Liberal Secularism versus Radical Secularism – A Debate We Need to Have in India

In 2020, President Emmanuel Macron’s reaction to the terror attack outside Charlie Hebdo’s old office got sharp criticism from the Islamic world, and American-Anglo media alike. What his words and the French republic’s reaction did do is open up debate on liberal and radical secularism in western society. Since India’s independence in 1947, we have been grappling with the idea of secularism, and it’s practices. Whether it’s the implementation of Uniform Civil Code, demand for states based on religious lines such as Kashmir or Khalistan, or Babri Masjid demolition that took place in 1992 – what we clearly know is that the Indian state does not know how to deal with religion and secularism.

Liberal secularism is the belief of separating religion from the political discourse. It believes religion is personal, and as a cultural aspect it must be accepted as an individual choice of how one wishes to follow it. In other words, it’s democratic and free. In a democracy, it is very important for individuals to retain personal freedom on how they identify themselves and if that identity is based on religion, they should have the freedom to follow it. What radical secularism does is the opposite – it’s undemocratic, and believes in removing religion completely from public sphere. To many, and even in case of France, radical secularism should not be practiced since it prevents minority from having their separate identity in multi-cultural society.

Nehru’s definition of secularism though liberal interfered in religion when required to guarantee equality within it. Example of this is abolishment of untouchability by our constitution, and Hindu Marriage Act that only allows Hindu, Sikh, Jain and Buddhist men to have only one wife at a time. While it gave women in Hindu religion and religions that have come out of it the equality they deserve in the constitution, imams who happen to be mostly men were left to decide the faith of what women want in Islam, and as a result of him not implementing Uniform Civil Code (UCC) back then in 1949 – the problem became a political issue in 1986 when his own grandson and then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi overturned the Supreme Court verdict on Shah Bano case which led to the rise of the need of radical secularism in India, and Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) winning 84 seats in 1989 Lok Sabha election from 2 seats in 1984.

Nehru’s liberal secular policy began to see cracks in 1980. First, when Sikhs demanded Khalistan which eventually led to Delhi riots in 1984, then Kashmir where the minority were made refugees in their own country, and the last blow to this policy was with Babri Masjid demolition which was a result of Congress incompetent secular policy where instead of latching on to true values of secularism, they began to cater to radical elements in our country’s largest religious minority which angered the majority community leading to the rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In a developing country like ours, radical secularism is the only answer left when both sides of the political spectrum tend to favor either the majority or the minority. While Congress must have not done anything for Muslims per se, what did happen as a result of their policies – Prime Minister Modi has unleashed undemocratic, non-secular religious policy which has led to unemployment, mob lynching and arrest of intellectual thinkers.

The need of radical secularism is very important in a country like ours that has failed to remain neutral on the subject. While many have questioned that radical secularism might hamper equality between religions, what it does is makes us irreligious. Personally, I believe for a logical society to develop we need to understand that religion only makes us weaker, and multi-cultural ethos cannot survive in our society if politicians from the left cater to radical elements on any side because it’s benefits them politically.

Most people across the globe are moderates, and therefore can turn on any side of the political spectrum depending on their environment. While many in India might advocate for liberal secularism, what we need to understand is the failure of liberal secularism across the globe. Under globalization, people have migrated to different parts of the world and toleration has made many countries react very aggressively including India. So, is liberal secularism is really they way forward in our world now?

Radical secularism though difficult to implement might be the only option for the globe to counter radicalization among whites in the United States, Hindus in India, Muslims in France and Buddhists in Japan. The change in world polity where China might take over the United States, and left not being faithful to the true values of secularism – the need of the hour is to choose something as undemocratic as radical secularism so that the focus is on the real issues.

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