Dear Chetan, secular isn’t bad, it’s beautiful

Need to bust the myth that secularism is anti-Hindu or anti-religion, and it’s certainly not leftist

Dear Chetan Bhagat,

I usually love your columns, but was disturbed by your recent piece ‘ Hate smug liberals? But don’t hate just because they like it’. The liberals I know are not smug at all but very worried by rising hate speech and communalism. The truly smug ones are the Hindutva crowd who think their time has come.

You say ‘secular’ has become a bad word. Sorry, the crowd that sneers at “sickularism” does not control the dictionary. For millions of Indians, secularism is a lovely word and a core value. You are right that the BJP has unearthed a communal layer of India that always existed but was subdued till recently. It has promoted the myth that secularism means being anti-Hindu or anti-religion. Look up any dictionary and you will see that this is false. Don’t try to win over the falsifiers — a hopeless task. Seek, instead, to expose their falsehoods.

Many in the Hindutva bandwagon have coined the phrase ‘Lutyens’ Delhi’ to describe leftist-secularists. Please don’t get trapped by that fiction. Secularism is not leftism. It has been embraced by thinkers ranging from libertarians to Maoists. You say the Lutyens crowd looks down on and attacks you. Maybe leftists do so, but they are only a fraction of the secular elite, many of whom love you.

I too have battled socialism and Marxism for decades and been called a running dog of capitalism and an American agent. You and I are proof that equating secularism and leftism is silly. The very concept of secularism originated in western capitalist countries, not in Das Capital. Those capitalist countries enshrined secularism in the UN list of human rights.

You repeatedly emphasise the dangers of dividing India on religious lines, but do not attack the communalists. Instead you go on the defensive, suggesting that the communalists. Instead you go on the defensive, suggesting that the communalists can be pacified by replacing “secularism” with something like “United India.”

Sorry, you cannot so easily buy off a group that demands statues to glorify Nathuram Godse, who murdered Mahatma Gandhi for being too secular. Godse hated the notion of secularism and would never have swallowed a verbal shift to “United India.” Nor will his ideological heirs.

Secularism inspired India’s freedom fighters from Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhash Chandra Bose to Vallabhbhai Patel and C Rajagopalachari. Bose called his Indian National Army the Azad Hind Fauj (using three Urdu words) and not ‘Swatantra Bharat Sena’. For him, Hindu-Muslim unity epitomised independence, unlike the Muslim hate-mongers on Twitter. 

Ironically the BJP itself has long claimed to be fully secular. Aakar Patel’s book ‘Our Hindu Rashtra’ reveals that the BJP’s membership form requires the pledge: “I subscribe to the concept of a secular state and nation not based on religion.” Unlike its own trolls, the party has never proposed amending the Indian Constitution’s commitment to secularism. Indeed, the beginning of the BJP’s own party constitution promises to “bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of India as by law established and to the principles of socialism, secularism and democracy.” So, Chetan, do you still think secularism is a bad word?

The BJP lists five principles (Pancha Nishtas) to guide its politics. One principle is a commitment to Gandhian socialism. Another is a commitment to “Sarva Dharma Sambhava,” which some call “positive secularism.” The literal translation is “all religions lead to the same end.” This beautiful secular concept was first enunciated by Swami Vivekananda and Sri Ramakrishna. Logically, the trolls should condemn these two great men as sickular, but there is nothing logical about hate.

For decades, the BJP led by Vajpayee and Advani claimed it was secular while the Congress was merely pseudo-secular. It accused the Congress — with some justification — of trying to use religious minorities as vote banks. Instead, the BJP claimed to represent true secularism. Those days are now gone. A supposedly secular party now uses trolls to condemn “sickularism.” The extremist Hindu fringe has moved centre stage.

Despite this internal change, the BJP dares not openly condemn secularism. That would breach the list of UN Human Rights and open India to sanctions of the sort the US once imposed on Narendra Modi when he was chief minister of Gujarat. If India wants to be seen as part of the democratic coalition against China’s coming hegemony, it cannot afford to officially abandon secularism which forms the very bedrock of credible democracies worldwide. Chetan, you are wrong to say the word “secular” is maybe doomed.

Let us celebrate “secular” as a beautiful word to be cherished. The word “sickular” is a product of sick minds.

This article was originally published in The Times of India on 14 November 2021.

What do you think?