How to understand the silence of the Indian secularists?
By Yengkhom Jilangamba
As we know, the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 (popularly known as CAB) was recently passed in the Lok Sabha and those in the government promised that it would be made into an Act. The BJP led government were eventually unsuccessful in fulfiling their promise, but not due to their lack of efforts and/or commitment to the cause. The impasse has provided a sense of relief, at least temporarily, to the people of the North-East without whose determination and sacrifice this success would not have been possible.
Yet, it is possible that many people in India including those who think of themselves as humanist, liberal, or secular do not know what CAB stands for, let alone have an opinion on it. It is, perhaps, difficult to imagine such a scenario for those who participated in the struggle especially given the recent democratic, peaceful, and collective upsurge that we witnessed in the North-East. It is also possible that many would take offence for pointing our their silence on this issue.
But it is indeed ironic that the people of the region whose numbers do not count in any electoral calculation, who are usually dispensible, saved the secular fabric of India.
But what has left me (and numerous other Northeastern people) puzzled is the silence of the Indian secularists on the CAB. It is important to understand this silence given the sharp divide between the two oppositional positions on the issue without any scope for a middle ground.
The question – why are Indian secularists silent on the CAB? - has been asked by many, especially by Northeasterners in personal conversations, and on social media. But it has not been given the attention that it deserves. I am convinced that there can be more than one answer to this. One may even propose that since the secularists have shown their disinterestedness if not active hostility to the struggle against CAB, why should we care?
But I am interested in the question for two reasons. First, we need to go deeper and find an explanation for their apathy. Since they happen to occupy a visible, and at times influential position in the public domain, it is useful to know how they function and also their limitations. Second, politics is of course also about solidarity and we have to remain hopeful.
The explanation I offer is a rather simple one. And that lies in understanding Indian secularists as majoritarian/dominant secularists.
It basically means that while they may stand against religious nationalism it does not necessarily mean that they do not exhibit or participate in other forms of domination. For instance, if one is a Hindu secularist, he would have to prove his credentials by distancing himself from the Hindu nationalists. Of course, she would have to maintain that Hinduism and Hindutva are not only different but incompatible. In fact, he may go to the extent of asserting that he is a proud Hindu, and that religion could be used as a resource to build the Indian nation. Many may not go this far but it will be safe to say that they cannot see themselves as perpetrators of any discriminatory practices. Religion, in this case Hinduism, it is most likely to be pointed out, happens to be a personal belief which gives the believers a sense of joy, belongingness, connectedness, and so on.
The point to be noted here is that such a position does not go against systemic inequalities that exist in Hinduism, say caste. The two – one’s sense of belongingness to Hinduism and the oppressive structure that is caste – do not have to be brought together. So, even as one protests against religious nationalists, this protest or disagreement does not demand of the self any transformation in other spheres of one’s life.
Secondly, as individuals we all belong to collectives, some of which we help in re-producing. For instance, as a secularist one can belong to a religious, linguistic community, and/or a political group. Even when we believe ourselves to be uninfluenced by any of the groups that we belong to, these do matter. This belongingness influences our outlook, worldview, opinions, in other words, it is part of who we are. This is what I would call the ‘domain of affect’. Let us look at one of these group formations, which is that of language in India.
According to the 2011 census, the figure of languages spoken by more than one crore people among the scheduled languages in descending order is as follows:
Bhili/Bhilodi 1,04,13,637 [non-scheduled langauge]
It does not take much to notice that except Assamese and Bengali speakers, the effect of the CAB on these major linguistic communities is negligible. In other words, there is no connection that they can draw upon in order to understand how the proposed legislation would affect them, thus, making the politics of secularism to be rather impersonal, distant and abstract. As a result, the struggle against the proposed legislation is left to the Assamese and other numerically smaller communities which inhabit the North-East of India since it would affect them directly. (Since the maximum beneficiaries would be Hindu Bengalis, their silence or active support for the Bill is understandable.) But since they constitute a small percentage of the population of India, their voices can be silenced or sacrificed.
The fact of the Indian secularist’s inability to respond to the crisis stems from their not belonging to the groups which would be adversely affected by the proposed legislation. Their secularism, viewed in this sense, weighs less in comparison to that of the domain of affect. You may say this is a cynical reading of the situation. But how else does one explain the silence of the Indian secularists on a move that fundamentally goes against the very grain of secularism?
(Yengkhom Jilangamba teaches at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati)
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