Sinking of the Secular Project

Sinking of the Secular Project




We live in the best of times and the worst of times, as Charles Dickens would say. For, we live in times of polarisation -- where no relation is immune to a deep left-right divide; where people are labelled casually as if they are assembly-line products of a modern factory -- in which there are no shades of grey. There is either black or white. Many intellectuals have blamed this on the Narendra Modi government. But the present BJP is a product of our recent history; it hasn't mothered it.

So, what exactly went wrong? The answer lies in the hypocrisy of a small class of pedigreed elites that is now rendered marginal in democratic spaces and is yet well-connected in global spaces. Indian secularism was an experiment that the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru attempted. Even Lokmanya Tilak, the much-maligned conservative for Marxist intellectuals, played a seminal role in the Lucknow Pact (1916) between the Congress and the Muslim League, at the cost of shunning secular governance for separate electorates. The Congress accepted separate electorates for Muslims via this Pact, which may not have been textbook secularism. But the vision was grand. It was to construct a composite culture for a multi-religious India. 

Gandhi attacked western modernity in Hind Swaraj. Much later, in 1946, Nehru in The Discovery of India fondly reminisced a tragic episode in his life when he laid the ashes of his wife Kamala in the Ganga, or as he poetically called it, 'the noble river'. The project was grand. It was to tell all Indians that a great Hindu civilization combined with a great Islamic civilisation to produce, after an initial phase of strife, a composite culture.  The project was marred by Partition but did not yield to it. 

Yet, it was killed -- an unkind cut at a time -- when Marxist historiography entered through the bureaucratic backdoor to tell Indians their past in the Indira Gandhi years. This stream of thought was negative and ridden with a strange inferiority complex. Even while a foreigner AL Basham had found much merit in India's ancient past, the Indian Marxist DD Kosambi set out to separate myths from what he felt was reality. Kosambi was a speculator par excellence. His work aimed at telling Hindus that all they believed was bunkum. Thankfully, he spared Muslims this ignominy. Then came the celebrated text of Romila Thapar, which said that the Gupta Age was elitist-Sanskritic and thereby not a "golden age". Her own English, and its accent, however, would make any simpleton believe it was the language of the masses. 

A new project unfolded: a composite culture now had to be built on a rejection of Hinduism as Brahmanical. As a hierarchical system of oppression. It would seem that the undoing of India was Hinduism. The composite culture project now became the Titanic awaiting the social media iceberg. Elitism, some perhaps thought, would relish its babudom under official patronage, but technology was set to expose it within decades. Some smart social media management by the right -- and some unsmart left hypocrisy -- finally made secularism a bad word. Rumour piled on to communist sins. For, how could any majority respect a composite culture constructed on its own negation?

Hinduism's strengths had been obfuscated by the left in one wily stroke of ill-gotten bureaucratic gains. Not that Hindus could not take criticism. They had called Kabir, who ridiculed them in medieval Kashi, a saint, as he meted out the same ridicule to Islam. They had always referred to Dayanand Saraswati as Swami and Maharshi, despite his having broken idols in public. For, he had also criticised other religions. 

Hindus as a collective had never claimed complete truth. They had only claimed a slice of it and left the rest to others. Yet, Marxists chose to attack Hinduism, maintaining strategic silence on other beliefs. They even forgot Bhagat Singh -- whom they have claimed ever since despite his never joining the CPI and going to the gallows for avenging the death of Hindu Mahasabha stalwart Lajpat Rai -- who had condemned all religious traditions equally. 

Indira Gandhi's error of outsourcing historical knowledge production to communists eventually hit India, polarising it to the last person. Once the social media came, the left was discredited. 
What you sow, so shall you reap, as they say!

What, then, is the way out?
There is only one: respect or abuse Hinduism just as much as any other religion. Be a Gandhi, and seek meaning in all, or be a Bhagat Singh, and condemn all. The days of selective attacks on Hinduism are past us. Not just the social media but the intellectual left was the iceberg that sank the Congress' Titanic. 


- Vikas Pathak

Vikas Pathak is a Delhi-based journalist and media academic

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1 Comments

  1. Wow! What about the unparalleled and extraordinary socio-cultural drive undertaken by social reformers like Phule, Ambedkar, Periyar and many others, who presented the staunchest criticism of Hindu-brahmanical social order for its oppressive, discriminatory and superstitious practices on the basis of caste, gender, jurisprudence and cosmology? Did they not undertake such emancipatory, egalitarian drive of critical reformulation of Indian civilisation well before the 1970s? Were they also communists and clienteles of Indira Gandhi? There are a few more methodologically and ideologically misleading, unsustainable elements of the central thrust of this essay, which one may readily point out. However, let me appreciate one agreeable point: yes, the project of emancipatory, egalitarian and advancing humanity ought to maintain the same spirit towards the problematic shades of the existing cosmology and practices found across the religious boundaries. After all, Irfan Habib has the credit of laying bare the exploitative and oppressive aspects of Mughal Indian history, which challenges both the colonial narrative and communal narrative. Any way!

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