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In Defense of Indian Secularism

09/23/2008

I write this from New Delhi, which has just borne witness to five massive bomb blasts in which dozens were killed and scores more injured. The bombings were the work of a group calling itself the Indian Mujahideen (IM). The callousness of their act was also witnessed by the fact that amongst those targets selected was a children's park. In the aftermath of the bombings, tensions between Muslims and the proverbial "other" is understandably tense. These tensions are being exploited by certain Hindu fundamentalists allied to the Bharata Janata Party (BJP). Neither is this the only cleavage in Indian society. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati has noted that Christians in BJP-ruled States were feeling insecure as a result of the attacks on their churches in places like Orissa, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh. It almost seems as if one fundamentalism feeds the flames of other fundamentalisms. In this religious fundamentalists, whatever their religious persuasion, have far more in common than those who recognize the reality of India as an ethnically and religiously diverse country and therefore who aspire for a secular state in which all may practice their cultural and religious beliefs freely.

The choice confronting India in 2008 is stark. It can embrace the fundamentalisms of the IM and the BJP with their purist vision of what constitutes India or it can embrace a liberal, secular polity as promised in the Constitution. There is no middle road. The consequences of each option however, have been played out since time immemorial - including in India itself with the great Mughal empire. At a political level, the great Mughal emperor Akbar (1542-1605) understood the value that tolerance has for multi-ethnic, multi-religious communities occupying the same political space. Akbar did not therefore seek to force his subjects to convert to his religion. Indeed in Akbar's empire Hindus, Buddhists, Jacobites, Jews, Jains, Christians, Zoroastrians, Sunni Muslims and Ismailis were all allowed to practice their religious beliefs freely. His strong Sufi Islamic beliefs led him to "...build temples for Hindus, and in 1575 set up a house for worship where scholars of all religions could meet for discussion. Akbar was attempting to establish a polity that expressed the Sufi idea of sulh-e-kull (universal peace), which was merely a prelude to mahhabat-e-kull (universal love) which would positively seek the material and spiritual welfare of all human beings". It was not a coincidence that Akbar was regarded as the greatest Mughal emperor of all. His descendant Aurangzeb was far less politically astute than his predecessor. His religious intolerance was legendary and religious pluralism and tolerance was thrown out of the window. In the process, Aurangzeb condemned the Mughals to the dustbin of history as dissent and discord grew within his empire and was exploited by the Mughals' enemies.

India is a rising power and its presence on the world stage will be increasingly felt as we move further into the 21st century. However this path is not guaranteed if religious bigotry of whatever shape is allowed to undermine the secular ideals of India thereby sowing dissent and conflict within this great country.

Hussein Solomon


Professor Hussein Solomon is Director of the Centre for International Political Studies at the University of Pretoria and is currently Nelson Mandela Chair in African Studies at Jawahrlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India.

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Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000717.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

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