OPINION: The demise of secularism and political prudence

The consecration of the Ram temple by Prime Minister Modi marks the virtual demise of secularism of the Indian republic.

ByFaisal C.K.

Published Jan 25, 2024 | 3:02 PMUpdatedJan 25, 2024 | 3:02 PM

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Ram temple

Justice VR Krishna Iyer, in his book, Human Rights and Inhuman Wrongs, commented on the macabre incident of sati committed by Roopkuvarba Kanwar at Deorala village in Rajasthan in 1987.

“This is an hour of consternation for our Constitution, introspection for the nation, and monstrous monument of shock and shame for our culture of compassion from Buddha to Gandhi. As an aside, India today is passing through an infantile stage of ballot politicking where any number of women will be burnt if only victory at the husting is a sure bet… parties and social leaders proved Mark Twain, who acidly observed, ‘It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things — freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them’.”

The then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi took 20 days to break the silence against the murderous medievalist violence of sati.

Now, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s role as a priest in the consecration ceremony of the Ram temple of Ayodhya is more egregious and shocking than Rajiv Gandhi’s silence on the ruthless woman-burning at Deorala. The latter feared that rabid Rajput and bigoted Hindu votes might well swing against his party.

As always, ballot politicking suffocates constitutional propriety. Now, the prime minister is expecting a fanatic Hindu vote to flood in his favour, but alas, at the cost of the Constitutional principle of secularism.

This, too, is an hour of consternation for our Constitution, introspection for the nation, and a monstrous monument of shock and shame for our culture of compassion, as Krishna Iyer pointed out decades ago. The most disturbing part of the drama is the part played by the silent secular. They chose not to practice freedom of speech and freedom of conscience!

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A demise on a death anniversary

The consecration of the Ram temple by the prime minister and other high dignitaries of state marks the virtual demise of the secularism of the Indian republic. The painful demise of secular India occurred on 22 January. It is also the death anniversary of George Jacob Holyoake (1817-1906), an English writer, editor, and coiner of the word “secularism”. Till today, he remains a significant figure in the history of the humanist movement.

Holyoake’s contribution to the rise and success of secularism and progressive humanist ideas is immense. His view of secularism was much akin to modern definitions of humanism and is broader than just atheism. On the death anniversary of the coiner of the word “secularism”, India practically opted out of this time-tested principle!

When KM Munshi, who spearheaded the reconstruction of the Somnath temple, approached Dr Rajendra Prasad, the then President of India, to inaugurate the newly-reconstructed temple and ceremoniously install the jyotirlingam, Rajendra Prasad replied positively. But added: “I would do the same with a mosque or a church if I were invited. This is the core of Indian secularism. Our state is neither irreligious nor anti-religious.”

Prime Minister Modi, in his address delivered at Ayodhya after the consecration ceremony, said: “This is a temple of national consciousness in the form of Ram. Ram is the faith of India. Ram is the foundation of India. Ram is the idea of India, Ram is the law of India…Ram is the prestige of India, Ram is the glory of India…Ram is the leader and Ram is the policy.”

However, he made no consoling reference to the masjid demolished for building the temple, nor did he say anything about the reconstruction of the masjid at another site. This marks a fundamental shift in secularism. Modi lacks Dr Rajendra Prasad’s secular tenderness.

“Indian secularism cannot be anti-religious or irreligious, for the bulk of our people are deeply religious. There is a rich vein of spirituality that runs through our culture, history, and civilisation. Therefore, unlike Christiandom, where the word originated, secularism in India is not about pitting the state against the religious authority but about keeping matters of faith in the personal realm and matters of the state in the public realm.”

So wrote Mani Shankar Aiyar in his Confessions of a Secular Fundamentalist. But this fundamental aspect of secularism of keeping matters of faith in the personal realm and matters of the state in the public realm has been brazenly ruptured at the consecration ceremony.

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An agnostic republic and its temple

During the Constituent Assembly debates, when BR Ambedkar proposed the preamble starting with “We, the people of India,” HV Kamath moved an amendment to the preamble, “In the name of God, we, the people of India…”

Hriday Nath Kunzru, a liberal member, opposed Kamath’s amendment, stating that it runs against the spirit of the Constitution: “…but I do not see why in a matter that vitally concerns every man individually, the collective view should be forced on anybody. Such a course of action is inconsistent with the Preamble, which promises liberty to thought, expression, belief, faith, and worship to everyone… We invoke the name of God. I make bold to say that while we do so, we are showing a narrow, sectarian spirit, which is contrary to the spirit of the Constitution.”

In the end, the President of the Assembly put Kamath’s amendment to the vote. It was defeated by 68 votes to 41, excluding God from the Preamble. Thus, our founding fathers gave us an agnostic republic. Then how can the prime minister of an agnostic republic officiate as a priest in a temple consecration ceremony for invoking God?

The Indian Republic has its unique majestic temple — its Constitution. The fundamental rights and the directive principles of state policy are the temple’s twin shikharas. Socialism, secularism, and democracy are the mandapas that provide space for all the devotees of the republic.

The Preamble is the garbhagriha for housing the deity. The concept of justice (social, economic, and political) is the vigraha installed therein. Liberty, equality, and fraternity are the three holy vestibules leading toward the deity, ie, justice.

Majoritarian politics have shaken this temple and its cornerstone.

While India’s new national flag was unfurled for the first time on 15 August, 1947, a rainbow formed on the horizon. It symbolised the newly born rainbow nation, displaying the cultural diversity that evolved from millennia of civilisational osmosis. Alarmingly, this rainbow has nearly faded in our times.

(Views are personal)