There has been a constant hue and cry about secularism being in danger since the time BJP has come to power at the center. The torch bearers of secularism would have us believe that the emergence of a government which chiefly represents the majority community is an ill omen for the idea of India. It is therefore prudent to understand the meaning of secularism and what it means for the world’s largest democracy.
Secularism is essentially a West European concept. To understand it one must spend some time in trying to analyze the historico-political context in which it was born. In the Middle ages, 2 centers of powers vied with each other for control; one of them was the papacy which claimed that its power came to it from none other than God himself and the other was the Emperor, who claimed power as the supreme sovereign of the land. Initially, the Papacy supported the Kingship, which helped Christianity spread across Europe; the Kings in return were obedient lamb who helped drive the Pope’s agenda. Unfortunately for the Popes, some of the Kings grew impatient under Papacy’s controls. Some of them revolted, had the popes imprisoned and even established their own loyal popes. As the Middle ages gave way to the modern age, a wind of reformation spread across the continent. Protestants of all shades and color began to see the Catholic Church as responsible for the violence and corruption that was rife in their society. They demanded loyalty to the sovereign, the nation, and its laws. Herein emerged the concept of separation of church and the state. A state was to be led by the sovereign who was to embody the national spirit. He would make laws keeping in mind the best interests of his people. The Church would exist merely as an institution providing “spiritual succor” ; it was no longer to be a parallel center of power.
In the Eastern Tradition (including our own), religion has chiefly belonged to the King; there are hardly any cases of the “Temple” or the “Sangha” or the “Gurudwara”, triumphing over Royalty. Fortunately or unfortunately, India has, as such never been ruled by a strong, united, common religious authority. In that sense, India has been spiritual and not necessarily religious. Also, one must bear in mind the fact, that since at least 12th century, India has not been ruled by the majority community. Vijayanagara and Maratha empires were Hindu led but were essentially pluralistic and not necessarily “Hinduist“.
In that context, Secularism or its Hindi translation “Dharmnirpekshata” is an affront to Indian Cultural sensibilities. Culturally, people would comprehend “Sarv Dharm Sambhav” better than Communist Irreligiousness in the form of Dharmnirpekshata. Dharma is definitely not the Indic translation of religion. Dharma is a way of life, Dharm-nirpkeshata, hence does not translate to Secularism; Panth-Nirpkeshata would probably be a closer translation of secularism, signifying equal distance from all creeds.
One last point to be noted is the concept of Secularism was never, even in Europe, imposed from the top. It grew out of the desire of the masses to break free from the hold of the Church. India embodies Sarv Dharm Sambhava, because its cultural values so dictate. Mindless violence, shedding of blood is alien to the body politic of the nation- that is why even an avowedly Hinduvadi party such as BJP has to keep shifting towards the political center from the right wing space it should ideologically occupy.
Hence, when you have dim wit News anchors and illiterate politicians rave and rant about how “Om” is an attack on Secularism and how “Yoga” is a Hindu agenda, there should be equally loud, sane voices saying that it is these anchors and 2-bit politicians who are driving a wedge between communities. Just as you would not call Yunani medicine an Islamic agenda, you cannot call Yoga an RSS or Hindu agenda. Just as birthday cake is not a western attack on our culture, so is cleaning Ganga not a Hinduist agenda.
It is elementary my dear Watson!