The Importance of Being Secular


Senior Member
Mar 10, 2009
The Importance of Being Secular
India's election isn't just about security and the economy—religious freedom matters too.

By SUMIT GANGULY | From today's Wall Street Journal Asia.

India's 700 million-strong electorate will embark on a grand exercise of popular democracy when the country's month-long national election starts Thursday. Voters' most prominent concerns include national security and economic well-being. However another less tangible, though no less important, issue also looms large: the future of Indian secularism.

This issue has been brought to the fore in this election cycle thanks to inflammatory remarks about Muslims made by Varun Gandhi, a grandson of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Now a member of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), he reportedly suggested that he would cut off the hand of any Muslim who threatened a Hindu. His comments were made at a campaign rally in Pilibhit in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh last month. He is now in jail awaiting trial for provoking religious hatred.

Normally such callous remarks wouldn't receive national attention. But Mr. Gandhi's celebrity, coupled with India's aggressive media and the fact that Muslims are India's largest minority group, ensured his comments spread quickly. It's a serious issue: India, as a multireligious and polyethnic state, must have a government that guarantees and protects the rights of all minorities. Departing from this principle has cost India dearly in the past.

Mr. Gandhi's remarks have created a dilemma for the BJP as Thursday's election approaches. On the one hand, party elders have sought to distance themselves from his statements. On the other hand, many within the party feel that Mr. Gandhi has little to apologize for, reflecting the BJP's willingness to exploit religious divisions within the country to bolster its electoral prospects. This is an old struggle for the BJP, which built its popular base largely by appealing to Hindu nationalist sentiments, but in recent years has tried to market itself as the party of economic reform and national security.

Secularism also presents a dilemma for the ruling Congress Party-led coalition. Led by Sonia Gandhi -- Mr. Gandhi's aunt -- Congress has abandoned its tolerant principles when electoral considerations proved too enticing. Take the case of Taslima Nasrin, a Bangladeshi author who took refuge in India after Islamic radicals threatened to kill her for her work. In 2007, she was attacked at a book reading. Congress-appointed Vice President Hamid Ansari courageously condemned the attack, but few other politicians joined him. This year, Ms. Nasrin was informed that she could stay in India only if she refrained from any dealings with the press and avoided public appearances. She chose to leave India for a fellowship in the United States.

Just as seriously, in January of this year a BJP-affiliated organization, the Sri Ram Sena, or Lord Rama's Army, launched a series of attacks on young women frequenting pubs in the southern state of Karnataka. The silence from Congress politicians was deafening. Only a junior minister in the national government, Renuka Chowdhury, spoke out against this form of violent local vigilantism. Nor was this the first instance of wanton lawlessness: Previously, the Sri Ram Sena had attacked college women in the company of Muslim male companions.

Congress' stunning unwillingness to defend secularism stems entirely from its quest for the conservative Muslim vote. Unfortunately, its concessions to parochial Muslim opinion play directly into the hands of the BJP. They also reinforce the position of other purveyors of religious intolerance in India, such as Muslim clerics and opportunistic politicians.

This is a sad departure from Congress's roots. Its founder, Jawaharlal Nehru, was a staunch secularist, and recognized that any departure from secular principles would undermine the country's commitment to liberal democracy.

However, Indira Gandhi, his daughter and successor, resorted to populist appeals to bolster Congress's sagging political fortunes. In the 1983 Jammu and Kashmir state elections, she made thinly veiled appeals to religious sentiments in the Hindu-majority part of the state. Earlier, through her political support for a Sikh revivalist preacher, she contributed to political polarization in Punjab, a critical border state.

Her son, Rajiv Gandhi, did little to reverse this downward slide. When faced with the prospect of losing Muslim votes, he exploited his parliamentary majority in 1986 to overturn an Indian Supreme Court judgment that had granted an indigent Muslim woman the right to alimony. Later, to win back Hindu supporters, he revived a dispute involving a 16th century mosque, the Babri Masjid, reputedly built on the ruins of a temple consecrating the birthplace of Lord Rama, a key member of the Hindu pantheon.

Departures from secularism have had grave consequences for India. Hindu zealots destroyed the Babri Masjid in December 1992 and set off waves of inter-religious rioting across India. Well over a thousand people were killed. In February 2002, religious rioting in Gujarat state resulted in the massacre of 1,000 mostly Muslim citizens. The Mumbai terror attacks last year, which killed about 170 people, were largely aimed at inciting this religious terror again.

The BJP rose to power and briefly formed a national government in 1996 largely as a reaction to Congress's declining support for secularism -- and because the BJP appealed to the majority Hindu population's fears.

This time around, a range of national and local issues, from terrorism, to the national economy, illegal immigration, governance and political corruption, will dominate the news. But the vexed issue of the future of Indian secularism remains a critical question.

Until both Congress Party and BJP leaders recognize secularism's intrinsic importance in a country of unparalleled religious diversity -- and act accordingly to uphold the principle with vigor -- the nation may again fall prey to coarse populist appeals and face yet another wave of religious discord and violence. India's democracy deserves better.

Mr. Ganguly holds the Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilization at Indiana University.


Feb 19, 2009
one of the rare unbiased articles where the author has the guts of calling a spade a spade but way the lines have been divided it seems everyone has an agenda to propagate their own ideology. more than political parties it is the national media which is to blame which everyone expects to be unbiased but that has not been the case, the other problem i see is they have tried to focus on the negativity in the electoral campaign, cant we all for a change look for the good that is being spoken, the development issues that are being talked about and highlight that as a sign of change and set that as an example, but alas we all like negativity and then the media is ever ready to give that space of 2minute national coverage that should be best avoided. soon these disillusioned lot become national heroes just the way we made abu salim a national hero or just the way dawood is made a national hero. now if we are ready to give these kind of people the national importance and a reason to be an inspiration for the audience watching then no wonder the generation to come would try and immortalise them and then we as a society will crib just like what one sees in pakistan. time we all threw the rot with in away or its just a matter of time before we all are swallowed in this absolute utter nonsense.


Senior Member
Apr 1, 2009
I agree ritesh. you have pointed out an important flaw in our democracy: media. irresponsible, sensationalist and prejudiced media. this is the problem. media must be unbiased and constructive. giving 24hr coverage to hate speeches and throwing shoes is not right. instead they should play the role of representing ppl's worries and concerns.

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