Thursday, 15 May 2014

* Who decides how secular am I?

Gulf News
Sanjib Kumar Das
As the world’s largest democracy waits with bated breath for the results of the just-concluded general elections, after months of a high-decibel campaign, it is time to catch one’s breath and just be a little reflective about all that can finally be sieved and kept aside for a second or third look at some leisurely hour.

And the one thought that keeps crisscrossing my mind is this secular-vs-communal debate that continues to rage. ‘The last word shall never be said’ — immaculately delivered in Joseph Conrad’s timeless classic Lord Jim. And so it seems with the Indian milieu – there is yet to be a last word on this debate. Is Narendra Modi communal? Is the Congress party secular? And for how long will an aam aadmi’s (common man’s) vote for or against a certain party be interpreted in terms of a vote for or against a certain religious thought?
In the 42nd amendment to the Indian Constitution in 1976, when the word ‘secular’ was added to the Preamble, the driving principle was ‘sarva dharma samabhav’, — literally meaning ‘equal and unbiased disposition towards all religions’.
Unfortunately, 67 years of a multi-party democracy and blatant appeasement of sentiments on either side of the ideological divide have allowed a deep sense of mutual distrust and shameless opportunism to stain what was supposed to be a blemish-free collective social consciousness. It is indeed unfortunate that today, a vote for or against a certain political party is seen as the only denominator to judge an average Indian’s secular moorings.
I still remember the heart-rending tales my father used to narrate about his tryst with a ‘new India’ in those tumultuous days immediately after Independence in 1947, when the wildfire of communal frenzy saw him uprooted from his place of birth — what was then East Pakistan and now Bangladesh — and forced his family, like millions of others, to seek refuge in the hitherto unknown world on the other side of the border.
By co-opting the soul of an undivided nation and maiming its future generations with a two-nation theory, the British had inflicted permanent damage on both India and Pakistan. Partition was the direct and most visible manifestation of a colonial order steeped in debauchery and the sternest test of one’s secular credentials.
As the fire of communal disharmony raged unbridled, my father and his extended family were sheltered for three nights by their immediate Muslim neighbours near Dhaka. And as the train, bursting at the seams with refugees, drifted across from Dhaka to the other side of the border on a pitch-dark night, the tables were turned. Still picking up the pieces at their makeshift camp in the southern fringes of Calcutta, “the outsiders” put their lives at stake to protect the Muslim families next door from a marauding band of butchers.
“That was my brush with secularism — as real and raw as it could get,” my father would say.
Watching television debates, in the comfort of my living room, I wonder whether ‘secularism’ as we see it today is anything more than a mere scholastic discipline, a perennially red-hot debating point to keep the evening prime-time viewership gravy train chugging!
It is only natural that politics in a world of plurality that India is will keep revolving around this secular-vs-communal debate. There can be nothing wrong with that. But the picture tends to take a sinister hue as and when the debate wields a paint brush that seeks to tar everyone in terms of a ‘you-are-either-with-us-or-against-us’ kind of a narrative. It is all so simplistic that we do not even bother to pick the other shades that may have gone into hiding in a world that has dumbed everything down with its monochromatic overtones.
So, a vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) means you are an out an out communal person. And a vote for the Congress is always indicative of a secular orientation. Congress and BJP are just the two ends of the field, you can fill in the rest of the space with the players of your choice. It’s all so simple!
So how secular am I? That’s the question that keeps bothering me every now and then. My secular belief makes me deplore a Modi under whose watch innocent Muslims were massacred in Gujarat. My secular belief makes me hate a government that silently watches innocent Sikhs being butchered on the streets of Delhi. My secular moorings make me deplore a Sonia Gandhi who seeks the blessings of the Imam of Jama Masjid every time there’s a general election knocking on her doors.

My secular moorings make me hunt for shehnai maestro late Bismillah Khan’s home in the din of Varanasi. My secular ethos make me cringe at the very thought of hooligans riding atop a mosque with the excuse of building a temple. My secular ethos makes me cringe at the thought of a fatwa on an author just because someone doesn’t endorse the script. My secular faith rivets me to the Sufi singers at Ajmer Sharif. My secular faith also rivets me to the pristine silence inside St Paul’s Cathedral in Kolkata ...

And who I vote for has nothing to do with any of these. A vote is a matter of my political choice, not an attempt to seek umbrage with my religious faith.
As the TV anchor blared: “Why doesn’t Narendra Modi say sorry to the Gujarat riot victims?” my 11-year-old son had a question for me: “What is the problem in saying ‘sorry’?” I had no answer, but I could assuredly see a secular mind at work — without wearing it on his sleeves, that is.

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