Somnath Temple in Gujarat, India

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The Indian Secularism: A Bitter Joke ?

A hasty declaration of national mourning for the Pope shows once more how unbalanced and imperfect the much-touted secularism in India is....

India, as the Indian constitution envisions it, is expected to be a secular democracy, in which all citizens enjoy the same rights and duties, irrespective of their caste, creed, religion and sex. In practice this vision has been often misused so that a unique version of distorted secularism seems to have taken shape in India, which can be at best described as pseudo secularism. There are several problems with each one of the envisioned values, but in this article let's concentrate on religion.

The Indian state or at least its elites - the political class, the intellectuals and the English language media - have developed a very strange notion of this otherwise excellent vision. The practiced notion seems to be in many ways perverse. In their understanding secularism is not achieved by maintaining equal distance to all religions but by generally favouring minorities over the majority community. And by the term majority community I do not mean just Hindus but followers of all India-born religions, i.e. Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains.Not realising that this favourism often leads to resentment and antagonism amongst the majority community and may in end effect lead to more communal disharmony than was existent at the beginning. All self-proclaimed secularists take pride in punching Hinduism. They can not see anything that the majority community in India does that could be right and nothing in a minority community that could be wrong.

Nothing could have brought all that is wrong with the Indian version of secularism better to fore as the death of Pope John Paul II on 2nd April 2005. The "secular" Indian state, as if waiting for the news to just ticker through, went overboard in hastily announcing a three days state mourning for the head of the Catholic church. The government seemed to be in such a frenzy that it simply forgot that the Uzbek president was awaited in Delhi on a state visit on 5th April. Now state visits do not exactly fit with the state mourning. When Delhi realised its folly, it tried to convince Tashkent to postpone the presidential visit.

The Uzbek president, understandably in no mood to disrupt his schedule, refused to oblige. Some government genius then hit upon a truly innovative idea: the state mourning was split into two phases to save face and facilitate the Uzbek guest. As if mourning is some kind of an entertainment show, which can be held and interrupted as per convenience. One can be forgiven for gaining the impression that the Indian government is some kind of a club of professional mourners who can start and stop mourning at will. This tragic comedy would have been hilarious, had it not involved such a serious issue.

First of all, a secular government has no business declaring state mourning for religious heads be they of any religion.

Secondly, if the govt. does think that state mourning for religious heads is a justified gesture - which in my personal opinion is not - then it has to be applicable to all religions and not just for a minority community that makes only about 2% of the Indian population. I do not remember having ever heard in India about a state mourning for the religious heads of an Indian religion, be that a Hindu Shankaracharya, a Jain Muni, a Buddhist Bhikkhu or a Sikh Granthi. Does Govt. of India have a better opinion of religious heads with a foreign passport?

Thirdly, if the govt. argues that the mourning was ordered for Pope, in his capacity as the head of the state of Vatican. Then the question arises: Has Vatican ever reciprocated such a gesture? India too has had its share of top leaders including Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi, Jawahar Lal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri who all died while in office. Did Vatican ever declare a state mourning for anyone of them? Has Vatican ever sent a top cardinal to attend such a funeral, as Vice President Shekawat has done in Vatican? If not, then why can't we act in a similar manner by sending the Indian ambassador to the funeral, as the protocol would suggest? International diplomatic relations are all about reciprocity and mutual respect, after all.

Even countries with a much stronger Christian population, e.g. Germany and France, did not declare a state mourning of such a prolonged duration. What has then been the driving force for the Indian government to take such a step? Surely the vote bank politics and the deep-rooted desire to gain some cheap publicity in the media for one's self-styled secular credentials.

It is so refreshing to see reports from - what wonder - France that many cities simply refused to follow the state mourning ordered by the French government in Paris - not because their Christian/Catholic mayors were against Pope, but because they respected the state/church separation enshrined in the French constitution. A state mourning for a religious head would have gone against that spirit. So with all respect to the deceased Pope a state mourning was rejected in many cities.

And contrast this with the embarrassingly devotional surrender of a non-christian, Hindu majority India! It is more than embarrassing. If this is secularism, what would India do if were a Christian state? And have a look at the treatment the government melts out to Hindu religious leaders! Has the government of India ever sent a top functionary - as Vice president Shekhawat was rushed to Rome - to a funeral of some Indian religious head? Or for that matter did the "Holy" Vatican ever show any such friendly gesture?

The Shankaracharya of Kanchi, on being accused of murder, was arrested on the Diwali day - the most revered celebration of Hindus. The Tamilnadu police did not even wait for him to return to his Mutt. He was arrested while on tour in Andhra Pradesh. No one is arguing that the law should not have taken its course. On the contrary, of course it should have. But the saddening fact is that the police would have lost all its zeal if some minority community leader was involved. Just imagine what would have happened, had an Archbishop or an Imam Bukhari been accused of the same crime. Can you imagine that an Archbishop could be arrested on a Christmas day or an Imam Bukhari on an Id day? The sad answer is: of course not. I remember reading an incidence when the forest department acting on a complaint that 2 black dears were being illegally kept in a particular house in Old Delhi asked for police help to rescue them. The police agreed but as soon as they came to know of the address of that house, they developed cold feet and blatantly refused any help. The reason given was: The house belonged to Imam Bukhari and the police were afraid any action against him could result in a law and order problem. This about the "secular" India where everybody is equal before law!

Back to the Pope's death. Thank God, there have been some voice of reason, not swayed away by the emotional outbursts that tend to see only holy things in a deceased person. There have been letters to newspapers that put across a sane view. Not condemning or praising the late Pope but just paying a rational, objective obituary while wondering about the "secular" nature of the Indian state. See for example letters related to Pope's death published in the left-leaning 'The Hindu' (don't get disturbed by the name, it is a newspaper more "secular" than even the Govt. of India!). Published on 5th April and 6th April 2005.

My contention is not that the Indian govt. should begin with mourning for Indian religious leaders too. On the contrary I only wish to plead that the government begins to act in a responsible and truly secular way. The religion is a personal matter. The Pope might have been a very good person. I am not in a position to judge him, I did not know him too well. As far as I know he was more interested in reaping a vast 'harvest of faith' in India. Conversion to Christianity was his mission not the welfare of or love for India. But nevertheless any death is a loss. So showing concern, sharing grief of persons who he represented and offering condolences is absolutely right. But things have to be done in a perspective. There is no need for exaggeration just as there would have been no need for any understatement.

Also read - Editor's Choice:

i) For all who can read Hindi: पोप की मृत्यु पर भारत मे॑ राष्ट्रीय शोक – धर्मनिरपेक्षता के नाम पर भौ॑डा मज़ाक

(Pope Ki Mrityu par Bharat Mein Rashtriya Shok: Dharm Nirpekshata Ke Naam par Bhaunda Mazaak) An article by Rajnish Tiwari, who argues that secularism must necessarily mean that all religions are treated equally and the state does not show any favour or discrimnation to or against any religion. A "positive" discrimnation that favours minorities over the majority is as bad as a "negative" discrimnation against minorities that benefits the majority community. A modern state can have only one religion that is humanity - human rights are all that matter and all citizens must be equal before law.

Note: If your browser is not displaying the Hindi text above in a meaningful way, then you need to install the Arial Unicode MS font. The display works optimally with Internet Explorer 6.0. The article itself is in a PDF file and hence independent of the browser, as long as you have a current version of Acrobat Reader. In case of problems contact webmaster.

ii) Fountainhead of intolerence: An article by Mac Kher, written in the year 2000 after the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - the Vatican body formerly known as the Holy Office of the Inquisition - issued a document claiming that the Catholic Church was the only true Christian faith. It said as Christ was the son of God, non-Christians were at a disadvantage regarding salvation.

iii) Perverting secularism: "The so-called 'secularism' rampant in India is a perversion of that reasonable idea: in India it is contrived to mean the active involvement of the State in supporting certain religions (Islam, Christianity and Marxism) and oppressing others (Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism). Religion has become the primary consideration in all sorts of civil affairs: in anything from the reporting of news to running educational institutions." Rajeev Srinivasan argues.

iv) Cry, my beloved India - part 1: "Today I feel sad, sad for India, sad for the world. For India is in mortal danger, its eternal Sanatana Dharma is under threat. And if India dies spiritually, the world will also die." An article by Francois Gautier, a French writer living and observing India for past 35 years.

v) Vatican resists European secularism: A BBC report on Vatican's unease with secular values in Europe.

vi) A slap on every Indian's face: "There are, let us face it, powerful Modi-haters in the country who would even go to the extent of licking American boots if only the US government will humiliate the Gujarat Chief Minister. And what divine right, pray, does the US government have to stand in judgment on Modi? Here is a country that has organised murders of several international leaders [...] Secularists in India are delighted that Modi has been insulted. They are welcome to their hatred. But one might ask whether they have any sense of national identity and a sense of national shame when one of their own is slapped in his face." An article by Padma Bhushan awardee Mr. M.V. Kamath, a veteran journalist and chief of the Prasar Bharti, the autonomous Broadcasting Corporation of India.

vii) A collection of articles on the issue of conversions.

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