‘Secular Commonsense’ by Mukul Kesavan – A Review


1743582Before I begin to review, it is necessary to keep in mind that this book was published in the year 2000, nearly a decade ago and India was then under the rule of BJP – Vajpayee regime. The Bharatiya Janata Party has raised to power with a comfortable majority after years of political instability and most of the intellectuals attributed their rise to the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992. This historical background sets the tone for the whole of this work, its anxiety and the very core of the arguments. Much has gone since then. The BJP lost the elections (called nine months prior to the actual election date) although it heavily campaigned the ‘India Shining’ adage in 2004. The UPA I and UPA II has come and gone. There is a spectacular rise of BJP again under Modi which won the election in 2014, although this time it played moderate and appealed to the need to provide an economic leadership to the country. There were other grave incidents such as the 2002 Gujarat Riots under Modi; the rise of Maoists in middle India; the 2G scams and such other scams of unimaginable proportions.

Mukul Kesavan is a historian and one of the finest essayists of the contemporary India. His weekly columns are much sought after by almost all the intellectuals and public who care about India. I cannot much praise on his scholarly depth, commitment to facts and his intellectual honesty. This book is another an example of his ability to give us brilliant prose and intellectually provocative arguments. Kesavan has copiously poured his passion and calls out to check the sectarian forces which tries to subvert India and everything Indian, especially our Secularism.

Indian Secularism, as argued by Mukul Kesavan, is a unique idea home-brewed by Indians. The Indian secularism differs from that of France or German where the government and the Catholic church stands separated. In India, the government not only stands detached from religion but embraces plurality. As the noted historian, Sanjay Subrahmanyam wrote, India’s secularism is its own, and there has never been a precedent model like it before in history. In this model, there is a declaration of no religion for the government, yet it simultaneously embraces all the religions under its territory. It is a unified model which embraces plurality as an order; diversity as the reality.

Having established this fact, Kesavan takes a deep plunge to help us understand the forces which try to subvert or pervert this idea in various ways. One of the fundamental forces he identifies is the virulence of RSS’s Hindutva or the Hindu Chauvinism, and it remains as the central argument throughout.

Kesavan observes that the new rise of Hindutva supporters among the Indian ruling class and the elite urban groups, and he is wise enough to elucidate this new phenomenon, in his own classy way:

The failure of the State to make India economically successful eroded its claim to be progressive and modern. And because Nehru and his daughter had twinned socialist autarky and secularism, the failure of the one discredited the other. Since the diffusion of secularism had so much to do with the sponsorship of the Nehruvian State, the decline of the Congress as a political power and consequent withdrawal of this patronage by the BJP had the opposite effect. Contemporary secular practice has to learn from past mistakes and the main lesson is this: we smugly took people-like-us for granted because we assumed that secularism came bundled with the metropolitan identity like PCs come installed with Windows. We were wrong: secularism for this elite wasn’t a political stance – It was a style choice. And styles change.

And, the explanation he provides that the Indian Muslims are poor and hold no great social prowess or power or authority like Jews or Chinese did in Germany or Malaysia as the reason for why the RSS always has to dig the past history and add salt to the long past historic wounds such as the necessity to Ram Rajya; the razing of temples by the Muslim invaders in order to incense the feelings of the so-called Hindus is extraordinary in its depth and astoundingly visionary.

Throughout the book, the author sounds ominous or urgently asking for attention for the Hindutva problem – which in many ways is true and tellingly important to combat. However, within the last decade much has changed (and some deeply remains unchanged) and the recent contemporary events should make us throw new perceptions on the arguments of the author.

Although metropolitan citizens and urban individuals have worn their secularism on their sleeves, one cannot say the same about rural Indians. In my various travels to rural India, I have seen that there exists a natural affinity between Muslims and Hindus (In the case of caste affinities, the reverse is true. The cities have no caste affirmation, at least not loudly. However, rural India still holds tightly to caste divisions). And Secularism in India cannot be argued as only skin deep. India has always remained plural from times immemorial and plurality is her very nature. She cannot be anything other than that. Our secularism cannot be credited to early congress and freedom fighters and it is not a product of their labor. Yes, they played an important role in shaping a modern India but they cannot be said to ‘Invent’ India or its plurality. Perhaps, Nehru and Gandhi could be said to have achieved the success because they embraced, whole-heartedly, the already existed Idea of India, which had plurality as her essence.

More than our legislature, I believe it is our institutions which uphold secularism. The Supreme Court has always remained Secular. Kesavan, here too, throws us a case to show that SC could fault. But, it should be seen only as an aberration than the natural way. On the very same Babri Masjid case, the verdict of SC is based on faith and it exuded secularism. That a group of citizens reaches our courts for Sabarimala Case, that requires women entry in this particular temple, proves that the general public perceives judiciary as a secular institution, and throws hope that it has acted that way always.

Even our executive is not worse, any citizen of India who declares himself as an atheist can hold governmental office in India (leading example being our First Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru). Something of this kind cannot even be replicated in the other largest democracy, US of A.

And, lastly, it has always become a point of liberals (I am a liberal) to absolve the congress of its crimes against minorities. A crime is a crime is a crime, no matter whether done opportunistically or ideologically. The checks placed for BJP-RSS has to be placed on congress or any party which loudly tries to subvert minorities’ rights and secularism. To push it out as an opportunistic or knee-jerk reaction as against another party’s wickedness is to live a life of partial blindness and complete denial.

The future threat to our secularism may rise even from without. With the rise of Islam fundamentalism at the global level and near our borders, the increasingly connected and globalized urban youngsters cannot be expected to commit to the ideals or that they would not vent their anger at home.

This book throws open a larger perceptive to any student of political science or those who love India to understand its contemporary tensions and clashes of ideas. One should agree with the author that the threats to the Idea of India is on a steady rise and it should be monitored and checked. But, that should not rob us of our hope for our nation. As the man, Nehru himself said that India, in all its plurality and unity in diversity ‘is a myth and an idea, a dream and a vision, and yet very real, and present and pervasive’.


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