Secularism: its meaning and the need for it” by Prof. Irfan Habib

“The RSS didn’t participate in the Indian freedom struggle and didn’t contribute in fighting for independence from the colonial rule”, said Prof. Irfan Habib at the 11th Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer Memorial Lecture in Aligarh organized by Centre for Study of Society and Secularism (CSSS). The Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer Memorial Lecture titled “Secularism: its meaning and the need for it” took place on 6th September, 2018 at Dharampur Courtyard in Aligarh and was chaired by Prof. Ramesh Rawat. Prof. Ramesh Rawat is Professor of Hindi at the prestigious Aligarh Muslim University. The Lecture was attended by over 200 people. This included prominent scholars, professors from AMU, students, citizens and activists of Aligarh.

Prof. Irfan Habib, towering historian of ancient and medieval India and Padma Shri awardee, while explaining the concept of secularism, traced its roots to French revolution. He went on to explain that as opposed to the meaning given by Radhakrishnan and widely understood in India that secularism means simply treating all religions with equal tolerance and believing in God, secularism meant something different. In Europe it meant morality and state policy directed towards well being of all during this life, with no regard to any practice or belief directed towards one’s wellbeing in an imagined afterlife. It thus became applicable to a state unaffected by beliefs of any religion, as well as to education from which religious influences are excluded. While this very idea formed the basis of Nehru’s pre-independence writings, Gandhi’s ideas differed vastly from Nehru. Gandhi avowedly laid emphasis on religion in political discourse. However despite these differences, both were committed to the cause of secular democracy and independence. This idea is the cornerstone of the national movement legacy which is inclusive and believes in equality.

The above, he contrasted with the ideology of the present political dispensation, guided by the ideal of ‘Hindutva’. The ideology of Hindutva emphasizes that non-Hindus are inferior or subordinate to Hindus in the country. This, Prof. Irfan Habib pointed out, goes against the very essence of the national movement which wanted to protect all groups and treated all citizens equally. Hindutva and the discrimination it stands for subverts secularism in India today. This subversion through various institutions is turning India into a caste-Hindu state where personal liberties and rights of the citizens are curtailed. It is not accidental said Prof. Irfan Habib that the RSS didn’t fight in the national movement of India because it is inherently against the ideals of equality and liberty.

Elaborating on the institutions that subvert secularism in India today, Prof. Habib lamented that one of such institutions are educational institutions. Education today is used to teach children distorted history where Muslim rulers are portrayed in a poor light. He explained that though all rulers irrespective of their religious identities fought for power and not religious causes, history is distorted in educational institutions to create a narrative that Muslim rulers were fanatic and against Hindus. This is contributing to the public discourse where hatred against Muslims is prominent. This strengthening of stereotypes and resulting discrimination is manifesting in targeting of the marginalized communities like the Muslims, Dalits and others. Prof. Habib termed these as fascist tendencies which are also violations against the Constitution. Before ending his lecture, Prof. Habib called for unity and solidarity amongst different parts of the society to stand up for secularism and democracy.

The Lecture was very well received and the response was very humbling for the organizers. In the past too, the prestigious Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer Memorial lectures have been delivered by eminent scholars of great repute including Prof. Romila Thapar, Christophe Jaffrelot, Prof. Sukhdeo Thorat, Deitrich Reetz and Prof. Akeel Bilgrami.

 

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