Wednesday, 9 July 2014

WHEELS WITHIN WHEELS: THE AGENDAS OF ‘SECULARISM’



With Pramod Muthalik of the Sri Rama Sene threatening to set-up his base in Goa, the last two weeks have seen spirited debates about the place of ‘secularism’ and ‘communalism’ in the public sphere of Goa. To add to the conundrum, Goans have been at the receiving end for their own elected representatives making sexist and anti-women remarks, with very little done to curb the Hindu right. This is not the first time that such remarks have been made that have blatantly abused the dignity of the minorities and women living in Goa. As such, asking the same questions or reacting in the same manner as done in the past does little good. While it is certainly true that such tendencies should be vehemently protested and opposed, this column would like to suggest that a rather critical look at the history and politics of Indian secularism would provide fresh perspective into the problem.

Since the Indian nation-state was founded on secular ideals, it is important for us to know how this came about. The present understanding of ‘secularism’ is an ahistorical and timeless one. In other words, a term like ‘secularism’ is believed to have a universal and unchanging meaning across time and political realities. It is this very fact that Shabnum Tejani in her book Indian Secularism: A Social and Intellectual History, 1890-1950 points out. If today the binary opposition of ‘secular’ with ‘communal’ is well established and entrenched in our minds, Tejani demonstrates that in a longer historical context this was not the case. She notes that between the years from 1928 and 1931, a broad range of political opinion considered Indian nationalism as a “unity of the (Hindu) majority” with any challenge to this understanding by marginalized non-Hindu and Dalit communities being branded as communal.

Shifting the focus from a concern of religion to a concern of caste, the abovementioned study has shown that the creation of a liberal democracy in India was shaped by an imperative to create a “definition of a democratic majority as broadly Hindu”. Tejani also states that the reason why ‘secularism’ became important in Indian nationalist thought was due to the fact that “the architects of the new nation-state – overwhelmingly middle-class, upper-caste Hindu men – saw it as providing a counterpoint to challenges posed from the margins by Muslim and Dalit communities”.

Immediately, what we can recognize is that ‘secularism’ as an ideology was used as a bulwark against sharing power and privilege with the minority and disempowered groups. The problem of ‘communalism’ and the apparent challenge it poses to ‘secular’ ideals is not just confined to hard-line right-wing persons like Pramod Muthalik. Part of the problem also lies with secular-liberal Hindus in the context of how they understand ‘secularism’ and its place in the Indian identity and how these two ideas are uncritically conflated. For many secular Hindus (as well as Christians) the ideal of ‘secularism’ is only threatened when right-wing groups create a ruckus. The inadequacy of ‘secularism’ as an ideal as well as an analytical category is seen when anti-women and anti-minority remarks are made by persons who are not perceived to be of the extreme right.

Take the recent comments of Sudin Dhavalikar, the PWD minister in Manohar Parrikar’s cabinet. His comments about pubs, drinking, and short skirts not being compatible with Indian culture, were largely seen as sexist and anti-women. The point I am trying to make is that such comments are not just anti-women, they are also anti-minority. How? In Goa, Catholic women wear skirts and consumption of alcohol (along with meat such as beef and pork) is a necessary component in celebration in all Catholic households, indeed their everyday diet as well. Why hasn’t this being perceived as going against the tenets of Indian secularism?

Dhavalikar’s case and the reaction to it is a recent one. One can also excavate the case of the Romi script and hold it up to the assertions of ‘secularism’. When the demand for the Romi script was made, Goan Catholics were seen as anti-national, their demand was considered as “emotional” and hence irrational, and the demand was viewed as a very threat to the ‘secular’ fabric and unity of Goa. The Goa government is yet to recognize Konkani in the Romi script as an official language, despite the fact that Goan Catholics are not the only users of the Romi script in Goa. Why isn’t the denial of the Romi script to the people of Goa a problem for ‘secularism’? Why don’t we beat our chests and cry hoarse about the loss of ‘secular’ ideals? It must be noted that whether it is Muthalik, or Dhavalikar, or the Romi issue, or even the Medium of Instruction fiasco, what is threatened is either Indian culture or the unity of Goa/India or both.


If the ideology of ‘secularism’ worked as a tool to obstruct the sharing of power with Muslim and Dalit groups in the context of the Indian nationalist movement, I would suggest that a similar situation occurs in Goa as well, wherein power is not adequately shared with groups such as Catholics and Muslims in Goa. That Hindus are a majority in Goa and control most positions and institutions of power is a fact that gets erased when ‘secularism’ is debated in the Goan public sphere. If we are really serious about maintaining peace in Goan society, power needs to be shared with minority groups, and greater representation needs to be granted to marginalized groups across religion, caste, and class in Goan society and politics (and not just confined to electoral representation). It is not just enough to throw out Muthalik and his ilk. What do we do about Hindu majoritarianism that has been a part of Indian ‘secularism’ for such a long time?

See also 'Not Skirts or Bikinis, but the very Idea of Goa is at Stake' by Rochelle Pinto here

(First published in  O Heraldo, dt: 9 July, 2014)

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