I was sitting in the window seat of my flight. It was a very pleasant evening on the ground. But as the flight took off, piercing sunlight of the August sun fell on my face. Immediately, I pulled down the window cover. Following which, the passenger sitting beside me, looked towards me, and said, “Can you please …?”, the rest of the message was communicated in indicative language.
I restored the window cover and sunlight started to fall on us. Then the gentleman started to play a video game on his laptop. He asked me to pull up the window cover so that he could play his video game. The thought that came to my mind then, was “How can a man be so insensitive to me, just so he can play a silly game on his computer screen?” But in the next moment, I was reminded of the fortitude and human rights of the person.
This is a story used by Dr Amrtya Sen in his latest book ‘The Idea of Justice’. Although he has used it as a means to communicate a different message; this story fits very well to understand the contemporary situation of India, at this point in time.
India is at the cusp of being either a very advanced nation, or going at least 100 years back, in comparison to the global order. The retreat is not indicating any backward movement, but it is being anticipated in the worst condition, that may take place due to stagnation.
The recent protests in different parts of the country say a lot about the mindset and orientation, of the Indian community, the journey of development, and the thoughts of citizens about the basic values of the nation. It also says a lot about the Indian media, the democratically elected government, and its arms, the perspective of the international community about India and the direction in which intelligencia wants the nation to march.
It is a clear fact that the protests across the nation were based on the narrative that the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) is discriminatory to a specific religious community. This narrative provided an open ground for all kinds of interpretations, which may have created insecurity in the religious community, which is said to be at stake. The interpretation got stronger, with a right-wing nationalist party running the union government, an absolute majority in the parliament, and an aggressive Union Home Minister.
Hence, we witnessed various kind of protests – some were by students, some by women, renowned persons, politicians and some by policemen! The protests are going on in bits and pieces, even now, and it was heartwarming to witness that on New Year’s Eve, the national anthem was sung by students and general people in Delhi.
India has never witnessed a protest like this. The protest which was led by JP was for political reform; it was not violent but had no single cause of protest underlining the constitutional values.
The ‘India Against Corruption’ movement was more centred in the national capital and was simply against the government and targeted to put a system in place. But, in my opinion, the protests against CAA were special in nature, because, with the initial violence, it turned out to incorporate the creativity of the social media generation, the meme generation and the keyboard fighters.
The movement of protests also made us witness, that it has majorly been an intellectual war of interpretation. That’s why, the protests in the real sense, with a logical cause, were joined by students, academicians and some political thinkers. The cause amongst these people was the ‘secular’ nature of the constitution of India. Now, that’s what makes this protest significant, and pushes the intellectuals of both the sides – those who are for secularism, as it has been so far, and also for those who want to come up with an Indian version of secularism – back.
According to me, it is not very appropriate to make any comment on the constitutionality of CAA because it is under judicial scan. But as far my understanding is concerned, in terms of constitutional history, the constitutionality of the path of bringing up the Act and the spirit of Indian polity, the CAA may pass the constitutionality test. However, that will probably not provide any clear definition about Indian secularism. Hence, the question remains the same.
In my opinion, India, with its very culture, has been a spiritual society, of which the main pivot was religion. Hence, I don’t think that the hard secularism of France can be enforced in India. That’s clearly not possible.
Now, the American concept of soft secularism comes into consideration. The secularism in a union of states, having a mono-religious community, as a majority, would simply be inefficient to deal with a deeply diverse nation like India.
Just have a look at the depth of diversification here: in our society, first there comes the dissection between atheist and theist. If you are a theist, there comes the religion. The most prominent religions are Hinduism and Islam; if you are a Hindu, you step into caste, and if you are a Muslim, you also step into caste. Then caste divides into multiple classes of castes, then there is a regional classification of castes, the linguistic classification of regional classes of castes; then it goes to the depth of sub-castes and followed by gotra and other horoscope based classifications.
After this whole diversification, there comes a debate of indigenous religion, which causes a significant amount of discomfort for any religion, other than Hinduism. And there is the root, which pops the thought of religious domination. To mitigate the same, we brought a constitutional amendment to incorporate the instrument of secularism in the very preamble of our Constitution. Perhaps, this is the only aspect of the Indian Constitution which has no historical traces in Indian history, and yet it has got the status of an element of the Basic Structure Doctrine of the Constitution of India.
The secularism which we have witnessed, so far, in the current and last century, is basically the manifestation of the expiration, of any claim, of any religious body, on any state. But all the testing grounds have been in isolation from the influencing effort of multiple religious groups. They have also been capitalist nations and not a nation of spiritual practitioners. Hence, there is hardly any chance of confusion. But in India, each and every public institution is prone to religious and class hijack. This is why we have been witnessing ‘retreatist’ flavour in the mindset of people.
This retreatism becomes more severe when it gets on to the retaliatory paddle. It is a historical fact that India has been a very tolerant and knowledge focused society in its ancient and medieval period. But, we must accept the regime of Aurangzeb from this period, which shows the traces of initiation of religious domination, with a retreatist flavour for political success.
The British rule added more dynamics for communalism to foster, and the biggest success of communal divide and rule was manifested as the creation of Pakistan. I have earlier written that there is an obvious hiccup in Indian political parties, regardless of their political ideology, about the very existence of Pakistan.
The creation of a separate state demonstrates the secessionist nature, which is a clear threat to the sovereignty and integrity of any political entity. The point here is that all the historic milestones are religiously charged, and all of a sudden, the country wants its citizens to pay empathetic respect to the co-existing religious groups.
It indicates that the Indian interpretation of secularism as ‘paying equal respect to all religions’ has no significance. Rather, the issue is more about human domination, where religion is again used as the main pivot to have the backup of a group, to control the popularity of narratives, to consolidate the political direction, and the dimension of the global outlook of the nation.
We need to understand that it is beyond anyone’s control to stop somebody from perceiving threat out of an act of self-promotion. The Indian constitution gives religious freedom as a fundamental right, which incorporates propagation of religious practices, thoughts and institutions. Hence, in a nation-state that has a nature of unitary tilt, the state becomes the easiest instrument of expansion, for any religion, naturally. Thus, the political elements try to consolidate votes with the religious band.
One more advantage of pulling the religious string is that it cuts across international borders and hence gets the peoples’ attention easily. India has been facing several issues since ages, but no issue has driven people so much, that they may unite in such size, as they did to protest against the CAA. It again underlines that religion is yet one of the fundamental aspects of existence in India, and the government elected by such religious people, is expected to be non-partisan to religions. It is a classic contradiction!
In a ‘paternalistic’ nation like India, we have multiple contradictions when individual rights try to push their traditional limits. One of the limits is the reach of the system in a citizen’s life – the data about an individual. The Supreme Court of India has considered the right to privacy as a part of Art-21, which makes it a fundamental right, which is justiciable against the state. But the same Supreme Court will not be able to prevent the state if it wishes to have data about its citizens. The secularism will be untraceable if the state pushes it aside silently. Hence, this constitutional value appears too vaguely defined to measure, which puts a question mark on its relevance in the coming future.
The religious tolerance in India cannot be pursued, without ensuring adequate opportunity of individual development to the citizens, regardless of their geography, race, sex, class and creed. The intricacies of Indian society have to be incorporated in intellectual development processes from the very beginning.
Our education system appears to be the only hope. In the wake of the trends of technology for games and the games of technology, the projection of a future without cultural values of co-relation, cooperation and co-existence appears to be frantic. The intolerable and restless protests on religious lines have exposed the voids of Indian society and have inspired many to make plans for a more secure nation. It is clear that Unity in Diversity is not the only thing to aspire for; the society needs to learn, to understand the Diversity in Unity of its different sects.