governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Posts tagged ‘Secularism’

BJP – mega political mall

bjp-new-office

The rout of the BJP, in the Bihar and Delhi Assembly elections, were loudly touted as evidence of the deep roots of the “idea of India” — so dear to the Left-leaning, “secular” intelligentsia. Two years later, Bihar is back in the BJP stable and Delhi limps along with Arvind Kejriwal nursing his 2017 defeat in the Delhi municipal elections. In parting ways with his “less than kosher” partners — Lalu Prasad Yadav and his ilk — and realigning with the BJP, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar has apparently, revised his views on the Hobson’s choice between aligning with corruption or with communalism. He has now switched to the latter, as the lesser evil, possibly nudged by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s public resolve to abolish both by 2022. In the meantime, he forfeits the somewhat unlikely “halo” around him as the leader of a national “secular” Opposition. Muslims and dalits also face this choice now — between a clean and effective, albeit Hindu, government or self-serving, dynastic patriarchs, posing as ersatz secularists.

Does consolidating the Hindu vote equal communalism?

shah dalit home

For the BJP, the charge of “communalism” has little meaning. Ending “casteism” – another vicious scourge, is only possible, if the Hindu vote is consolidated, ending the use of narrow vote banks based on traditional identities, around which regional parties have grown deep roots, like the RJD in Bihar and Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh.

BJP’s strategy is to consolidate the Hindu vote across regional and caste divides to strengthen its majority government at the Centre and control enough states to cover two-thirds of the voter population. The idea is to become like a mega political mall, encompassing diverse shades of opinion. Smaller parties, like the JD(U) are welcome to buy-in or opt-out, but none would be critical to the BJP’s survival.

The BJP sees no contradiction between resolving to root out “communalism” whilst consolidating” the Hindu vote by ending archaic caste divides. It wants Muslims and Christians, both foreign religions, to harmonise their religious beliefs to fit seamlessly into the dominant local culture.

Deeper decentralisation can be a bridge to communal harmony

naga 2

India is very diverse even within large states. Eating beef and pork is fine in predominantly Christian Nagaland. Bonding over beef is the custom in Kerala for Muslims, Christians and many Hindus. But this would be unthinkable in Uttar Pradesh. A more decentralised India can give greater space for making locally acceptable choices about customs and norms at the local government level. But the principle of subsidiarity is ignored. What can be settled at the village level is decided in Delhi or a state capital where the the minority viewpoint gets ignored in favour of across the board acceptability. Today, local governments lack the administrative, political and financial clout to matter. This means for now, the onus is on the minority community in any area to negotiate workable local compromises on cultural and religious practices which conflict with the locally dominant majority. Detractors of this “majoritarian” approach say this illustrates the disenfranchised status of minorities

Nuns

To be fair to Muslims and Christians, it is a stretch for them to reach such local accommodations. They have been misleadingly nurtured, since 1947, into expecting that the Indian State shall provide special mechanisms to safeguard their right to religion and facilitate their active political participation, in view of their numerical disadvantage. They have never before, encountered a government that is coldly dismissive of their expectations and has, at best, no desire to go beyond the letter of the law.

muslim women

What does being secular mean?

There is also disagreement on what being secular means. Should the State actively shun anything to do with religion, as in France? Or be even handed with all religions, as in the UK? Or should we further refine our version of secularism. Political theorist Rajeev Bhargava, is of the view that, in India, both the State and religions influence each other. The State actively intervenes in religion — as for example taking over the administration of Tirupati or subsidising Haj travel for Muslims or opening Hindu temples to dalits. Similarly, religion actively influences State action. Demolition of the Babri Masjid by karsevaks in 1992 breached the law. But the State watched passively out of deference to Hindu sentiment. In 1986, an executive ordinance was used to specifically nullify a Supreme Court order granting maintenance to Shahbano, a Muslim divorcee – a practise unsupported by Islamic law which had greatly agitated Muslim clerics.

Modern Indian culture is syncretic – but dominantly Hindu

Shahrukh 2

Modern Indian, popular culture is syncretic but dominantly Hindu, as best illustrated by Bollywood. Our movies cater predominantly to Hindu cultural settings, ironically often on the backs of film stars, many of whom are Muslim. With 80 per cent of the population being Hindu, it cannot but be otherwise.

The constitution reflects the fraternal bond between the State and Hinduism 

Fraternal bonds

Similarly, the founders of our Constitution were prescient in anticipating that Hindu sentiment would be politically dominant. Article 25 of the Constitution, excludes Christian and Muslim religious and social institutions from State regulation. But it specifically limits the fundamental right of Hindus (which includes Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists) to practice religion, by allowing the State to intervene for reforming Hindu religious institutions. This asymmetric provision reflects an assumption that there can never be a conflict between the Indian State and Hinduism. But the potential for a conflict of interest between the State and Muslims or Christians, exists and must be guarded against.

Muslims and Christians are not the only ones isolated by the Hindu revivalism. One-fourth of Hindus (dalits and backward tribal communities) are uncomfortable with traditional, Brahmanical religious practices. Often these are just a cover for hanging onto the asymmetric power structures benefiting the upper and the “Mandal”-empowered backward castes. Babasaheb Ambedkar articulated this apprehension as a deal-breaker for political cohesion.

Testing the efficacy of mega political power

Should we be worried by a BJP mega political power mall? We are schooled to believe that pervasive, political power begets authoritarianism. This hypothesis will now be tested. The BJP believes that a “national” government, in which, political sub-interests, defined by gender, caste, region or religion, “work” the system from within, is better than the template version of parliamentary democracy, in which an active opposition keeps the transgressions of the ruling party “in check”.

The BJP had 100 million registered members in 2015 — 18 per cent of the registered voters. It has a massive majority in the Lok Sabha and shall replicate this majority in the Rajya Sabha as legacy UPA members retire. The BJP directly controls states comprising 54 per cent of India’s population whilst another 23 per cent of the population lives in states ruled by allies or jointly with the BJP. Together this constitutes more than three-fourths of the population. Why then does it feel compelled to grow bigger?

BJP rule

In any competitive market, to stand still is to lose ground. Indian sporting teams are often criticised for lacking the “killer” instinct to convert their strengths into wins. But in politics, as in business, this genetic flaw is an asset. Leaving something on the table boosts the “feel good” factor for all. This has merit in politics, where there are no permanent winners or losers.

Adapted from the authors article in The Asian Age , August 1, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/020817/the-politics-of-religion.html#vuukle-emotevuukle_div

Stop being a bully State

beef

Does the proposed national “beef ban” and the rabid intolerance for “beef-eaters” illustrate a new and disturbing trend in Indian politics? Are we squandering away our “secularism”?

India has been a “secular” state in practice all along. All the bells and whistles to ensure equal rights for all citizens, irrespective of religion, have existed in the Indian Constitution. But via the infamous Constitution (Forty-second amendment) Act, 1976, the term “secular” was inserted into the Preamble somewhat superfluously.

This attempt to put a “face” to the “fact”, should have been the first signal that our commitment to treating all Indians as one, was doomed to be only skin deep. Thereafter, it has been open season for most political parties to play strategically with the sentiments of both, the majority Hindus and minorities — Muslims being the largest — for periodic political benefit.

inter faith

photo credit: http://www.jainsamaj.org

Religion and community feeling matters

At an individual level, Indians from all faiths accept the basic proposition that culture and religion, which are closely interwoven, are personally important. They also, generally, accept that the individual has to bow down to community norms. This acceptance of religious and community dominance is not without legal precedent.

Our Constitution via Article 48A of the Directive Principles of State Policy requires that the state take steps to “prohibit the slaughter of cows”. Admittedly, the Directive Principles are not justiciable in a court of law. They are more in the nature of guidance for future action. But, consider that cow protection is clubbed with protecting worker rights; the educational rights of the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes; improving nutrition levels, protecting the environment and promotion of international peace and security!

The Constitution has been amended one hundred times till now. But the primacy for cow protection in our constitutional vision, as enshrined in the Directive Principles, still stands.

calf

photo credit: http://www.pinterest.com

Democracy without development remains backward looking

What this illustrates, is that democracy is a blunt instrument for social inclusion. The incentive to pander to majority votes is too intense. Second, things become worse when the political architecture assumes, like ours does, that all religions have similar social and economic demographics and, hence, proportional representation is not needed for minorities to protect their voting power. Ironically, this is exactly what we are urging Nepal not to do under their new Constitution and to instead protect the voting power of the “minority”, coincidentally Indian-origin, Madhesis and Tharus, who live in the Terai adjoining Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

The romantic hope of the “Macaulay generation” in 1947 was that as India became richer, it would resemble the West, where churches are empty but the bars are full. India is richer today. But religion and tradition remain deeply embedded. We are unlikely to lose our religious identities any time soon.

Decentralisation: the still born option for enhancing inclusion

Another route to manage a heterogeneous society, like ours, could be to decentralise deeply. This was tentatively envisaged under the Constitution (73rd Amendment) Act and Constitution (74th Amendment) Act, 1992. These amendments sought to transfer the management of local affairs to village panchayats and urban municipalities. But the attempt was stillborn. We remain a fairly centralised polity. State governments get seduced to toe the “Imperial line”, dished out from Delhi along with Central funds, rather than go their own way, which is so much more effort intensive.

Our recent experience with the reorganisation of state governments shows that decentralisation can take the steam out of corrosive identity politics. The creation of five new states out of Assam in the 1960s and ’70s is a good example. The proliferation of state governments in India, since Independence (from 16 to 29) lends further credence to this strategy for dampening identity politics.

To cater to our cultural and religious mosaic, India needs either many more homogenous states or more powers delegated to local governments, particularly large cities. Consider that if Mumbai was a city-state, it was unlikely to have opted for a “beef ban”. But as part of the state of Maharashtra, it has no choice.

Isn’t it time to come clean? Our secularism is limited to being a benign, quasi-Hindu state, where minority religious rights are constitutionally protected. This is very similar to enlightened Muslim-majority states like Jordan or Egypt both of which have significant Christian populations.

Secularism is not a State without religion

Our brand of secularism is too passive for anything but harmful politicking. It is time to make it proactive and more effective. Here are three suggestions.

First, minority rights must be explicitly recognised, but subordinated to the common law rights of workers, children and the differently-abled. These, and the principle of gender parity, should be “core values” cutting across all religious rights.

Second, if we are to ban beef, despite the significant adverse economic impact on those who trade in it, how about being even-handed and also banning pork — meat considered impure in Islam? This removes, at one stroke, the perceived discrimination against Muslims and Christians, both of whom eat beef. After all, India has more Muslims that any other Islamic country, except Indonesia; enough Christians to be notionally the 22nd most populous Christian country in the world — just ahead of Australia — and the second largest in Asia after the Philippines.

In any case there are sound environmental and health grounds for banning both beef and pork. We can live, quite happily, on goat meat, fish and seafood. Breeding pigs is a flourishing micro-business today for Hindu dalits, but there is no gain without some pain.

Third, our Constitution is explicit about helping SCs and STs, all of whom are assumed to be the poor and underprivileged, within the broad umbrella of Hinduism. Isn’t it fair then to also extend specific, targeted facilities to poor Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains who are as helpless as the poor Hindus? Selective benefits for “underprivileged” Hindus look awfully like pandering to the majority community.

A benign and forward-looking ruler must be even-handed. That is raj dharma. Religious appeasement must be uniform not selective. This is difficult since at the root of appeasement is arbitrariness.

But there is a fourth option, if the first three are not practical. Stop being a bully state. We have done very well thus far as a “soft” state, wary of displeasing anyone — except perhaps our neighbours.

Becoming a bully state is the worst option, especially because we have the institutions and the skills to become an inclusive, rational, developmental state. Perception is everything in today’s social media-powered world. Let’s not squander our common future for petty temporal gain.

“Insaaf ki ghanti” is ringing. It must be heard.

jehangir

Adapted from the authors article in the Asian Age October 13, 2015 http://www.asianage.com/columnists/stop-being-bully-state-375

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