Secularism as principle and practice in India is in “danger” and the ruling dispensation may even try to remove the word from the Constitution, senior Congress leader Shashi Tharoor has said, but asserted that “forces of hatred” cannot alter the country’s secular character.
Secularism is only a word and even if the government takes it out of the Constitution, it would still be a secular Constitution because of its basic structure, Tharoor told PTI in an interview on his new book ‘The Battle of Belonging’. He also asserted that the Congress party cannot risk trying to become ‘BJP Lite’ as it may end up making it ‘Congress Zero’ and said his party was not offering a watered-down version of the BJP’s political messaging and the spirit of Indian secularism was very much “alive and well” in the grand old party.
Asked about his party being accused of peddling in soft Hindutva, Tharoor said he does recognise that there’s a very real and tangible concern for some liberal Indians over the issue, but asserted that “we in the Congress party are very clear that we cannot allow ourselves to become a BJP-lite”.
“I have long argued that any attempt to emulate ‘Pepsi Lite’ by ‘BJP Lite’ will end up with us becoming like ‘Coke Zero’ — that is, ‘Congress Zero’,” the former Union minister said.
“Congress is not BJP in any shape or form, and we should not attempt to be a lighter version of something we are not. Nor are we trying to, in my view,” he said. Underlining that the Congress makes a distinction between Hinduism and Hindutva, Tharoor said the Hinduism that “we respect is inclusive and non-judgemental”, whereas Hindutva is a political doctrine based on exclusion.
“So we are not offering a watered-down version of the BJP’s political messaging: Rahul Gandhi has made it explicitly clear that, for all his avowing his personal Hinduism by going to temples, he does not support any form of Hindutva, neither soft nor hard,” the MP from Thiruvananthapuram said.
Asked if the Congress needs to talk about secularism more often then it has been doing of late, Tharoor said he disagrees with the assertion that the Congress has not talked about secularism enough and the party on every opportunity has stressed its unshakeable commitment to secularism. On Maharashtra Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari’s recent dig at Chief Minister Uddhav Thackrey over secularism, the Congress leader said he did suggest that Koshyari should be given a different letterhead to express such ideas, rather than the official “Raj Bhavan notepaper”.
On whether the word ‘secularism’ in the Constitution was in imminent danger, he said, “The word is only a word; but even if the government takes the word ‘secularism’ out of the Constitution, it is still a secular Constitution.” After all, freedom of worship, freedom to profess and propagate your religion, freedom of expression, minority rights, and equality of all citizens, are all part of the basic structure of the Constitution, and they can’t disappear by deleting a word, he asserted.
“The ruling dispensation may well try to do that: there is certainly a concerted effort to erode secularism and replace it with a sectarian way of being that offers no place to religious minorities in Indian society,” he said.
“Secularism as principle and practice is in danger, but I do not see it falling anytime soon: India embodies tolerance and pluralism in its very essence, and I do not believe that forces of hatred can permanently overcome our fundamental secularism,” he said. However, Tharoor cautioned that people must not let their guards down and must continue to oppose such regressive ideas wherever they arise.
Talking about the controversy over a Tanishq advertisement which showed an inter-faith marriage and had to be withdrawn after a social media backlash, Tharoor said it offered yet another illustration of how “reactionary and bigoted certain right-wing fringe elements” have become, even as the ruling dispensation was quick to distance itself from the episode.
“But let us not forget that this is a Frankenstein’s monster that they have created, sustained through organised and vicious social media trolls, and it’s just one more reminder of the appalling power of the full-throated communal hatred that is so often unleashed in today’s India,” he said.
“As I have said, if such people are so infuriated by Hindu-Muslim ‘ekatvam’, why not boycott the world’s longest-surviving symbol of Hindu-Muslim unity: India itself?” he asked.
On whether Hindutva had gained mass popularity, Tharoor said the BJP holds a commanding parliamentary majority, but it has worked overtime to suppress dissenting voices and in that sense, it is difficult to get an accurate gauge of support for Hindutva among ordinary Indians. Asked about Congress leader P Chidambaram’s recent remarks calling for the restoration of Article 370 and its criticism by the BJP, Tharoor said he has articulated his stand clearly within Parliament.
“It’s not just an issue of abrogating 370 -– even (Jawaharlal) Nehru ji had said the provision was a temporary one. But the Constitution specifies how it is to be done,” he said.
“So though it shouldn’t matter what side of the debate on Article 370 you stand on — after all, differing voices are the lifeline of any democracy — the manner in which it was implemented, the way our own fellow citizens were overnight clamped down upon by their own government, consciously and willfully disregarding the democratically enshrined rights guaranteed to all Indians, does not bode well for the future of the country,” he said.
No political objective can justify the huge-scale abuse of the rights of Indian citizens in this manner, Tharoor said.