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.