Secularism under threat – Teesta Setalvad


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It is only after prolonged risks and trials that there can be any genuine threat. For two weeks now I have written about the risks and trials faced by Indian secularism. Today there is a genuine threat. And if there is one message that the poll results delivered by noon on last Friday, May 16 bring it is to ring alarm bells. The question for all of us concerned by this risk is what will we do about it?

For months on these pages I have tried, unambiguously to explore, and enumerate, what the compromise to the republic’s principles of secularism have been and the forces responsible/guilty for this tragic and consistent decline. There will be time under the new regime to re-visit these, in perpetuity. Until then what we will have to see and measure is, how high will be the costs of this threat and loss?

Thirty one per cent of the national vote, analysts say, won one party a brute majority of 282 seats in the present Lok Sabha, leaving even the architects of this success surpassed in their expectations. The BJP’s own poll gurus had predicted 225+  even as a leader kept speaking of Mission 272. Coming to Uttar Pradesh, the crushing 71 left even Shah’s predictions behind. Was it a wave of support, clever electoral arithmetic, a money driven super hero like marketing campaign or as this newspaper has suggested, something more? If the debate over the possibility of manipulating EVMs is allowed to rationally engage with a Constitutional body like the Election Commission, we may find some of the answers.

But that as we know is a long and grinding process which today’s impatient times have no time for. Today, we are told, is a time for collective euphoria (never mind if you are from the rest of the 69 per cent that did not wield the lotus), sweeping the streets and being India first and India proud. In this impatient and euphoric moment, there is no space and patience for shadows and dark spots or even legitimate questions that have no answers. It is just at such a time that us, as critics of the regime, we need to contemplate, dig our heels in, seek and and draw strength for the long, long haul.


Among the task for the moment is to seek answers from the cynical, splintered, “secular” opposition to some bitter questions that we should put: at what cost your indulgent disparate individualistic battles that failed to unite in the face of this threat?

Let’s start with Uttar Pradesh.  The BJP gets a thumping 42% votes –no doubt because of the deep polarization caused by the Muzaffarnagar violence and the failures of the administration –and is rewarded by 71 seats in the state. Poor Mayawaiji gets 20% of the votes but no seats, the Samajwadi Party gets  22.1% of the vote and 5 seats, the Congress 7.4 per cent of the vote and 2 seats. [The balance IND, AAP, RLD, PECP and NOTA get 5 per cent of the vote share]. Put simply the cynical luxury of the “secular formations” in battling the monster of majoritarianism separately nd incohesively cost them, if not their vote-share, a debacle in sets. Add together the vote share of the BSP, SP and Congress and the vote share is close to 48-49 per cent. Can we, a confused and disparate electorate, continue to receive separate messages from these three formations who claim to be together on the “defeat fascism” front and not confuse the voter? When Shahs and his boss, backed by corporate moneypower  [Ogilvy and Mather and Madison two advertisement agencies that are basking in the glory of the ‘presidential like campaign’ run by Modi are huge beneficiaries of the whopping total of between Rs 5,000-10,000 crores that was being spent, it is being said] managed to knit together 42 per cent of UP’s voters, can we afford not to ask the next question – why did the anti-fascist, pro democracy forces come together on a secular democratic front putting their petty and narrow interests behind? Or is this one more cynical example of the use of the word “secular” that this time has divided the vote in the face of a steam-rollered corporate supported majoritrianism?


Let’s visit the images of the Ganga Aarti at Benares made available to the electronic media by the BJP last Saturday. Mind you, the television channels were not allowed their own coverage (just like in Amethi when the PM elect spoke) and were compelled to use images of what the BJP gave them. As the overtly majoritarian rituals were beamed across a nation wedded to be secular and democratic, the camera (deliberately??) kept focusing on that section of the Kashi Vishwanath temple that is disputed and banned by the administration generally, from public view. A senior journalist was abused and threatened when she tweeted her view, would it not have been nice if the PM elect had also visited a Mosque? Or a church or a gurudwara I may add?

The sensex is up, the markets are booming and two corporate bodies that have unblinkingly been associated with the massively funded campaign have benefitted with their stocks sky-rocketing. Even as we watch the steps that the new government takes – bogged down by previous examples of manipulated histories and the cultural nationalism of the BJP kind that seeks to interfere with history teaching and learning—our immediate priorities must be to dialogue with all opposition secular parties to pull up their socks. A divided, fractured electorate that even now adds up to a higher number but which is bickeringly apart has won the ruling party this majority.

It is time that the cadres of ‘secular” parties were engaged in understanding what is meant by Constitutional values, diversity and secularism and that the vote-share is not simply cobbled together for electoral mathematics. Without such unity and cohesion there cannot be any future bulwark against majoritarian onslaught.  For this, a historical understanding of the different streams of the struggle for freedom against colonial rule in which every caste and community participated is a must. An analysis of caste and its discriminations, communlaisms and its divisive potential, is crucial. A collective understanding of the forces that killed Gandhi and partitioned South Asia, is imperative. For that, resurrecting the words secular and democratic from their abused and dying caricatures, is crucial.

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In defeat, great men and women regain understanding, strength and vision if they avoid petulance and paralysis and  redouble their efforts while admitting to harsh introspection.  Do the existing faces of secular Indian politics including the Left have it in them to face upto this challenge? Moreover can you and I compel them to change course, and seek correction?

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