Are we a nation of pseudo-secularists?

Aswini Mohapatra, Mridula Mukherjee, Harbans Mukhia
The staunch secular nationalism of India has forced communalists to pretend to be secular and nationalist
Mridula Mukherjee
To answer this question, we first need to understand the meaning and context of the term ‘pseudo-secular’. It is a term propounded by the ideologues of Hindu communalism to delegitimise and deny the genuineness of secularism. The subtext is that secularism is only a veneer, or a cloak, put on to hide the reality, which is that of minority appeasement, or even more simply, of being pro-Muslim and anti-Hindu.
The next question that arises is, why do Hindu communalists have to resort to such circuitous arguments to critique those with a secular world view? Why don’t they criticise secular ideas frontally, and unabashedly advance their own communal framework? The answer is to be found in the history of the contest between secular and communal forces during the course of the Indian freedom struggle.
Secular versus sectarian
Undoubtedly, the hegemonic idea which gripped millions of Indians was that of secular nationalism. From Naoroji to Gokhale, Tilak to Mahatma Gandhi, Sarojini Naidu to Aruna Asaf Ali, Rash Behari Bose to Bhagat Singh, Rajaji to Sardar Patel, Nehru to Subhas Bose; and from Champaran to Bardoli and Tebhaga, from Ghadar to the INA, from the Swadeshi movement to Quit India, the inspiring and ennobling vision was of an inclusive, pluralistic, democratic, secular nation, embodying the most advanced ideas.
Clearly, the narrow, sectarian, exclusivist, backward-looking, anti-democratic world view advanced by Hindu communal groups and parties such as the RSS and its political partner, the Hindu Mahasabha, found little support. After Partition, the accompanying communal violence and the massive transfers of population created a volatile situation, and the formation of Pakistan led to loud demands for a matching Hindu Rashtra. However, Indians, in the first general election of 1951-52, based on adult franchise, which Nehru turned into a referendum on whether India was to be secular or communal, gave a resounding defeat to the votaries of a Hindu Rashtra. They got only 10 seats in a House of 489, and about 6% of the vote.
Rejecting communalism
It is this overwhelming support among the people for secularism as a foundational principle of the Indian nation, that is also enshrined in the Constitution, which makes the communalist wary of revealing his true colours. By doing so, he recognises the reality of people’s belief in the secular world view. Therefore, it is he who pretends to be truly secular, and brands the others as pseudo-secularists. He does so by claiming that Hinduism is by its very nature secular, and a Hindu can therefore never be communal. He does so by claiming that secular forces indulge in minority appeasement to create vote banks, and are therefore not genuine in their secularism.
The freedom struggle had succeeded in making communalism a dirty word, in delegitimising it by showing it to be anti-national. This was relatively easy since communalists did not participate in the struggle for freedom and often took loyalist positions, and this was visible to the people at that time. However, with the passage of time, and on the assumption that public memory is short, the Hindu communal or Hindutva forces are working overtime to stitch nationalist cloaks to assume their new roles.
One way this is being done is to appropriate the icons of the freedom struggle. Gandhi, Sardar Patel, Subhas Bose, and even Bhagat Singh are appropriated so brazenly in the hope that people will begin to believe that these iconic leaders, whose ideology and politics was far removed from that espoused by Hindutvavadis, are their ancestors.
It is the staunch secular nationalism of the Indian people which has forced communalists to pretend to be secular and nationalist, thus making them the true claimants to the terms pseudo-secularist and pseudo-nationalist.
Mridula Mukherjee is professor of modern Indian history, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University
Pseudo-secularists’ attempt to posit Hinduism and secularism as binary opposites betrays their ignorance
Aswini K. Mohapatra
I do not think the term ‘secular’ is applicable to Hindus for more than one reason. Derived from the Latin ‘saeculum’, which meant ‘the temporal world’, the term ‘secular’ was used in mid-19th century Western Europe to refer to a specific policy of separating Church from State. The Church represented the highest authority over the spiritual sphere and the State, the highest authority over temporal matters. The meaning of the word secular, therefore, is to be understood in conjunction with the historical context peculiar to Christianity.
In Hinduism, there is no such structural and role differentiation between the religious and political spheres. In fact, Hinduism has no central authority, no founding figure, no single creed or canonical doctrine, and many holy books rather than one. Hence, it does not fit into the category of ‘church religions’, wherein the complex and competitive nature of State-Church relationship need to be addressed by secularism.

Nor does it have any resemblance to an ‘organic religion’ like Islam where religious and political functions are not differentiated but rest with a single structure.
Meaning of Hindu
Trained in Western ideas and ideologies, pseudo-secularists predictably have difficulty in appreciating the distinctive characteristic of Hinduism and its positive attributes compatible with and not antithetical to liberal democracy. The word Hindu is more geographic than religious. It originally denoted the land on the other side of the river Sindhu. The inhabitants of the region were called Hindus by successive invaders, and the dominant religious strain was codified as an ‘ism’ by the British more for political and administrative reasons than theological.
It is not merely polytheistic; it is plural in terms of beliefs, traditions and practices. It is otherworldly and its message is meant for the entire humankind. Calling India secular is to question the very essence of the Sanatana Dharma, commonly translated as ‘eternal path’ or ‘eternal way.’
I see secularism more as a ploy to deny an alternative perspective to emerge that would provide a framework drawn on our historical experiences, philosophical traditions, and spirituality to contest the hegemonic secularist discourse and the dominant modes of knowledge. The pseudo-secularists’ attempt to posit Hinduism and secularism as binary opposites, for instance, betrays their ignorance or lack of interest or simply their colonised mindset.
Appeasement issues
Some of them have even gone to the extent of resisting the introduction of Yoga and Surya Namaskar in schools on the grounds that they are of Hindu origins. In response, Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, founder of the Isha Foundation, said: “If Yoga and Surya Namaskar are Hindu, then the law of gravity is Christian.” As the policy of appeasement pursued for so long by pseudo-secularists no longer yields desired results electorally, their desperation in the wake of the political ascendancy of the cultural nationalist forces represented by the BJP is understandable. Their so-called anti-Hindutva narrative is nothing but a part of the well-organised and coordinated propaganda based on distorted facts and convoluted logic unleashed from time to time to mislead people and whip up fear against the nationalist government.
Hindus are born secular and they do not require others to issue certificates with regard to their secular credentials. If there are episodic instances of coercion and use of violence, such acts have nothing to do with its philosophical core encapsulated in Aham Brahmasmi which explains the unity of macrocosm and microcosm.
Aswini K. Mohapatra is professor, Centre for West Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University
India with its magnificent diversities is innately a genuinely secular society, if the political class lets it be
Harbans Mukhia
The secularism/communalism dichotomy which took centre stage during the freedom struggle makes it essentially a mode of political mobilisation. Even as secularism and communalism remain each other’s negation historically, with the Congress embodying the former and the Muslim League the latter, conceptually they shared much. For, the category deployed by each was the community.
A continuum
If the Congress sought to blend its nationalism with protecting the interests of all communities, in the League’s ‘two-nation theory’, nationalism coincided with the interests of a single community, at complete variance with those of the other community – a view also strongly propounded by V.D. Savarkar and M.S. Golwalkar. This conception of secularism was just about half a step ahead of communalism. Secularism/communalism thus comprised not alternatives but a continuum in which positions were different but frequently interchangeable, demonstrated in the easy crossover of eminent leaders from one political grouping to its opposite, then as now.
With Independence and the institution of an electoral polity, mobilisation of votes was central to its functioning, and space remained open for deployment of the same old categories by political parties in power and in opposition with varying success in each election. The role of the political party in power, directing the state, was crucial. It would often set the agenda until the next election, challenged by parties in the opposition. It was an extraordinarily modern polity with universal adult franchise and multi-party elections. Universal adult franchise, which also gave women the vote, came to France in 1945, just five years ahead of India, and Swiss women had to wait for it until 1971. Yet, the functioning of this polity was largely based on the mobilisation of “pre-modern” identities of community, caste, region, etc.
Nehru’s hope that given the experience of a modern polity where the individual was left alone at the polling booth to decide whom to vote, and new “modern” education and the process of industrialisation where a worker is a worker and not a Hindu or Muslim or north or south Indian, the consciousness of “pre-modern” identities would recede. What happened is the converse: the electoral success has reinforced the identities. We see the result now.
Dual surrender
Over the decades since Independence, the Congress practised its secularism by largely ignoring minority communalism as well as succumbing to majority communalism without ever positing that the two are inseparable. Matters came to a head when the locks on the Babri Masjid were opened and the very humane judgment of the Supreme Court in the Shah Bano case was overthrown through a regressive legislation. It is this dual surrender that gave a spurt to the BJP’s challenge to the Congress’s secularism and to the recentring of communal antagonism in the polity. Secularism, pseudo-secularism, communalism, etc in India are essentially political constructs.
Today, the Sangh Parivar and the BJP government have sought to forge a connection between nationalism and Hindutva emulating the Jinnah-Savarkar two-nation theory. The State remains a major player in this game. After Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Lahore visit, Indian flags were waved by Pakistani visitors in the Mohali cricket field and vice versa and a remarkable bonhomie marked relations between the people of the two countries as reported by almost all press people who visited Pakistan. When the government of the day, irrespective of the party, finds tensions raising its vote percentage, bonhomie is sent out on a holiday. The story is the same within the country.
However, much more is at stake today, where societal polarisation is more than an electoral tactic but a long-term vision of transforming the world’s most diverse multicultural, multireligious, multi-everything India into a singular entity much like Pakistan.
Harbans Mukhia taught medieval history at Jawaharlal Nehru University

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