On paper we are a modern nation whose civil society has the usual paraphernalia of laws, police, judiciary and administrative mechanisms. Why has religion, which is essentially not of the public sphere, come to wield so much power over our lives, our polity, our very thinking?
A Muslim friend said something disturbing recently. I normally call him just a friend, or at most a friend who happens to be a Muslim: because it is ordinarily that identity, friend, which is important to me. I have been specific here for the reason that he said what he did, in the way he did, with a great degree of alarm and an especially close understanding and pain, precisely because he is a Muslim. I mention that particular because it is crucial.
Selected Articles by Mukul Dube
Tolerant and Secular?
July, 2002: Web posted on November 7, 2002
I speak, for my survival
The Indian Express, October 19, 2002
Reflections on Gandhinagar temple attack
September 25, 2002
Lies and Silence
September 14, 2002
A Fine, Upstanding Symbol
September 10, 2002
Responsibility and Revenge
September 7, 2002
Me, they, us
The Hindustan Times, September 3, 2002
Maun Mushtanda: The Strong, Silent Man
By Mukul Dube, Mainstream weekly, vol. xl, no. 37, 31 August 2002
Also a Muslim
The Indian Express, August 8, 2002
Our religious identities have come virtually to define us at the expense of such other things as gender, age, profession, marital status, economic position and roles, reading habits, hobbies, and so on. Until some years ago my friend would have seen himself and thought of himself as a Muslim only rarely if at all. Now circumstances are such that he is a Muslim first and so many other things only later. Now circumstances are such that he is made aware, nearly every waking minute, that he is a Muslim.
He told me that the skull cap now to be seen on the heads of nearly all the men coming out of mosques is a relatively new sight in our land. People of his age group he was born somewhat before Independence and Partition had always associated that kind of cap, though worn differently, with Judaism. >From my own memories of something over half a century, I too cannot recall such widespread use of that now so very visible symbol of religious identity.
My response was to say that a people whose very being was threatened in a fundamental way would probably tend to cling the more closely to visible symbols of identity. My friend agreed, but he added and this is where the fear came in that in our condemnation of the Hindu Right inspired by its recent genocidal activities, we are in danger of forgetting that organisations of the Muslim Right are no less bloodthirsty, no less obscurantist, no less the enemies of reason and humanity. If they have done relatively little mischief, that is only because of their smaller numbers. They spread their own brand of poison constantly though not nearly so openly as the Hindutva Borgias and they lurk, watchfully, just under the surface.
They also enforce the wearing of skull caps. I must explain what I mean when I say that they enforce it. There is probably no physical coercion used: but there certainly is a great deal of social pressure, based on the fear of being ostracised if one does not conform. In much the same way, their counterparts on the Ayodhya Team enforce the wearing of coloured marks on the forehead and the tying of string around the wrist. Not to sport these signs is tantamount to saying that one does not belong.
Several people, from all of the four religions most widely followed in our land, have told me that it has become very difficult not to be visibly religious. Those who earlier simply did not practise their religions, though without making an issue of it, cannot easily continue to do that. There is pressure on them to declare themselves, to conform and be seen to conform. Had this been a sporting fixture, no spectator could have been neutral or could merely have wished the better side to win it is necessary now for every spectator to don the colours of one or other side and also to sit in the area reserved for that group.
What is this absurd situation in which we have placed ourselves? Ordinary Hindus are terrified of those who have declared themselves to be the spokesmen and leaders of their religion. Ordinary Muslims are terrified of the handful of people who have arrogated to themselves the right to define Islam and speak for it. On paper we are a modern nation whose civil society has the usual paraphernalia of laws, police, judiciary and administrative mechanisms. Why has religion, which is essentially not of the public sphere, come to wield so much power over our lives, our polity, our very thinking?
The answer lies, I believe, in our having forgotten the meaning of the word secular. We call ourselves that but use it mindlessly, meaning all the wrong things by it. Secular denotes that which is not religious: it means non-religious, other than religious. It does not mean what most of us now use it as merely multi-religious or plural. A secular State is one which is not based on religion, one in whose make-up religion has no place. A secular State treats religion purely as a citizen's personal affair.
India, supposedly secular, is today ruled by a coalition headed by a party which not only claims to be Hindu but actively works towards the disenfranchising and economic strangulation of people who follow other religions even, as we have seen in Gujarat recently, their physical extermination. This is, let us remember, the supposedly modern 21st century. It is over half a century after the Republic of India was formed ostensibly as a secular and democratic entity.
We are not in the Middle Ages, when people were burnt at the stake for heresy and apostasy nor are we in an even earlier mythical time when all-powerful, semi-divine mendicants roamed the Earth and apparently survived on nothing material. Our rivers are today of curdled milk, the fruit upon our trees is rusted and tarnished.
That in whose shadow alone we can re-form ourselves into a nation-state worthy of being called that, is the Constitution of the Republic of India. The laws designed to keep our society running without friction must be applied ruthlessly and even-handedly by an administration untainted by religion. The secular must be nothing other than the secular. There are specific duties written down and assigned to the judiciary, the civil administration and the police. All must perform these duties, for that is what they are paid to do, that is the reason for their position in society, that is the oath they all took on their appointment. And I must be compelled to respect the law, never mind who I am or who I claim to be.
No more should maniacal bigots be allowed to pervert reason and insult intelligence by saying that religion is beyond the courts, above the laws, on a plane higher even than known history. No more should they be permitted to openly defy the organs which civilised society has created for itself to maintain order and justice. No more should they be permitted to penetrate these organs like malignant termites and corrupt them from within as they have done in Gujarat.