Sunday, February 25, 2018
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Sometime ago I had contributed an article on Secularism and why it was under threat in our country.  Events have since taken place that to some extent have confirmed our fears but also raised some questions. We all know that three months ago One Kamlesh Tiwari representing the Hindu Mahasabha said something to hurt Muslims sentiments. He was largely ignored. However some people of the Muslim community took exception two months later and torched a police station in Malda district of West Bengal. Actually it was more of a protest against the efforts of BSF to uproot all illegally planted poppy plants in the rural areas bordering Bangla Desh and less about Tiwari but it has to be admitted that Tiwari, who is in jail did make some silly statement and there were protests in many parts of India including Rampur Bhopal and Bangalore. 

The first lesson for modern day secularism is right here. If you publicly take an extremist view on any issue, you only encourage extremist sentiments on the other side. Possibly that is the objective of the people who make the hurtful statement. If so we are heading in the wrong direction. This approach may help to win a by-election or two but it would tear our nation apart. In our country secularism hangs by a delicate thread. We all know that while it is not a general trend, many computer savvy Muslim youth are trying to support ISIS . They will do more harm to their people and not let them live life peacefully.  Such steps can provoke an Hindu backlash and that would be ruinous too. This political extremism is getting mixed up with social dogma. Muslims will not allow some parts of Haji Ali dargah to be visited by women, and Hindus have problems with women in Sabarimala and some Shani temples. But this  attracts the basic rights of all citizens enshrined in our constitution.

Unlike Pakistan, which is an Islamic Republic, India is a pluralistic democracy, where equality before law and the absence of discrimination is provided for. True secularism has to keep all this in mind and must address the related issues without prejudice. There is trouble in Hyderabad where Dalit students claim that they have been systematically marginalized for decades. The Hindu caste system is onerous and we had all assumed that in urban areas, with the spread of education things were being better understood. Hyderabad has proved us wrong. Reactionary elements among Muslims are equally wrong and we must do a lot of rethinking if we are to remain steady as a sovereign democratic nation.

 Extremist thinking has no place in our kind of secularism and no purpose is served if the pot calls the kettle black. Internal practices are crying out for change  and this issue has to be addressed first.  

I do not want to go into the scriptures for the history. Suffice it to say that we all know that our caste system is very regressive and has no place in rapidly changing modern world. We have talked about it a great deal but I am forced to refer to it because of the recent events in Hyderabad. The tragedy is that this is pernicious system has received a support from our politicians who have a vested interest in its continuance. The pity is that Islam has also quietly absorbed this caste system. The demoted castes have been led to believe (at least in rural areas) that the system is good for them. Even if a person from the deprived classes overcomes all the odds and finds a place under the sun, he is still not allowed to forget his caste and for him the sun is made to go under a cloud. The politician who can make or break this system, of course does not see this in this light. As of today the ABVP which is the student wing of BJP is saying that any student who is not with us is automatically a threat to our nation. Their membership, excludes Dalits and Muslims and ABVP has active support of our government. If you want a truly secular India you have to begin by taking steps to erase caste and ensure equality for all. Politicians have to take the lead here but their short sighted view of the future wants to perpetuate the system to make their task easier.

 I have the feeling here that Mr. Ratan Tata is right. Conventional education systems are not going to uproot this. Caste and communal lines will get dimmer as the computer age takes over. Politicians (the majority are never computer literate) will then be just people who get elected and pass laws that the nation needs.  For the people jobs and incomes will come from being good at travelling on the Information Highway and this highway does not discriminate. The real power will be on this Highway and not in the corridors of legislatures.  Vice chancellors like the one in Hyderabad will then have to jump into a lake. 

Religious freedom is another right that flows from diluting caste. As the former is not diluted, Dalits are denied the right to pray in temples. Muslim women do not go to the mosque. There has been a lot of improvement here in the last five decades and that should be a lesson to our politicians. Shani temples and Sabarimala will have to change, just as Haji Ali Dargah will also have to change.  There is no caste discrimination here there is in many places serious gender discrimination. If in the 21st century, we are going to say that women’s’ purity is sullied because of biological functions that God has ordained, and women are denied the right to pray, we,  as a nation, and must do some inward thinking. This is male chauvinism mixed up with religious sentiments and can hartdly be justified.  The  religious leaders  must be made to realize that their job is to maintain religious establishments and not run our lives. They have no wider view of how the world is moving and how much this world expects our own country to lead that movement. We cannot travel in reverse gear here.

Logically we now have to move to the status of women. If we as a nation want our girls to be educated, we must also be ready to let them  take a position where that education can be used to serve the nation.. A woman cannot collect a first class master’s degree in Economics and then become just a housewife. Her talent is needed for more serious nation building work and she must be allowed access to that work. We had in the past denied education to our women. Then they started going to school. Now they go to college though admittedly this is not entirely true of our rural women.  We must teach women to teach and then changes will follow rapidly. Our men folk in rural areas will need a change of mindset and that too will follow. The world is not going to wait and India cannot be late here if we want our population of 1.3 billion to have gainful sources of employment.

Religious discrimination is obnoxious and societal discrimination is male chauvinism. The third impediment to true secularism is legal discrimination. The law here has been changed but elected authorities do not implement those laws. How many cases of dowry harassment are lodged with the police and how many are punished? For that matter how many have been prosecuted for discriminating against Dalits? The implementing machinery itself does not want the change and so it looks the other way.  Sixty years after the law was passed in 1956, High Court had to reiterate on Feb 2, 2016 that women have equal right to inherit family property. We can be sure that even after all this, women will be deprived of family property in conservative families and no one will go to court, or be allowed to go. Another aspect of this equality concerns our law and order machinery.  This wing of our government does not take a complaint by a single woman seriously. We all know that this has often led to suicide but the mindset of our bureaucracy does not easily change.  In rural areas where a woman inherits significant property, she is usually murdered and the property changes hand in favour of those who commit the crime. In this matter of legal equality, Dalits and the rural poor suffer just as much as the single woman. Courts are sluggish and the deprived just do not have the resources to claim what is legally theirs. Here again in due course, if an SMS is sent to the police, they will have little option, and that is why the Information Highway is important.

All of the above also applies to Muslims. Back in 1947, they did, as the minority community, deserve all the help that could be given. Things to day have changed. They are a minority but they cannot claim any privilege on that score. In fact Muslims are far more (especially the Shia community) secure in India than in other parts of the world. Pakistan may say what it likes but it knows that this is the truth. They have political equality and this gives them respect. To ask for privileges as a minority is pointless unless there is an element of obvious tyranny of the majority.  One can say that Dadri was evidence but there has been so much adverse publicity of this incident that it can be treated as an exception to support the rule. The world is modernizing and theocrats that refuse to see this change will have to be ignored, no matter what religion they speak for. Organizations like the Shiv Sena are actually hypocrites. They invite Michael Jackson to perform here but deny Ghulam Ali who is in fact a rage in India. Shiv Sena, municipal leaders, claim primacy of Hindu religion but are seen in jeans while holidaying. Muslim clerics try to ban Bachchan’s Madhushala for its reference to liquor but are silent about Ghalib and a host of others in Muslim community who have written about alcohol mostly just like Bachchan, as an indirect reference to issues of life and survival. There are laws about marriage divorce and alimony that were archaic and were amended by Nehru, for the Hindus. Muslims too have their personal law and in fact have been given a legal sanction for it by a constitutional amendment. This amendment is after twenty years looking like an anachronism, and Muslims must not put too much trust by it. They have to accept the more just Civil Code by which all of us live.  In fact in attempting a separate identity Muslims will do more harm to their community. This message must be drilled into the minds of the younger generation who are exposed to radical thought from conservatives abroad. The rights of Muslim women seem even more constrained than women in other communities and these rights are crying out for reform. This community needs moderate leaders and not the reactionary ones who are seeking to sphere head it today.

One of the most famous tennis players of the world is a Muslim from India She has to be the role model for the whole generation of youth of all communities in the country, just as the Late Dr. Kalam is. Being too theocratic will not help this nation. Moving with the world will, and those who advocate the opposite, Hindu or Muslim have no place in the future scheme of things. They can help us to understand our roots but they must not govern our future.

Let us all understand that in the next decade, Information Technology is going to virtually rule our lives whether we like it or not. That technology will have no place for archaic ideas promoted by theocrats. Our roots in our religion must remain; its onerous practices whether sanctioned by priests or ordained by clerics, can be politely listened to but cannot be practiced. Politicians have to understand this.  Religious leaders can preach but not brainwash. Religious extremists cannot be a crutch for politicians and true secularism demands that this lesson be filtered through. All this will look puny in a decade when we would have another hundred million educated youth looking for jobs and living space. They will have no time for such  issues. 



 M. Subrahmanyam I.A.S (Retd.)



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