Sunday, November 1, 2015
NYT - India, France and Secularism
The Indian organizers of two concerts by Ghulam Ali, a veteran Pakistani singer, did not want to take chances. They had received local government assurances about security for the Oct. 9 and 10 concerts in Mumbai and Pune. But faced with protests from a regional right-wing Hindu party, Shiv Sena, they decided to cancel the shows. “You know the Shiv Sena people,” the manager of one of the venues explained. “They may still create troubles.”
A few days later Sudheendra Kulkarni, chairman of the Observer Research Foundation, an Indian think tank, was attacked in his car by a group of “Shiv Sena people” who doused him with oily black ink. He had been due to take part in a book launch by a former Pakistani foreign minister, Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri, an event the foundation had refused to cancel. He still appeared with the author, his head blackened and his clothes soiled, his face almost unrecognizable, to condemn this “attack on democracy,” before going to the hospital to have the ink removed.
Intolerance is on the rise in India, where the number of attacks on minorities, particularly Muslims, and on secularist intellectuals by Hindu chauvinists is part of a disturbing trend. Even more disturbing has been the reluctance of the governing party, the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, to speak against violent assaults, like the barbaric killing of a 52-year-old Muslim man, Mohammad Ikhlaq, dragged from his home on Sept. 28 in a village near New Delhi and beaten to death by a mob that suspected him of storing beef meat in his fridge. It took more than two weeks for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the leader who campaigned on inclusive development, to utter a word about the murder. And when he did, his comments were embarrassingly weak: He could only find the incident “really sad” and blame the opposition’s “pseudo-secularism.”
Secularism is, precisely, at the heart of the debate in Mr. Modi’s India. Coming from a country, France, with strong feelings about secularism, or laïcité, I was intrigued to see how it is managed in a nation of 1.25 billion people with a 14.2 percent Muslim minority when I took part earlier this month in a study trip in India set up by the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Like the French, Indians tend to consider secularism as part of their national identity. It is engrained in both constitutions. “If we are less secular, we are less Indian,” said Tarun Vijay, a B.J.P. member of Parliament and one of the party’s ideologues. But while the foundation of French laïcité is to keep the government neutral in religious affairs, the Indian version of secularism “allows state intervention in the dominant religion” — Hinduism — and recognizes minority rights, Professor Niraja Gopal Jayal of Jawaharlal Nehru University told us.
Emboldened by its electoral success, which brought Mr. Modi to power in May 2014, the B.J.P.’s powerful ideological parent, a social organization called R.S.S. (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) thus tends to equate secularism with Hindu rule: They would not mind it if the state were allowed to intervene in the affairs of all religions. France, in turn, has enforced laïcité in the public sphere more rigorously with the rise of Islam. It imposed a ban on all religious signs from public schools when the Muslim head scarf became an issue, but girls can wear a head scarf anywhere else, and Jewish boys are free to wear a yarmulke off school grounds. Burqas are banned in public space. A few right-wing politicians are now resisting the idea of school menus offering an alternative to pork, but they don’t get much traction.
Hindu fundamentalists have a more radical view of beef consumption and the slaughtering of cows. Some states, like Maharashtra, have banned the sale of beef, and calls for a national beef ban are growing. The fact that Muslims and Christians are traditional beef eaters is not an obstacle. The B.J.P.’s Tarun Vijay, expressing a more stringent interpretation of secularism on the opinion website Daily 0, sees “beef eating as a challenge to India, its public display as an act of bravado,” adding, “It is a political act that has nothing to do with culinary practice or religion.”
In both countries Muslim minorities complain about discrimination — and with reason. But while many French Muslims, who make up about 7.5 percent of the population, feel targeted by “laïcité,” Indian Muslims see secularism as their best protection. One important difference is that radicalization is an almost nonexistent phenomenon in Indian Islam, while it is a dangerous (but limited) trend among European Muslims. Only 30 Indian citizens are known to have joined the Islamic State so far, out of 176 million Muslims; in France, the number of home-grown jihadists is close to 2,000, out of 4 to 5 million. So while in France, fundamentalism comes from the Muslim minority, in India it comes from the Hindu majority.
India has been home to Muslims since the 8th century; Mughals ruled most of India and Pakistan 400 years ago. In contrast, Islam’s implantation in Europe is only a few decades old; France’s law on laïcité predates their arrival. Today, as minorities, Muslims feel vulnerable. In France, the January terrorist attacks against Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket deepened the malaise, as many Muslims stayed away from the #JeSuisCharlie movement. When 4 million French people took to the streets in support of freedom of expression right after the attacks, they assumed that French Muslims would make a point to be part of this show of unity. Only a small number did. For many of those who did not show up, laïcité has gone too far. Allowing cartoonists to make fun of religious figures, including their Prophet, may be a French tradition; it is not their idea of secularism.
In India, the threat against secularism goes even deeper, down to the values dear to its founding fathers, Gandhi and Nehru. “This is an India which is crying out for a Mahatma who puts compassion and tolerance above all else,” wrote the well-known journalist Rajdeep Sardesai after the recent attacks. An India that could rally behind #JeSuisIkhlaq.