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OP-ED: Religion and the Public Sphere in India

PARIS, May 16 2011 (IPS) - In contrast to most South Asian countries, modern India has always been officially “secular”, a word the country inscribed in its Constitution in 1976.

Secularism, here, is not synonymous with the French “laïcité”, which demands strong separation of religion and the state. India’s secularism does not require exclusion of religion from the public sphere. On the contrary, it implies recognition of all religions by the state.

This philosophy of inclusivity finds expression in one article of the Constitution by which all religious communities may set up schools that are eligible for state subsidies.

India’s secularism, therefore, has more affinities with multiculturalism than with “laïcité”. Its emphasis on pluralism parallels the robust parliamentary democracy and federalism that India has been cultivating for 64 years.

But today, secularism is in jeopardy in India. The main threat comes from the rise of Hindu militancy and its consequences not only for electoral politics, but also for the judiciary and society at large.

The rise of Hindu nationalism

The core belief of the Hindu nationalist movement, whose key organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), was founded in 1925, is that the Indian identity is embodied in Hinduism, the oldest and largest religion of India. For decades the RSS has worked at the grassroots level, recruiting children who are taught to fight religions founded outside India (including Islam and Christianity), and forming new fronts (that include student, labour and peasant groups).

The RSS and its offshoots consistently criticised pro-minority policies. But it mostly remained a marginal player until the 1980s when the ruling Congress Party was again assailed by the old Hindu nationalists’ critique of “pseudo-secularism”.

The RSS-supported party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), mobilised on claims that the government and courts favoured Muslims, and also demanded the (re)building of a temple where the Babri Masjid mosque was constructed in 1528 at Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh.

This campaign culminated in the demolition of the mosque by a Hindu mob in 1992. It was accompanied by widespread wave of communal riots aimed at polarising the voters along religious lines. It contributed to electoral gains for the BJP, and in 1998-2004 the party was in position to head a new national-ruling coalition.

Towards an ethno-democracy

The 1980s-90s were a turning point in the India’s secularism. This period could have been a parenthesis, since the Congress Party regained power in 2004, but India has never returned to the balance of religious co-existence and compromise that prevailed in its first three decades of independence.

The demolition of the Babri Masjid and the communal clashes that accompanied the BJP’s rise to power have never been addressed properly by the policy and judiciary. Muslims were massacred in numbers unprecedented since India’s 1947 partition; about 1,000 were killed in Bhagalpur in Bihar State alone in 1989, and violence rose to the level of pogroms in Gujarat State in 2002 when about 2,000 Muslims were killed after 59 Hindus were burnt alive in train coaches in Godhra, Gujarat.

Inquiry commissions prepared reports that were either never made public or not followed by serious action. In most democracies, the kind of violence Gujarat experienced in 2002 would have resulted in at least a “Justice and Reconciliation” commission.

And minorities must cope with marginalisation. Christian Tribals are victims of violence, especially in Orissa and Gujarat, where they are requested to (re)convert to Hinduism. Muslims face discrimination in the job and housing markets, and Muslim ghettoisation is increasing in northern and western India.

On the political scene, Muslims are marginalised with less than six percent of MPs in the lower house of Parliament while representing 13.4 percent of the population. In 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh commissioned a report on the status of India’s Muslims by a committee named after its president, Justice Rajinder Sachar.

But none of the Sachar Committee’s key recommendations to improve Muslims’ situation has been implemented, perhaps from political fears that the BJP will again denounce “pseudo-secularism”.

India is gradually moving away from multiculturalism toward a type of democracy exemplified by Israel and Sri Lanka, known as “ethnic democracy”, where minorities are treated as second-class citizens.

With this transformation, India may well lose one of the key pillars of its soft power, the quality of its multiculturalism – and more alarmingly, perhaps also its adherence to the rule of law.

*Christophe Jaffrelot is a senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS.

This article is part of the series “Religion, Politics & the Public Space” in collaboration with the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations and its Global Experts project (

The views expressed in these articles are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nation Alliance of Civilizations or of the institutions to which the authors are affiliated.

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