Dharma Files | The Anti-Hindu Nature of Indian Secularism


There is ample evidence that the anti-Hindu nature of Indian secularism should be taken seriously

Representative picture. AFP

In a previous post I tried to draw attention to what I felt to be the failure of Indian secularism. In this post I would like to bring out its anti-Hindu character.

I acknowledge that the claim that Indian secularism is perceived as hostile to Hinduism is a contentious claim, and so I now wish to provide the evidence to support that claim.

Soon after independence, the Hindu community rebuilt the Somnath Temple, which had been destroyed by Mahmud of Ghazna in the 11th century and later by other rulers as well. Jawaharlal Nehru, First Prime Minister of India, not only declined to attend the celebration but also tried to prevent the then President of India from doing so, while Pandit Nehru had no qualms about attending events of a similar nature when organized by minority religions.

Although the Indian Constitution directs the government to endeavor to establish a single civil code for all Indians, the government at the time only consolidated Hindu personal law and left minorities out of the exercise. This was and is seen as discrimination against Hindus. It leads to the anomaly that a Muslim in India can have four wives but not the followers of other religions in India. It’s not so much that the followers of other religions want four wives; the feeling of resentment stems from the discrimination involved.

Another aspect of the constitution that has caused significant concern in the Hindu community is that the rights of minorities to run their own institutions are clearly protected in the constitution, but no such protections are afforded to institutions governed by the Hindu majority are led. A striking example of how this works in practice is provided by the Ramakrishna mission. This quintessentially Hindu body petitioned the courts in 1980 to declare itself a non-Hindu, minority religion (similar to Ramkrishnaism) in order to benefit from the protection of Article 30 of the Indian Constitution, which allows Muslim and Christian institutions to maintain their autonomy. The application was eventually rejected by India’s Supreme Court in 1995 after the Calcutta High Court granted it. The fact that a Hindu institution had to claim to be a minority institution in order to maintain its independence speaks volumes.

According to most scholars, the case of Shah Bano has disillusioned many Indian intellectuals with the Indian government’s commitment to secularism. Shah Bano was the name of a Muslim divorcee who applied to Indian courts for alimony under India’s secular law and the application was granted by the Supreme Court. However, under pressure from the Muslim lobby in India, the government introduced legislation in 1985 to amend it in accordance with Islamic law. The ongoing debate on the issue and the government’s about-face on the issue seriously undermined popular confidence in the Indian government’s secular claims. A Muslim cabinet minister, Arif Muhammad Khan, resigned over the matter. Today he is the governor of Kerala. According to him, the Shah Bano case was a starting point in the question of secularism.

The Indian government has rarely shown such legal sensitivity in cases involving Hindus.

Kashmir has long been a bone of contention between India and Pakistan. One could argue that as a Muslim-majority state within India, which is a largely Hindu country, Kashmir is a powerful factor in keeping India secular. However, a chain of events from 1989 to 1991 led to the expulsion of large numbers of Hindus from the state amid violent circumstances in which many Hindus lost their lives and those who survived the tremor had to be housed in camps in Jammu. The televised spectacle of unarmed Hindus being expelled from the Kashmir Valley under threat of rape and murder (some of which were carried out) was not the best advertisement for Indian secularism. The plight of exiled Hindus has been captured in a film recently released entitled The Kashmir Files, which suggests that there is no place for Hindus if they are a minority anywhere in secular India.

A blatant example of the anti-Hindu nature of Indian secularism is the way Hindu temples have been taken over by state governments. The scale of this practice is simply staggering. Even more troubling, some states where the BJP is in power have not stopped the practice.

A more serious violation of the secular principle is hard to imagine. It has led to such potentially seditious developments that funds raised by Hindu temples are being used to fund Haj trips for Muslims and trips to the Holy Land for Christians. It’s as if the looting of the Hindu temples once associated with Muslim and British rule continues unchecked in a secular India.

I hope that enough evidence has now been provided to convince the skeptical reader that the charge regarding the anti-Hindu nature of Indian secularism should be taken seriously.

The author, formerly IAS, is the Birks Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, where he has taught for over thirty years. He has also taught in Australia and the United States and at Nalanda University in India. He has published numerous publications in the fields of Indian religions and world religions. The views expressed are personal.

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