The fragility of secularism and the future of democracyPerhaps there is a reason democracy inevitably degenerates into majoritarianism in almost all religious polities.
It's the 550th year of the founding of Sikhism and Amritsar, home to one of the holiest shrines of the Panth, is all lit up for Guru Nanak Dev’s birth anniversary. Important events are lined up for the week. His Holiness the Dalai Lama was here to rejoice in the celebrations.
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, a former cricketer, hit a diplomatic masterstroke by opening up the Kartarpur Corridor to coincide with the Guru Nanak Gurpurab. The decision of allowing Sikh pilgrims to visit one of their holiest shrines found in the Pakistan side of Punjab had won Islamabad immense goodwill among the global Sikh community.
In frustration, the Hindutva activists had hoarding boards thanking Imran Khan for the move taken down from the streets of the city. However, grateful Sikhs, including former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, lined up along the newly opened passage on a pilgrimage to pay obeisance at the shrine.
Unlike in Hinduism, the Sikh pantheon is made up of Gurus that were born, and lived and died for the betterment of the laity. The supreme one of the Panth is the timeless Akal with no form and only the name. Perhaps that's the reason believers of all faiths are enchanted by the serenity of Sri Harmandir Sahib (the Golden Temple) in the frontier city of Amritsar.
There is no word for the concept of Amrit in the English language. The element can have natural, magical or divine qualities of elixir, ambrosia, and nectar. But Amrit doesn't just cure diseases, ensure longevity or even grant immortality. It sets the recipient free from the everyday concerns of life, livelihood, suffering, and death. That's what the eternity of Akal is all about—the only truth.
Sikhs fought the Mughals for the dignity of the community and lost their primacy in Punjab to Muslims. They fought the British and lost an empire—surrendering the Kohinoor diamond and Kashmir. When their homeland was partitioned, the capital Lahore went to Pakistan because Sir Cyril Radcliffe, the British barrister entrusted with the task of drawing the borderline, didn't want to leave the new Muslim nation without a major city.
Sikhs managed to overcome the trauma of partition with remarkable fortitude and exemplary resilience. However, the anti-Sikh riots of November 1984 seem to have broken their belief that they were the blessed Indian citizens entrusted with the responsibility of defending the Omkar family of faiths. The Sikhs now realise that they are like any other religious minority in an India that is determined to be a Hindu Rastra.
It has been said that Hinduism is a family of religions that allows great diversity while Hindutva is a political ideology that seeks to enforce the majoritarian idea of conflating faith with nationalism. The symbol of Hindu supremacism in recent decades has been the Ram Lalla—Baby Ram believed to have been born at the exact spot where the Babri Masjid had existed for centuries until Hindu fanatics tore it down in 1992.
In a verdict full of inconsistencies and contradictions, the Indian Supreme Court has sanctified the war cry of Hindutva proponents and awarded the disputed site to Hindus. A Hindu temple is to be erected right there on the spot, come what may. In its wisdom, the court says that Muslims have been wronged and need to be compensated with a five-acre plot but refuses to bring the wrong-doers to account. The court evidently had no courage to counter passions of the street with the considered voice of reason and restraint.
About a year ago, Donald Trump Jr, son of US President Donald Trump, had characterised the Indian media as 'mild and nice' compared to the 'aggressive and brutal' American press. They have become milder and nicer since then, and have begun to enjoy being the stenographers and megaphones of power. There was almost no reflection, barring few exceptions, in the mainstream press about the historic authenticity or the likely ramifications of the verdict.
The Indian National Congress has welcomed the court's sanction of building a temple on the disputed site. Satraps of regional parties have either supported the Hindutva agenda or maintained a deafening silence on the issue. Except for the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen chief Asaduddin Owaisi, even Muslim politicos seem to have accepted the decision with a defeated resignation.
Little wonder, India has become a Hindu nation for all practical purposes. Independent India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had rightly observed that the idea of secularism was so alien to India that it had no equivalent word for the concept in any Indian languages. Unable to keep its promise to the minorities, the Indian constitution has become merely an instrument of Hindu rule.
At least marginal autonomy of the states ensures that the dignity of large ethnic groups isn’t at risk. In southern India, linguistic sub-nationalism is an established practice. Even in Punjab, authorities have decreed that all signboards henceforth will have to be in Gurumukhi script. But religious minorities (even as large a population as the Muslims, at over 200 million) face stark choices: accept a subordinate status, leave the country or learn to live a life of denial.
Among Kashmiris, Sikhs, and Muslims, elders advise their wards, in all seriousness, to leave if they can, for India is not safe for minorities any longer. As often as they are trampled under boots, democracies decompose and die under majoritarian regimes. Secularism is a necessary, though not self-sufficient, condition for plurality to flourish in peace.
It's quite well known that the term Lahure owes its origin to the Gurkhas that were too proud to join the Nasiri Battalion after the surrender at Sugauli. A large number of Gurkhas continue to serve in the Indian defense forces. However, the number of Nepalis working in the informal sector even in a place like Amritsar isn't small. They strive to maintain their Hindu identity. For an immigrant, it's useful to associate oneself with the dominant community.
Erosion of secular values, however, is as dangerous to minorities within the fold of Hinduism as to practitioners of other religions. Caste hierarchy is an inalienable part of the religion. Very few Hindu rituals can be performed without the assistance of a Brahmin priest. Rightly has it been said that once you take out Brahminism, nothing remains in Hinduism except rituals of animism. But secularism is as necessary for the human dignity of Dalits as for the survival of Muslims or other minority religions.
Perhaps there is a reason democracy inevitably degenerates into majoritarianism in almost all religious polities. Secularism is important to ensure equality among citizens. But the allure of religion is so strong that its politicisation by populists and ethno-nationalists becomes inevitable in periods of uncertainty. That's the risk Nepal too will have to face sooner or later.