Not long ago on a visit to Delhi, I chanced upon Jaswant Singh, the former foreign minister under Vajpayee at the India International Centre, on the Lodi Road. It was nice to see a very urbane and erudite man, I thought. I had read his books, the latest being his deeply moving autobiography and I said so to him.
I don’t know whether I had praised him sky-high or offended him when I said: “You first chapter is a minor classic, worth prescribing as a text for students. While the rest seemed to have just assembled into a book form”. Anyway, a gentleman he is he was courteousness personified and he acknowledged my opinion so graciously and I would always be thankful for such a personality.
Yes, I had first heard of him from my long time friend, the late Romesh Thapar, the founder of Seminar monthly and though Jaswant Singh belongs to the BJP I always thought he was different and an asset to the party whose many basic premises are still causing concern for all enlightened people.
So, I now read in the newspapers that at a recent national executive of the party its president, Rajnath Singh gave a new meaning (or new meaninglessness?) to the interpretation of secularism in our Constitution. Thank god, the BJP president doesn’t speak English, I bemoaned!
If he did, then it must have given rise to a first class ugliness to the otherwise Queen’s tongue. So, I ignored what the BJP president said when he gave a new interpretation. Mercifully, it was in Hindi, I presumed it was a bit Sanskritised Hindi! The more the better for ignoring it.
But can I do the same when our respected friend, Jaswant Singh, put a gloss to what the BJP president did when he (Jaswant Singh) said that “sanathana dharma” is secularism!
Oh, dear friend, how can you say so?
Secularism is not as old as sanathana dharma. It is almost ageless, the sanathana dharma of our ancient rishis and sages. Sanatana dharma is a great Hindu doctrine, I admit and I salute for such a conception of an all-embracing dharma that binds and should bind the whole of the humanity.
But let us be correct and accurate when it comes to scholarly interpretation.
Secularism came about, if I am correct, only prior to the French Revolution, in the writings of the French encyclopaedists, more particularly in the writings of Voltaire and Rousseau. In the fight between faith and reason, we all believed reason triumphed, thanks to the Descartes’ revolution in philosophy in the 16th century.
The world from then onwards was no more what it was, from the ancient times to the medieval times. We have had the benefit of the rise of European Enlightenment and it is the Enlightenment principles that had shaped the modern world.
Of course, there are scholars like Isaiah Berlin who had gone over the matter in so many little details and at one place at the beginning of a major essay he quotes Pascal, approvingly, that it and extravagance to exclude reason and only faith or exclude faith and only reason!
How wonderful an insight!
Yes, there is a place for faith in human affairs. But then this is so totally different to draw secular affairs of the state where all faiths might thrive or allowed to thrive, as in our societies, and therefore there is a case for secularism as strictly being neutral when it comes to different faiths existing side by side.
That is why modern world recognises such diverse societies like France and Turkey as model secular states while even a country like USA which doesn’t recognise one religion as a state religion.
India is a shining example of a secular state simply for the solid reason we don’t recognise any one religion as a state religion.
Yes, India is a Hindu majority state. This is recognised. Yes, we have a strong base for some of the minority religions like citizens, Muslims and Sikhs, and many others. So, there is simply no valid reason and Jaswant Singh hasn’t shown any such reasons to just jump over the historic divide between the ancient tenet, sanatana dharma and also the modern concept of secularism.
I don’t object to Jaswant Singh to make a case for Hinduism. I hope he would concede that Hinduism is different from Hindutva. Unfortunately, there is confusion at the popular level.
But there is a need and even an education campaign is needed to inculcate the tenets of modern secularism and how secularism is being viewed and implemented in France and Turkey.
That can be a learning experience and let us in India also learn to go about putting secularist outlook and secular principles in various walks of life, and in writing our history as school text books etc.
To live a secular life is not to deny our own religious crednetials. We can be a practising Hindu in our private life but in our public life there is no place for professing or demonstrating our affinity to our private faith.
We won’t become lesser men and women, lesser Hindus just by affirming our faith in secularism as far as our political and public affirmations in the Constitution of India.
I hope I have interpreted the concept of secularism in the right historical and ideological manner.