The recent debate over the proposed destruction of the Ram Sethu to build a shipping canal and the associated affidavit filed by the UPA Government, which was later withdrawn, has enraged the people of India and caused a lot of anguish and debate because of religious sentiments being hurt.
Keeping the project of destroying Ram Sethu aside, it is interesting to focus on how the people of India are responding to the Government supported affidavit (later withdrawn) by the Archeological Institute of India, which stated that: “the mythological texts of Ramayana formed an important part of ancient Indian literature, but cannot be said to be historical record to incontrovertibly prove the existence of the characters, or the occurrence of the events, depicted therein.”
While political parties are obviously milking it for what it’s worth, the debate has spread among the educated intellectuals as well. Hence we have different viewpoints like The Rational Fool on one hand, who says that the affidavit is one step closer to a secular democracy, and Nita, with a Wide Angle View of India, who thinks that the government did a wrong thing in (supporting) filing of such an affidavit. The core issue being debated is: should a democratically elected government meddle with the religious sentiments of the public that elected it? And in the course of this debate, the word ‘secular’ is being used often, without anyone actually defining what it means. And that, I think, is (one of) the roots of the problem.
What is meant by a “secular democracy”?
Interestingly, such a term does not have a definition in Wikipedia. Instead, Wikipedia defines “secularism”:
Secularism is generally the assertion or belief that certain practices or institutions should exist separately from religion or religious belief…In the extreme, it is an ideology that holds that religion has no place in public life.
In one sense, secularism may assert the freedom of religion, and freedom from the government imposition of religion upon the people, within a state that is neutral on matters of belief, and gives no state privileges or subsidies to religions. In another sense, it refers to a belief that human activities and decisions, especially political ones, should be based on evidence and fact rather than religious influence.
The country of the United States was founded on the principle of separation of the Church and the State. What was the founding principle of secular democratic India? Nehru says:
We talk about a secular India…some people think it means opposed to religion. That obviously is not correct. What it means is that it is a State which honors all faiths equally and gives them equal opportunities; India has a long history of religious tolerance…In a country like India, which has many faiths and religions, no real nationalism can be built up except on the basis of secularity.
My Merriam Websters Collegiate Dictionary defines secularism as: “indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations”.
Some commentators on this topic prefer to define secularism as being neutral to religious beliefs. A review of Jeffrey Stout’s “Democracy and Tradition” interestingly expresses his opinion thus: “A secular democracy recognizes that people differ in their religious commitments; secularism, on the other hand, requires them to pretend that they don’t have those commitments.” The concept of secular democracy has even been used to propagate religious beliefs!
Thus, there is a lot of ambiguity in the concept of secularism itself. Does Nehru’s “honor” entail respect and acknowledgment? Are the dictionary definitions of the term wrong? Wikipedia’s entry epitomizes the ambiguity involved: secularism means different things to different people.
In a country with a one billion plus population founded on an ambiguous concept that is not well defined, the resulting chaos in this instance is not going to be one of a kind. This is one of the great lessons of Epistemology: if we do not define our concepts and leave them ambiguous to random interpretations, conflict ensues. The current uproar over Ram Sethu is just another epidemic of this viral root cause, that began with Nehru in India.