In 2020, President Emmanuel Macron’s reaction to the terror attack outside Charlie Hebdo’s old office received sharp criticism from the Islamic world and the American-Anglo media. What his words and the French republic’s reaction did is open up a debate on liberal and radical secularism in western society. Since India’s independence in 1947, we have been grappling with the idea of secularism and its practices. Whether it’s the implementation of the Uniform Civil Code, the demand for states based on religious lines such as Kashmir or Khalistan, or the Babri Masjid demolition of 1992 – what we clearly know by now is that the Indian state does not know how to deal with religion and secularism. Let’s delve deeper to understand why.
Liberal secularism is the belief in separating religion from political discourse. It believes that religion is personal and as a cultural aspect, it must be accepted as an individual choice of how one wishes to follow it. In other words, it is democratic and free. In a democracy, it is very important for individuals to retain personal freedom in how they identify themselves and if that identity is based on religion, they should have the freedom to follow it. Radical secularism is the complete opposite – it is undemocratic and believes in removing religion completely from the public sphere. To many, especially in the case of France, radical secularism should not be practiced since it prevents minorities from having their separate identity in a multi-cultural society.
Nehru’s definition of secularism, though liberal, interfered with religion when required to guarantee equality within it. Good examples of this are the abolishment of untouchability by our constitution and the Hindu Marriage Act that only allows Hindu, Sikh, Jain, and Buddhist men to have one wife at a time. While it gave women in Hindu religion and religions that have come out of it the equality they deserve in the constitution, imams who happen to be mostly men were left to decide the faith of what women want in Islam and as a result of Nehru not implementing Uniform Civil Code (UCC) back then in 1949 – the problem became a political issue in 1986 when his own grandson and then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi overturned the Supreme Court verdict on the Shah Bano case which led to the rise of the need of radical secularism in India. As a consequence, Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) won 84 seats in the 1989 Lok Sabha election from 2 seats in 1984.
Nehru’s liberal secular policy began to see cracks in 1980. First, when the Sikhs demanded Khalistan which eventually led to the Delhi riots in 1984, then in Kashmir where the minority were made refugees in their own country, and the last blow to this policy was with Babri Masjid demolition which was a result of the incompetent secular policy of Congress. Therefore, instead of latching on to true values of secularism, they began to cater to radical elements in our country’s largest religious minority which angered the majority community leading to the eventual rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
In a developing country like ours, radical secularism is the only answer left when both sides of the political spectrum tend to favor either the majority or the minority. While Congress might have not done anything for Muslims per se, what did happen as a result of their policies was Prime Minister Modi has unleashing undemocratic, a non-secular religious policy which has led to unemployment, mob lynching, and arrest of intellectual thinkers.
The need for radical secularism is very important in a country like ours that has failed to remain neutral on the subject. While many have questioned that radical secularism might hamper equality between religions, what it actually does is make us irreligious. Personally, I believe for a logical society to develop we need to understand that religion only makes us weaker and multi-cultural ethos cannot survive in our society if politicians from the left cater to radical elements on any side because it benefits them politically.
Most people across the globe are moderates and therefore, can turn on any side of the political spectrum depending on their environment. While many in India might advocate for liberal secularism, what we need to understand is the failure of liberal secularism across the globe. Under globalization, people have migrated to different parts of the world and tolerance has made many countries react aggressively, including India. So, is liberal secularism is really the way forward in our world now?
Radical secularism though difficult to implement might be the only option for the globe to counter radicalization among whites in the United States, Hindus in India, Muslims in France, and Buddhists in Japan. The changes in world polity leading to a scenario where China might take over the United States, and the left not being faithful to the true values of secularism, call for India to choose something as undemocratic as radical secularism so that the focus is on the real issues.
-By Shreya Fotedar