Abusing secularism

Without getting into the philosophical antecedents of secularism, at its core is the separation of religion and state. In democracies, however, the religious affiliation of voters creates problems if a vocal minority defines its political identity in religious terms, as has happened with the large Muslim community in India.

Indian Muslims are as diverse and vote as differently and along self-interest lines as other citizens do. But political parties have found it convenient to create a persona of a Muslim voter who cares less for economic opportunities available to him and his offspring to make good in the world than for such advantages as the state exclusively bestows on him as a member of a minority faith.

Of course, these advantages are ephemeral because should the parties waving the secular flag overdo their supposedly secularist credo, an apprehensive majority would either vote them out or prevent them from gaining power, which no political party wants to risk.

Thus, secularism is reduced to grand promises and symbolic gestures that achieve nothing substantive for Muslims and other minorities than a fleeting sense of being catered to. This is politics reduced to religious identity, and identity to mere slogans.

The NDA allies, such as the Janata Dal (U), will grudgingly accept Modi as PM because Nitish Kumar needs BJP support to rule in Bihar. Were he to succumb to Congress blandishments, his government may get temporary reprieve but will be forever tainted with its new association and have its personality submerged in the Congress party’s larger image, and will find itself as another regional party tied to Congress party’s apron strings.

The credibility Nitish now commands as a principled politician will be instantly lost. Talking of principles and the “rajdharma” Narendra-bhai is supposed to have not followed in 2002. It must be recognised that he was in power for only a couple of months and just beginning to get a handle on the levers of state government when the Godhra train burning sparked the anti-Muslim riots. The accusation, in the event, that he didn’t do all that he could have to stop the carnage nor show “magnanimity” towards the victims, is to lose perspective.

Secularism spouted by the Congress Party sounds offensive considering that helmed by Rajiv Gandhi in 1984 it oversaw the cold-blooded mass killings of the Sikhs in the Capital, with the numbers of those killed exceeding by far the numbers of dead Muslims killed in Gujarat 18 years later.

The ostensible reason for this anti-Sikh pogrom, it may be recalled, was to “teach” the Sikh community “a lesson” reflecting the spitefulness the Congress is known for. In the aftermath, its henchmen tasked for the dirty job, such as Jagdish Tytler, took the rap and, over the years, have been allowed to “twist slowly in the wind”.

The revival by the courts of the case against Tytler also highlights the differences in the two atrocities. Godhra was a horrendous event and the horrific instant reaction to it against Muslims generally, suggested a breakdown of law and order which even the strongest leader would have found hard to contain in the face of an aroused public. The Delhi massacres, on the other hand, were calculated targeting of persons of a community by the Congress-run central and state governments in an area — the Union Territory of Delhi — which size-wise is a small fraction of Gujarat. If maintenance of law and order is a function of size, then keeping order in Delhi should have been a snap.

But the goons were on the street and ran amuck because they were expressly encouraged by the ruling Congress party to wreak bloody vengeance, which they did. If Narendra Modi can so readily be pilloried for not exercising his authority, what about Rajiv Gandhi’s role in the murders of thousands of Sikhs he legitimated with his bone-chilling statement: “When a large tree falls, the earth shakes”? For the Congress party to claim secularist credentials, in the event and, further, sit on judgment of Modi, is not just rich but farcical.

It is in this milieu of moral relativism, that the JD (U) Central Committee’s deliberations last weekend must be judged. If this party is upset that Modi failed “to discharge his duty” during the riots, then it is a fairly mild response to deter the BJP from possibly anointing the Gujarat strongman as its prime ministerial candidate in 2014. It is also loose enough wording to allow JD(U) to escape the tight corner it has painted itself into.

It is in no position to do much were Rajnath Singh to explain to Nitish Modi that, like other parties, BJP will choose its prime minister after it crosses the 170-180 mark of the Lok Sabha seats. At that tipping point, the smaller parties, including JD(U) will have the choice of rallying to BJP’s standard, coalescing around the Congress Party reduced to 135-140 Members of Parliament, or forming a Third Front with outside help. With Congress more inclined to be the prop for such a regime, the smaller parties bickering among themselves with the sad sack, Mulayam Singh, in the van, will find themselves in the position Charan Singh’s government did in 1981, and will be fated to suffer the same ignominious end when the Congress kicks the support from underneath it.

The general elections that follow this fiasco will be the decisive one and there’s little doubt Modi’s BJP will be hoisted into power by a clear majority.

Facing this prospect, will the JD(U) still split from the BJP, paving the way for the return of the abominable Lalu Yadav in Patna? Nitish can posture all he wants, but JD(U) and the other parties constituting the National Democratic Alliance cannot avoid the trend that is set to make Modi stronger, not weaker, in the years to come. The December deadline, however, permits Nitish and his cohort to consider the trade-offs in staying with BJP or striking out on an unpredictable path partnering the Congress party, which will leave the JD(U) cannibalised.

[Pub;ished in the ‘New Indian Express’ April 22, 2013 at http://newindianexpress.com/opinion/Abusing-secularism/2013/04/22/article1555277.ece

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Indian ecobomic situation, Indian Politics, Internal Security, South Asia. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Abusing secularism

  1. RK Anuj says:

    Huh, strange logic….” he was in power for only a couple of months”. Does this absolve him of the responsibility by any stretch of imagination? The same party was in power for many years previously!! By the same logic Rajiv Gandhi was not even in power in 1984, so he too should be absolved of all blame…..!

    Does one wrong nullify the sins of another, which appears to be the sum of your argument? At least, in one instant a sitting PM tendered a public apology? What of the other!!

    For a saner and more logical argument read the article at

    Definitely appears more balanced and has the perspective right.

  2. Shaurya says:

    This issue of Modi, not exercising his authority is a canard. NEVER before in the history of India, have so many hindus been killed in a communal riot by the police forces. When sh*t hits the fan, one can only react and do damage control, which he did. If another Godhra like incident is to happen today, in Gujrat, nothing will happen as you have rightly pointed out, Modi has the reins and pulse of the entire machinery and knows how to exercise it much better. Good governance always helps the next government. Kudos to the Gujratis to keep on electing and rewarding a government for a job well done. A lesson some other parts such as Bengal, UP should quickly learn.

  3. Ravi says:

    No genuine Secularist has guts to ask these q’s ?
    1.Why a Hindu candiadte cannot win from Mallappuram,Ponani,Kishanganj,Lakshadweep,Dhubri,Barpeta,Murshidabad,Malda Uttar,Malda Dakshin,Hyderabad,etc LS segments whereas Muslim candidate can win from Hindupur,Bengaluru North,Vellore,etc LS segments-After Nitish Kumar never dared to contest from Kishanganj in Bihar.
    2.Can a Hindu become a CM of J&K,Nagaland,Meghalaya,Mizoram,etc whereas the states of Assam,Rajasthan,Maharashtra,Andhra Pradesh saw Muslim,Christian CMs.
    Only very few people like Shri Bharath Karnad can ask-
    After-all Demography is destiny-Democracy is a number game-Strength respects strength

  4. Shaurya says:

    Hence, in another forum, I have said that “Secularism” is the wrong plank, for in India, we neither share the structures of an organized religion nor Europe’s history in terms of the role of the church intermixing with that of the state, as an organized and exclusive body.

    Our issue is communal, tribal groupings and all the other divisions that come along with a large country. The challenge is to step away from these “groups” and merge into an assimilative identity. Modi’s Gujrat sees legislators from muslim dominated areas? Assimilation and United as one and not “Unity in Diversity” is the motto. Good governances and a liberal and assimilative culture are pre-conditions to such a state.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.