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India: An agenda for a government specifically to defend and promote secularism

Tuesday 2 June 2009, by siawi

Magazine / The Hindu
May 31, 2009

Expectations From A Secular Government

by Harsh Mander

The people have put their trust again in a secular polity. Will the new government live up to that trust?

Millions among the men and women who lined up patiently outside polling booths this hot summer have voted for a caring State, for inclusive growth and a secular government. The burden of expectations, therefore, that rests on the shoulders of the government in New Delhi — which has been returned with an emphatic expanded mandate — is daunting and diverse. In these columns this Sunday, I will try to reflect on possible elements of an agenda for a government specifically to defend and promote secularism.

In this most pluralist of countries in the world, the large majority of people of varied faiths have once again, during the recent general election, opted for politics which does not divide people on the basis of their beliefs and cultural practices. The government must shed its reticence and place high on its agenda the active further strengthening of the secular fabric of our land. It cannot allow itself to be confused and diverted any longer by spurious debates about “pseudo-secularism†. In an ancient tradition that has endured and evolved with the passage of millennia, people in India have practised secularism not as the denial of religious faith, but as equal respect for every faith — including always also the absence of faith. It is a way of life which is founded on understanding, respecting and indeed celebrating differences of belief and culture; one that does not mandate allegiance or subservience to any majoritarian system of mores and practices as a pre-requisite of full and equal citizenship.
Highest claim

In defending and advancing this precious tradition of uniquely Indian secularism moulded to the context of a modern democratic polity, for me the first and highest claim is of our children. Succeeding governments have declared their commitment to universalising primary and secondary education, and a bill that makes education a fundamental right has been delayed far too long in Parliament. But as the new government passes this bill, it must reflect also on the kind of education that it will guarantee to all our children.

It has taken privileged schools in the national capital six decades since Independence to open their doors for children of less privilege, but even this is only for separate afternoon classes of reduced standards and in the Hindi medium of instruction. The government must guarantee a fundamental right to education which is of the same standard to all children. It must also ensure that children born into diverse levels of wealth, caste, ethnicity and religious community, study in the same classrooms, shoulder to shoulder. Recurring bouts of communal violence have pushed more and more Muslim people into ghettoes. One outcome of this is that children of different faiths no longer learn together. This enables fostering of communal and caste stereotypes in young minds and hearts. The government must actively promote mixed schools of high educational accomplishment, where Hindu, Dalit, and Muslim students, and those of diverse faiths and ethnicities, study and play together.

Over many decades, an array of communal organisations has systematically penetrated into many forest settlements, villages and slums across the land. They have converted the classroom into a site of communal politics, in which communal, caste and gender stereotypes are actively promoted. Seeds of difference, suspicion and hate, based on diverse identities, are vigorously planted and often take deep root in impressionable minds. The government must regulate the school curricula of these communal and sectarian organisations, like Ekal Vidyalayas, Saraswati Shishu Mandirs, Banvasi Kalyan Ashrams, the Islamic Research Foundation, and other similar formations, and bring all schools under the regulatory purview of an empowered national autonomous body. It must also actively advance in all government and private schools teaching caste, communal and gender equity and tolerance, and what Nehru called “the scientific temper†.

The government must be consistent in its opposition to all forms of religious fundamentalism and obscurantism, majority and minority. Most religious fundamentalists, of every faith, have discriminated against women. If one major faith denies women rights to maintenance, another discriminates in inheritance and against widows. The government must demonstrate the courage to enable voluntary access of all to a gender-just common civil code.

In his first term, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh constituted a committee chaired by Justice Sachar to investigate into conditions of Muslims, and with painstaking empirical detail, the committee established that on most socio-economic parameters, Muslims stand on par with disadvantaged Dalits. Despite this, the government has not crafted a strategy to redress this enormous injustice comprehensively. A paramount priority of the government must be to enable an estimated 140 million disadvantaged citizens to advance in education, healthcare and employment.

The government must also redeem its unfulfilled promise to enact a law to prevent mass communal crimes. In communal pogroms such as in Delhi in 1984 and Gujarat in 2002, many public officials were guilty of complicity in mass crimes by simply failing to act effectively and promptly in controlling the violence. It is difficult to prosecute people in command responsibility like Chief Minister Narendra Modi for their manifest crimes against humanity, because failing to act is not explicitly designated a crime. Minorities in India can feel safe only by a law which holds governments and officials directly accountable to protect citizens from communal and caste violence, and penalises them for wanton failures to act.

Governments have also been partisan in extending rehabilitation to survivors of communal violence, again based on their ethnicity and faith. The law therefore must ensure a right to relief and rehabilitation for all survivors of communal, ethnic and caste violence on standards and levels which are binding on every government, regardless of who are the victims of the violence. The core principle of rehabilitation should be that the State government must ensure that survivors are restored at least to the situation they were in before the riots, and preferably better off.
Healing past wounds

There are many unhealed wounds of past communal massacres which a caring government must address. It must set up a special cell and mandate prosecution and legal aid for all survivors who wish to pursue justice. I have in recent years visited the sites of many communal carnages of the past; and found consistently that for the survivors, the suffering does not end even decades later. The government must set up a special fund for those widowed and orphaned by conflict in the last 30 years; also a special package for all widows, half-widows and orphans of Jammu and Kashmir and troubled States of the Northeast.

But even more important is for the government to acknowledge and redress grave mistakes of governments of the past. I think the time is ripe for a Congress government to institute a Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the 1984 Sikh massacre in Delhi. Likewise, the wounds of the incendiary dispute around the mob demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 will continue to fester unless the Supreme Court of India is encouraged to pass a legally just ruling on a dispute that tore apart the nation for two decades.

The government which has been recently returned to power must remember that there can be no closure to innocent blood spilt, and no sense of equal citizenship, without justice done, and seen by all to be done. And there can be no healing without caring. Our secular polity is the most precious legacy of our struggle for freedom. It stands today contested and battered, but endures ultimately because our people live by secular convictions. The government must demonstrate the same conviction, and the compassion and courage required to restore secularism and equal citizenship as the foundations of public life in India.