A secular triumph after all

All my life I have fought against the notion that India is a Hindu nation. I stand for a society where all are equal regardless of religion, caste or creed. So I was aghast when Sonia Gandhi declined to become prime minister.

Now, I have been a stern critic of the Gandhi family most of my life. I am not happy that the great party which won us independence has become one where Congressmen sit up and beg every time a member of the Gandhi family whistles. But my opposition to sectarian politics vastly outweighs my opposition to dynastic politics.

Sonia said she was listening to her inner voice. But it seemed to me (and to the Left Front) that she was listening to the voice of Sushma Swaraj and Uma Bharati. I was glad that a good man like Manmohan Singh would become prime minister, but infuriated that his ascension was based on what looked like a surrender to sectarianism.

Now, some days later, I see things in a different light. I ask you too to view events in a deeper perspective. You will then see that India has turned out to be a remarkable country. It has a Muslim president, who has been asked to choose between a Christian and a Sikh for prime minister. Which other democracy can boast of such secular inclusiveness? Despite Sushma Swaraj and Uma Bharati, this cannot be called a victory for Hindu chauvinism. You might almost say it is a victory of sorts for secularism. You might almost say that India is shining after all.

Let us not get euphoric. India remains a society torn by divides of religion, caste and region. The last decade has witnessed the decline of the old inclusive parties (Congress, communists, Janata Dal) and rise of parties based on religion (BJP, Shiv Sena), caste (BSP, RJD, SP) and region (TDP, Akali Dal, BJD, DMK, AIDMK). Sectarian violence pits religion against religion, caste against caste, region against region. And yet, in difficult conditions, our secularism is bloodied but still basically intact.

I remember when Sonia Gandhi took over the party before the 1998 elections. Speculation began that, if the Congress won, she might ask Manmohan Singh to become prime minister. When Manmohan himself was asked about this in private by a journalist, he replied, ‘‘Do you think a Sikh can become prime minister in this country?’’ When I heard of this, I felt some disappointment and pain. It had not occurred to me that he could think in such terms.

And yet, just look back to the 1980s. With Sikh militancy rampant, there was a general demand for ordinary Sikhs to prove that they were loyal and anti-terrorist. Many Sikhs were outraged at being called anti-national, outraged at being asked to prove their loyalty.

Then 3,000 Sikhs were killed in Delhi after Indira Gandhi’s death. Seen in this light, it was unsurprising for Manmohan Singh to wonder if a Sikh, especially one from the Congress Party, could become prime minister. The Congress has expiated its sins of 1984 by rising to the occasion.

The US is one of the most inclusive democracies in the world, with immigrants from all continents and religions. With the rise of Islamic terrorism, the loyalty of American Muslims is being questioned, just as that of Indian Sikhs was questioned during the Sikh terrorism of the 1980s. Now, can you imagine a Muslim becoming president of the US in the next decade? The very idea seems ridiculous. That is a measure of what India has achieved.

Many democracies consciously put members of minorities into prominent positions as tokens of secularism. India has always given weight to minorities in selecting presidents. I do not think Zakir Hussein, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed or even Abdul Kalam would have become president but for their being Muslims.

This cannot be said of Manmohan Singh. He has risen to the top on the basis of sheer merit, not sectarian preference or mani-pulation. This is not the only example of Indian inclusiveness. The Indian cricket team that beat Pakistan included Irfan Pathan, Zaheer Khan and Mohammed Kaif, three Muslims selected on pure merit. Our top tennis player is Leander Paes. In Bollywood, the three top stars are Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan and Aamir Khan. Our top music director is A R Rahman.

India ’s richest businessman is Azim Premji. So, although we in India have much to be ashamed of, we have some redeeming features too. Muslims, Christians and Sikhs can get to the very top on merit. This will not be of solace to those killed in the next riot. But for now, let us raise a toast to Manmohan Singh, and to those who chose him as prime minister.

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