The Prime Minister finally buries India’s tryst and trial with secularism

RTI activists need to ask who approved religious rituals at the site of the new Parliament building, under what law and who decided that the Prime Minister, not the President, would make offerings

Photo Courtesy: Social Media
Photo Courtesy: Social Media

Sanjukta Basu

The visuals of Prime Minister performing a ‘Bhumi Pujan’ ceremony, a Hindu ritual, for the construction of the new Parliament building with Hindu priests around him was a disturbing image for the secular ethos of our Constitution, and what the Parliament represents.

It raised the question whether all public works carried out by CPWD/PWD begins with a similar ritualistic ceremony? If yes, is there a documented protocol to be followed? Which religion is to be followed as per the protocol, who could perform the ritual and so on? Government cannot spend public money on any event without having a legal and constitutional mandate.

Government decisions are arrived at only after a certain file moves through several tables, noting down minute details about the aims and objectives, need assessment, impact assessment, expenses involved in the event. Content of such files are open to public scrutiny as part of the citizen’s right to information.

One wonders if the Bhumi Pujan event and associated expenses went through this required process and scrutiny. From a general understanding of India’s secular values, the said event cannot pass the test of constitutionality. The Union of India cannot carry out a purely religious activity that too choosing only one religion over others because the basic meaning of secularism is to separate religion from State.

The RSS-BJP ecosystem have been questioning the values of ‘secularism’ by labelling it as ‘pseudo-secularism’ and claiming that only their version of ‘Hindu Rashtra’ would be truly secular. They question minority specific welfare measures and argue they negate the equality of religions. While equality does not stop the government from taking affirmative action, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat went to the extent of saying there are no Muslims in India at all and “130 crore Indians are Hindu society” thereby ending the secularism question altogether.

‘Secularism’ is admittedly a highly contested issue and each nation follows its own model. Recently, in the aftermath of a series of terror attacks in the name of Islam, French President Macron announced new stringent laws to curb what he calls ‘Islamist separatism’ and reinforce France’s founding value of laïcité or Secularism. Earlier, in its bid to protect secularism France banned religious signs and attires like the Hijab or Burqa in public space which was seen as ‘Islamophobic’ and met with great criticism.

France’s secularism dates back to the French Revolution and is the bedrock of the nation’s history and identity, but even they do not have one formal definition. In practice it means religion being invisible in government activities and public life. For example, French Presidents do not take oath on any religious book. Government school cannot hold religious prayers, marriages performed in religious places are not considered valid unless solemnized as per law, they do not have any census that identifies citizens with their religion. One can say the government is atheist and does not recognize religion of its citizens.

But religion is not banned in France, citizens are allowed to practice religion of their choice in private and it is this private zone which President Macron believes is causing radicalization and therefore requires state regulation.

This model is in conflict with the American model of multiculturalism where religion is very much a part of American public political life. They use phrases like “God bless America.” Politicians traditionally take oath on the Bible though it is not a constitutional compulsion. In 2006 the first Muslim Congressman Keith Ellison took oath on the Holy Quran and that met with criticism from right wing groups, but since then more Muslim Congresspersons have followed the practice.

Closer home, Bangladesh has been struggling to arrive at a national consensus on what secularism means to the nation. The Constitution adopted at its birth in 1971 declared Bangladesh to be a secular nation but dictator Ziaur Rehman replaced secularism with ‘absolute trust and faith in Almighty Allah’. In 2010 Bangladesh Supreme Court restored the principle of secularism. In November 2020, Sajeeb Wazed, Information and Communication Adviser to Government of Bangladesh said at an event, “Bangladesh can never budge from its founding principle of secularism.”

This week Bangladesh is conducting nationwide events to commemorate Martyred Intellectuals' Day to honour those who were killed by Pakistani forces for upholding values of rationality and secularism. The day has become more relevant for present day Bangladesh amidst fears of growing Islamic radicalization and extremism. "Martyred intellectuals' dream for establishing a secular society is a far cry. Instead, extremist and fundamentalist forces keep dominating in many cases in the society," Professor Emeritus Serajul Islam Choudhury said on the occasion, reported The Daily Star.

Whatever might be the model of secularism followed by these nations, it is obvious that reducing the influence of religion in political activities remains the core meaning of secularism. BJP leaders in their official capacity are simply looking for opportunities to turn every public event at the taxpayer’s money into a religious spectacle, choosing only Hindu religion each time. By no standards or definitions can this be said to be secularism. It is obvious that the Modi government is no longer interested in Constitutional propriety and such grandstanding is an unabashed proclamation that India is a de-facto theological state.

But even by that standard, the Bhumi Pujan in Parliament was disturbing because usually a Hindu ritual is performed by the head of a family who is assisted by a Brahmin priest acting as a mediator between God and the devotee. The head of the Parliament is the President.

Exactly which law or logic or culture or religion can be referred to justify Modi superseding the President?

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