India is intrinsically secular, but political parties practice communalism behind the veil of secularism.
The hounding of journalist Shirin Dalvi for republishing in Urdu dailyAvadhanama the image of the prophet, carried by Charlie Hebdo in its issue following the terrorist attack in Paris, continues unabated.
Dalvi was sacked by her newspaper, where she was the Mumbai bureau chief, on January 19. On January 28 she was arrested by the Thane police under section 295A of the Indian Penal code (IPC) for "outraging religious feelings… with malicious intent."
Traumatised by six FIRs registered against her, Dalvi now hides behind a burqa, a garment she had never worn before in her life. The Bombay High Court will hear her interim bail application on Wednesday, February 4.
Dalvi's vilification by assorted religious organisations, many affiliated to political parties, demonstrates how a combustible mix of politics and religion has singed India's secular fabric.
India is secular by instinct. That is why the founding-authors of our constitution, led by Babasaheb Ambedkar, did not include the word in its Preamble. Secularism was intrinsic to the idea of India in 1950.
It still is. The problem is political opportunism has disfigured the meaning of the word. In 1950, despite the communal trauma of partition, Ambedkar did not think it necessary to qualify India as a secular nation. To do so would have been to doubt the country's strong plural gene. Till the Congress held a monopoly over political power, secularism was not part of the national narrative. Only after Jayaprakash Narayan's "total revolution" movement in 1974 did then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi search for a tool that could be a potent electoral asset.
She found it in identity politics - identity based on faith. Rattled by JP movement and conscious that the "garibi hatao" slogan had delivered victory in 1971 to the splintered Congress led by her, Gandhi chose socialism and secularism as the two pivots to consolidate political power. Recognising that minorities were an important vote catchment area, she used the Emergency in 1976 to rewrite the Preamble to the Constitution, adding the words "socialist" and "secular".
In themselves, the additions were harmless. They still are - except that they draw attention to two facts: One, that India is no longer the socialist nation it was under Indira Gandhi; and two; that India has always been steadfastly secular because the Hindu majority is steadfastly secular.
Should the words be excised from the Preamble to the Constitution as the Shiv Sena has demanded? Of course not. India's economic policy is still, in theory, mildly socialist though decreasingly so. And secularism remains intrinsic to its cultural ethos. Neither needs elaboration - nor removal.
What secularism does need though is rescue from political opportunists. Parties that preach secular politics often practise the opposite. This is communalism behind the veil of secularism. It infects India's historic pluralism by injecting religion into politics.
As I have written, secularism runs through the bloodstream of India. But that bloodstream has been poisoned by gradual doses of communalism over the last 150 years: First by post-Mutiny British rulers and later by unscrupulous Indian politicians. India has assimilated, mostly with good grace, Islamic, Christian, Persian and Confucian cultures. Every conqueror of India, from the eighth to the 18th century, has remarked on Hinduism's essentially secular philosophy.
Muslim leaders have been willing accomplices in modern India's descent into sectarian politics. Mullahs issue regressive fatwas against Muslim women and edicts against sensible civil laws. Instead of condemning such fatwas, the government maintains a studied silence, tacitly encouraging extremism and keeping ordinary Muslims stuck in a time warp.
The two real enemies of India's Muslims - communal politicians dressed up as secular politicians to win votes and mullahs deliberately misinterpreting the holy book to retain power over their flock - form a natural alliance. Together they have enriched themselves but impoverished Muslims, materially and intellectually, in the name of secularism.
Where does the liberal, secular Hindu figure in all this? He is secular by nature in the truest sense of the word: religion is a private matter, he rightly believes. It has no place in politics. But he is also swayed by the plight of his fellow Indians who happen to be Muslims: Impoverished, ghettoised and discriminated against. For every Azim Premji and Aamir Khan, there are millions of weavers in UP and spot boys in Mumbai who have no place in India's organised labour force.
Liberal, well-meaning Hindus ask: why? And the answer they come up with is: communal discrimination. Yet the liberal Hindu doesn't dig deeper. The more politicians sequester Muslims into vote silos, the more the middle-class Hindu resents them. Discrimination, petty or large, mounts.
Influential sections of especially the electronic media are part of this great fraud played on India's Muslims: communalism with an engaging secular mask. The token Muslim is lionised - from business to literature - but the average Muslim languishes in his sixty-seven-year-old ghetto. It is from such ghettos that raw recruits to the banned Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) and the Indian Mujahideen (IM) are most easily lured.
Secularism in the West is clearly defined: Separation of church and state. In India the line between the two is blurred, giving politicians on the left and right the opportunity to polarise voters. Secularism in the Indian context should mean, quite simply, that religion is a private matter. Faith should not intrude into public life. Every Indian's identity must be based primarily on nationhood. India's 180 million Muslims can be an enormous asset if politicians don't use them mercilessly as votebanks, alienating them from the mainstream by creating in them a paranoia of the "other".
When US President Obama said India would succeed if it were "not splintered by religion", he was stating the obvious. India's plural gene can't be mutated by politicians who hide behind a secular veil. In no other country does such a large Muslim minority live in such relative harmony with nearly a billion Hindus - as do Sikhs, Buddhists, Parsis and Jews.
The Islamist extremism that is now virulent in Europe is largely absent in India where plurality has been an article of faith for millennia. The hounding of the journalist Shirin Dalvi though is a reminder that the forces of religious extremism will rise in India unless they are confronted and comprehensively defeated.