October 9th 2004

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Articles from this issue:

ELECTION 2004: Will Labor, Liberal big-spending promises swing voters?

EDITORIAL: Election auction ignores the real challenge

NATIONAL PARTY: John Anderson accused of misleading voters

EDUCATION: Behind Labor's church school 'hit list'

STRAWS IN THE WIND: The outlaw seas and international terrorism / Renaissance of Australian unionism?

FEDERAL ELECTION: Major parties gag candidates

BIOETHICS: Embryo research and the tooth fairy

MEDICINE: Coma arousal therapy: Dr Ted Freeman's treatment for PVS patients

DRUGS: Parents reject marijuana decriminalisation

AGEING: Wanted: Loving family to adopt 'granddad au pair'

FOREIGN AFFAIRS: End the UN political stand-off against Taiwan

CHINA: Hong Kong elections a clear win for democracy

INDIA: Secularism an absolute necessity for India

POLITICAL IDEAS: Ten principles of a property-owning democracy

Taiwan's exclusion from UN unjustified (letter)

Australia needs infrastructure (letter)

Time for men's policy (letter)

BOOKS: ANTI-AMERICANISM, by Jean-François Revel

BOOKS: THE EMPTY CRADLE, by Phillip Longman

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Secularism an absolute necessity for India

by Sharif Shuja

News Weekly, October 9, 2004
In recent years, religious militancy and communal strife have become the biggest danger to India's secular fabric.

Had the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won India's recent election, power would probably have gradually shifted into the hands of Hindutva fanatics, who were careful to play down the communal card. Hindutva did not go down well with the voters in the 2004 Indian elections.

India is a secular state, but it has to deal with the "problem of Islam" and the Muslims. Muslims in India are persecuted every now and then.

The cultural clash is not between the traditional, rural Hindus and Muslims, but the modern, urban ones. The "modern Hindu" likes to distinguish himself from the Muslim, who is often blamed, along with his heritage and history, for being a problem in society.

Culture clash

This attitude is more conspicuous in the conservative factions of Hindu society than among followers of the BJP. The BJP is a nationalist party which equates Indian national identity with Hindu religious identity.

The country's radical nationalists view the secular political system as a threat to Hindu identity, largely because of the power it allows to India's 140 million Muslims. Weakening, or even abolishing, the secular state has therefore become part of the radical nationalist agenda.

This may force Indian Muslims - traditionally moderate and supportive of the secular state, even on the sensitive matter of Kashmir - to shift their allegiance from the state to some sort of larger international Islamic movement, as many Muslims have done in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.

Such a radicalisation of religious identities is a matter of serious concern in a nation of a billion people that possesses a nuclear arsenal and has had troubled relations with its populous and nuclear-armed Muslim neighbour, Pakistan.

The ideology of the BJP threatens not only democracy but the unity of India itself. Its most violent elements were responsible for destroying the Babri mosque in the small city of Ayodhya in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

On December 6, 1992, a mob of 300,000 fanatics, brought together by the BJP and other extreme right-wing groups, demolished the mosque and promptly built a shrine dedicated to Rama. The result was a series of riots in which more than 1,500 people, largely Muslim, died.

Similarly, the BJP turned a blind eye to attacks on the Gujarat Muslim minority that killed about 2,000 people in March 2002. An Indian tribunal investigating the massacres found that Hindu nationalist groups had methodically targeted Muslim homes and shops.

Local and national security forces failed to respond adequately to the crisis as it unfolded. Initially the state police did not intervene, and the central government only belatedly sent troops to Gujarat to restore order.

On the whole, the Gujarat episode left Indian Muslims feeling neglected by the government. It also destabilised the Vajpayee-led coalition government whose hard-line policies became increasingly unpopular with the 21 coalition partners, the media and civil organisations.

The ascendancy of the Hindutva ideology and of BJP politics is partly attributable to the upward mobility of the middle-class, and to an extent, the propertied middle-castes. Its ascendancy has led to a burgeoning middle-class with rising consumption, which is seriously alienated from the people, and secondarily, to a business elite that is highly predatory.

This middle-class ascendancy occurred in particular circumstances – the rise of ethnic-religious identity politics in India's neighbourhood, and intensified India-Pakistan rivalry.

Therefore, it came with heavy baggage of chauvinist-nationalism and militarism. The BJP was the greatest beneficiary of this nationalism.

The communal riots in Gujarat alone cost the nation millions of dollars not only in property damage, but also in production foregone and recovery costs.

Under the new United Progressive Alliance (UPA) leadership, India is working with China and Pakistan to minimise their standing differences and find a common ground to move forward.


The government's other priority is to uphold and strengthen the secular principles embodied in the Indian Constitution.

As India has always been a multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious society, secular government is not an option, but an absolute necessity.

Only secularism, with its emphasis on equality and universal citizenship rights, can build a minimally civilised, inclusive, democratic society and ensure equal rights for all citizens, regardless of religion, ethnicity or culture.

  • Sharif Shuja

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