India's Battle over Secularism Heats Up

By Sandhu, Sudhir | Winnipeg Free Press, February 26, 2020 | Go to article overview

India's Battle over Secularism Heats Up


Sandhu, Sudhir, Winnipeg Free Press


At the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru rose in independent India’s first parliament to declare that while the world slept, India was fulfilling a “tryst with destiny” and “awakening to life and freedom.”

It was a time of promise. Young Indians like my father welcomed the idea of freedom. His diary entry of July 31, 1947, reads: “August. We shall see the light of that famous month, which already has been the theme of people’s talk all over the world. Two weeks more, and then we shall be entitled to call ourselves a free people.”

As Nehru delivered these historic words, tens of millions of Indians became refugees in their own lands as the subcontinent was partitioned into two independent states; a Hindu-majority India flanked on its east and west by two parts of a Muslim-majority Pakistan. India’s 1950 constitution declared it a sovereign, socialist, secular republic while Pakistan’s constitution, adopted in 1956, declared it an Islamic republic.

India’s tryst with destiny created millions of refugees, and their migration came with unimaginable violence. Estimates of deaths range from 200,000 to two million people.

Since 1947, India and Pakistan have remained bitter rivals. They each see global affairs through the prism of their strained relationship and have engaged in four wars. The 1971 war created Bangladesh as a new nation and ended the existence of East Pakistan. That war also created millions of new refugees as war-stressed East Pakistanis flooded into India.

For many Indians, secularism has defined India. For a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, complex and multi-layered society, secularism has allowed the pursuit of equality and justice as promised by India’s constitution. For others, secularism has been an unnatural obstacle to the ascendency of India’s majority religion to its rightful place.

Since independence, there has been agitation for making India a Hindu nation. Organizations such as the Shiv Sena (SS) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) have actively promoted an end to secularism. They have asked, if the Muslims could have an Islamic Pakistan, why couldn’t they have a Hindu India? Through wars and communal riots, insurgencies and violence, India has fended off religious nationalism and clung to the idea that its sum was greater than its religious parts.

While the RSS and the SS often attacked secularism, the right-wing nationalist organizations never garnered enough political clout to supplant it with the tyranny of religious nationalism. Despite their best efforts, the secular democracy Indians welcomed in 1947 remained alive. …

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