Is India Becoming Less Secular? Does It Matter?

31/01/2015 9:48 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST
Happy Independence Day for India. Flag hoisting ceremony at the Indian Embassy in Kuwait

When I visited India last December, two things caught my attention. One, that Nathuram Godse, Gandhi's murderer, was being hailed as a hero by some and, two, that there was a campaign called ghar wapsi. Like an eager NRI I started reading about it immediately, thinking there were fresh sops for non-resident Indians who were being beckoned back to the country. Surprise, surprise. The "programme" was about converting Christians and Muslims and welcoming them back into the benign, all-forgiving fold of Hinduism. My only reaction was to laugh.

I thought of this again because of the recent social media buzz on President Obama's comments on India's secular credentials, and how, "India will succeed so long as it is not splintered along the lines of religious faith." Political commentators were quick to point out that this gained significance in the light of communal violence and the ghar wapsi initiative by right wing Hindu groups. And to add fuel to the fire, the government released advertisements in Indian newspapers that carried an image of the preamble to the Constitution that excludes the words "socialist and secular". The Indians in the advert did not have the standard Sikh in a turban and Muslim in an achkan and tarbush. The Indians in the advertisement are Hindus and indigenous tribes.

Naturally my MBA WhatsApp group discussed this too. This group is representative of India's multi-culturalism and my batchmates are from almost all states, religions and communities in India. As argumentative Indians we have vibrant discussions on everything from cricket, movies, books, food and vegetarianism to the Bhagavad Gita, religion, oil and dollar movements, sex and politics. While we pretty much agree to disagree on almost everything, the opinion on Modi is unanimous. I find hope in all that the group members express. My group of 70 intelligent business managers, bankers, entrepreneurs, writers, NGO and development sector workers, film makers and professors hope that Modi will make a difference. That the economy will pick up, that there will be more jobs and that India and Indians will regain their pride because of strong leadership. Despite their disgust at the RSS (and remember, the majority here is Hindus), they are optimistic that Modi has set his eyes on development and won't be deterred from that.

I asked myself, "As a proud Indian and a Sikh, should I be worried with all this RSS drama?" If the 1984 riots carried any personal lesson for me, then my answer is NO.

The 1984 riots and their aftermath sit heavy on the collective consciousness of the Sikh community - both in India and abroad. It was unfathomable that such atrocities could be committed against a community that had such close ties with the majority Hindu community. Like many other Sikh families, mine went through its own personal hell, and all of us tried to process what was happening. India was our country, had been ours since the Partition of India in 1947. It was distressing to be treated shoddily in one's own homeland.

Yet, 1984 makes me optimistic that all this religious posturing does not work in the long term in India. Thirty years later, I am an Indian first and then a Sikh. I do not consider myself a minority and expect no concessions. My sister is married into a Hindu family that is a strong RSS supporter. Members of her family canvassed at the grassroots level for Modi, going door to door to ask for votes. Yet, they are respectful of my sister's religion and her children are growing up in a wonderful cultural melting pot, an environment that only children of inter-faith marriages have the privilege of experiencing.

Prime Minister Modi knows his agenda. And it is measurable and clear. If he does not deliver on development, nothing will stop the fury of Indians from turning on him. And he will be booted out of power. It will not matter then if he is a Hindu and if India is predominantly Hindu. We are deeply religious, yes, but we are also pragmatic. We want jobs, we want safety for our children, we want roads and infrastructure, and we want economic growth. Modi is riding on our hopes and if he is not successful, well, it will be a strong goodbye from the Indian populace!

We most certainly do not need President Obama to give us gyaan on the secular nature of our country. We were secular before the Constitution of India was adopted and we will continue to be so, even if Modi's government uses the old preamble to the Constitution and the RSS flexes its muscle.

We are like this only! That's a blessing.

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