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Secularism on the wane

With caste, money and Hindutva to the fore

India is halfway through the Lok Sabha election process. Two factors have come to the fore so far: caste and money. I am dismayed about the caste. I had imagined that in some 67 years since independence, the nation would have matured enough not to be swayed by baser instincts. Lately, religion has been inducted by the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP).

The appeal in the name of religion in the fifties was understandable because the country had been partitioned on the basis of religion in August 1947. The world’s biggest holocaust took place, followed by the exodus of 3.5 crore of people. The exchange of population was fairly rejected by both the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League, the arbiters of the country’s future.

 

First, Mahatma Gandhi and then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru saw to it that religion was not mixed with politics. This worked for a few years. In the sixties the defeat at the hands of the Chinese was the topic of elections. Nehru’s negligence not to prepare the country’s defence had engaged the voters’ attention.

The seventies saw the domination of autocrat Indira Gandhi who also suspended the constitution and detained one lakh people without trial. Her Congress party was wiped out in the northern India. Her return in 1980 was due to the squabbles in successor Janata Party. It was not her triumph but the rejection of the Janata. Thus far the caste played a minor role. Some who highlighted it were generally defeated.

Money, of course, has counted from day one. The Election Commission fixed the limit for a candidate’s expenditure at Rs40 lakh in 1951 when the first general election was held. Now it has been raised to Rs70 lakh. Still this is far less than what a candidate splurges – an average of Rs3 crore is spent by a Lok Sabha candidate. Many spend at least triple the amount.

Despite the rules the Election Commission has laid down, no candidate has ever been disqualified on the ground of excessive spending. The catch is that political parties are not governed by any law or rule that forces them not to spend more than the ceiling prescribed. In fact, the parties’ dishonesty is the real problem. The political parties are under no obligation to have any upper limit on their expenditure. They have unanimously rejected the application of Right to Information (RTI) to their internal working.

If expenses during elections are to be curbed some accountability is necessary. An accountability commission can be appointed since the Election Commission has been too soft to take action. Since MPs are the ones to pass legislation on this, they would never adopt a bill which will curb them. Both the Congress and the BJP spend lavishly. The BJP tops the list because the corporate sector is fully behind the party, believing that Narendra Mori will be the next prime minister and would leave the field open to them.

Religion has, no doubt, taken a back seat. Modi’s most virulent speeches skirt around Hindutva but do not mention it specifically because secularism has a general appeal. The fact is that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is openly participating in canvassing although it claims to be a cultural organization.

Religion has, no doubt, taken a back seat. Modi’s most virulent speeches skirt around Hindutva but do not mention it specifically because secularism has a general appeal. The fact is that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is openly participating in canvassing although it claims to be a cultural organization. The RSS chief Mohan Bahgwat sat in election committees selecting the BJP candidates. This is ominous for the future.

My fear is that the religion will be increasingly mentioned with politics. True, no party is running down secularism, not even the BJP. The party’s manifesto does not use secularism even once. Yet the BJP talks about the freedom struggle and does not write off the sacrifices of leaders like Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Abdul Ghaffar Khan. But the cat is out of the bag when it does not mention Nehru, the torch-bearer of independence struggle. What is disconcerting in the manifesto is that India will admit the persecuted Hindus from every clime and country. This is in line with the policy of Israel which says that it is a homeland of every Jew, who can walk in whenever he or she feels like doing so.

Against this stance of the BJP, it is not surprising to find the party supporting to Modi’s Man Friday, Amit Shah, who said in UP to take “revenge” in the Lok Sabha elections. He did not mention the word, Muslim, but everyone could infer what he meant was that they should be punished at the polls.

The Samajwadi Party’s Azam Khan, trying to be Muslims’ Modi, has had no shame in his attempt to communalize the armed forces. He has neither withdrawn his words nor is he apologizing. His remark that only Indian Muslim soldiers captured the Kargil heights, not the Hindus, indicates his polluted thinking. He even does not know that it is the regiments which fight and they have soldiers of all communities. A regiment wins or loses, not soldiers of a particular community.

Such persons, including Amit Shah, should have been disqualified from contesting the elections. Yet the Election Commission has preferred to impose a ban on them from making speeches in UP, the state to which the two belong. The punishment should have been more severe.

The caste factor which has affected the electorate, in fact, is the sub-caste. Dalits have many castes and the creamy layer dictates the government. The upper castes have Marathas, Rajputs, Jats and so on. Today, the baradari (community) members of the same caste are negating the fair election in a democratic society. How effectively we fight against the sub-caste menace will indicate whether we are really a democratic and pluralistic society. The manner in which the political parties compromise and conquer such malpractices will prove if democracy is really ingrained in us.

The current Lok Sabha election gives little hope because the candidates are stopping at nothing to increase votes. The use of money, however difficult, can be tracked. Even religious appeals can be curbed. But the caste cannot be. I do not know how long it would take us to raise above all these considerations. Until we do so, we should remain democratic on paper, not in the way the Western democracies are. And what do we do about personal attacks and abuses which leaders of political parties are exchanging? This is another story to tell.

 Source: Pakistan Today