October 07, 2005

Indifference, then respect

Uma's prize-winning essay has generated a good deal of comment that I've wanted to reply to. Here's some musing on secularism, triggered by one phrase in those comments.


Many angry people have written me angry notes about holidays. The lack of "Hindu" holidays, they say, is one more insult to Hinduism, one more reason Hindus "feel under siege" in this country. And they rattle off various occasions that should be holidays but are not.

Now you might note that our calendar is already crowded with holidays for occasions like Holi, Diwali, Janmashtami, Dassehra, Navratri and Ganesh Chaturthi, with many regional variations. But if you "feel under siege", that argument won't convince: if every single day of the year was a holiday, you would still unearth insults.

So me, I wonder how giving people more days to laze at home amounts to respect for religion. For anything.

And when I wonder like that, my thoughts lead inexorably to one conclusion: "equal respect" for all religions -- which is how we came to have our various religious holidays -- is a myth. Or put it this way: secularism, defined as equal respect for all faiths, is a myth. It cannot work. Pursued like that, it will necessarily produce disgruntled men digging around to find insults to their faith.

Thus: here an article that pokes fun at Bombay Catholic habits "insults" their faith; there a comment about the Prophet by a disreputable American Baptist evangelist abuses Islam; in that corner sit the fellows totting up denigration in the calendar.

The idea of equal respect for all faiths is a close cousin to the idea of pleasing everybody. Some genius saw fit to warn against that second idea. "You cannot please everybody", remember? No four words are truer. Unfortunately, nobody has warned us against attempts to respect all religions equally. So we try, and try again with well-intentioned, if muddle-headed, purpose -- and manage only to annoy ever more people.

Time for a change, I suspect. And perhaps for this radical thought: one way the state can truly respect all religions is by offering them none.

Let me quickly say that I am not advocating mass conversions to atheism or agnosticism. (Though frankly, we agnostics don't care one way or another). What I am questioning is the idea, sold to us by men like Nehru and Gandhi, that secularism means equal respect for all religions; more, that a state can achieve that. Sarva dharma samabhava: we heard it from them and from successors who aren't half the men they were anyway.

But today, as the secularism they yearned for crumbles into failure and hatred, when "Nehruvian secularism" itself is a bad word, we can only conclude: it was an exercise in futility.

Or let me put it this way: to the state, secularism must mean an equal indifference to all religions. Or it means nothing.

Just two implications at random here, of such indifference.

One, leaders will refrain from pious statements about our "vaunted" secularism every time we spit on it as in Gujarat in 2002. They must clutch at such straws because we are so profoundly disillusioned with what passes for secularism. Changing the way we look at it might spur us to punish rioters and hate-mongers, instead of settling for empty slogans. Which, in turn, would give secularism new meaning.

Two, the state shuns anything to do with religion. No Satyanarayana Pujas in public sector offices; no interference in religious institutions; no Haj subsidies; no observances of any kind at the start of Government-sponsored functions. And in particular, not one religious holiday on the calendar. You are welcome to do these things -- on your own time. Want to observe your Easters or Ids, Patetis or Diwalis? Why, you can do so by using one or more of, say, fifteen optional holidays employees are entitled to take through the year. The state will recognize just one holiday, August 15 (though I have reservations about even that one).

This way, we undermine the whiners who comb the calendar for insults. When nobody gets official holidays, nobody can claim disrespect.

And that hints at the true benefit of such a view of secularism. You don't foster respect by trying to cater to every faith. As we see, that breeds moaners and ill-feeling. Respect comes instead from being firm and fair. And to me the best way to be so, where religions are concerned, is for the state to stay away from every single one.

People balk at separating church and state so explicitly. They think it negates some deeply-felt human need for religion, or amounts to godlessness. Wrong. It means neither. Such separation, maintained strictly in a country filled with diversity, is how secularism can find meaning and relevance.

Now that's worth some respect.


Anirudh Karnick said...

A good post. I agree completely. But what about school children?

Anonymous said...

Article full of half-baked utopiean ideas, completely ignoring ground reality - i.e, votebank politics where pseudo-secularism thrives

zap said...

Hear hear. Sadly, it will not come to pass though.
Communism got a couple of things right, eh?

shaun said...

I couldn't agree more with you, just that the principle of treating all religions as equal was never applied anyway. All sorts of appeasement, partiship by the state (real and not just percieved, as you seem to suggest) have taken place. The classic case was Rajiv gandhi's handling of the Shah bano case. When he thought he had gone too far, he decided to become soft on the Hindutvawaadis!

Suvendra Nath Dutta said...

This makes sense, but Dilip, you seem to have set up a straw man to pull down. The secularism enshrined in our constitution is one which (in effect) seeks to separate church and state. The deviations that you (and the comments) speak of are violations of the constitution. The Shah Bano case is a double violation. Its a violation of secularism, but worse it seeks to change post-fact the result of a court's decision. I would say the thing to do is to go back to the original intent of the constitution and take religion out of the business of the government. If it is in the interest of the people to have a national holiday on some particular day, let it be brought as a bill, lets see what the national cost of the holiday is, and how we'd pay for it. Lets follow process. Which I thought was the best thing in the original essay. Treat crime for what it is, crime, and prosecute it.

Alok said...

You keep talking of "state" as if it is something apart from the people. State is the PEOPLE. It's people who decide how the state should run. So you can not say State should be indifferent to religion while people continue with their idiotic beliefs.

I made the same point on Uma's blog. We have to start practicing indifference to religion in our personal life first and more importantly protect our children from the insidious (and criminal) religious indoctrination that happens in our homes and schools.

Let's also stop pretending that it's only the "fanatics" who "pervert" the essential idea of religions. The liberals, muliticultural left and the religious-tolerance gang are equally to blame. It is they who insulate these insanely idiotic religious people from any kind of criticism and questioning.

The basic truth is that religion is false and history shows us that believing in something false for personal, subjective reasons always brings out the worst in human beings.

Only a zero-tolerance approach to all religious nonsense is going to work. How about starting with this book. Read and pass on.

And as I always end comments like these: Any offence to any religious sentiment is strictly intentional.


Anonymous said...


State is a creation of the people but it NOT the people. In a multi-religious society, the state, if it claims to represent all, it has to be secular in the sense of strict state-church separation.

But in a deeper sense you are right. As long as people are deeply religious, from time to time you are going to see clamor for religious encroachment in the state and vice versa. In the US, it takes the form of increasing demands for school-prayer, creationism, etc. In Europe it took the form of state chruches (such as the Church of England). In India it takes the form of satyanaryan puja in offices or Haj subsidies or whatever.

However, people are not simply going to stop being religious. That is an utopian wish. Religion, however harmful, addresses psychic needs at the very least. Besides, religious groups often [rovide some forms of social insurance. These benefits are extremely powerful in a world where increasing globalization and market forces are creating greater disruptions and leading to greater employment and income uncertainties around the world. The rise of religiosity in many American communities can be linked to depressed economic conditions in many areas. Islamic findamentalism in the middle east also rose exponentially with the fall in the oil prices during the 1980s and 1990s and the consequent reduction in state munificence.


WHile I personally would not conduct a Satynarayana pooja in office, I dont find that terribly harmful to a secular state. In the US, they haev Easter egg hunt in the WHite House (or some such thing) and there is some event or the other on Christmas. Offices are closed on Christmas (in the North East for Rosh Hassanah). I am not a Christian but I dont get offended by any of this. The more serious problem is when the state gets involved where real money is involved or real changes are involved. For example, temple management, haj subsidies.

There is another fundamental problem in India. A truly secular, nonsectarina state would only recognize individuals and individual rights. If the state is adequately doing a job of protecting individual rights, then the need for special treatment for minorities would not arise. There would be no need for a NAtional Minorities commission. The recognition of group rights (whether religious or ethic) is the first step down a slippery slope. That is why toady in India we have caste leaders each clamoring for more entitlements for their own group. A direct consequence of this has been the mobilization of the Hindu right. Forty years back the Hindu right was a marginal group. Nobody paid attention them. But if everybody is part of some group, then those left over begin to form some group based on real or imagined commanality. WHile it is easy to pillory the Sangh ( and I carry no brief for them or for anybody), I see defeaning silence about equally sectarian people be it Laloo and Mulayam or DMK or Muslim League or whatever.

Alok said...

However, people are not simply going to stop being religious. That is an utopian wish.

Yes, people are not going to just stop being religious. It will take time. And calling it utopian when we haven't yet tried to do anything about it?

I mean, do you see a single instance in indian media or any public forum where atheism is discussed? A single public intellectual, writer, journalist, activist who takes an unequivocal stand against religion? (I have heard Arundhati Roy calls herself an atheist)? where is our Richard Dawkins? where is our Mencken, our Hitchens? Why do our mainstream newspapers waste their newsprint on abysmally idiotic mind-over-matter spiritual crap? why do long-haired and smiling gurujis and saffron-clad matajis attract lakhs of (otherwise well educated) devotees who listen to their boring banalities and why do they get tax exemption?

And why do people like Dilip, who in this post first calls himself an agnostic and then in the end clarifies that Godlessness is something that is wrong and that our secular constitution isn't entirely Godless...!! (I know, you didn't want to hurt the religious sentiment of your readers, but that's what the problem is).

You say that religion helps people psychologically. What do you have to say about the 19 highjackers who blew up themselves thinking of virgins that they are going to get in afterlife. Were they psychologically healthy? They sure were very religious people. It is only a difference of scale between them and innocent children who pray to God who they think will save them from monsters who live under their beds. All of this is irrationality and madness and nothing else. There is nothing more harmful psychologically than a blind faith, because it makes you bypass your logical circuits in your brain. You have heard of Gerin Oil? Religion is a dangerous drug, it is a fatal addiction.

My basic point was, let's not complicate the secularism debate by bringing in constitution, law, history etc. Let's ask are we secular to ourselves? Are we teaching our children to be Secular? And if we can answer these questions we will get answer to the bigger questions too. Secularism is a personal issue first and public/political issue later.

And yes. Please read Sam Harris's book and pass it on to your friends.


NPOjha said...

The idea that you advocate is a tested one: and it works better than the one that we are living with today. Our standard (equal affirmation of all religions) has led to a fractured polity, which the US (equally blind to all religions) and France (affirmative atheism) have, till now, avoided.
If you have a few minutes, look at my post The Many Denominations of Secular on this topic.

Ashok said...

The point's already been made. But it needs iteration.
Alok, you ask: "Let's ask are we secular to ourselves? Are we teaching our children to be Secular?"
People are not going to wake up one fine morning and discover some hidden wellsprings of secularism.
So where does this process start, if not with secular governance?
Who sets the syllabus? What about government-run schools?
You ask: "why do they get tax exemption?" Who gives them tax exemption?
The constitution, the law, the government are as good a place to start the process as any.

Rabin said...

A wonderful piece. Of all the thought provoking comments left earlier, I would tend to agree with Anirudh Karnick, what of the kids? When I was a kid I've had great Deepavalis and Pongals (though Pongal is more a farmer's festival rather than a Hindu festival, the fact remains that I am not a farmer neither am I Hindu). It was perfectly normal to burst crackers, eat great food and only when I grew up I realised that they were just 'borrowed' festivals, my parents having omitted to inform me of this detail and plunging us head long into the festivities.

Festivals used to be a time for shared happiness. I remember the times when Mom used to bake dozens of cakes during Christmas and distribute to everyone in the neighbourhood and likewise we would get plates and plates of sweets & crackers during Deepavali. Now, if we hardly know more than 3 families who live around us so, we hardly bake cakes anymore. Sweets that are distributed are generally store bought and often a mere symbolism.

What Uma's post also raises is a much larger issue, that of the bankruptcy of core religious values with people in general. Today, practices have subsituted values. Being a christian, I question a lot of what happens in churches today, things like the politics, casteism etc, being rampant,(I reckon this is true for any other religion). Today there are too many christians who think that a sign of a true christian is just to be there in church on a sunday morning and sleeping through the sermon (this is also due to the sermon's total lack of connection with our lives). No religion in truth stresses on practices, they stress on values, on peaceful behaviour, fairness and kindness to fellow man, but we think that as long as we sleep through the sermon, the other stuff can just be bypassed and a place in heaven awaits us. I sometimes think, what if there was no heaven? What if we already WERE in heaven? Would we be less rigid in our practices?

I regret the length of this comment. I just rattle on at times :)

Nikhil said...

I have just one comment after reading this news item on Shyam Benegal.
Let secularism not become a horse gone amuck.In this case, this mans secular credentials seem to have made him go senile or resort to complete lying and stating untruths.

Some of the facts he got wrong or deliberately lied about:

Bombay - released in 1995 - when the congress govt was still in power.

Border- Not made when NDA was in power.

Lagaan etc - Why not credit NDA that they allowed such movies to be made?

The reason is that the award winning essayist could only quote a playboy bollywood actor and not an expert like Dr Rafiq Zakaria or even Rajmohan Gandhi.
This is what I call secularism gone amok.

I would like Dilip's response to such lack of integrity shown in the name of secularism.

k said...

R: As a Hindu going to convent, I was personally awed by the number of holidays we used to get for "feasts" for the different patron saints. Only little complaint was that nobody called us non-Christians for actual feasting (as in food/drinks) - though was advised later by our christian friends that there were no actual feasts.

Koyi, bat nahi.. to move ahead...
I'm sure those wishing for more holidays based on religious festivals are just want to play hookie i.e., missing work. Religion is just as excuse. Why should politicians and two bit nitwit journalists like Dilip be the only ones playing the religious cards?

Hey, if we can make the stars/moons to coincide with the ODI cricket calendar (or vice versa), rest assured, hindus and muslims in true secular spirit will push for holidays to celebrate Easter, Good Friday, St Patrick's day. And our muslims and christians will push for holidays on Parsi new year or Bhaishaki or Onam... you get the idea.

Nikhil said...

Further to my earlier post, I also point out that the prize winning essayist has completely omitted to mention one of the worst cases of ethnic cleansing in India: That of the exodus of Kashmiri pandits and several successive governments ignoring their plight. Is this not a blight on secularism and is not their return to the valley and rehabilitation not more important than building a mosque?
Another small tidbit about the Babri masjid. The author has not mentioned that the mosque had not been used for more than 3 decades anyway before it was razed. Again this is not to justify the razing of the mosque - it was a shameful act, but only to ask as to why the likes of Syed Shahabuddin were so obstinate about this structure when initially it was possible to arrive at a compromise. I feel if the so called muslim leadership had been flexible on this issue, it would have been a historic opportunity for Hindu-Muslim relations. Actually a few muslim intellectuals also felt this way -read what Saeed Naqvi and Dr Rafiq Zakaria have written on this issue.
When Aamir Khan did Sarfarosh, my regard for him went up. This movie actually mirrored the Indian Muslim dilemma. How the Pakistan problem has actually been detrimental for Hindu Muslim relations. In fact I even recommended this movie to a few of my foreign friends.
But Aamir Khan actually disowned what must be his most memorable work while in Pakistan for Imran Khan's hospital jumbooree and even apologised to the Pakistanis about it and promised never to act in such a movie again. Is this secularism? Apologising to a hostile nation for a movie he did in his own country. Only makes me wonder whether he himself is secular before blaming BJP and others? OR was his Sarfarosh only a con act. My respect for him after this has gone down completely.

zap said...

My Dear Nikhil,
How does all that row beating justify any of the violence?? Whatever side did however much.

zap said...

My Dear Nikhil,
How does all that brow beating justify any of the violence?? Whatever side did however much.

Nikhil said...

Please tell me if I have justified any of the violence that takes place during riots. Communal violence is bad and the people responsible for it should be hauled up.
My point is simply that secularism is an abused term- look at the 2 instances I have pointed out. According to the 2 Bollwood personalities,It seems that secularism = Anti BJP/NDA. If this is the mental faculties of 2 supposed to be thinking peoples film peoples, then I dread to think of others
Is the congress whose members participated in the Anti Sikh riots truly secular?
Can the communists who introduced communal politics in Kerala claim to be secular?
These are the issues I wish to bring up. I doubt if Uma's suggestion of rebuilding the mosque will be good for secularism. It may have the oppposite effect.
A proper solution would be to have a negotiated settlement with religious experts like MV Kamath, Saeed Naqvi etc playing an important role

Anonymous said...

Sam Harris is dishonest. Michael Medved demolished his arguements on his radio show. Athiest ideologies like communism are more destructive than any religious tradition

Dilip D'Souza said...

Forgive the late reaction, I've been on the road, and at least a few people on this page know about that...

Anirudh, what about school children? Well, the same thing applies to schools: they decide from some optional list which ones to take. I haven't thought this through, because it's probably a good thing if the schools coordinate on this and I don't know the best way to do that. But anyway.

Shivam, I don't mean to suggest "perceived", I do mean real. Shah Bano is a good example.

Suvendra, indeed they are violations of the constitution, and they need to be fought on that basis. But I'm also trying to make the point that sarva dharma samabhava is a chimera, and by definition will cause problems.

Alok, the state is the people, sure. But other states have found ways to give themselves reasonable separation of church and state. That's the example to aim for. I have simply no use for religion, and will keep it that way as my kids grow up. But I think striving for a world free of religion is futile. It is not going to happen. Therefore any reasonable view of secularism must come about in that setting.

As for atheism, I find it no less irrational than religion itself. This is why, for me, the only thing that makes any sense is agnosticism: I don't know, and couldn't care less, if god exists.

You say I claim that Godlessness is something that is wrong and that our secular constitution isn't entirely Godless...!!.

News to me. Where did I claim this?

Anonymous 257am: I see much to agree with in all that you write, until the very end. You sense a "deafening silence" about such people as Lalu? Why, he is easily the most pilloried politician in the country! The butt of the most jokes, the object of middle-class hatred, on and on. I'm amazed that you have let that pass you by.

nikhil, I see no "lack of integrity in the name of secularism", and certainly not because Benegal might have got the dates of films wrong. The more general point he makes is that the Parivar's politics have legitimized some unsavoury attitudes.

As for I feel if the so called muslim leadership had been flexible on this issue ... what do you think about also saying "I feel if the so called Hindu leadership had been flexible on this issue..."? Possible? Conceivable? Why or why not?

Why is it that if somebody criticizes the BJP, you automatically assume that they hold the Congress to be secular paragons? The Congress ran this country into the ground on various counts, secularism included. But understand this: disillusioned with the Congress, we turned to the BJP, only to find that in power they were no more than a Congress clone, and in some ways ten times worse. This is why guys like me are angry with the BJP above all: because they have now left us with no alternative.

If you ask me, the Babri Masjid issue will never be resolved. Too many people want it to fester.

Nikhil said...

Regards the last post, I forgot to mention the original author of the suggestion to resolve the Ram mandir dispute - Sajid Bhombal who used to write for rediff earlier. At present in a hurry. Dilip - thanks for the reply. I shall be posting my responses soon.