Saturday, August 30, 2008

Secularism and Religious Identities II

Did India shun all group identities?

Though India had initially abhorred group identities, it got a dose of reality later on and started to recognize certain group identities – such as caste, language, region, sex, etc.

Generally, our attitude towards group identities has been that of reluctance. We accept them only when we are pushed to a corner and when we don’t see any other option. We are somewhat squeamish about group politics. Caste politics are not palatable to most elite Indians, and some Indians still continue to believe that states should be redrawn as boxes, blurring linguistic lines. Many Indians still cherish the dream of one identity, by imposing Hindi onto everyone. Some fanatics would like to make this country home to one religion, Hindus. Nationalist and patriotic Indians would impress upon others why we should call ourselves Indians and nothing else. Many Indians believe it is OK to forgo freedom of expression in order to impose conformity.

Thankfully, Indian democracy allowed for pragmatic politics due to which India slowly started to learn that it cannot shun group identities. It learnt that certain group identities are an integral part of a plural democracy. As a first step, it recognized lower castes as a group and made special provisions in the Constitution to address their needs. As a second step, it recognized language as a distinct identity and allowed for carving of states along linguistic lines. Though leaders of that time didn’t intend to do this out of volition, in retrospect, it is one of the best and most pragmatic achievements of modern India. India conceded to recognize some groups as legitimate groups. Now, we can have women forming groups to fight for their rights, tribes coming together to demand justice.

Some wiser nations and wiser leaders came to realize the importance of allowing local identities to thrive to hold together a nation that consists of multiple groups. It is understood that group politics is a necessary ingredient of a modern plural democracy. The idea of imposing one single identity backfires, results in conflicts and secessions, and most often bloodshed.

These are the stark realities which Gandhi and Nehru did not get a chance to learn.

Though India agreed to recognize some identities as legitimate, it adamantly refuses to recognize religion as a legitimate group identity.

Indians didn’t learn to handle religion

When it comes to handling religion, Indians became a confused lot. They wanted to be secular but they didn’t understand what secularism meant, and in an effort to pacify various belligerent groups, they started to provide sops to religions on an ad hoc basis without a comprehensive position or principle.

India continues to bow down to the religious might to extend ridiculous provisions, sometimes contravening the basic tenets of constitution, to satisfy irrational positions. While it does this, as a policy it has shunned all references to religious identities. The result is a hotchpotch of various positions with no coherent policy or mechanism to address real issues. Whenever India had a chance to make a principled position, it chickened out, and instead set a wrong precedent. Shah Bano case is an example.

No state is allowed to form in India on the basis of religion. Language is OK, but not religion. Every effort to bring fair representation along religious lines is struck down. Lower castes have reservations, tribes have their rights and protections, North-east has their states, but not religious groups.

Currently, any talk to uplift a certain religious group is completely shunned. In India, Sikhs, upper caste Hindus, Jains and Christians are overrepresented, while the lower caste Hindus, Muslims and converted Christians are underrepresented. And yet, no corrective action is allowed since it is along the lines of religions.

Thanks to Ambedkar, lower caste Hindus got the benefits of reservations and that has already transformed Indian polity – paving way for a Dalit leader like Mayawati now eyeing the position of Prime Minister of India. However, India is not ready to take any corrective measures to address the underrepresentation of Muslims. Shah Rukh Khan, Abdul Kalam and A R Rahman are exceptions, they are not the norm – they do not lead other Muslims. One cannot cite exceptions to make a case that Muslims have equal opportunity. Every index suggests their conditions are only deteriorating, not improving.

India needs to address the plight of Muslims and make sure religion forms a legitimate identity to address the situation, just like reservations based on caste is used to uplift the lower caste Hindus. Sops like sponsoring Haj pilgrims is eyewash, just like Rs. 1 per kilo rice to the poor, which is an artificial help.

A word of caution here! Before India starts addressing religious groups, it has to understand how and where the privileges work. India has never understood the duties of the majorities and the privileged towards minorities and underprivileged. That’s why people ask for ‘reservations’ for ‘poor Brahmins’ as if discrimination was meted out to Brahmins. That’s why people ask, ‘What about Hindu rights?’ as if Hindus are somehow marginalized.

Rubbish Kashmir’s aspirations

Today, we are not able to address Kashmir issue because we fail to recognize their legitimate demand seeking freedom. We made some blunders during our Partition. The wounds and bruises that we suffered back then have become a disease right now. We don’t want to see the doctor because we have never admitted in the first place that we got a bruise back then.

The current people’s movement in Kashmir is termed an ‘Islamic uprising’ against the ‘integrity of the nation’ and hence we pit a detested word called ‘religious terrorism’ fighting against the lofty word called ‘nationalism’. This is supposed to make us rubbish the aspirations of these people as sheer nonsense. We never accepted the Partition in principle because we deluded ourselves into thinking that a nation cannot be built on the basis of a religion, when in fact many countries continue to come into existence based on religion. Religion is a legitimate identity to form a nation-state. There are many such nations on the planet.

For some reason, India has never gone back to do a reality check. Creation of countries along religious lines punches holes into the myths that we created as to why we are a multi-cultural nation. We have come to believe that if we open our eyes to see the real world, it will make us doubt our own existence as a nation. We think India is so fragile that mere acceptance of religious identity would somehow crumble the nation like a pack of cards.

Any delineation of districts, carving of new states, and recognition of religious identity, was seen as direct ticket to complete dissolution of this country. We are indeed a very insecure nation. Even today many young Indians get ruffled up when some of us criticize it. They think their nation is so delicately balanced that mere criticism would somehow break it up.

We are so caught up in our fears that we fail to see we have been trampling upon the very rights and freedoms that we fought for during our Freedom Movement. We no longer endorse freedom movements, not even in some remote part of the planet, because that makes us realize our own mistakes in our backyard. Though legitimate, new states within India are not allowed their status because all separation is equated directly to breakup of this nation. Though Jammu and Kashmir is distinctly three different cultures/religions, India has not agreed to carve three units. It sees a mini India in Jammu and Kashmir. If this state broke up, it means India as a nation loses its case. That’s how ridiculous we have become in defining our country.

Some people think that India is such a fragile nation, that it needs to be protected at all costs.

India is more than a country; it is an idea that must be defended and protected at all costs.

[ARIF MOHAMMED KHAN, former Union Minister].

A nation is an idea

A modern nation is an idea. It is not territory, it is not a border. It is an idea shared by many people living in it. These people have come together willingly to form a nation. If in future, many of them do not believe in it, that nation will cease to exist. During its lifetime, if ever certain people believe their interests are served elsewhere, they should be allowed to form their own idea. Sometimes one can reconcile the differences and come to an agreement and see value in living together. Sometimes the differences are irreconcilable. When that happens, a happy and mature country will be ready to part ways. Immature and insecure countries will fight tooth and nail to ensure they do not separate, even if it means killing all those people who want to go on their separate ways. Such immature countries are like jealous boyfriends, who will hold onto their girlfriend no matter what, even when the girls wants to part ways. That only results in a really bad breakup. When it happens to nations, thousands of people get killed.

India is a nation only because we all want to be part of this idea called India. Not because someone has held a gun against our head forcing us to be part of it. That’s what we are doing in Kashmir. We hold guns against their heads and force them to be part of us. We also delude ourselves into thinking that while we keep that gun against his head, he will think very sanely to see the greatness in us; that he will abandon his dreams of living on his own, and would see the goodness in us and would like to live with us. We are not realizing that the more you try to hold on, the more you force yourself upon him, the more he will hate you. That’s what is happening in Kashmir. Not very different from a relationship gone sour!

India is a strong idea

I believe this idea called India is a strong idea. It does not need protection from the goons, the nationalists, the patriots, the fundamentalists to defend it. As long as this nation takes care of its people, addresses its issues, makes sure each group and identity is well represented, making sure no section get left out, it will remain a strong nation.

We need to learn to deal with group politics. We have to make it an official policy, instead of creating ad hoc policies each time a situation arises. We have an issue at hand – in Kashmir. I am hoping that we will come out of this crisis with flying colors. If we handle it maturely, we will not end up breaking this nation, but we will make it strong. But we are so insecure we don’t even want to take the first bold step.

The first step to resolve Kashmir

India needs to look at Kashmiri Muslims as a legitimate group identity and then go onto address their aspirations. India has been in existence for only sixty years. It has to learn to deal with the realities of complex humanity. It cannot say that all the answers are written in some laws and books written long ago. When people are dying on a daily basis, when people are deprived of their freedoms forever, India should relook at its own credentials and track record, accept that it doesn’t have solutions to all problems in its books and legal code, that it willing to learn, and that is humane at the end of the day.

Religious groups as identities for future

Discrimination, marginalization, persecution, ostracism, exclusion, suppression, etc, happen to individuals but along the identity tags. Those identity tags are group identities, such as religion, caste, language, sex, race, ethnicity, etc. These ill-treatments and underrepresentation can be corrected by using the same identity tag and nothing else. I use this argument to make my case for reservations based on caste. Since, we have deprived a section of Indians all access to education and opportunity ‘based on caste’ for thousands of years, any corrective measure that one can come up has to be ‘based on caste’. It cannot be any other.

India has to recognize religious groups as legitimate group identities and it has to make provisions to address their aspirations and their needs as a group, the way they have addressed the aspirations of lower castes. This means we will address underrepresentation of certain religious groups. This means we will ensure their rights are protected, and where needed certain extra privileges are given to ensure there is fair representation and access to opportunity. We have many group identities like caste, region, language, ethnicity and sex. Now, we will add religion to that list.

Can a secular state recognize religious groups?

India should remain secular, sticking to the original definition, where state is separated from religion. Secularism does not mean religion does not exist. It means state has no religion and that its laws are not guided by religious sentiments or belief systems. It will not make its decisions based on irrationality, blind belief and superstitions of a religion.

Recognizing religious groups does not mean we will have different civil laws for different people. This does not mean we will now be reading Bible, Koran or Gita in our courts. This does not mean we will cite Ram Charita Manas as evidence for existence of Rama. This does not mean we will use government offices or buildings or its time or money to endorse a religious ritual.

Kashmir people’s cry for freedom is a legitimate demand. The roots for such a cry are not based in irrationality, superstition or blind belief of religion. Freedom is not borrowed from religion. Freedom is a group’s legitimate demand even in a secular democracy. It has to be addressed without having to rubbish it. In this context, a group can be identified by religion. That’s what I mean by entertaining and addressing aspirations of groups by their identities.

But if Kashmiri people were protesting against launch of rockets into space because they believe their God residing on Cloud 17 is going to be disturbed by each of those launches, such demands have to rubbished and not entertained by a secular democracy. That’s what I mean by separation of state from religion.


  1. wave-particle duality :) physics analogy.. don't hear enough of those!
    language, region, sex are absolutes. caste driven reservation is reparation/affirmative action with self-termination programmed into it.
    religion is completely different. there are countries based on religion, but one wouldn't want to live where blasphemy is a crime and the laws comes from a invisible source.
    the problem is not the underrepresented muslims, but the overrepresented hindus. a ruling party's policy can have religious overtones, but the judiciary system should keep a reality check and play the secularism card if anyone sneaks religion into law making.
    religious identity is just another ad hoc solution with no long term benefits. i would be for religious identities if only it does not promote guilt, fear and irrational faith as opposed to reason, love and logical truth.

  2. "Currently, any talk to uplift a certain religious group is completely shunned. In India, Sikhs, upper caste Hindus, Jains and Christians are overrepresented, while the lower caste Hindus, Muslims and converted Christians are underrepresented. And yet, no corrective action is allowed since it is along the lines of religions".

    Are you proposing reservations on religious grounds? Most Christians and Muslims already come under OBC reservation. In TN, There is a sub quota for Muslims and Christians (3.5%) within the OBC quota. Convert Christian and Muslims (who were previously Dalits or untouchables) could probably be extended reservation under the current SC,ST quota. We do not have to provide separate reservation on religious grounds.

  3. Two long posts with agonized navel-grazing and rationalizations to justify your pseudo-secular stand? Bravo!!

  4. Hi

    Religious pluarlity and division of country on religious lines:
    No other country is more plural than India.How many religions are practiced in pakisthan,Bangladesh,Afganisthan,Iran and Iraq.Look at pakisthan,Afganisthan,Iran,Iraq and so on,Sunni and Shias are blowing each other heads.

    Slowly learned about plurality:
    It is the only country with 14 national languages on the curency.National flag with to represent different religions.How many muslim countries have their national flag or currency to represent their plurality?

    Why Zorastrians came to india when their religion is attacked?Why Bahaias have a temple in india?not in Iran?Why Turkish people headed towards india when they had differences in their royal family?Why graet sufi saints are flocked to India?

    Any answer for thses questions?It is a country which respects plurality without pressing for uniformity.

    Look at UK:ban on head gear,Irag:Killing of Sunnis,Turkey:Bombing of Kurds,Europe:torching of muslimm homes.

    Gandhi:One guy who stopped killings in three(now) countries by fasting.You are comenting on him.Shame on you.
    Why Jinha has divided Pakisthan on Sunni and Shia lines.Why they did it on culteral grounds?

    Rediculous provisions:India sholud stop these provisions like.Subsidies for Haz yatris,Allowing muslim specific recrutments,Government funding for muslim trusts,Collecting money from Hindu temples(Yes,looks ridiculous but they do collect money from hindus and subsidise muslims)reservations for minorities etc etc

    Plight of muslims:most of the Hindus who got converted to islam are poor people who could not resisit the invading butchers.
    other two reasons are;No birth control and suppression of ladies.

    Kashmir:Kashmir and kashmir valley are part of india.The only freedom they reqire is from pakisthan occupation.kashmiri people has rejected terrorism and expressed thier willingness by participating through various democratic processes.Only fanatics and pakisthan funded mullahs dream of seperating valley from india and giving it to pakisthan.

    Insecre Nation:Yes,Indeed.More than 60000 people died on terror related incidents.Pakisthan attacked the contry three times.tried to occupy kargil.Terrorists attacked Parliment.Their president declared a war of thousand cuts,Miltary offices are decorated with posters of misiles targeted toward India.Hosting Smugglers,has more than 800 training camps near indian border,Gives survilence cover to Terrorists to cross the border.

  5. Best-est posts ever.

    By the way, Pakistan also suffers because of the same blindness towards group identities. They fail to recognize the identities based on language and race. The punjabis and Sindhis in pakistan have a linguistic identity that dominates their thinking. A common religion does not remove the linguistic identity. They also have a racial group in the Pathans, whom they have been forced to give some kind of autonomy. Many Pakistanis are now questioning whether their country really has any religious identity. Pakistan also has a strong feminist movement there. I think that movement is stronger than India simply because they probabbly have more worrisome issues.


  6. Best-est posts ever.

    As always WeNOD ;)

  7. Are you suggesting the disintegration of India if some religious/ethnic groups want to break away from India? In the 80's there was the Khalistan movement. Going by your logic, we should have conceded to the demands of the Sikh terrorists instead of dealing with the problem with a firm hand and encouraged the formation of Khalistan.

    Also, have we really thought about "why" Kashmiri Muslims think they are a fish out of water in Hindu India? When some 100 million or so odd Muslims in mainland India can live with Hindus, what is the strange logic behind Kashmiri Muslims' refusal to be part of India? I know that Article 370 had something to do with the economic stagnation of Kashmir, but we can find ways to improve the economy and heal the wounds. I really don't think Kashmiris are going to be better off being either independent or become a part of Pakistan. In either case they would be subjected to Islamic laws and certainly their women would have lesser rights than now.

    I have to admit that India botched Kashmir instead of handling the matter deftly after Independence. But I don't think it is too late, any more than the Khalistan problem was in the late 80s. The problem got solved without the creation of Khalistan and today Hindus and Sikhs live peacefully side by side.

    I (and many others feel) that the Kashmiri separatist movement is primarily instigated by Pakistan. It is unfortunate that we played into their hands and made matters worse by alienating the Muslim population there. But there surely exists better ways to make them understand the merits of being in a democracy instead of under Islamic rule in a hilly terrain. Now that Karzai is a friend of India, we can have Afghani women come to Kashmir and guest lecture the women there on the perils of a land-locked Islamic state and what would be the price of the so-called "azadi" for them. If Kashmir becomes independent, there is a real danger of Pakistan's ISI creating a Taliban-like regime there and ill-treating the women there. I'm sure Kashmiri women (who constitute fifty percent of the muslim population) would understand.

    I don't think the Kashmiri Muslims' quest for azadi is that noble. Unless you think imposition of barbaric laws in the name of Islam like what Taliban did is noble.

    And unlike Pakistan, we don't have constitutional discrimination against Muslims, and they could become part of mainstream India and become productive citizens if they wish. It is their own mental block which has prevented them from doing so. And as I had said above, their "dream" could well turn out to be a nightmare for fifty percent of their population (the women).

    We may have strategic reasons for holding on to Kashmir, but I don't think we are that bad off morally either. Everybody except for Islamic fanatics is better off without yet another Taliban-style regime, that too right at our doorstep.

  8. One cannot cite exceptions to make a case that Muslims have equal opportunity. Every index suggests their conditions are only deteriorating, not improving.

    Which index are you talking about? Specific pointers would be great.

  9. We are indeed a very insecure nation.

    This is called the politics of fear.

  10. Sujai: How long would you keep finding reasons and justifying the terrorism? Delhi is burning too. When would your eyes open to the reality? There is no reason (whatsoever you say) for what happened in Delhi. It is painful to see what you continue to write to justify these heinous acts.


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