Nusrat Jahan, the first-time Muslim MP from the Trinamool Congress, created waves on June 25 when she took her oath in the Lok Sabha wearing sindoor and a mangalsutra, both traditional signs of a married woman in Hinduism. When Jahan was criticised by a Muslim cleric for having disrespected Islam, many came to her defence, citing her recent inter-faith marriage as a “bright example of secular India”.
Jahan was back in the news on Thursday as International Society for Krishna Consciousness decided to invite her as a special guest for its Rath Yatra in Kolkata. The reason for the invitation, said the Times of India, was because the Hindu religious group was “impressed by Nusrat Jahan’s secular stand” when she took her oath as MP.
“Nusrat Jahan rises above faith, embraces ‘Sabka Saath’ [inclusiveness] by practicing Hindu rituals, chants Vande Mataram. Nusrat Jahan puts India first, not faith,” read one tweet from the TV news channel Times Now when reporting on the Rath Yatra.
The presence at the event of Trinamool Congress leader and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee also elicited media attention. An editorial comment in the Indian Express declared that Banerjee’s decision to attend the Hindu religious event alongside Jahan would “boost her secular image” after accusations from the Bharatiya Janata Party that Banerjee was guilty of “minority appeasement” – acting in a manner that privileged minorities.
The paradox was apparent. Jahan, a Muslim, had indeed upheld India’s vision of secularism by participating in the festival celebrated by people professing a faith that she had not been born into. But when Mamata Banerjee did the same thing, attending iftar dinners to mark the end of the day’s fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramzan, her critics accused her of “minority appeasement”.
The chief minister’s picture, with her head covered as part of a Muslim stereotype, went viral on Bengali social media and played a significant part in pushing a narrative of appeasement during the recent general elections.
The criticism even led to an acerbic comment from the chief minister after the results: “Since I appease Muslims, I shall attend it [iftar] a 100 times”.
What does this contradiction mean for India today, where a member of a minority community participating in the majority group’s culture is praised but a Hindu politician is criticised for attending events organised by Muslims or Christians?
Journey to Ayodhya
Looking back at another rath yatra might help explain how this incongruous situation came about. In 1990, LK Advani, who was BJP president at the time, embarked on a two-month journey to demand that the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya be demolished and a temple built in its place. The BJP and its supporters claimed that the mosque stood on the spot on which the god Ram had been born.
Advani’s politics had an electric effect, setting in motion events that would lead three decades later to Narendra Modi becoming one of the most powerful prime ministers India has ever seen.
The BJP veteran’s impact, however, was much deeper than simply making prime ministers. Advani changed India’s political culture, root and branch. He popularised a neologism that came to powerfully define Indian politics: “pseudo-secularism”.
According to Advani, India’s secular politicians at the time indulged in “minority appeasement”, distributing special favours to India’s Muslims. The BJP held up the 1986 Shah Bano case as a major example, in which the then Congress government had caved in to pressure from conservatives and denied an elderly Muslim woman her alimony.
Of course, what this formulation ignored was that none of this actually privileged India’s minorities, given high poverty levels among Indian Muslims, their poor access to education and low representation in government jobs. But, nevertheless, this definition of “pseudo-secularism”, as one in which India’s minorities enjoy more benefits than the Hindu majority, played a vital role in shaping the BJP’s ideology and, given the party’s subsequent popularity, India’s politics.
Among its other consequences, this formulation of pseudo-secularism discouraged displays of Muslim symbols in India’s political space. Famously, during his time as Gujarat chief minister, Modi refused to put on a Muslim skull cap. “My job is to respect all communities, respect the values of all communities but I have to accept my own values,” Modi explained. “I live with my values.”
This argument seems reasonable – until one realises that Modi has often been pictured wearing headgear from places as far away from his native Gujarat as Nagaland. The problem, it seems, related only to things identified as Muslim.
Hobbling Indian secularism
Indian secularism is, of course, very different from the Western idea of separating church and state. It is better understood as a consocialist model of power sharing, which is reflected as multi-culturalism in the public sphere.
In a country with significant levels of illiteracy, political ideas are often communicated using actions rather than words. This would include politicians wearing regional attire or participating in public rituals to signal their concern for a particular social group. This tradition of conveying political ideas using forms of dress in fact, goes right back to Mohandas Gandhi, who, despite being a lawyer educated in England, consciously adopted the loincloth of Indian peasants.
Hindutva understood this feature of Indian secularism – and sought to dismantle it. The claim that its opponents were guilty of pseudo-secularism was not an attempt to separate church and state or banish religion from the public sphere. In fact, deploying religion in the public sphere was critical to the BJP’s Hindu nationalism. Instead, the party’s project was to get rid of every religion other than Hinduism from the public sphere.
A Hindu public sphere
As a consequence, even as the BJP has shrunk away from being publicly associated with symbols associated with Islam in the five years Modi has been in power in Delhi, there have been large, public celebrations of Hinduism.
But rival parties patronising religions other than Hinduism have been attacked.This is, of course, why the Trinamool’s endorsement of Ramzan is held up as an example of minority appeasement.
This logic is visible in a number of other instances. In Haryana, Hindutva groups have attacked Muslims for praying in public spaces when, of course, Hindu rituals being performed in the same spaces pass without comment. There is, therefore, a largely successful attempt to make sure that the public sphere is exclusively Hindu and to cement religious majoritarianism as the new normal.
‘Secular’ religious majoritarianism
In this endeavor, maybe most bizarre of all is the use of the word “secular” to rationalise a situtation that is quite the opposite – religious majoritarianism. In 1946, in his masterful essay “Politics and the English Language”, British writer George Orwell argued that “political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible”.
One way it did that was through the use of what Orwell called “meaningless words”. “The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’,” wrote Orwell.
While Orwell was writing for 1940s England, his diagnosis holds remarkably well for India in 2019. Since majoritarianism cannot be celebrated or multi-culturalism condemned, words like “secularism” and “appeasement” are cast in a new light in an attempt to obliterate their meaning.
As a result, a minority taking part in a majority’s rituals is now cast as secularism while, simultaneously, a powerful majority taking part in a minority’s culture is sneered at as appeasement.