CAN SECULARISM BE SAVED?

Kuldip Nayar appeals to the people of India to keep their long tradition of tolerance alive

In his farewell message, India’s outgoing vice-president, Hamid Ansari, has said that Muslims do not feel safe in the country. But instead of reflecting on what he said, the RSS and the BJP simply denounced him, and some have even gone so far as to say he should migrate to a country where he feels safe.

The unkindest cut came from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who said that Ansari could now ‘pursue his agenda’. A few others in positions of power made similar remarks. There was no examination of Ansari’s comments by the Hindu leaders and thus they lost a great opportunity to free Muslims of their fear.

True, the vice-president could have made these remarks earlier and submitted his resignation while in office. But that would have created another kind of a crisis which constitution experts would have found difficult to resolve, throwing the country into a cauldron of doubt and suspicion.

The majority community must try to find out why every Muslim leader in India raises reservations about his community’s welfare whenever he gets the opportunity, particularly on the eve of quitting office. Remarks that Ansari could go to any country of his choice do not in any way address the point he raised, or get to the heart of the issue. He was not speaking of his own personal safety; he was conveying the general concerns of Muslims in India.

Personal attacks on the outgoing vice-president are not helpful. Instead, government leaders should ponder what he said and consider how the majority community can alleviate the situation.

RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat reportedly endorsed the view that since Ansari did not feel happy in India, he could go elsewhere. As the head of a Hindu organisation, Bhagwat’s remark unfortunately reduces the whole thing to the perennial debate of Hindus versus Muslims.

Yet Ansari’s comment is public property and, coming as it did from the country’s vice-president, it should be debated at all responsible forums, including parliament. The government at the centre has, in the past, put together a commission to find out how the Muslim community felt. Justice Rajinder Sachar, who led the commission, said in his report that Muslims were treated worse than the Dalits. And he found that West Bengal, after nearly three decades of communist rule, had only 2.5 per cent of educated Muslims.

The time is now ripe to hold another commission to find out if Justice Sachar’s report made any difference.

Similar regrets have been voiced by other Muslims leaders in the past, and some celebrities have also joined the chorus. Take, for instance, film star Aamir Khan’s remark a couple of years ago when he took a potshot at politicians in referring to the fear his wife, Kiran Rao, had expressed about India’s growing intolerance.

‘When I chat with Kiran at home, she says, “Should we move out of India?” That’s a disastrous and big statement for Kiran to make,’ Aamir said. ‘She fears for her child. She fears what the atmosphere around us will be. She feels scared to open the newspapers every day. That does indicate there is this sense of growing disquiet, there is growing despondency, apart from alarm. You feel why this is happening, you feel low. That sense does exist in me.’

Speaking at an awards function, Aamir also endorsed the returning of awards by creative people, saying it was a way to express their dissatisfaction or disappointment. ‘People who are our elected representatives, people who we select to look after us for five years… when people take the law into their hands, we look upon these [representatives] to take a strong stance, to make a strong statement, speed up the legal process. When we see that happening there is a sense of security but when we don’t see that happening, there is a sense of insecurity,’ said the celebrated actor.

The real problem for our country is the line drawn by Cyril Radcliffe on the basis of religion

Understandably, the BJP reacted strongly to Aamir’s remark. ‘He is not scared but he is trying to scare people. India gave him all the laurels and respect. He should not forget that India made him a star,’ said BJP spokesperson Shahnawaz Hussain.

But Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi stoutly defended the actor and, in a tweet, suggested: ‘Instead of branding all those who question the government and Modiji as unpatriotic, anti-national or “motivated”, the government would do better to reach out to people to understand what’s disturbing them.’ The BJP spokesman, as usual, pooh-poohed Rahul’s comment, saying that there was a conspiracy going on in the country to defame the nation.

The real problem for our country is the line drawn by Cyril Radcliffe on the basis of religion. He did regret the killings in the wake of partition, but did not change the line. Those on the other side of it are the people of Pakistan, who are gradually becoming part of the Islamic world as fundamentalism takes an ever firmer grip.

There are virtually no Hindus and Sikh on the other side of the border. Christians form the majority among the minorities in Pakistan, and their complaint is that churches have been destroyed and there are forced conversions to Islam. The democratically elected prime minister did what he could before his ouster, but the last word lies with the army. Unfortunately, the army is also getting contaminated.

Hamid Ansari’s words have great relevance today because a soft kind of Hindutva is spreading throughout India. Those who are at the helm are fomenting division because elections fought on the basis of Hindus and Muslims are bound to benefit the Hindus. The fabric of secular India is being torn apart, bit by bit. It is regrettable that the ideology of secularism, followed over the last seven decades, is in great danger.


Kuldip Nayar, a veteran writer and journalist, has been editor of both The Statesman and The Indian Express. He is President of Citizen for Democracy (CFD) which fights for human rights and democratic values, was a member of Rajya Sabha and was appointed India’s High Commissioner to the UK in 1990

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