims did not cross the borders of the newly created Pakistan, it was because they believed that India was not a Hindu homeland, there was a place for them here.
Otherwise, millions more from all over India (and there were Muslims in most states, including the South) would have joined the exodus, which would surely have been accompanied by more bloodshed and more deaths. There were at least 35 million Muslims left in India at the time of partition.
Furthermore, our founders also realized that religion alone was not enough to hold a multi-ethnic nation together. Pakistan split in two in 1971 and even today Baluchis, Muhajirs and others complain about Punjabi domination over the country. So much the worse for a religious homeland!
And Gandhi and Nehru knew that India also had about 7 million Sikhs and 8 million Christians. The only way for the country to stay united was to give each community a stake in the future of the nation.
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The benefits of secularism
Overall, our founders got it right. India has remained a democracy since 1947, although many other newly independent countries (including Pakistan and Bangladesh) have experienced periods of military rule.
Although we have not been entirely immune to sectarian strife (the Christian Nagas attempted to secede in the 1950s and 1960s, and Punjab was rocked by the Sikh secessionist movement of Khalistan in the 1980s) , these have been mostly limited and regional in scope. There was no large-scale Muslim insurgency. (Kashmir may be an exception, but the secessionist movement dates back to 1947 and has its roots in the state‘s troubled history.)
One of our most remarkable triumphs is that relative peace and stability have endured since 1947 despite our failure to provide an equal share of resources or positions to every community in India. Even then, the Indians kept the faith.
The Sachar Committee found that Muslims were lagging behind in many key areas. Their literacy rate (59%) was lower than the national average (65%). Although Muslims constitute about 14% of the population, they are still vastly underrepresented in the bureaucracy, in employment figures, among large industrial companies, etc.
Despite all this (and despite the occasional communal riots), Muslims believe they have a stake in India. For many years we have boasted that very few Indian Muslims joined al-Qaeda or other global terrorist organizations because they were brought up in a peaceful secular tradition. (In contrast, a much higher proportion of Pakistanis have become global terrorists.)
Thus, secularism was not “a favor” that Hindus returned to Muslims. Even if you reject the ideological basis of a policy that separated governance and religion, secularism also makes sense on a purely practical level. He kept India strong and stable and enabled her to progress.
It’s not a parallel I like to use, but those of us who remember the devastation wrought by Sikh militancy across India in the 1980s recognize that only a small minority of violent extremists (the Sikhs make up about 2% of the population and only a tiny minority of Sikhs have participated in the violence) can strike at the heart of India. What if 14% of the population feels they have no interest in India or the system is biased against them?
On some level, the BJP leadership recognizes this. Thus, their rhetoric has mostly been limited to ending “Muslim appeasement” and preventing Muslim migrants from entering India illegally. When their movements led to widespread protests (e.g. CAA), the government had to recalibrate its position. No Muslim can be delighted with the way things are going in India today. But most live their lives as peacefully as possible anyway.
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Need to rein in BJP fanatics
In recent months, however, that has changed. At the forefront of change is Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. There is something terrifying about the way his government bulldozes the homes of Muslim protesters without regard to legality. What is even more frightening is the courts’ reluctance to step in and put an end to these blatantly illegal actions.
The UP government seems proud that Muslims are being beaten in police custody and the way CM Adityanath talks about additional penalties for protesters (using bulldozers, getting compensation, withdrawing their ration cards, etc.) is reminiscent of a totalitarian state. The problem is not the punishment of the rioters (of course they must be punished if found guilty) but the manner in which due process is thrown overboard when it comes to Muslims.
There has also been a shift in the rhetoric of BJP spokespersons and semi-official party trolls. Even when religious matters such as Ayodhya were discussed in the past, there was at least a veneer of civility. Now the naked hatred is on full display. It is instructive that no one within the BJP did anything to Nupur Sharma or disavowed his statements about the Prophet Muhammad until there were foreign policy implications for India.
Even on television, the pro-government media’s focus on community issues has taken on a rumbling new vigor that was previously absent. And of course, the BJP will no longer have a single Muslim MP in either house of parliament, and not a single Muslim MP in any of the states it rules; an almost unprecedented situation.
There may be a setback. We are talking about a Muslim vice-president. Mohan Bhagwat, the head of the RSS, made seemingly conciliatory remarks about Muslims. And the government is clearly shaken by the global outcry over Nupur Sharma’s remarks.
It would therefore make sense for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to rein in his pet fanatics, for practical if not ideological reasons. They will line up because they have nowhere to go. To the right of Yogi Adityanath there is only the abyss.
Narendra Modi cannot hope to lead a country where his party has systematically alienated 14% of the population, made Muslims feel targeted and convinced they have no interest in India. He is too smart a politician to want to be seen as a global outlier ruling a dangerously divided country.
He doesn’t have to believe in secularism or even say he’s secular. It is enough for him to be pragmatic and to understand the logic of secularism. Because it makes sense: it’s the only way for a country as diverse as India to move forward; emphasizing progress rather than prejudice.
The author is a print and television journalist and talk show host. He tweets at @virsanghvi. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)