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Confessions of a troubled secularist by Shiv Visvanathan

“If Muslims insist on speaking
exclusively for Muslims
and do not recognize Bodo
suffering then theirs is an
ethnic of narcissism”

This is an essay on secularism and the Indian Muslim. And I must admit the
recent events have made this a difficult piece to write. Let me begin
at the beginning.


I was born in Jamshedpur where I saw riot after riot triggered in urban
areas. I still remember the day in school when my classmate Obidul Islam
came to say goodbye. He told me sadly that his family was going
back to Pakistan. Obidul was a brilliant 100-metre runner and I 
am still unsuccessfully racing against him.


As I grew older and watched the Mumbai 1992 riots and the Gujarat carnage of 2002, I saw with sadness how for the majority community, democracy tasted like castor oil, good for health but difficult to consume. While studying the Gujarat violence I saw how the community of Muslim survivors built a new citizenship around a community of law. I heard Mr Bandukwala, once professor of physics at Baroda University, tell the Hindus that even if you do not apologise I forgive you. Listening to all this I wondered what secularism meant.

Listening for the concern behind the complaint

Acclaimed educationist and activist Hemlata Prabhu was the general secretary of the People's Union for Civil Liberties's Rajasthan unit from 1983 to 1997 and its president in 1997-1998.

On April 23, Rajni Bakshi, author and journalist, delivered the 5th annual Hemlata Prabhu Memorial Lecture in Jaipur. The following is a translated transcription of the lecture:

You are alive
Believe in the triumph of life
If there is a heaven anywhere bring it down to earth.

This verse conveys the resolve, the energy and faith that Hemlata Prabhu embodied.

It is the fragrance and effervescent colours of these qualities that form the essence of this gathering in Miss Prabhu's honour.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s I had the privilege of being involved in various political campaigns where Miss Prabhu was at the helm.

When Rajiv Gandhi's government gave into pressure from orthodox Muslim groups and amended the law to deny divorced Muslim women the right to claim maintenance from their ex-husbands -- we protested against this as a violation of the letter and spirit of the Indian Constitution.

When a young women named Roop Kanwar was burnt on her dead husband's pyre in the village of Deorala we protested against this crime and those who sought to glorify sati.

In 1990 as the Ram Janambhoomi campaign began to gather momentum across Rajasthan Miss Prabhu led our motley group of human rights activists in a campaign to advocate communal harmony.

But looking back I realise that the biggest gift I got from Miss Prabhu was how she defined and celebrated a term that has now become fraught with controversy -- azaadi (freedom).

I have vivid memories of the depth of feeling with which she recalled her memories of 15th August 1947: 'Ah, what a joy it was to be young and celebrate the joy of and passion for freedom!'

When she said this Miss Prabhu was not just feeling proud of liberation from British rule she was revelling in the promise of azaadi as a harbinger of a society based on equality, justice and compassion.

She inspired us to see India's Independence not as a moment in history but as a dimension of our collective consciousness -- as an ongoing resolve, as the basis for a ceaseless striving.

So what now, in 2016, is the challenge for all those who cherish this liberal resolve and are committed to living by it?

How should we live in a time of increasingly bitter polarisation -- of Hindutva versus Secular -- or at times violently competitive notions of nationalism?

Citizens for Peace, a small Mumbai-based group of which I am a trustee, have been pondering these questions for over ten years.

Our quest for answers has led us to initiate dialogues with people from diverse backgrounds -- scholars as well as activists representing religious and caste-based groups as well as different political orientations.

These interactions have taught us that direct confrontation between opposing views does not resolve conflicts. But a different and fruitful chemistry comes into play when there is a willingness to look for and listen to the concern behind our opponent's complaint.

On the face of it, this may seem absurd.

You could say that listening for the anxiety and fears behind the hate and anger that led to the murder of anti-superstition activist Narendra Dabholkar in 2013 would not have saved his life.

This seems even more starkly true in relation to the exhibitionist brutality of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and other terrorist groups.

Yes, there do seem to be groups and individuals whose worldview and actions are driven by hatred so severe that nothing less than obliterating the 'other' will satisfy them.

But as Vinoba Bhave often said such people tend to be a miniscule minority at one far end of the spectrum of humanity.

At the opposite end are mystics and saints -- Buddha, Jesus, Kabir, Gandhi. The overwhelming majority of human beings fall in the middle of this spectrum and tend to be swayed towards either pole -- depending on the circumstances and mental climate of their times.

It is within this vast majority that listening for the concern behind the complaint can work wonders.

We live in a time when hideous anger easily flares up, particularly on identity-related issues.

This happens not just on social media and television shows designed as spectacle but within families, at work-places, among friends.

Often advocates of harmony and compassion fall victim to the same anger and end up hating the 'haters'!

This changes the moment we are able to turn the slanging match into a conversation. Our limited experience in Citizens for Peace has shown that this begins to happen the moment you ask the other person what is really bothering them, what is it that they really fear.

More often than not you may find that there is agreement on a fundamental truth -- respect for the life and dignity of all.

Even when this elementary humanism gets obscured and people in our lives seem in the grip of hatred this state may be a temporary phase. It cannot remain a permanent state if empathic listening nurtures spaces that are more inviting and healing.

Anger and hatred are draining, sapping emotions and ideologies based on them are inevitably degenerative.

The strongest way of celebrating Miss Prabhu's definition of azaadi as equality and dignity for all is to constantly remember that this way lies joy and a fulfilling life.

Rajni Bakshi is a Trustee of Citizens for Peace. She is the author of Bazaars, Conversations and Freedom, Bapu Kuti: Journeys in Rediscovery of Gandhi among other books.

Growth or Secularism: A False Choice
In the final lap of the Lok Sabha election campaign many contenders and
political commentators are claiming that voters have to choose between
growth and secularism.

This is a false claim. Why then, does the idea of a stark ‘choice’
between economic growth or secularism appear to be so compelling
to a wide range of people?

Firstly, the idea of growth and its mechanics are not closely examined.

Secondly, it is assumed that a more decisive and forceful Prime Minister
will work an economic miracle.

Thirdly, therefore it is worthwhile to compromise on secularism which
many view as being a sham in any case.

To further complicate the matter, growth is seen as something tangible
while secularism is treated as a fussy idea, or worse a political ploy,
cynically deployed by both BJP and Congress.

How then might voters resolve their polling day dilemma?
First and foremost it is vital to be clear that growth vs. secularism is a decoy. What is actually at stake is the core principle of a truly democratic polity –namely, the primacy of foundational principles and values over the mechanics of how goods, services and livelihoods are generated.

This is why Mahatma Gandhi repeatedly emphasized that true swaraj depends on each person, and society as a whole, honoring ‘dharma’. By using the term dharma Gandhi was not referring to a particular religion or sect but to the philosophical and moral markers which show us the path of righteousness – the basis of a society worth living in.

If that sounds too lofty we can just focus on the key markers of right action as enshrined in the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution of India. Article 15(1) makes it incumbent on the State to be religion neutral. This article prohibits the State from discriminating against any citizen on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth.

Even more importantly, section two of the same article implies that citizens cannot deny each other access to public spaces on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth.

In its most elementary form, this is what secularism means. This text book truth needs to be highlighted because over the past three decades secularism has come to be seen as a political ploy. Political parties of various hues have, from time to time, failed to be ‘dharmanirpeksha’ or religion neutral. At the level of everyday life citizens have in many cases rejected and violated the value of creative co-existence of different faiths or ‘sarva dharma sambhav’.

These inadequacies or failures do not undermine the soundness of the principle and the need to keep striving for a secular polity.

It is being suggested that India is now in such dire straits that as an emergency measure economic imperatives must be given priority over foundational principles of society.This argument is profoundly flawed.

Since the late 1980s it has been widely acknowledged that GNP growth by itself is not a valid measure of a nation’s material or social well being. Even the promise of ‘inclusive growth’ can be a chimera since higher incomes do
not necessarily lead to higher quality of life in terms of improved housing, education, health care and leisure time.

Even as a means to an end growth is important only if it is defined and measured in terms which include not just monetized goods and services but also sustainability of both nature’s eco-systems and the social fabric.

The worthwhile goal is economic democracy not growth per say. At the very least economic democracy is about fair and open access to social facilities and productive resources. But above all, it is about the promise of dignity for
all – the promise enshrined in Article 15.

An economy can grow exponentially with vast concentrations of power which may increase jobs but actually dis-empower the overwhelming majority because a handful of people call the shots in both the economic and political
sphere. There are complicated structural flaws that are preventing Indian society and economy from the goal of ‘sarvodaya’, well-being for all. Let us be wary of tall claims that a decisive leader can provide a quick fix.

Like much of life elections don’t offer easy or ideal choices. Voters in many constituencies may find that there is no candidate on their ballot paper whom they can fully trust. But here is a litmus test for choosing between competing

Reject any candidate or party that gives primacy to expediency over foundational principles – such as asking you to put growth above secularism. Instead, let us go to the polling stations with the conviction that we can only build a sustained prosperity on the sound principle of equal respect for all and dignity for all regardless of caste, religion, language or regional affinity.
Rajni Bakshi is Gandhi Peace Fellow at Gateway House: Indian Council on
Global Relations. She is also a Trustee of Citizens for Peace.


Dear Fellow-Indians,

The best thing about our country is its cultural diversity, its
pluralism – the co-existence of a number of religions and ethnicities
over centuries, and hence the blooming of multiple streams of intellectual
and artistic thought. And, this has been possible only because Indian societ
has prided itself on being essentially secular in character, rejecting
communal hatred, embracing tolerance.

Today, that very sense of India is vulnerable. The need of the hour is to
protect our country’s secular foundation. Undoubtedly, corruption
and governance are important issues, but we will have to vigilantly work
out ways of holding our government accountable to that.

However, one thing is clear: India's secular character is not negotiable!
Not now, not ever.

As Indian citizens who love our motherland, we appeal to you to vote for
the secular party, which is most likely to win in your constituency.

Jai Hind!


Imtiaz Ali (Writer-Director: Highway, Jab We Met)

Vishal Bhardwaj (Writer-Director: Omkara, Maqbool)

Govind Nihalani (Director: Tamas, Ardh Satya)

Saeed Mirza (Director: Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai)

Zoya Akhtar (Writer-Director: Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara)

Anand Patwardhan (Documentary Film-maker: Jai Bhim Comrade)

Vijay Krishna Acharya ‘Victor’ (Director: Dhoom 3)

Kabir Khan (Director: Ek Tha Tiger)

Kundan Shah (Director: Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro)

Nandita Das (Director-Actress: Firaaq, Fire)

Hansal Mehta (Director: Shahid)

Anjum Rajabali (Writer: Raajneeti, Satyagraha)

Akshat Verma (Writer: Delhi Belly)

Shubha Mudgal (Singer-Musician)

Anusha Rizvi (Filmmaker: Peepli Live)

Swara Bhaskar (Actor: Raanjhana, Tanu Weds Manu)

Aditi Rao Hydari (Actor: Murder 3, Rockstar)

Pubali Chaudhuri (Writer: Kai Po Che, Rock On!!)

Mahesh Bhatt (Director-Producer: Saaraansh, Jannat)

Anil Mehta (Cinematographer: Lagaan, Jab Tak Hai Jaan)

Saket Chaudhary (Writer-Director: Shaadi Ke Side Effects)

Rakesh Sharma (Documentary Film-maker: Final Solution)

Vinay Shukla (Writer-Director: Godmother)

Robin Bhatt (Writer: Chennai Express, Krish 3)

Aneesh Pradhan (Tabla Maestro)

Sanjay Chhel (Writer: Rangeela, Yes Boss)

Sameer Anjan (Lyricist: Dhoom 3, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai)

Imteyaz Husain (Writer: Parinda)

Rajesh Dubey (TV Writer: Balika Vadhu)

Vinod Ranganath (TV Writer: Shanti, Swaabhiman)

Jalees Sherwani (Lyricist: Dabang)

Danish Javed (Lyricist and Poet)

Amitabh Shukla (Film Editor: Chak De India)

Sukant Panigrahi (Art Director)

Surabhi Sharma (Documentary Film-maker)

Anusha Khan (Producer)

Bishwadeep Chatterjee (Sound Designer: 3 Idiots)

C.K. Muraleedharan (Cinematographer: 3 Idiots)

Dr. Manasee Palshikar (Screenwriter-Teacher)

Jyoti Dogra (Actor)

Joy Sengupta (Actor)

Kauser Munir (Lyricist: Dhoom 3)

Mazahir Rahim (Screenwriter)

Nishant Radhakrishnan (Film Editor: Satyamev Jayate)

Preety Ali (Producer)

Priyanka Borpujari (Screenwriter)

Rajashree (Writer-Filmmaker)

Manjushree Abhinav (Novelist-Filmmaker)

Prayas Abhinav (Artist-Teacher)

Ruchika Oberoi (Film-maker)

Rukmini Sen (Screenwriter and TV Journalist)

Sameera Iyengar (Theatre activist)

Sharad Tripathi (Screenwriter)

Shivani Tibrewala Chand (Playwright)

Simantini Dhuru (Filmmaker-Activist)

Sona Jain (Film-maker)

Tushar Gandhi (Activist)

Teesta Setalvaad (Activist)

Javed Anand (Activist)



Why I won't vote BJP - by Dilip D'Souza

The pity is, I actually think our constituency has a good politician
from the BJP. If he ever runs for parliament, my opinion of him, by
itself, would tempt me to vote for him. Yet I cannot forget: he is
from the BJP. Much as I'm also tempted by the logic that we must
sometimes look at the candidate and not the party, I know this like
the back of my hand: I will not vote for this party.

The pity is, too, that any party that presides over the plethora of
scams of the last few years deserves no less than to be flung out of
power. I mean the Congress, of course.

And even so, I won't vote BJP. They have done too much to turn away
too many people like me. Perhaps they don't care, but that's the way
it is.

To start, there's the obsession with the Ram temple. Every time we
hear that times have changed and young Indians aren't interested in
this tired old nag of an issue, somebody in the BJP will announce that
building that temple is on their agenda. Whether India is afflicted
with scams, or still widespread poverty, or poor primary education --
whatever it is, the BJP returns, every time, to that lazy way to ask
for votes: champion the Ram temple. Sure enough, it appears in their
newest manifesto too. If you had to judge solely from the several
decades that the BJP has demanded it -- luckily, you don't -- this
temple is this country's highest priority. It must take singularly
warped minds to hold tight to this warped vision for India for so

On from there is the way the BJP and fans label anyone remotely
critical as "anti-Hindu". A good example is a "List of Anti-Hindu
Personalities and their intricate connections" that's made the rounds
for years. (Full disclosure: I'm on the list). This marvel of
convoluted paranoia and illogic would be laughable if so many people
didn't appear to take it so seriously. Like: Among many places you'll
find it on the web is LK Advani's own site, lkadvani.in, where it has
resided since before our previous Lok Sabha election.

I know why these lists are made. "Anti-Hindu" is a surer way to get
people's bile up, after all, than a mere "anti-BJP". (Similar are the
labels "Pakistani agent", "Italian origin" etc). It's also a lazy way
to argue, used when bereft of anything more substantial. And in this
case, it's hilarious to note that also on the list are the relatively
recent BJP inductees Udit Raj and Subramanian Swamy. "Anti-Hindu
Personalities": that's you, kind sirs.

On from there ... I could go on, with plenty more reasons not to vote
BJP. Among them, their unwillingness to see justice done for horrific
crimes. Above all, though, I believe their politics demean India.

I believe we have the people, the talents and the passions in this
country to take on the world. But the BJP chooses instead to
systematically turn Indian against Indian. This applies to the
"anti-Hindu" label, it applies to the lies and suspicion directed at
critics, it applies to episodes of murderous violence left to fester.

For me, all this is unforgivable.

And when you call them on it, the BJP's supporters have only this
particularly brainless response: "But the Congress also does crappy

Well yes, it does. In fact, crappiness from the Congress was the
reason this country grew repulsed by that party in the first place.
But when they came to power, the BJP turned out to be no different,
and in many ways even worse. (To my knowledge, not even the Congress
holds on to lists of "Anti-Hindu Personalities.")

That's where plenty of us are today: left with no national political
alternative to choose from. I'm talking about the plenty of us who
live ordinary Indian lives, pay our Indian taxes, obey Indian laws. I
mean Indians who care what kinds of lives our fellow Indians --
indeed, our fellow humans -- live, because it's as simple as John
Donne once explained: no man is an island and any man's suffering
diminishes us all. I mean Indians who want to see India wise, strong
and compassionate, a force for good on a violent, fractured planet.

Our great dilemma is that on fundamental counts like these, our two
major political parties have failed us.

I won't shy away from the challenge this dilemma poses, for when I
head for the voting booth. But it does also leave me with this
certainty: I won't vote for the BJP.



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