Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Secularism's French Experience

Secularism’s French experience By V.B.Rawat

French state is celebrating 100th year of its secular heritage of famous law of separation between church and state. In a conference organized recently by International Humanist and Ethical Union, an international organization of secular, humanists and atheists organizations all over the world, French intellectuals and activists made it clear that the state need to be completely secularized and need intervention anywhere when the religious intolerance violate the basic human rights of an individual or a community.

Issue of prohibition of religious marks in the schools and government institutions was raised. Many of us felt that it is a violation of civil liberties and individual freedom. Why doesn’t French want to enjoy multiculturalism, said a few. The French people overwhelmingly voted in several referendums for secular state machinery. This legacy of French secularism is unique particularly when in Europe where the history of Church’s unnecessary interventions in the state matter is a well-known fact. If state’s nature is secular, its institutions need to be secular and should not discriminate on the basis of their religious identities. The thing is that when you come in your symbolic dresses to an institution of state, you are prone to be discriminated in case the majority of people don’t like you. A Muslim girl using headscarf may become an easy target in a school in Europe where anti Islamic feeling are growing day by day. Secondly, by continuously portraying our religious choices in public, we in fact, display a complete rejection of the secular heritage of the state.

Now France may look rigid in their stand but their law of separation has a lot to offer to India. Unlike France, Indian State adopted a very different meaning of secularism meaning ‘equal’ respect to all religions. That too was not a bad idea if state remains neutral to religious values and practices. But it has become a disastrous for our polity that Indian state has converted this secularism into appeasing the religious leaders and increase religiosity. Our students are told to read ‘greatness’ of every religious school of thought. We are told as if we have been a ridiculously religious society and rationalism and humanism have never been part of it. One should not forget that various indigenous stream of religions like Buddhism and Jainism came out against the brahmanical caste practices and its violent nature. Prior to that the philosophy of Materialism and Lokayat darshan were the hallmark of Indian traditions, where philosophers challenged the very existence of God itself.

Unfortunately, in the post independent India, secularism is used as a term interchangeably for pluralism, when we negated everything a secular constitution meant. Rather then remaining neutral, the state started appeasing every religious group and ignored the issues of the common man, which veteran cartoonist R.K.Lakshman, regularly remind us. Hence Muslim Mullahs might have been happy with a ‘secular’ which mean safety of Muslims do anything except reforming his own community, which he would term as interference in the personal affairs. And any efforts of the liberal secular Muslim would term as affront to very concept of Islam. This in fact helped the fanatic group elsewhere shouting they were being discriminated. The Akalis took over the Sikh community and the Christian community is also being looked over by their religious priests.

One is not against multiculturalism and variety of faiths prospering in the country. But should multi culturalism be just related to the heads of the religious sects? Can a Muslim without a beard in tie suit or a Sikh without turban also represent that very culture or not? Using multiculturalism as an identity tool spreading hatred and discontent against democratic norms ultimately and secularization process is the biggest challenge today. Hence despite the fact that such identity politics of blaming others for their ills has become a breeding ground for religious fanatics to spread their agenda everywhere.

The Indian state does not have a will to do it. A mighty state felt that secularism’s best practices are to keep every religious gang happy and change the law when issues like Imrana confronts us. The alleged response of Mulayam Singh Yadav on this issue need to be condemned as he has not helped the cause of secularism but breeding fanaticism.

The state would do well to address the basic needs of Muslim youths, men and women together. Ensure their fair participation in national life, in the government services and elsewhere. It is not the duty of state to find out whether our brothers are able to go for Haj or not? Why should Indian state offer a huge sum to celebrate four hundred year of Sikhism in Amritsar. The entire Delhi Hardwar highway remains closed for several days every year to facilitate the Kanwar Yatra. And every year the Kanwarias beats up people, block traffic and nothing happen to them. When the religious guru of Hindus is arrested under charges of murder, we sit on dharanas as if this could not happen. Why this immunity to religious leaders when even the politicians don’t enjoy.

Unfortunately, everything that is secular would be resented as an affront to religious freedom and interference by the state. Such thing ultimately gives rise to a majoritarian fundamentalism who often term minority rights to appeasement. So there has to be a line of control between the religious freedom and the issue of individual’s right with in every religion. When we ask for religious freedom, then we should free the individual from the yoke of a fatwa. A democracy based on religious identities without resolving the question of common man will ultimately turn into a fascist state where religious leaders will have impunity against anything and freedom would always be a distant dream. If India has to be a modern society it must strengthen secular laws and civil society and address the core issue of development and poverty.