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Narendra Modi and the re-defining of Indian Secularism

Monday March 11, 2013 03:10:38 PM, Siddharthya Roy

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News says, as part of Narendra Modi’s PM campaign (there isn’t enough reason as yet to call it a BJP election campaign) he has defined secularism in his own way. He says for him secularism means putting India first. Like everything else about Modi, mainstream media has given this ample space. Yet again a section of India’s net savvy are tweeting, retweeting, posting and reposting all about it.

If and when we manage to get over the fact that none other than Narendra Modi is telling us what secularism should mean, we have two interesting points that come out from his statements.

The Idea of India Begins With Secularism
Ramchandra Guha in his famous book India After Gandhi begins by telling how as nation states around the world go, India is an “unnatural nation”. Nations are built on some form of continuity and similarity – religion, language, etc. India on the other hand offers nothing but differences and diversity. How then has it come together to form a nation? We are an unnaturally diverse nation – a peculiarity in world politics. Tagore through Gora (and a host of other writings) tells us the peculiarity is a beautiful and powerful one. Nehru’s Discovery of India honestly notes conflicts and reconciliations that have existed in our history and tell us that the diverse peoples lived together not only out of affection but also because they had no option but to cohabit despite their differences if they wanted to share this land. Amartya Sen through his The Argumentative Indian documents how the peculiarity has made us the tolerant democracy we still are.

How and why we managed to become the unnatural nation is out of this essays scope. But the moot point is we are a nation full of diversity – language, customs, caste, culture, art and religion too. And though the word secularism in English parlance is intended to mean separation of religion from other affairs like governance, in India it has also come to mean peaceful coexistence of different religions.

Modi says his definition of secularism is “India first”. Unlike Modi, knowing what we do, we realise that he is ignorant of the fact that to have reached what we today know as India, secularism comes first.

Now if his ignorance is genuine and he isn’t well read enough to know the most vital part of Indian history, we must pause and ask if he even deserves to be a candidate. If his ignorance is feigned and he only means to use the term Indian to evoke rabid nationalism, then we can’t have a hawk like him as our PM. India is essentially a pacifist state that does not engage in unnecessary warfare. Agreed our security has serious lapses but they need to be fixed without compromising our principles of being a tolerant, pacifist, welfare state.

Secular Resilience
NaMo’s campaign in the media, both mainstream and online, is increasingly, even if ironically, proving the strength of Indian secularism.

Mr Modi isn’t particularly known for his love for democratic opposition. His heavy handed ways of working combined with the Congress’ historical spinelessness vis-ŕ-vis communal politics has resulted in a situation where there is no visible democratic/parliamentary opposition or alternative to Modi and his brand of politics in Gujarat. But not content with that, as Keshubhai Patel, Sanjay Joshi, Gordhan Zadafia and a host of others may attest and perhaps Haren Pandya too had he not been murdered, Modi hasn’t kept any opposition even within the BJP. Nitin Gadkari lost his post of BJP national president due to his opposition to Modi’s PM candidature. L K Advani, the Hindutva heavyweight with laurel like Rath Yatra, heading Babri demolition and coining the term pseudo-secular, is now reduced to nobody for being Modi’s contender.

So question is why is he talking about secularism now? Why isn’t he dismissing secular and humanist values, which constitute his single biggest opposition, with curt responses like people being culled en masse is merely natural and equal reaction?

The reason is India is not Gujarat. And unlike the manufacturing of considerable support for Hindu supremacy that was possible in the Sangh parivar’s Hindutva laboratory, a repeat show is proving to be far from easy in the rest of India.

Gujarat did not turn communal in a day. Gujarat not only knew the political benefit of hate but hate paid direct monetary dividends too – social segregation helps keep businesses, money and land in the control of powerful castes and communities. Recall how the Congress was reported to be peddling soft-Hindutva as opposed to Modi’s hard-Hindtuva during the elections that followed the genocide – in a sense proving that Gujarat voters offered little alternative. In fact riots have for a long time been part of the socio-political landscape of Gujarat and have been used time and again in various towns and cities. Far from the spontaneity which Modi accords to the post-Godhra riots, they were a sort of culmination of the socio-political experiments in hate.

Socio-economic inequality, religious and casteist ghettoisation, intolerance for diversity have all been made part of Gujarat’s social fabric over a considerable period of time.

The humongous diversity in the rest of India however has ensured that secularism has not only survived but there is little option but for it to be there. So when NaMo wishes to grow beyond a regional satrap, he has to face the force of secularism and the reality that secular people in India are the majority. Macho negation of it will just not do.

When BJP came to power under Atal Bihari Vajpayee it wasn’t on the Hindutva plank but on the plank of being the better alternative to the corrupt Congress. And it ended up losing power partly because 1) It was no better than Congress in terms of basic governance 2) It added large scale communalisation and saffronisation along with corruption

In conclusion
Rabid Hindutva is not acceptable to the larger masses of India. Most certainly not to the majority of Hindus who live in this country and have repeatedly voted against and been vocal against their communal politics. To win elections, the BJP must provide candidates who are acceptable to the larger masses. His role as the chief minister who presided over one of the biggest exercises in ethnic cleansing in India is indelible.

I daresay, NaMo and his trolls’ extremism is the best defence against him becoming PM. Their blind bullying brings out the best in secularism that’s there in this country.

The author, Siddharthya Roy, blogs at and can be reached at




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