Sunday, January 26, 2014

Reinventing Secularism

Reinventing Secularism 

I wrote this for a recent seminar

Good morning everyone

Firstly, I thank the organizers for having thought of such a subject for the seminar.
These are trying times and we need more such efforts. Forces that want to disrupt harmony are speaking in voices so loud that it could tear out our ear drums. If we don’t speak in whispers at least, we have no right to dream of a just society. As they say, if you don’t participate, you have no right to complain- whether it is elections or debates on social issues.

We will consider the definitions first and then look at how these principles work. Later, we shall examine the religion- secularism debate.

Well then, what is secularism?  Contrary to public opinion, the term does not relate just to religion. It is a very broad term that encompasses several rights and privileges that make us human. Simply put, to be secular is putting your faith in equality while communalism is to believe in power play. A secular person realizes that all human beings are born equal and discrimination is man -made. A communal individual, however, believes that might is right and injustice arising out of prejudice or propaganda is justified.

By expansion, therefore, secularism means equal rights for human beings of all castes and classes and women and minorities. It means a society where the mainstream groups do not discriminate against marginalized social, economic, political and religious groups or individuals.

If this sounds academic, then let us look at these examples that deal with the three levels of discrimination- caste, class and gender.

Caste in Iron Moulds
The first is the idea that communalism is the extension of our deep rooted caste feelings. This is an offshoot of territorialism or exclusivity. One illustration can be found in events in Karnataka and elsewhere where youth from deprived communities like Scheduled castes and Scheduled tribes (SC/STs) or Other Backward Classes (OBCs) have assaulted Muslims or other minorities and damaged their places of worship.

The perpetrators of such violence don’t seem to realize that they have been victims of caste based discrimination for thousands of years. Therefore, discrimination that is born out of caste extends to religion, without the individual realizing it. The solution probably lies in Psychology and it would probably help if the social and psychological issues are tackled together.

An interesting phenomenon related to this is minorities tending to side with the oppressors.

Here is something to illustrate this point. In a recent case of caste violence in a north Karnataka village, some OBC youth beat up members of the Dalit colony. The Dalit youth suffered social boycott for over a month. The upper caste land lords refused to hire men and women from the Mahar community as agriculture labourers. In all these events, including the assault, the upper caste youth were supported by some local Muslim youth.
It took several peace committee meetings and two rounds of counseling by leaders of a Muslim organization, did they realize that what they were doing was not fair.

Lack of Class
I keep saying India’s problem is not just `caste’ or `class’. It is CLASTE. I had a friend whose father was a bus conductor. Adversity proved a challenge to my friend who worked hard and passed the IAS examination. He married a rich man’s daughter. One day, he gave me a lecture about how Indians were lazy and incapable of moving up the socio-economic ladder. My reply was something like this: - ``You are exactly right. It is like daughters of bus drivers don’t have the vision or the courage to marry sons of bus conductors who get into the IAS’’. It took him some time to appreciate the joke.

Is It A Man’s World Anymore?
Another thing I fail to understand is why so many women tend to support Hindutva forces. ( It is a different matter that man has never succeeded in understanding women.)  But then, it is intriguing why victims of harassment end up supporting the oppressor. You can see examples in Mangalore where right wing vigilante groups beat up girls in a pub and a home stay and where Hindu girls and Muslims boys routinely get beaten up for talking to each other. However, in those areas, women turn in large numbers in rallies organized by right wing groups like the Bajrang Dal, VHP or the BJP. This is even true of programmes supported by all -male clubs like the RSS.
  1. It is not difficult to see that discrimination on the basis of caste, class or gender is ingrained in us.
  2. Even the victims of oppression are not free from this. This is what hurts me. It is the biggest piece of cognitive dissonance for me in understanding discrimination and deprivation.

We will discuss the second point first.
My questions are simple
  1. Whether the victims fail to understand the designs of the oppressors at all?
  2. Is it ignorance or lack of awareness of their political and human rights that makes them do so?
  3. Or is it fear? Are they so afraid of the oppressor and his power that they have no real alternative?
  4. Or do they do it knowingly?

To Live And Let Die
It is here that we come to the important concept of `Patriarchal Bargain’. This means people tend to exploit an existing system and benefit from it, without bothering to try and change it despite knowing fully well that it is unjust.

It is more of a strategy, by ambitious individuals who manipulate the system to one’s best advantage, but leave the system unaffected and intact, with all its faults. You see that in a greedy businessmen who thinks ``What is in it for me? I don’t care what it does to others’’.

We have met such people. It is just that we don’t that what they are engaged in is called a `Patriarchal Bargain’. From the nice guy next door who pays lesser stamp duty on the site he recently bought by producing a certificate of under valuation to the Hollywood actress who shoots a nude music video as it brings money, without worrying about what her feminist friends will say about it – they are all benefiting from Patriarchal Bargain. The son of the bus conductor who became an IAS officer, but did not consider marrying a bus driver’s daughter, lies somewhere in between.

Your neighbour who bought the site defends the under valuation by saying the tax rates are too high. But he has never gone on strike seeking a reduction in taxes. The film star fully understands the concepts of feminism. She is willing to hit the streets for protests against sexual assault by men. But when it comes to her personal life, the lifestyle matters more than ideology.

Social psychologists and political scientists who have examined the issue say proactive efforts at increasing the awareness levels of the victim would help. I am willing to give them a second chance.

What about the oppressor? Here again, increased awareness should help. In a few thousand years, it has made us self respecting human beings from cave men who acted like beasts.

Soul Surfing
Some people tend to confuse religiosity with communalism. A similar argument was made in a case before the Supreme Court that asked the government to stop paying Haj subsidies. The Supreme Court that has acted as our conscience keeper for all these decades, threw out the argument. It upheld the interpretation that secularism is not anti –religion, but a condition where the relationship between man and man is not based on their religious affiliations.

As they say there are two varieties of secularism- that of Charles Darwin and Richard Dawkins or that of Mahatma Gandhi and Moulana Abul Kalam Azad.

Ideologically, I might be inclined more towards Darwin and Dawkins, but as I grow older, I have come to highly respect Gandhi and Azad for what they did.

The Life Of Mai
I will end with a story. Nearly a century ago, a girl was born in an upper caste family. She was called Mai. She could not go to school but learnt to read and write. At the age of 12, she was married off to a rich landlord’s son 300 kilometres away from her native village. Typical of his times, her husband was the proverbial young restless rebel. He had had rebelled against the British and went around dreaming and speaking of a revolution.

Mai brought up her six children with almost no help from her husband. She learnt to spin on the Charakha and weave her own sarees. She set up a cooperative bank for women in the village. She kept fasting twice a week to save food for the poor. The woman who had never met or spoken to any person other than those from her own caste, started addressing the untouchables as Harijans. She began feeding them in the backyard of her house before she had lunch.

She had never heard of Darwin or Dawkins. But she had heard of Gandhi.

Mai was my grand mother. A few years ago, at the age of 95, she fell down while working in the kitchen. She died a few hours later.

For decades, she kept growing and changing and adapting. My grand father who kept running away from the British police, came home rarely. But when he came, he told her stories of a Gujarati lawyer in Delhi called Mohandas Gandhi and his friends like Azad Sahab. That resulted in her becoming a large hearted, progressive and kind soul. Interestingly, it was my grandfather who taught me to respect Sanskrit and Urdu equally.

If a deeply religious person like Gandhi could influence a woman who had never seen or heard him, that was because of the power of his faith. I am sure her faith played a role in it too. Millions across the world have undergone a change of heart due to the influence of Prophets, saints and reformers. Most of them were believers. That is why I believe in the great power of religion to make us secular human beings.

A deeply religious non -believer
I keep saying that ``I may not believe in God, but I believe in his fan club’’. I believe in the power of such fan clubs to make this place a better World.

I began by trying to reinvent secularism. But secularism is like a wheel. You might reinvent it several times. You may add spokes, gears or even computerized breaking systems. You could use them to run bigger, better, faster vehicles. But the wheel remains essentially the same. So is secularism. Equality remains the soul of secularism. This is true for all time to come.

I am glad to know that the organizers have invited speakers of all faiths to this Seminar. It is highly laudable. I believe the responsibility to retain cultural diversity and harmony in a society lies primarily with the majority. This is true of India as of everywhere else.
Thank you

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