Secularism In India Was Never About What It’s Made Out To Be

The inauguration of India’s new parliament with Hindu symbolism has triggered murmurs of disapproval citing secular traditions although there is nothing new in the association of occupants of constitutional posts with such ceremonies since the republic was founded

Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India carrying a scepter during an inauguration for a new Parliament building

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

India’s opposition parties no longer confront the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for hollowing out the country’s unique secular constitutionalism. They believe it plays into the BJP’s hands by allowing it to paint them as ‘anti-Hindu’ to entrench itself further.

The opposition parties accordingly boycotted the inauguration of the new parliament building, citing the ‘sidelining’ of President Droupadi Murmu. They avoided any reference to the promotion through the inauguration of the BJP’s core belief—the centrality of Hindu traditions, culture, ideas, and aspirations to Indian nationhood.

The opposition parties instead argued Murmu, who has ceremonial powers, should have presided over the televised ceremony as the head of state and highest constitutional authority instead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

True to form, Modi brazened out the criticism and went ahead with the ceremony full of Hindu religious symbolism. Hindu priests consecrated Modi with a royal scepter at the inauguration as he offered prayers. They chanted religious hymns at the beginning of the ceremony which coincided with the birth anniversary of Hindu nationalist ideologue Vinayak Damodar Savarkar.

Modi, who has presided over religious ceremonies including that for the groundbreaking of the temple being built in place of the demolished Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, prostrated before the golden scepter ahead of its installation near the parliament speaker’s chair.

While the opposition parties avoided any talk of Indian secular traditions, outrage over regular thumbing of the nose to them was reflected on social media.

‘Religious leaders consecrating a Hindu king with a royal sceptre is symbolically as antithetical to the idea of a secular republic as it can possibly get. What a sad day for India’s founding leaders and their vision for India as an inclusive democracy,’ tweeted Debasish Roy Chowdhury, the author of To Kill A Democracy: India’s Passage To Despotism.

Eminent lawyer Prashant Bhushan earlier wrote: ‘As he [Modi] prepares to inaugurate the new Parliament House (though Parliament hardly functions), with great fanfare with these ‘sadhus’ & religious ‘pontiffs’, (minus our President & Opp parties), Modi gives us a glimpse of the New India that he wants. Our Constitution doesn’t permit the State to be involved with religion, but here it is!’

A picture of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru with other founding fathers of the Indian Republic such as Bhimrao Ambedkar was widely shared as a contrast to that of Modi with religious leaders at the new parliament building’s inauguration.

Secularism in India, however, is often made out to be what it never was even in the best of times. The word secularism in fact was inscribed in the Indian Constitution almost 30 years after independence in 1976. Secularism in India was never about the complete separation of the state and religion or its exclusion from the public sphere but the state’s recognition of all religions.

The commitment of Nehru, who is seen as the greatest champion of secularism in India, to pluralism was undoubted. But powerful Hindu traditionalists within the ranks of his Congress worked at cross purposes with his ideas. Nehru acknowledged this in his autobiography, saying many ‘a Congressman was a communalist under his national cloak.’

The traditionalists in the Congress, which ruled India for over five decades, followed in the footsteps of people such as Madan Mohan Malaviya, who linked the ‘strengthening’ of the Hindus with nation-building.

In his book The Hindu Nationalist Movement in India, academic Christophe Jaffrelot writes the traditionalists accepted ‘the primacy of Hindu values and were prepared to join with Hindu nationalists in campaigns of ethnoreligious mobilisation.’ More often than not, there was a convergence of interests between the Hindu nationalists and the traditionalists.

Nehru’s Hindu traditionalist colleagues included Rajendra Prasad, who was a key member of his interim ministry constituted in September 1946. Prasad was linked with Hindu Mahasabha and was the outfit’s reception committee chairman for its 1932 session in Bihar’s Gaya.

When anti-Muslim violence left an estimated 20,000 people dead in Delhi in 1947 and forced over a quarter of the city population of over 330000 to leave the city, Prasad wrote to Nehru insisting there was no need to call the army to protect them.

Prasad went on to get the coveted post of Constituent Assembly head to draft the constitution that enshrined secularism in India. His stock kept rising. He had the distinction of becoming India’s first president even as Nehru considered Prasad to be ‘very conservative, traditionalist and somewhat obscurantist.’

Nehru had to give in. He found a majority of Congress lawmakers supported Prasad and opposed his choice of C Rajagopalachari, who served as India’s first Indian Governor-General.

Fellow traditionalist Vallabhbhai Patel worked hard to install Prasad as the president and ensured Rajagopalachari did not get the post. Rajagopalachari was ideologically aligned with Nehru and matched him in his secular credentials.

Patel derided Rajagopalachari as ‘half a Muslim.’ He evolved consensus for Prasad’s candidature at an informal Congress meeting to scuttle Rajagopalachari’s chances.

Shortly after taking over as the president and India’s head of state in 1951, Prasad visited the Hindu holy city of Benares on the Ganga banks to wash the feet of Hindu priests. Prasad drank the water with which he washed their feet as part of a religious ritual.

A cartoon in Filmindia captioned ‘Ram Rajya (Lord Ram’s rule) at last’ mocked Prasad’s ritual. It showed Nehru complaining: ‘Not me; I am Pandit [Brahmin] too.’ To this, another Congress leader Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was shown responding: ‘You [Nehru] embrace Muslims too often.’

Nehru too would participate in a religious ritual called yajna of Benares Brahmins to celebrate his elevation as India’s first Brahmin prime minister. The traditionalists also forced him to include the confessional holy cow protection provision in India’s Constitution.

Nehru could not prevent Prasad from getting involved in traditionalist projects such as the reconstruction of the partly-damaged Somnath Temple centuries after a Turkish conqueror sacked it in the 11th century. Prasad installed Shivalingam, a representation of the Hindu god Shiva, at the temple, which was also championed by K M Munshi and Vallabhbhai Patel in Nehru’s cabinet.

Patel symbolically announced the Somnath restoration project on November 12, 1947, when the Indian army drove out Junaghad’s Muslim ruler after he announced his principality’s accession with Pakistan. He linked the restoration of idols at the temple with the Hindu ‘honour’ and ‘sentiment.’

Patel was the most powerful traditionalist within the Congress as Nehru’s deputy and internal security in-charge. He set the tone for how Muslims were to be treated. Patel opposed Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad’s inclusion in Nehru’s cabinet, questioning the Muslim leader’s patriotism.

Uttar Pradesh (UP) chief minister G B Pant became the federal home minister in 1955 five years after Nehru wrote him saying he had felt ‘for a long time that the whole atmosphere of the UP has been changing for the worse from the communal point of view.’

Morarji Desai was inducted into Nehru’s cabinet in 1958 decades after he got into politics after being forced to resign as a bureaucrat when he was found guilty of going soft on anti-Muslim rioters in Gujarat’s Godhra in the late 1920s

Desai ironically told a ‘national integration’ convention in Delhi in November 1964 that India’s Hindu majority was ‘clean hearted and fair minded’ and added he cannot say the same about the majority of Indian Muslims. Over a decade later, he became the Prime Minister in 1977 in alliance with the Hindu nationalists after breaking away from the Congress.

The alliance came as a major boost to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), BJP’s ideological fountainhead, which has since the 1920s argued that the Indian identity is embodied in Hinduism and opposed secularism in India.

The BJP would campaign for the construction of a temple in place of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in the 1980s. It culminated with the demolition of the mosque in 1992 and triggered anti-Muslim violence but catapulted the BJP to power in 1998. The BJP ruled India as part of a coalition until 2004 before it was voted back to power with a full majority in 2014 and started implementing its transformative agenda.

The increasing invisiblisation of the marginalised Muslim minority, accounting for 14% of the population, has been one of the manifestations of India’s radical transformation.

None of the ruling BJP’s 303 lawmakers in India’s lower House of Parliament is Muslim. BJP did not re-nominate its three Muslim lawmakers to Parliament’s Upper House in 2022. This meant the lone Muslim federal Cabinet minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, who headed the insignificant minority affairs ministry, lost his position.

As part of a shift from civic to ethnic nationalism, India amended its citizenship law in 2019 to fast-track the citizenship process for non-Muslims (essentially Hindus) from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh, who have come to the country before 2015.

The Muslim minority—BJP’s bogeyman—has been otherized to solidify the BJP narrative of being the champion of the Hindu cause and to reinforce the idea of showing Muslims their place.

Even the so-called secular political parties, which are dependent on Muslim voters and for decades championed secularism in India, have avoided being identified with the Muslims and willy-nilly furthered RSS’s vision to transform India into an ethnic democracy like Israel and Sri Lanka. And the ceremony marking the inauguration of the new parliament is an important symbolic reiteration of the transformation.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide 

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