I am a secular Indian Kashmiri. Being secular is not particularly fashionable in India nowadays. In fact, secular is scorned as 'sickular', almost with a similar loathing people used to have for lepers and leprosy till the last century.
Take a look at the discourse in Indian social media and you would know what I am referring to. Secularism has become so bad that even those who are secular in their daily lives do not like to assign the word 'secular' to their practice. We, the people of the Indian republic, are afraid of being called secular. The idea of secularism that the founding fathers Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, and Ambedkar fought for, is something we have slowly come to purge from our public discourse. In modern India, secular is the new slur; the secular is the new outcast.
How, as a society, we have come to this point is a story that began at the founding of the Republic in 1950 itself. In a parliamentary democracy, electoral numbers determine public policy and overall, moral standards of politics. A multi-lingual, multi-religious, and multi-cultural country like India threw up enormous challenges for its policy makers. The orthodox conservatives of all religions, who though were not the majority, held sway over electoral politics. They opposed legislation that tried to secularize the country and till this day, they continue to challenge the secularization process.
From the Left wing to the Right wing (of both Hindus and Muslims, the two largest religious denominations in India), all political parties played identity politics and pandered to their respective conservative constituencies in India. While the Centre-Left played to the conservative Muslim galleries, the Right wing stoked passions of the orthodox Hindus.
India's grand old party, the Congress, instead of promoting the liberal Muslim politics, resorted to appeasement of the Muslim traditionalists in a women's rights case and participated in massive violence against a religious minority in 1984, leading to the coinage 'pseudo-secular' for their brand of politics. But the Right wing opposition the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that called the Congress as farcical secular, ascended to prominence through brazen communal politics itself. It indulged in violent demolition of a mosque and has been selling the pipedream of establishing a Hindu nation based on ancient mythological templates of governance.
The result of such regressive politics is that Narendra Modi, who happened to preside over Gujarat communal riots, brought his BJP to power with a full majority for the first time in Indian history in 2014. It gave such a huge sense of triumph to the Hindu hardliners that he became the Prime Minister of the country. In the last two years of the BJP's rule, the lowest common denominator among the Hindu religious conservatives has demonstrated that he feels empowered to lynch minority members to death and harass any critic of the ruling party, unrestrainedly.
In such a political environment, I feel that it is important for those who are opposed to this old style of regressive and communal politics to speak up. It is crucial that we bring in a new lexicon and news ways of democratic engagement instead of letting the current hysteria impair ideals like secularism.
So today, I want to reaffirm and own my secularism.
Yes, I am secular. Unreservedly. Unapologetically. Unashamedly.
My secularism is not determined by how a Hindu or a Muslim or a Sikh treats me. It is not influenced by how you treat me. Secularism, for me, is a perpetual inner state of mind and spirit that remains unaffected by external circumstances. It is a deep sense of equality and justice for all, which does not change due to the attitudes of anyone including those who do not stand up for my right to equality and justice.
Secularism, therefore, can neither be Ram Rajya nor Sharia. It is actually the opposite; it is equality in the eyes of the man-made law. So if your secularism is driven by the politics of the Indian Right, the Left, and the Center, which is essentially the politics of lower standards, you are not secular. If your secularism is governed by the politics of the other and by how others behave with you, you are not secular. For me, secularism is not something that dissipates in un-secular times, it is not something that falls apart in un-secular places. Whether you stand by me or not is irrelevant to my secular self.
The history of my secularism is not new; I was born secular. While growing up I developed into an atheist and yet the deeper understanding of secular values was shaped by the progressive culture of my Kashmiri Pandit family and the community that nurtured the centuries-old tradition of free inquiry, critical thinking, and deep meditation initiated by Buddhist monks, Shaiva philosophers, and Muslim Sufis in Kashmir. The tradition of inclusiveness and pluralism that Abhinavgupta, Lal Ded, Nund Reshi, Zain-ul-Abidin, and Abdul Ahad Azad scripted and practiced may have been extirpated from a large section of Kashmiri society 26 years ago. But my grandparents and parents inherited the DNA of pluralism, nourished it, saved it, and passed it on to me, most of the times without any conscious effort.
Secularism, for them, was not something that one wears on one's sleeve when there is communal harmony and conveniently removed in a communal attack. Neither my family nor the Pandit (Hindu) community compromised over this principle even during the extreme communal circumstances in Kashmir.
In 1990, when Pakistan-sponsored, armed Islamo-fascists and Kashmiri Muslim separatists violently targeted religious minorities and those who disagreed with their separatist agenda in the Muslim-majority valley of Kashmir, no one in my family or the community retaliated. They did not even pick up a communal stone despite provocations. The entire Kashmiri Pandit community, an ethnic minority of over 300,000 people, was driven out of Kashmir and yet they did not give up on secularism. We became refugees in our own country and struggled through over a decade of destitution. Still no one spoke of revengeful communal violence. My secularism survived.
So those who hurl innuendos and invectives on secularism do not bother me.
As the fourteenth century Kashmiri mystic Lal Ded said,
They may abuse me or jeer at me,
They may say what pleases them,
They may with flowers worship me.
What profits them whatever they do?
I am indifferent to praise and blame.
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