Asghar Ali Engineer

 (Secular Perspective July 16-31, 2008)

Democracy is supposed to be the best form of governance but experiences both of western and eastern countries show a wide gap between theory and practice. Nothing that pertains to human beings can approximate, let alone be equal to ideals. Philosophers also say real is not ideal and ideal is not real. Democracy is no exception. Democracy is an ideal but its practice within a given society makes it operation extremely complex.

Freud had written a book Discontents of civilization and pointed out complex problems of modern civilization. Democracy too has its discontents as human beings who operate it have their own interests and clashing interests create explosive situation. Our modern democracies are more of representative rather than participative. Common people who are supposed to benefit from it become victims rather than beneficiaries.

More often than not, our modern democracies are secular too in which religion will remain private affair of citizens and will not interfere with the affair’s of the state. In USA constitution lays down the doctrine of ‘wall of separation between the church and the state’ and Indian constitution is also secular in content though the word ‘secular’ was added only in 1975 though the constitution was implemented in 1950 itself. Undoubtedly it was secular in spirit from the beginning.

However, government policies are far from secular. Religion has come to play supposed to enjoy not only full security but also equal religious, linguistic and cultural rights. India’s record in this respect is anything but ideal. Frequent occurrence of riots, even genocide against Muslims, makes India’s record a matter of shame.

Elections must be fought on the basis of people’s issues and their religion, caste or language should play no role whatsoever. All candidates are set up on the basis of their religion, caste and language most unabashedly and hardly any party (perhaps communists to some extent) is an exception to it though all these parties swear by secularism. It was Maulana Azad, fired by ideals of secularism had refused to except ticket in first general elections from Rampur just because he was Muslim and Rampur had substantial Muslim population. After the first generation of freedom fighters secularism was given a goodbye in the electoral process.

As such it is a great challenge to maintain strict religious neutrality in a multi-religious, multi-cultural and multi-linguistic society. Democracy becomes rule by religious majority rather than by political majority. In a democratic set up it should be rule by political majority. And there should only be political majority and political minority. But in our ‘secular’ democracy it is religious majority plays main role.

Religious majority pushes its own agenda most aggressively though minorities too at times get quite aggressive. On the Shah Bano agitation it was minority, which became most aggressive and forced government’s hands to overturn Supreme Court decision. But when minority becomes aggressive and forces government’s hands on some issue it later pays heave price in terms of communal violence.

The majority community showed its aggression subsequently on the question of Ramjanambhoomi issue and the ‘secular government’ of India allowed Babri Masjid to be demolished in a most flagrant manner. And its demolition was followed by widespread communal violence in various parts of India, particularly in Mumbai, Surat, Bhopal, and Kanpur etc. This communal massacre then made some Muslim criminals to keep bombs in public places in Mumbai and kill more than 300 innocent Hindus.

The Central government was either negligent or terrified by the Hindu right and did not enforce any law of the land. Openly provocative speeches were made against Muslims by various BJP-VHP-Bajrang Dal leaders and no action was taken at all. It was complete failure on the part of government. The rightist elements in majority community always go on the offensive and require minorities to submit to the majority.

The latest instance is of transfer of land in Kashmir valley to the Amarnath Temple Trust and the agitation that followed in the Kashmir valley, which forced the hands of J&K Government to annul its decision. The majority Muslim community in the valley resorted to aggressive and violent agitation in the name of kashmiriyat and got the transfer of 100 acres of forestland to the Temple trust annulled.

Now the Hindu majority in Jammu indulged in similar aggressive violence against annulment of transfer of land demanding restoration of land to the temple trust again. And the BJP, VHP and Bajrang Dal have given call for all India Bandh and violence erupted in many parts of India, particularly those ruled by the BJP. In Indore, in M.P. where BJP Government is ruling 4 Muslims were killed for refusing to close shops.

In fact the BJP-VHP are indulging in violence in the name of Amarnath Temple with an eye on coming Parliamentary elections. Strictly speaking this issue pertains to J&K and any bandh observed in J&K is quite understandable but to hold whole of India to ransom is highly anti-democratic. The Supreme Court hearing a PIL also lambasted such bandh which results in gross inconvenience to the people. Crores of people are made to suffer for partisan ends of political party.

The BJP which is supported by hoodlums of Bajrang Dal and utter religious fanatics, how can it ever aspire to rule over secular India and claim to be ‘disciplined party’. If elected, it will take oath in the name of secular constitution. It uses utter religious fanaticism be it Ramjanambhoomi or Sethusamundaram and Amarnath Temple land issue for electoral success.

The Kashmiri people also have weakened their cause by resorting to such violent agitation and displayed such aggression on the issue of land transfer to the Amarnath Temple. They could have held dialogue with the Hindu brothers on this issue. But in J&K too elections are due and politicians launched this aggressive agitation with a view to win elections.

The ordinary Kashmiri citizens were helping the Hindu yatris who were so much inconvenienced. They even opened langar for them and served them food in Srinagar. Unfortunately this was not so much highlighted by the media. The vernacular media does not so much serve people and inform them but panders to the majority sentiments to maintain or increase its sale.

Democracy also ensures fundamental freedoms but our democracy in view of its degradation is not even able to ensure these freedoms. The mobs are let loose by fanatical parties and organizations to disrupt film shows, drama performances and other functions if dissenting views are expressed in the. Mr. Kumar Ketkar, Editor, Loksatta, wrote an editorial against installation of Shivaji’s statue in the sea and his home was destroyed. The Maharashtra Government hardly took any worthwhile action.

Before that Maharashtra Nau Nirman Sena (MNS) openly attacked Hindi speaking north Indians working in Mumbai, beat them up and burnt their vehicles and government looked the other way. After lot of hue and cry by the public they promised action but hardly any action was taken.

Many more instances could be multiplied as to how our democracy is being misused. As public opinion greatly matters for functioning of democracy the media both print as well as electronic is controlled by powerful vested interests that create desired opinion by manipulating information. There is hardly any newspaper or T.V. channel, which honestly presents facts as they are or disseminates information to help create proper opinion.

The education system again is very vital to protect democratic values and secular ethos in a multi-religious society. But today less we talk about our education system better it is. Our textbooks still continue to spread sectarian rather than secular democratic values. Our children grow with anti-democratic and anti-minority values. They learn to hate the religious other rather than accept him/her.

A Rajasthan textbook of 12th standard writes that fascism is the best ideology as it enables the supreme leader to take right decision at the right time and Gujarat textbook idealizes Hitler, the German Nazi leader. This is in the BJP ruled states but the textbooks in the Congress ruled states too distort history and project minorities in a very poor light. That is why educated middle classes are much more communal than the illiterate masses.

Thus our education system has become a vehicle for dispensing prejudices than create rational thinking and critical mind. What is more shocking is that our education system does not teach fundamental human values like human dignity, compassion, forgiveness, justice and so on. In this age of technology education is becoming highly competitive rather than cooperative.

To promote secular democracy our education system must be thoroughly overhauled and it should be made a powerful instrument for creating a new citizen of secular democratic India and who will provide leadership to usher in new horizons of value-based knowledge.


Centre for Study of Society and Secularism


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