What Kind Of Spin Is ‘Secularism’ Going To Get This National Integration Week?

National Integration Or Disintegration?

The “Qaumi Ekta” Week, or the “National Integration” Week, is scheduled to be observed nationwide for the period between November 19 to November 25. It’s a routine annual fixture on the Ministry of Home Affairs’ calendar. The stated objectives of the Ministry in organising this event are “foster[ing] and [reinforcing] the spirit of Communal Harmony, National Integration and pride in vibrant, composite culture and nationhood”. Here is a breakdown of the week’s programme from a 2017 Press Information Bureau (PIB) notification on the event, which stays more or less the same every year: 

  • November 19, 2017, will be observed as National Integration Day and programmes like meetings, symposia and seminars will be organised to emphasise the themes of secularism, anti-communalism and non-violence.
  • November 20, 2017, will be observed as Welfare of Minorities Day and Items of the 15 Point Programme are emphasised on this day. In riot prone towns, special fraternal processions are taken out.
  • November 21, 2017, will be observed as Linguistic Harmony Day. Programmes like Special literary functions and Kavi Sammelans will be organised to enable people of each region to appreciate the linguistic heritage of other parts of India.
  • November 22, 2017, will be observed as Weaker Sections Day and meetings and rallies will be organised to highlight programmes under various Governments which help SCs/STs and weaker sections with particular emphasis on the distribution of surplus land to landless labourers.
  • November 23, 2017, will be observed as Cultural Unity Day and cultural functions will be organised to present the Indian tradition of unity in diversity and for promoting cultural conservation and integration.
  • November 24, 2017, will be observed as Women’s Day. On this day, the importance of Women in Indian Society and their role in the development of nation-building are highlighted.
  • November 25, 2017, will be observed as Conservation Day and several meetings and functions will be organised to emphasise the growing need for awareness and action to conserve the environment.

The notification further says, “The observation of the ‘Quami Ekta Week’ will help to highlight the inherent strength and resilience of our nation to withstand actual and potential threats to the eclectic and secular fabric of our country and nurture a spirit of communal harmony in its widest sense. This occasion also provides an opportunity to reaffirm age-old traditions and faith in the values of tolerance, co-existence and brotherhood in a multi-cultural and multi-religious society. 

The Week formally starts with the so-called National Integration Pledge, which is as follows:

“I solemnly pledge to work with dedication to preserve and strengthen the freedom and integrity of the nation. I further affirm that I shall never resort to violence and that I will continue to endeavour towards settlement of all differences and disputes relating to religion, language, region or other political or economic grievances by peaceful and constitutional means.”

Everything in this programme seems like a governmental effort to make citizens aware of, and to get them committed to their fundamental duties under Article 51A of the Constitution, in addition to the state committing itself to some of the Directive Principles of State Policy. The fundamental duties were not part of the original Constitution that was enforced on January 26, 1950. They were introduced through the 42nd Amendment of 1976 during the Emergency period. This was the very same Amendment that had introduced the words “socialist” and “secular” to the Preamble of the Constitution. In every way, then, “Qaumi Ekta Week” has Indira Gandhi written all over it. It is no coincidence that November 19, the “National Integration Day” when the Week starts, is the late Mrs. Gandhi’s birthday. 

Whatever be the merits of tacitly celebrating an assassinated politician who has been accused of desecrating the Golden Temple as a champion of secularism, it is evident that in India, forces responsible for the desecration of one kind or another, are also typically the ones in control of official language, and exercising power at the Centre. 

Let us now take up each day’s agenda and examine where things stand:

First is the National Integration Day. It is supposed to “emphasise the themes of secularism, anti-communalism and non-violence”. There are two things to focus on here. First is the word integration itself. There is a difference between “integration” and “assimilation”. The former helps build a common, cohesive social identity without demanding compromise on individual cultural identity. The latter places a demand on those who do not readily subscribe to a dominant social identity. So when some people assert that they want India “united” as a “Hindu” nation, they are demanding the minorities assimilate – not integrate – themselves into their concept of India. But it would be unfair to blame Hindutva alone for the peril Indian secularism is in. As political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot writes, long before the Hindutva forces were enthroned, previous Congress regimes invented vote bank politics by appealing to narrow identities. 

The current government has engaged in much chest-thumping over its successful abrogation of Article 370, touting it as a successful manoeuvre that will help Kashmiris integrate with the rest of the nation. But more than 100 days have passed since that administrative sucker-punch, and few ‘Indian’ souls have seen or heard a Kashmiri, except those in jackboots ready to unleash violence on even the most vulnerable among them. People genuinely interested in integration don’t use violence against those they seek to have integrated. Secondly, forces allied to the party currently in power have wanted to remove the word “secular” from the Preamble to the Constitution in the past. There was even a Change.org petition demanding the same. We have lived to see a Hindu extremist accused of terrorism, and with zero political acumen being elected to the Parliament, and a Union Minister with zero political decency, garlanding thugs accused of lynching Muslims. What kind of spin are “anti-communalism” and “secularism” going to get on National Integration Day, given the kind of befouled political environment that is choking our society? 

Day 2 and the focus is exclusively on minorities. This might seem redundant given that it is on-brand for the quotidian version of politics flourishing on the ground today. Nevertheless, let us take a peek at the 15-Point Programme that is “emphasised” on the day. Let us take Goal 2 of the Programme, which is to improve access to school education. Even as data become as scarce in the country as groundwater in many of its largest cities, we can still make assessments based on autonomous data collection, done until just a few years ago. The NSSO’s 68th round (2011-12) of data collection on education levels for different communities suggest that even under a nominally secular regime, educational attainment among Muslims, India’s largest minority group, was extremely poor. Around half the Muslim population over 15 years of age was either illiterate or had only primary or middle school education. The number of illiterates was found to be the highest in Muslims among all religious groups in India, and more than double the rate of illiterates among Hindus, the second most illiterate group in the country (perhaps something to do with the fact that more than 60% of “Hindus” are SCs and OBCs). Muslims also have low attendance rates. The number of Muslim males per thousand in the 5-14 years age group who are attending school was found to be 869, significantly lower than any other religious group. It is possible that the increasingly hostile atmosphere in schools is seeding fear into young minds that happen to be Muslim. Nazia Erum has described in her book Mothering a Muslim, how schools are increasingly making it difficult for Muslim children to get an education, without the state intervening on the latter’s behalf. Who knows if that’s going to change come November 20? 

On the third day comes the “Linguistic Harmony” routine. While organising “Kavi Sammelans” to familiarise people in one region with literary and linguistic traditions of other regions is nice, it must not be forgotten that the current head of the Home Ministry – which is in charge of linguistic affairs in the country – believes that Hindi is the only language that can “unite” the entire country. “Our power to express our culture will die in the absence of our national language,” said the Home Minister. This is another divisive numbers game, much like Hindutva hate politics; since the country has anything but one culture and a significant bulk of the country’s cultural heritage is much older than Hindi itself and totally independent of it. And of course, Census data reveal that just 26% of Indians have Hindi as their mother tongue – around 40% of those speaking “Hindi” speak some other language that is unrelated to the standardised version of the language. But because Hindi has the “largest” number of native speakers in the country, the thinking goes, it should be “accepted” by Indians as the national language. This kind of Hindi supremacism masks more disturbing truths about languages in this country: experts say that almost 400 languages, (nearly half of the total number of languages we have) spoken mostly by Adivasis, from traditional fishing communities, are set to be extinct within the next 50 years; about 40 languages or dialects are endangered as they are spoken by less than 10,000 people, many of which are spoken by members of particularly vulnerable tribal groups (PVTGs). 

Governments have done very little to promote or preserve these linguistic traditions over the years. With increasing hardships placed upon their traditional sources of livelihood, many of these Adivasis are having to migrate to cities, thus forcing them to assimilate in order to survive. How much “harmony” will be sought with languages which are the most likely to “die”?

Day 4 is the Weaker Sections Day. It’s ideally a day we should not be having – because any democracy worth the name should not have any “weaker section” in it. But lofty ideals are one thing, reality quite another. An IndiaSpend analysis of 2016 NCRB data shows that the number of hate crimes against Dalits has risen by almost 25% in one decade, while for Adivasis the rates saw a 10% fall. Pending police investigations and pendency of cases in courts for both the groups, however, have seen a sharp and unmistakable rise, while conviction rates have also fallen. In a country that is deemed the most unsafe for women internationally, Dalit women often face the worst of its rape culture. 

Our apex court, where caste Hindu men are overrepresented in the judiciary, sides not too infrequently with the powerful and the privileged, as best exemplified by the rather bewildering Ram Mandir order recently. It tried to dilute the implementation of the Prevention of Atrocities Act before being forced to back down, due to fierce public backlash that it generated. Then it tried to evict nearly 2 million Adivasis from their lands, ostensibly to “protect” wildlife. Amendments to the Forest Rights Act which would have enabled eviction and use of state violence against Adivasis, who refused to part with their land, to satiate the rapacity of big corporate interests were withdrawn recently with Assembly elections coming up in Jharkhand; a State with a sizeable population of Adivasis. Will rights of the weaker sections continue to be a pawn in the dirty games of the politically privileged?

On Day 5, we have the “Cultural Unity” day. It is supposed to celebrate unity in diversity of cultures in India. This proposition sounds especially cruel in a political environment where 20th century vandals who demolished a 16th century mosque presumably to build a Ram temple were awarded full title to the disputed land by the country’s apex court – it is wrong to call them “Hindu parties” and thereby painting innocent Hindus with the same brush as violent thugs who weaponise Hinduism. The PM himself said after the verdict that the message of the verdict was to “come together and live together”. There had been some sort of uneasy arrangement between Hindu and Muslim devotees with respect to sharing the inner and outer courtyards of the erstwhile mosque prior to the 1992 violence, but the demolition ruined all chances of them “living together”. What’s more, there is no assurance that there won’t be more Babri Masjids in India, given Hindutva is growing ever bolder by the minute. The violence and injustice of both the illegal placement of idols under the central dome of the mosque in 1949 and the 1992 demolition by kar sevaks was acknowledged in the text of the judgment, yet the final verdict had no reflection of this wisdom. And the PM, of course, never mentioned it. It would be difficult for us to know whether he was kidding himself or being deliberately cruel when he was lecturing us to “come together and live together”. And then we have the philistines who are busy renaming anything that sounds remotely Islamic. And that’s not even considering how despite all the endless “Cultural Unity” charades, mainstream Indian society still sees Adivasis as junglees and people from the North East as chinkis. Seems like Cultural Unity will take a lot of work.

Day 6 is “Women’s Day”. The less said of the situation of women in India, the better. Despite the landmark 2018 judgment of the SC that allowed women to enter the sanctum sanctorum of the Sabarimala temple, they are still being violently prevented from doing so. What’s more, the misogynist mob has got what it wanted, the judgment will now be reviewed by a larger Bench of the Supreme Court. This is how vicious the resistance is to women simply entering temples. Ritualised violence, sexual or otherwise, against Dalit women has already been mentioned earlier. Marital rape is still not a crime. Politically influential dudes accused credibly of rape still enjoy impunity and political support, female infanticide is still not a thing of the past, maternal mortality rates are still extremely high, menstruation is still a taboo subject, workplaces are still largely insensitive to the needs of poor working mothers. It is still rare for victims of domestic violence and acid attacks to get justice, gendered violence still afflicts women in the workplace, LGBTQ women still get discriminated against, and elderly women are still abandoned in large numbers by their families. And of course, as pointed out earlier, India has been rated as the most unsafe place for women to be. So, what will the deal be this “Women’s Day”?

Day 7 is “Conservation Day” when “functions will be organised to emphasise the growing need for awareness and action to conserve the environment”. Should we expect a government that supports wiping out the Aarey forest for the Mumbai Metro to be able to do that? Governments at the Centre have forever been trying to evict some of the most vulnerable Adivasis from their lands, using the Maoist threat as a convenient excuse, and the current one has not been very different. The very same Adivasis who have been recognised as crucial to maintaining a sustainable relationship with our forests, because their traditions are based on sustainable exploitation of nature. Government policy meant to protect wetlands has been weakened in major ways. Coastal Regulation Rules were weakened substantially in 2018 to allow industries to make hay where the sun shines. Why should we expect such an enabling government to suddenly change tack on “Conservation Day”?

A cynic, faced with all these facts, would assume that the “National Integration Week” will more likely be “Lip Service and Performative Activism Week” and in due time things will be back to “normal”.

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