What would it take to build a truly dynamic, plural and secular culture in 21st century India?
Citizens for Peace (CfP), has been pondering over this question for the last few years.CfP was founded in 1993 by several residents of Mumbai, who were horrified by the communal violence that scarred the city in the months following the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Set up as a registered public trust, CfP engaged in relief work for the victims of the 1993 riots.In the subsequent 17 years, identity-based conflicts have proliferated -- from Kashmir to Orissa, Gujarat to the North East -- and have become even more complex.In 2003 CfP renewed its resolve to foster communal harmony by creating a space for collective thinking and self-critical reflection.
In the past, many of us who are committed to secular ideals have felt impatient with any opposition to ‘secularism’ as we perceive this to be the very soul of India. Over the years, we began the process of revisiting its generally accepted definition by acknowledging that the diverse sharp, opposing and sometimes bitter responses to the very term ‘secularism’ need to be understood more deeply, and wherever possible, with empathy. For instance, for some, India is already a richly plural and secular country – and in their view, this heritage must simply be reaffirmed and protected.
Others argue that ‘secularism’ has become a farce, a political ploy, which should now either be abandoned or redefined to ensure unity rather than diversity. The space between these extreme
views is rife with powerful and conflicting emotions that over the last two decades have bitterly
divided not only communities but even families and friends within each community.
Therefore, the need for an open space -- in which people who hold different, even conflicting, perspectives can look at ‘secularism’ afresh:A Secular Rethink.CfP aims to generate a public dialogue on all the facets of the challenge posed by this divide. We believe that the proposed ‘rethink’ by all the stakeholders is a vital and necessary step towards building the kind of civic culture and stable democracy which India needs in order to grow in both moral strength and material prosperity.
In the midst of proliferating conflict and terrorism, this endeavor may seem like an arm-chair exercise. Yet there has never been a more urgent need to look beyond the immediate details of each conflict and reflect on what role all of us, as ordinary citizens, can play in fostering positive energies. This document is intended for all those who care about India’s present and future – not just as a sovereign, independent nation born in 1947, but also as a civilization that has important contributions to make to the global quest for peace and justice.
Our own understanding of dilemmas, challenges and questions is evolving.
CfP’s purpose here is to neither articulate the ‘final word’ nor present a definitive analysis but rather to initiate a dispersed process of intense reflection and honest dialogue. This, we hope, will in turn intensify the quest for answers to the question above (What would it take to build a truly dynamic, plural and secular culture in 21st century India? ) and lead to new forms of creative public action. We in CfP visualize our role as that of spreading out a welcoming durrie as it were, upon which a wide range of people can sit together to engage in an open exchange of views and perspectives that, with mutual understanding and respect, may well forge a shared ‘ownership’ for the common ground which thus emerges. In the language of computer software this article may be seen as the draft of version ‘1.0’ which needs to be fine-tuned and ‘debugged’ through the efforts of many converging wills.Core Values and the Challenge AheadWhat then are the non-negotiable core values which define the open space of this durrie?The Right to Life and Right to Dignity are inalienable rights of each and every human being.The Fundamental Rights enshrined in India’s Constitution cover these and other related rights. Those Fundamental Rights, together with the United Nations Charter on Human Rights, set the parameters of this exploration.The recognition that extremism and fundamentalism of different kinds exist in all groups and that there must be a firm commitment to respond to all forms of extremism with a uniform lack of prejudice or bias.
In order to map the challenges ahead let us elaborate on the dilemmas and challenges connected with the question we started with:
Diversity of religion, language, caste and regional identities is the historical legacy of not only India but the entire sub-continent. Can 21st century India draw vital energy from this legacy or will it fall between the dark and bitter divides that fragment that legacy? It is essential that all communities are at all times equal before the law. Is this, as commonly understood, a matter espoused only by the more responsible elected representatives who are concerned with good governance? Or does civil society at large have a major role to play in ensuring and securing equality for all before the law?However, equality before the law is the bare minimum pre-requisite for a stable and just society. There is need for deep introspection on the additional requirements for building a plural and just society.For too long the discourse on this matter has been polarized and reactive. A good part of the task ahead is to first dispassionately examine the differences and then identify common ground – on the basis of the core values articulated above.Over the last few years it has become self-evident that tensions between Hindus and Muslims, or Hindus and Christians, are indicative of what ails our society. There has been an increasing frequency of violent clashes on the basis of religion, caste and regional identity. A 21st century vision of secular India must contend with all the various combinations in which a clash of identities undermines the interaction between citizens and the quality of public life and governance.The onward journey depends upon our ability to distinguish the entrenched extremist elements from those who, from time to time, come under their influence but who can be persuaded to reconsider and withdraw their support to extremist elements.In the 20th century, Indian nationalism tended to forge a majority out of what are actually multi-layered groups, many of which are themselves numerical minorities. The key challenge of the 21st century is to forge a nationalism which is anchored primarily in the universal values of equity and justice – with religious and caste identities finding expression through those values rather than sectarian competition.This endeavor may also open pathways beyond ‘nationalism’, of the kind that gave birth to the nations of the Indian sub-continent in the mid-20th century, and create a new dynamic.BackgroundSecularism can be seen as a construct, itself a kind of durrie or meeting space, which brings together diverse faiths, castes and language groups. Some Indians interpret secularism as sarva-dharma sambhava (equal respect for all religions) and see this as a vital element of the civilizations that have flourished on our sub-continent. Others feel that ‘secularism’ is a term imported from the European experience of separating the church from the state, and is thus out of place in Indian culture. Additionally, they argue that India is a predominantly Hindu nation which, over the last one thousand years, was first colonized by Muslims and later by the Europeans. From this vantage point the demolition of the Babri Masjid is seen as a necessary step towards the empowerment of Hindus – not only as an act of ‘historical justice’ but to counter the alleged favouritism by the state machinery towards both – the religious minorities as well as the disadvantaged castes. Why should any of this matter to that 50 percent of Indians who are currently under 25 years of age? Partly because these young people witness and experience a great deal of shadow-boxing between forces vaguely labeled ‘communal’ or ‘secular’. This in turn fosters confusion, frustration and fear at a time of proliferating violence, simmering, formless hatred and corrosive tension. So where do we go from here – as a nation and also as individuals who have a sense of identity and affinity to a particular religion, a caste, a region? Within Citizens for Peace, we started this exploration by accepting that the model and practice of secularism that has emerged since independence has indeed left many Indians dissatisfied and disturbed. CfP therefore decided to review the idea and practice of secularism in a fresh and non-reactive manner. Since 2005 we have been examining various dimensions of secularism over the past 60 years and holding discussions with those who have knowledge and/or strong views on this matter. For instance, some Hindus feel that secularism has been used as a tool by certain political parties to garner the votes of Muslims and Christians. Among the most bitter issues in this context are:The special status of the Kashmir valley;The subsidy for Haj expenses to Muslims;State-management of many Hindu religious trusts while those of minority communities are left out of state purview;Continuance of different civil codes – above all The Muslim Women’s Protection of Rights on Divorce Act, 1986] following the Shah Bano case which denied divorced Muslim women the right to maintenance beyond the three months of iddat by their husbands as provided in the Indian Civil Code;Existence of some mosques on the sites of destroyed temples.
At the same time some Muslims feel they have been rendered second class citizens because:In most outbreaks of communal violence the bulk of casualties are Muslims.In most such outbreaks of mass street violence the victims, usually minority communities such as the Muslims and in some cases Christians, have found the police either remaining passive or colluding with the attackers. After such incidents victims have more often than not been denied justice in courts.Muslims experience difficulty in renting or buying homes in many metropolitan cities. They are also discriminated against for employment in some companies of the private sector.The Sachar Committee report has documented that the majority of Muslims are socially and economically disadvantaged.
In many parts of India Hindu groups and Christian groups are caught in violent conflict over the issue of conversions. Additionally, caste conflicts, such as the dispute between Gujjars and Meenas, have turned increasingly bitter. The issue of reservations has also brought to the surface a sharp divide between what have traditionally been the ‘upper castes’ and the ‘scheduled tribes’ and ‘other backward castes’. For 60 years we have relied on the government to address, mediate and resolve such conflicts. Now there is much greater awareness about the need for creative initiatives by social groupings and institutions – working both to strengthen grassroots processes as well as to ensure accountability from the powers that be. However, secularism as it relates to actions by and policies of the State is but one part of the challenge we face. What is really at stake is India’s future as not merely a nation but as a civilization which thrives on the pluralism of multiple identities based on professed or rejected faiths (including atheists or non-believers), caste, regional and linguistic affinity.
Here pluralism does not mean erasing the differences in identity but rather retaining multiple identities on the basis of a fundamental ethical coherence arising from the core values outlined above. The terms ‘communal’ and ‘secular’ are often used loosely and can be misleading. There is an urgent need for open, self-critical reflection, which sets aside stereotypes as well as facile assumptions – both in relation to specific communities and ideological frameworks. Only then might we have a closer understanding of what is really dividing people. This endeavor depends on two imperatives:A social process to acknowledge and analyse the genuine angst that different communities feel – rather than to dismiss it as imaginary or irrelevant.A social and political culture of equal respect between communities which in turn has two vital requirements:(a) Dharm Nirpekshta: The treatment by the State of all faiths on a non-preferential basis, fully ensuring the equality of all before the law. (b) Sarva-Dharma Sambhava: The mutual acceptance of people of other faiths at the levels of the individual and civil society. This means that while we don’t always have to be ‘happy’ with each other or feel a sense of affinity with our neighbour, yet we are able to co-habit in social, economic and other public spaces in ways where conflict, differences, dissonance and other divisive factors can be addressed in collective, peaceful and democratic ways.
We are confident that Indian society and democracy are in a process of refining the term ‘secularism’ in ways that are uniquely our own and embrace, rather than obliterate, multiple identities – religious, regional, caste, language and more.Moving towards a dynamic secular cultureSo how do we move towards a finer, rejuvenated secularism in ways that both widen and deepen our democracy? Here is what CfP’s reflection has led to, so far:Strengths we can build upon:A dialogue is possible even in the face of sharp disagreements, provided we are willing to listen to the grievances or angst of the other side – rather than dismissing them as invalid, irrelevant or false. Such a dialogue can be an ongoing process in which the mutual angst between ‘communalists’ and ‘secularists’ can at least be expressed in a non-combative manner. This does not mean that answers or a ‘resolution’ are waiting around the corner. But the willingness to talk, listen and understand releases positive energies.A dialogue is vastly different from a ‘debate’. A dialogue enables a much broader, multi-faceted conversation – rather than two opposing views in a face-off. To us a dialogue means shared reflection and an open exchange about competing aspirations – on the basis of reason rather than raw passion and/or prejudice.The national annual essay competitions that CfP held from 2005 to 2007 in collaboration with the Indian Express reaffirmed that the aspiration for secularism is deeply embedded in our country. This is true in both its dimensions – the separation of religious identity from the exercise of state power; and a cultural ethos of living with differences of every kind: religion, region and caste.The Constitution of India is a sure and steady base from which to engage with a diverse range of people who might otherwise be divided by hierarchy, hatred and/or prejudice. The fundamental principles of the Indian Constitution are a sound basis for an egalitarian democracy.The surest protection against the virus of identity-based dissension and violence is to improve the health of the democratic process and bolster the immune system of civil society.‘Love Thy Neighbor’ is an ideal that has been practiced by countless communities who did not like each other. Yes, this subcontinent has seen violent conflicts between many communities through the centuries (Buddhism versus Vedic Hinduism, Shaivite versus Vaishnavite, Shia versus Sunni, Hindu versus Muslim, various religions versus Adivasis). But this is one part of the story. There is also evidence of a sustained social ethos in which people of different castes, religions and regions co-existed and interacted constructively.However, it is not enough to celebrate these traditions of pluralism and diversity. In the 21st century a viable secular polity and society needs a new negotiation of spaces within a contemporary framework of justice and dignity for all. This would mean rejecting both oppressive domination and/or manipulation by any group – be it a majority community or a minority. It also means a special emphasis on gender justice within each community.Twenty years ago many of us were active proponents of a uniform civil code which would ensure social justice, particularly for women, in all religious groups. Over the years we have realized that this ought not to become a contest between the Hindu majority and various minority communities. Rather, the challenge lies in reforming all civil codes, of all religious groups, in order to make them consistent with progressive definitions of the rights of women and children.Obstacles on the path ahead:The boundaries or ‘lakshman-rekhas’ of basic public norms have been violated too often both by those who occupy public office and non-state actors who deploy brute force in the form of vandalism and intimidation. There can be neither stable governance nor a secular public culture unless these boundaries are re-established and zealously maintained across lines of caste, religion and regional affiliation.This is not merely a challenge to ensure better accountability from elected and other public officials. It is equally, or more, vital that citizens in every walk of life apply the norms to themselves in all situations.The repeated failure of the State machinery to act with impartiality towards all communities is one of the biggest hurdles. In too many incidents the ‘rule of law’ has been selectively applied to different communities. In some parts of India, notably Kashmir and the North East, armed forces have repeatedly violated the basic rights of citizens and continue to do so despite appeals, protests and pressure from citizens and civil society.These failures of governance have been vociferously opposed by human rights activists. But mass violence has disturbingly found a fair amount of public approval in too many cases – in Delhi during the violence following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in the Kashmir valley at different points, in Mumbai during the riots of 1992-92 and more recently in Gujarat in 2002.Equal respect for all faiths also has its challenges. For instance, patriarchy is a fault line that runs through all faiths and this creates conflicts between the orthodoxy of all religions with the more liberal values of modern governance and civil law. A creative secular culture has to contend with the challenge of respecting multiple faiths while also standing firmly in favor of values such as gender equality.The fate of India’s Adivasis – their unique sense of ‘identity’ based on their traditional affinity with eco-systems and other life forms – may well be the most challenging test of whether we can cultivate a plural secular culture. Since the conflicts that afflict Adivasi communities tend to be posed as ‘development’ versus ‘anti-development’, their place in the national discourse about identity, democracy and justice tends to be obscured.
Taking the Secular Rethink Process ForwardThis process of reflection and rethinking expressed via the issues raised in this note call for an engagement by a wide range of groups and individuals who hold diverse perspectives.What are some of the more creative and imaginative forms that such engagement could take?Ideally, we need a more dynamic and active interface between the dispersed energies of civil society, the electoral process of state power and the many organized competing pressure groups with their diverse agendas – be they votaries of Hindutva, Islam, Christianity or Dalits or of linguistic and/or regional separatism. This will hopefully create more space for the issues of discontent and self-esteem of various communities to be heard, understood and resolved within the democratic framework – both within electoral politics and in the non-electoral spaces of civil society.We are now in a situation where what we would otherwise regard as default common sense needs to be clearly articulated as a message. This exercise needs to be carried out by every sector of society – business circles, political parties, religious communities, caste- or region-based organizations and professionals. It is with this in mind that CfP has crafted the Business for Peace Voluntary Code which has been already been adopted by seven of India’s leading companies.CfP does not claim to have a ready formula or strategy for resolving these complex problems and issues. Our hope is that each of you reading this paper will engage in the process by disseminating and discussing the ideas we have presented in it in your homes, workplaces, clubs, forums, neighbourhoods and colleges.From mid-2010 CfP intends to organise a year-long series of meetings called PeaceTalks. This programme will bring together a wide variety of thinkers, writers, philosophers, activists, sociologists, economists and political scientists – for conversations that will explore the questions, raised at the outset, from diverse vantage points. PeaceTalks will provide space for a continuing dialogue in a spirit, and on issues, that rarely get either time or space in the mass media. PeaceTalks will be recorded and later disseminated through multiple channels. These conversations will particularly aim to address questions and dilemmas that are being posed by young people.PeaceTalks is founded on the conviction that constructive and creative dialogues, across lines of apparent conflict, can enable us to redefine secularism, and refine ways of building a truly dynamic, plural and secular culture in 21st Century India.
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NOTE: This note reflects a collective endeavour of the Trustees of CfP: Titoo Ahluwalia, Tariq Ansari, Rajni Bakshi, Devika Bhojwani, Dilip D’Souza, Rina Kamath, Dolly Thakore , Pervin Varma and Gulan Kripalani, CfP’s Executive Director.
We welcome your comments, ideas, opinions and responses.