Secularism is one of the most essential aspects of democracy, especially in a country which boasts great cultural diversity. In advance of India's 2014 general election, the central question that I ask myself, and ask the country in general, is how true are we to the idea of secularism? Without secularism, you cannot have true democracy. Yet the leading parties depend on sectarianism for raising popular support.
Clearly, as someone who belongs to a more intellectually privileged background, my definition of secularism is different from that of someone who hasn't been open to certain aspects of culture, religion, and spirituality. To me, secularism means being tolerant of other religions and cultural practices, and not so much as batting an eyelash when someone speaks out a full name that contains information about which religion they are likely to practice. Though someone might be secular on paper, and not blatantly denounce someone else’s faith, that same person might avoid involving themselves too deeply with people of other religious backgrounds.
I grew up knowing people who would not eat at a Muslim’s home or accept a gift from someone who didn't share their same beliefs. I always envisaged an India which would one day disregard disparities in creed, and realize, especially as people become more aware of the political malpractices associated with vote-bank blocs, that communalism is only a facet of the overt politicization of society. However, things took a turn for the worse after 2002, when mass communal violence took place between Hindus and Muslims in Gujarat. I was too young to have a political ideology at that point in time, but I knew that the violence was the beginning of something that would slowly threaten India's cultural variability. However, I want to clarify that last bit. There were scores of clashes plagued my nation prior to 2002, and spoke to the extreme tensions between two or more sects of society, but the Gujarat riots, and the political mileage gained from them, thoroughly rocked the sacred fabric of secularism of this nation. To reflect on my question: were my own beliefs in secularism as profound after the riots, or were they shaken up? I can’t answer this straightforwardly without giving a little background information. There are two major political parties in India, the right-wing Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) and the neo-progressive Indian National Congress. Because the former is a right-wing establishment, its basic roots lie in rather parochial and often normative principles, such as the promotion of a completely Hindu state rather than one with a melange of religions. This parochialism was one of the motivations behind the aforementioned Gujarat riots, which were allegedly supported by the state government, and intended to trigger a genocide that singled out the Muslim minority. Though, it wasn’t the first such pogrom that had state and political support, it was the first one that resulted in civil society pick sides.
The factionalization was not due to the communalism that arose from the riots — non-Muslim minorities had been marginalized before — but semantics and symbolism. The Congress Party has long used vote-bank politics and patronized Muslims, and there was no way they were going to let this incident escape their opportunistic strategies. It was hypocritical of them, because they had carried out the last “ethnic cleansing,” but it was also easy for them, as their main adversary, BJP, had long claimed to be a party centred on Hindus. A murky blame game commenced, and the result is how India is today. If a Hindu writes against Hindu nationalist politician Narendra Modi, he is accused of being a Muslim under a pseudonym. If a Muslim speaks in favor of a Hindu, he has sold himself out. Now that things have come full circle, am I a secular person? I have seen Congress reign over this country for as long as I remember; they have neither been good to Hindus nor to minorities. The socioeconomic status of India plunged under its governance, and corruption is rampant. My obvious choice would be to vote for the alternate party, to see if they are capable enough to carry India forward. But what happens when the alternative is non-secular? This is a question that millions of Indians are faced with answering. We go to the polls in 2014, and we have two parties gunning for the top slot. One is a party that singled out one minority for blame but championed the cause of another, all while remaining mum regarding countless cases of insurgency and terrorism. The other is a the party that nullified all its positive achievements because of its belief in the superiority of one faith. I am unsure if Indians can go ever back to just being Indians, but I am sure that the word secularism is one which won’t be thrown around a lot in the near future.