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A Reflection on An Anti Secularist Manifesto: 4 Decades Later

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to read Ashish Nandy's paper, An Anti Secularist Manifesto.

Written in the context of India, with special emphasis on the political environment of the country over the years, the work truly is a magnificent insight into what we assume to be a truly secular country, but one which on further inspection reveals a number of degenerative flaws and a rigged system that runs in a vicious cycle.

Having read the paper in the aftermath of the 2019-20 Delhi riots, I chose to interpret it with respect to the present political scenario, and the relevance of the work today, in the 21st century. In that, it's a firm opinion that true secularism cannot be achieved in the India of today- considering how the ruling party's entire campaign and agenda stands on a deeply embedded base of communal disharmony. The people have been led to believe that the involvement of the "right kind of religion with the right kind of politics" is necessary for the survival of the democratic system.

This holds true from certain perspectives, especially in Indian society where religion has defined major political upheavals, including but not limited to the Partition, and the 1984 Delhi riots. One is undoubtedly reminded of the Hindu zealot referred to by the writer when speaking of the current regime, in the ways that the ruling party has chosen to encash religion as a valuable resource for their political agendas- while at the same time sticking to a more archaic and traditional definition of the faith, which does not allow space for subjective opinions. Anyone who chooses not to willingly indulge in glorifying the past victories of the religion, and in turn, vilifying other religions for erring in any way whatsoever is "anti national" in effect. It would be safe to say that the party cracked the simple code, one which determines that the Indian audience, and Indian voters in particular cannot consciously separate religion and politics. Much like the zealot, the present scenario appeals to the people of the nation to return to older ideologies, and "stay true to their faith", often coercing people into believing in just the idea of their religion or faith, and not the reality that it functions in.

One is reminded of the 2020 Delhi riots, the streets rampant with almost scarily organised riots focused on a certain bloodlust that cannot come from something that has not been planned and replanned down to the T. It seems imperative to therefore analyse the recent riots to that of the author's perspective of the 1984 carnage against the Sikhs, once again in the capital city. The only fine line of the difference between the two remains the fact that the CAA or the NRC left the environment of the country politically charged in a way that made it much easier for those with the playing cards to incite violence against the Muslim community. Time and again, the ruling party has made it clear that the Muslims are, in fact, a minority in this "predominantly Hindu" nation, a stark contrast from the author's views of how the Sikhs were traditionally seen as part of the Hindu social order.

The other major difference this time seems to be the fact that the attackers openly claimed that they were Hindu nationalists who sought revival of their religion, and made it very clear which political paradigm they belonged to. The rest, unfortunately, remains disturbingly similar. Organised bloodshed, mainstream media manipulation, a planned "numbing" of the common Delhiite's moral self, right down to the state sponsored police violence, and the way errors on the part of the attackers were covered up in a premeditated way. Just like after the 1984 riots, the propaganda against the Muslims continued over mainstream media, terming anything and everything as seditious, and continuing to inject suspicion into the minds of the citizens, until the coronavirus pandemic hit the streets, forcing the protests to take a back seat in the present. It is but crucial here to quote the author when he says "Communal frenzy does not know what it claims", a very accurate representation of the way the recent communal violence has impacted Indian society, making journalism- the stated fourth pillar of democracy- rife with misunderstandings, extremist ideologies and intentionally inciting communal comments. The author goes on to say that the zealot's "defensiveness follows not so much from faith as from frustration and insurity in his immediate political environs".

The present political giants have chosen to play their cards very well, in a vital way, by enabling the people to believe that "modernisation" can only come from suppression of the minorities from a westernized perspective, that it is taking leaps and bounds forward to bind the masses together- but only the right kind of masses, and in only the right, targeted ways. A democracy is therefore surviving, not on the basis of elimination of religion from politics, but from giving a certain martialised form of religion more power, and choosing to ostracise everyone who does not believe in this narrative. The State is engaged in the task of comparing evils between various faiths and cultures to prove that the "revival" of Hinduism is necessary to defeat all cultural evils, like the author notes, they are looking to incite the common masses into believing that "true" religion, and "true" culture are definitionally tolerant of other religions- and thereby hoping to invoke a certain sense of superiority over other cultures and faiths- which in turn can be weaponized for their own political agendas.

All of this, in the end, winds down to one simple fact- that it is not possible to implement a Western definition of secularism in the India of the present. As the author writes in his conclusion, the secularism of today has been selectively controlled to prove that anyone who is not secular, is in effect intolerant. The Doctrine of Harmonious Construction chooses to interpret Indian statutes by holding that when two provisions of a legal text seem to conflict, they should be interpreted so that each has a separate effect, and neither is redundant or nullified. The time may be here for secularism to be interpreted in a similar, subjective way, and not as the morally black and white perspective which has become increasingly popular in recent times, and to accept that the subject perhaps lies in a certain gray area- one that is difficult to implement, and yet, just as difficult to exterminate.

"Despite these ominous signs,

Why has not Doomsday come?

Why does not the Last Trumpet sound?

Who holds the reins of the Final Catastrophe?"

-Mirza Ghalib, Chirag-i-Dair


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