Episode 164      26 min 38 sec
Secularism, applied religiously: Harmonizing a hyper-diverse India

Senior journalist and political commentator Dr Swapan Dasgupta explains how secularism is defined and applied in ethnically, linguistically and religiously diverse India. And how a sense of harmony -- and occasional lack thereof -- is wrapped up in India's unique take on being secular. With host Jennifer Cook.

"I think we’re reaching a point where we could see a flash point if, for example, the idea of reservations in jobs, in school placements, in university placements have a sectarian basis and that could be dangerous. So I think you have to balance how far you can be a non-discriminatory society and to what extent you should take affirmative action." -- Dr Swapan Dasgupta





           



Dr Swapan Dasgupta
Dr Swapan Dasgupta

Dr Swapan Dasgupta is a political columnist with 25 years' experience based in Delhi. He has been a columnist for Times of India, Pioneer, the Telegraph (Kolkata), Jagran, Deccan Chronicle, Asian Age and Free Press Journal. He has also written frequently for Outlook, the Wall Street Journal, Indian Express and Tehelka. In addition, he comments on politics regularly for TV news channels.

He started working in journalism in 1985 and served in senior positions in The Statesman, Times of India, Indian Express and Telegraph. He was Managing Editor of India Today from 1997 to 2003. Swapan Dasgupta was educated at St Stephen’s College, Delhi and the School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London, where he was awarded a Ph.D in 1980. He was subsequently appointed a Research Fellow of Nuffield College, University of Oxford from 1982 to 1985.

Credits

Host: Jennifer Cook
Producers: Kelvin Param, Eric van Bemmel
Audio Engineer: Gavin Nebauer
Voiceover: Nerissa Hannink
Series Creators: Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param

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VOICEOVER Welcome to Up Close, the research talk show from the University of Melbourne, Australia.

JENNIFER COOK
I'm Jennifer Cook.  Thanks for joining us.When Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, was asked in 1958 to identify his greatest challenges since independence 11 years earlier, he replied creating a just state by just means and then added, perhaps, too, creating a secular state in a religious country.So just what does the word secularism mean in the world’s largest democracy and how does it intersect with the religious lives of a population of 1.2 billion people?This question is difficult enough, but it’s made even more so when you realise that the term secular has a far more complex meaning for Indians than those in the west are used to.  In other words, the term has been Indianised and you need only know that in India, Mother Teresa is considered a secular figure to appreciate the difference.At the heart of this issue is the question of how so many people with so many diverse social, linguistic, economic and religious differences manage to function at all, let alone as part of the world’s largest democracy.With us to discuss how it all works is Dr Swapan Dasgupta, a political columnist of 25 years experience based in Delhi.  Swapan has served in senior positions in such publications as The Statesman, The Times of India, The Indian Express and The Telegraph and he was managing editor of India Today from 1997 to 2003.  Swapan is visiting the University of Melbourne for the Australia India Institute’s Conference entitled The Reluctant Superpower: Understanding India and its Aspirations.Swapan, thank you so much for joining us.

SWAPAN DASGUPTA
Thank you.

JENNIFER COOK
Let’s begin by asking the obvious question, what does secularism mean in India?

SWAPAN DASGUPTA
Well, the quote from Nehru which you just cited was in 1958 when he was speaking to Andre Malraux, the then French Minister of Culture under de Gaulle, and I think he was trying to put it in the context of Europe and India.  I think in France you have a very, very rigid definition of what constitutes secularism, that is, something which is completely opposed or juxtaposed against the sacred or the religious.  In India, those distinctions, however much Nehru may have wanted that to be operative, doesn’t really work.The intriguing issue as to why Mother Teresa as you just mentioned is a secular figure would leave most people quite bewildered.  Mother Teresa throughout her life was a deeply devout Catholic who did everything in her perception, for God. Her relationship was with the poor, but serving the poor was, in her perception, something the work of God.Now, in India what happens is that anything which doesn’t correspond to the mainstream is considered secular.  In other words, the celebration of what, say, in Australia may be considered multiculturalism would become secular.  Christmas, ideally, would not be considered a secular festival.  It isn’t.  It’s a religious festival or, at least, even if it has secular overtones, it’s underpinning the deeply religious.  But in India, because there’s a Christian minority, it is a secular festival.  So it’s a label rather than the actual meaning of it.So the term secularism in India has come to mean all those who are sensitive to a larger multicultural/minority sensitivities.

JENNIFER COOK
So how did this happen?  How did the term become Indianised?  Talk us through that.

SWAPAN DASGUPTA
It’s very difficult to know exactly when the transformation took place.  My own sense is the transformation was a result of political debates in India where the word secular was juxtaposed against the word communal. Communal in the sense of being sectarian.  So something which pits religion against religion as opposed to something which talks the harmony between religions is secular.

JENNIFER COOK
So just how does a country the size, the sheer geographical size of India, let alone the population, the number of languages and the thousands of dialects, with so many levels of diversity, how do they manage to function?  In short, how do they manage to live together, Swapan?

SWAPAN DASGUPTA
I often use the analogy of the overcrowded train compartments in India and they can be hideously overcrowded and the buzz word there, which exists in politics as well as in public life, is the word adjustment.  We have a term for it which in the vernacular you say “adjust kar lo”, it means you somehow accommodate.  Adjustment there has come to mean accommodate.In other words, you tolerate other people’s differences and somehow reconcile the fact that everyone is not like you and that people have their own differences, their own angularities, their own uniqueness and you celebrate the fact.  Even if you don’t celebrate it, you accept it and in India that’s bound to be the case because you have people who, for example, despite nominally being Hindus which is the majority religion in India, speak very, very different languages.  Hinduism doesn’t have a church.  Hinduism has no or very few ritual commonalities.  A marriage ceremony, for example, for people like me who come from Bengal is very different from a marriage ceremony for people who live in the Punjab, for example.  You can trace commonalities, you can detect common threads, but there are no common rituals. So, again, the festivals, there are many pan-Indian festivals but there are a lot of local festivals.So it all boils down to how many you can accommodate.  India loves a bit of the passion tree, the celebrations and the more the merrier and it’s often talked about that you have a million gods and goddesses and I think that is also a part of the underpinnings of what has later come to be called secularism.  In other words, not a religious society but a society which celebrates more and more diversity and multi-religious character of the people.

JENNIFER COOK
This is Up Close coming to you from the University of Melbourne, Australia.  I'm Jennifer Cook and our guest today is Swapan Dasgupta and we’re talking about secularism in India.Now, Swapan, you’ve just talked to us about this attitude of adjustment, of accommodating.  You used the analogy of the crowded train.  Are there certain rules and, if so, are these implied or are they applied from above?  You talked about adjustment being a notion in politics as well.

SWAPAN DASGUPTA
It’s not that these issues are without hiccups.  There are very, very serious hiccups and there’s bound to be.  Politics in India is competitive and electoral politics is fiercely competitive, so the temptation to mobilise people along predetermined categories, whether they be through the issue of language, whether they be through the issue of caste, whether they be through the issue of religion or any other forms of identity you can manage, are irresistible.So, to that extent often you have competitive religiosity and the politicisation of religion.  We live in a world where, willy-nilly, religion got increasingly politicised and these do create problems.  So it’s not a hassle free secular existence we lead in India.  There are many tensions around horrible riots which occasionally break out based on religious differences.  There are riots which break out on the basis of other differences.  So differences are also a potential source of conflict.The issue is not so much whether we are secular or whether we are theocratic or whether we are single denominational, but how do you manage the secularism.

JENNIFER COOK
Yes, so what kind of level of state control is there or is there perceived to be as opposed to people just governing themselves and being tolerant?

SWAPAN DASGUPTA
There is an element of state control.  We have very strict constitutional provisions which outlaw discrimination on the basis of religion.  We outlaw discrimination in any form except some which are sanctioned.  Affirmative action is what it’s called in the west.  In India we call it reservations.Now one of the big fault lines, if I can call it that, which exists in India is a sense of resentment which has arisen in recent times and not least because of the politicisation of religion, between those, particularly, of the dominant community who feel that they are becoming the minority despite not seeing any demographic challenge to their thing.  The Hindus, for example, constitute 80 per cent of India, the Muslims are about 12, 13 per cent and the rest, Christians are about two per cent, Buddhists are even a smaller number.But there are special constitutional provisions for what are called the minorities.  Minorities is a term which is recognised by the constitution, so it’s not merely equal citizenship of equal rights, but it’s also differentiated citizenship whereby certain group rights are accorded to people.  It’s how the management of those group rights take place which often creates problems.

JENNIFER COOK
Would you say in India that there is such a thing as an innate sense of societal tolerance?

SWAPAN DASGUPTA
There is and there isn’t.  I think people acknowledge differences.  It’s not that everyone says we are all the same, but which of these are felt to be offensive and which are felt to be non-offensive.  I think that’s really the question.Again, there’s no hard and fast rule.  It depends on circumstances.  Throughout the 1920s, for example, there were horrible communal riots in India based on two issues primarily. One is cow slaughter, because Hindus consider the cow is sacred and look down on beef eating.  Secondly, the other one was what’s called the music before mosques incident which is that in case the religious festivals of two communities happened to fall on the same day and there was a big boisterous musical procession, which is quite commonplace in India, or in the route there is a mosque and there is a tension in that.There is also the Festival of Holi, for example, where people throw coloured water and those can get a bit boisterous in the best of times.  Sometimes if you threw coloured water and someone objects and he or she belongs to another community, that can be the trigger for a clash.Of late, one of the biggest issues which has come up is on the question of personal laws.  India is very unique in one respect, that because of these special rights guaranteed to minorities there is a secular common law, personal laws, which apply to the Hindus and there is something which is closely resembling the Sharia law which determines the conduct of Muslims in terms of inheritance, marriage, et cetera.So this question of marriage and with the gender rights do conflict with that.  There has been a lot of tensions.  At the same time, a lot of Muslims feel that they should preserve their existing separate personal laws because that’s seen as a badge of identity.

JENNIFER COOK
Of course, and within a culture that prides itself on accepting difference you can see this conflict.

SWAPAN DASGUPTA
Yes, it is a conflict and that’s a conflict which has been exacerbated by politics.  It’s a form of political mobilisation.  The idea of having same common law is part of a very modern demand for equal citizenship.  At the same time, in political mobilisation it can be used for very, very narrow sectarian purposes as a form of minority bashing.  So it can happen both ways and I think it does.

JENNIFER COOK
We can talk about that as secularism, but that’s also very much an ingredient of democracy.  You have a right to speak and, therefore, everyone has a right to express their view.  You might not always like those views, but they still have a right to be expressed and that does set up conflict.

SWAPAN DASGUPTA
It is a conflict not merely about democracy but also what is the role of the majority in a democracy.

JENNIFER COOK
That’s right.

SWAPAN DASGUPTA
Now one of the big upholders of this differentiated form of citizenship say majoritarianism should not prevail.  On the other hand, those who favour uniform laws would say well, in a country we cannot have two laws for different categories of citizens.  I think both have a point.  It’s not that they’re both being irrational.  I think both have very, very strong cases going for them, but at the end of the day there’s a very unique Indian saying called, “We are like this only” which sort of covers up a multitude of sins and sort of celebrates your own uniqueness.I think there’s a greater recognition that we cannot be a secular society in the same way as France, which is perhaps taking the most extreme example.  Neither are we a secular society or a society like Britain which has an established church, but where society is extremely secular.  So we are somewhere in between.  We have our own little quirks, we have our own problems, but there is an Indian route.  I think it’s not that we’ve ultimately achieved some form of perfection.In India we often blunder into some of our greatest achievements.  I think economic progress is one of them.  The management of secularism to my mind is another one of those things where I don’t think we’ve consciously thought about but we’ve somehow, by accident, come to a workable solution that sometimes works, but sometimes gets very dysfunctional.

JENNIFER COOKYou’re listening to Up Close coming to you from the University of Melbourne, Australia.  I'm Jennifer Cook and we’re talking about India and secularism and we’re joined by senior political commentator, Dr Swapan Dasgupta.Swapan, I would like to talk to you now about how this particular notion of secularism affects India’s relations with the rest of the world.

SWAPAN DASGUPTA
It does and it doesn’t.  I think the fact that India has one of the largest Muslim minorities. In absolute terms, India has more Muslims than any country other than Indonesia I think, although it’s a very small percentage of the population.  That, for example, determines your West Asian policy, although people have been very averse to saying why should domestic sectarian considerations dictate what should be in your national interest, but it does and let’s be honest about it.There is also a sense in which I think the celebration of separateness has also prevented much needed reforms from within the Muslim community.  Initially, when the constitution was framed in 1950, it was against a backdrop of the horrible partition between India and Pakistan where a large section of the Muslim population went over to Pakistan.  So, to give a sense of reassurance to those who remained behind in India that their identity, their wellbeing, et cetera, and they will not suffer any discrimination, that element of separateness was accommodated.I think now there are concerns about how long must the separateness go on and should separateness as far as religion be translated into public policy.  If you build a road you’re building it for people regardless of what religion they are, but if your entire social policy is guided towards build a road only in that constituency where there is a large cluster of people of one community, then I think you do get very hideous distortions.  Some of those distortions occasionally do manifest themselves.  They’re rare, but they do.I think we’re reaching a point where we could see a flash point if, for example, the idea of reservations in jobs, in school placements, in university placements have a sectarian basis and that could be dangerous.  So I think you have to balance how far you can be a non-discriminatory society and to what extent you should take affirmative action.  It’s not a uniquely Indian debate.  It’s a debate which I think even in Australia sometimes you confront in different ways.

JENNIFER COOK
Yes, it’s not a uniquely Indian debate, but India certainly has handled it in its own unique way, hasn’t it?

SWAPAN DASGUPTA
And, at times, mishandled it.  It’s not that I think we can claim the entire credit for having done it very well.

JENNIFER COOK
So how can a knowledge of India’s notion of secularism, how can it help those of us outside of India to relate to the people there in an economic and political framework?

SWAPAN DASGUPTA
I don’t think there’s any direct correlation except insofar as the economic and political progress or economic stability of any country does depend a lot on social harmony. And economic progress, we inevitably, we jeopardised if there are examples of disharmony in society.  No investor really wants to be in a place which is fraught with social tensions.I think the endeavour in India has been to ensure that while you’re in a democracy you don’t necessarily emulate the Chinese method of social control.  I don’t think even if we tried we’d be able to do it, but at least I think there’s a great recognition that [unclear], but there’s a greater problem which is the problem of terrorism.  I think that is really going to be a litmus test of how, within the Muslim community, there’s a very sort of small minisculity which is involved in extremist action, but, invariably as happens with this, suspicion gets attached a large body of people.  How do you intelligently detach meaningful counterterrorism and how do you prevent an entire community from being tarred with the same brush?

JENNIFER COOK
How do you do that, Swapan?

SWAPAN DASGUPTA
I don’t think there are any prescriptions and I don’t think it’s always been successful because two wrong arrests, and wrong arrests can happen merely on the basis of suspicion, can give rise to the feeling that someone is being picked on, that there’s been a wilful prejudice in the police, that you are going with a priori assumptions.

JENNIFER COOK
Let’s talk about the nature of public discourse in India.  It’s been transformed in the last couple of decades, hasn’t it, first with the advent of television and then, of course, with the internet and, also, I’d like to mention mobile phones which are very cheap to get hold of in India and that’s also changed the way that people are communicating.Can you talk us through some of these changes and the impact it’s had on Indian society in relation to secularism?

SWAPAN DASGUPTA
Well, let me say that some of the social networking sites have been a nuisance.  What was governed by a healthy degree of self censorship has now become, at times, a platform for the outpouring of the most crassest forms of prejudice.  We often talk about internet Hindus, it means people who give vent to their subliminal fears in most explicit ways and that’s because it’s an unregulated medium, it’s an anarchic medium, it’s a new medium, it enables a lot of people to feel empowered.  Those are the positive things about it.As far as the more organised forms of media are concerned, television has really been the big story in India.  You have something like 80, maybe even a hundred 24 by seven news channels, all of them doing very well, a great time for journalists I assure you, but the problem is that they often tend to blow a small story out of proportion because you need something to fill air time.  So a minor clash in some corner of India, which in the old days of press reporting would have merited two paragraphs in the inside pages, suddenly becomes the hot talking point for about 10 hours, so sometimes tensions become contrived.

JENNIFER COOK
Swapan, what are the challenges that secularism in India faces in the future as the country becomes more globalised?

SWAPAN DASGUPTA
I think the most important challenge is unquestionable terrorism because terrorism does not have national frontiers any longer.  It’s part of a global movement which feeds on forces which we can’t identify and these are non state players mainly, they’re driven by considerations which most of us sometimes can’t really understand, but those considerations are real all the same and they do influence people.  So, obviously, terrorism, the global phenomenon of terrorism, is one obvious feature.Secondly, as India develops there’s bound to be uneven development and uneven development means that those who are at the lowest end of the social heap tend to get left out in the short term.In India, Muslims, for historical reasons, partly because the majority of the Muslim middle classes went over to Pakistan in 1947, happen to be almost at the lowest end of the economic ladder.  There is a greater resentment of globalisation there combined with a certain paranoid attitude towards the United States, the great Satan, that also exists.  So I would say there are potential challenges and, finally, I would say the entire internet issue, the diasporic Hindu community which tends to be more nationalistic, in fact more xenophobic than their counterparts who live in India itself, and that, too, creates a certain distortion.  But these are new features and I think we’ll be able to ride that storm.

JENNIFER COOK
So, Swapan, here’s a question for you.  How do you tweet secularism?

SWAPAN DASGUPTA
You know, the Twitter platform has seen some of the most active interventions in 140 characters on this entire question of secularism.  Again, entrenched positions, very firm views, exaggerating the importance of local differences, but allowing people to say the truth or the lie that dare not speak its name.  So Twitter, in particular, has had tremendous impact on either converting or repelling people to the idea of secularism as we see it in India.

JENNIFER COOK
Swapan, thank you so much for joining us today.

SWAPAN DASGUPTA
Thank you very much, Jenny.

JENNIFER COOK
We’ve been speaking with Dr Swapan Dasgupta, a senior political columnist of 25 years experience based in Delhi, and he’s been talking with us today on issues of secularism in India.  Relevant links, a full transcript and more info on this episode can be found at our website at upclose.unimelb.edu.au.Up Close is a production of the University of Melbourne, Australia.  This episode was recorded on 22 September 2011 and our producers were Kelvin Param and Eric van Bemmel.  Audio engineering by Gavin Nebauer.  Up Close is created by Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param.  I'm Jennifer Cook and, until next time, good bye.

VOICEOVER
You’ve been listening to Up Close.  We’re also on Twitter and Facebook.  For more info visit upclose.unimelb.edu.au.  Copyright 2011, the University of Melbourne.


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