View: Tough questions galore as third pillar of ‘secular’ India falls
The fading away of that third important pillar of non-majoritarianism leaves us with just the first two.
The other place where the assertion of non-majoritarianism is made is India’s traditions and lived culture. We believe that one of the essential principles of Indian life is tolerance. And we use that word in a specific way, meaning our ability to coexist with faiths other than our own.
Alas, the constitutional and legal principle of secularism is not absolute. We have managed to smuggle in religion into the constitution through subterfuge. Article 48 pretends the state will “endeavour to organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines”. However, it takes the wholly unscientific position that to do this we have to prohibit the culling of holy cows and bulls.
The Supreme Court, an institution which I fear but do not respect, has observed that Hindutva is a "way of life". How our judges have concluded that the Babri Masjid, Uniform Civil Code and Article 370 were a way of my life I am not sure, but they have. One could argue that the continuance of traditional personal law is also a violation of the secular principle. That would be correct in one aspect, but it would offend the other aspect, that of tolerance. The fact is that whichever side you take, the reality is that our constitution and laws are not fully secular.
These two things, constitution and culture, unless I am missing something, are credited with making India secular. They are what separate us from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Maldives, all three being Islamic states in which no non-Muslim can hold high office. In all three nations, Muslims seen as heretics or apostates are excluded from politics or actively persecuted through law. Below us, Sri Lanka gives constitutional primacy to Buddhism over other religions. On our east coast, Bangladesh’s constitution opens with “bismillah ir rehman ir rahim.” Bhutan’s constitution unites political power and religious authority under a Buddhist king.
Till 2008, Nepal was a Hindu rashtra. Why was it a Hindu rashtra? Because executive power flowed from a kshatriya raja, as prescribed by Manu. Nepal proves that Hindu majorities do not automatically mean secular constitutions.
We are the outlier. India is the only nation on the subcontinent to not have dabbled in constitutional majoritarianism. We have insisted on the principle that Indians are equal and our religion, caste and gender (and today even our sexuality) does not separate us one from another. The question, to return to the opening words, is: why? Are the constitution and our ‘culture’, whatever that word means, the real reasons or the only reasons why India is non-majoritarian?
In my opinion, the answer is no. Those of us who have experienced places like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh and Bhutan know that they are not very different from us in the sense of tolerance. There are living temples in Karachi, gurudwaras in Lahore and there are mosques in Colombo and Kathmandu. Indeed, I do not know what separates west Punjab from east Punjab. Even in religious matters, the same intolerance towards blasphemy is to be found on both sides.
And so, just like on the matter of the law and the courts, I am skeptical about the idea that culture alone has kept India’s constitution non-majoritarian. What made India secular in the first instance was not a referendum. Indians were not asked what sort of constitution we wanted or whether we wanted Hindu Rashtra. Let us say we had been asked the question in 1947: ‘Should the Hindu dharma be given first place among religions?’
We had no opportunity to answer that. Someone else decided for us and said the answer was ’no’. It was a single political party and its leaders who concluded that we would be secular. It was that single political party which transmitted this idea through the decades, however inefficiently.
That political party is defeated and its ideology has been rejected. This is not an ordinary defeat as we all know, because it is accompanied by an endorsement and a mandate. The fading away of that third important pillar of non-majoritarianism, the party that authored it and sustained it, leaves us with just the first two: constitution and culture. These must show they are strong enough to resist the majoritarian impulse when it is applied deliberately from above. Are they strong enough? I think we should limit serious questions to one per day.
Aakar Patel is a writer and columnist based in Bangalore. Views expressed here are personal.