At the Jaipur Literary Fest, a tiff happened between Kancha Illiah and Javed Akhtar. Here is a description of what happened:
The tiff erupted after Akhtar, who was in the audience at a packed venue, interjected during the session on ‘God as a political philosopher: Dalit Perspectives on Buddhism’, saying he was an atheist and no religion gave equality to women and weaker sections.“Discussing religion was like discussing which cave will be better to live. If you want to follow a religion, follow any religion. It does not matter. If you have decided to commit suicide, does it matter how you do it?” he said, triggering applause.To this, a fuming Ilaiah, one of the speakers, said: “Real life is not like cinema, certainly not Hindi cinema…. the crores of Buddhists in India have more knowledge than the intellectuals.”
Here is the rub:
The way Kancha Illiah conducts himself – full of hatred for some groups and oozing vitriol against whom he thinks are his “enemies”, he is anything but a Buddhist. If Buddhist means one who reflects the being of Gautama, the Buddha.
Javed Akhtar: Part-time Atheist, Part time Muslim
As for Javed Akhtar, he is a part-time and convenient atheist. For such “shocking” public consumption, he turns into an atheist. And, for actual activism, he becomes some variant of a Muslim. For example, he is the President (no less) of the Muslims for Secular Democracy. (Site)
The obvious question is – if religion is indeed committing suicide, then why is he so deeply concerned about the issues concerning ONLY a particular Religious group?
In fact, if you read the Founding declaration of this body, you will realize very quickly that its genesis is a reaction to “Sangh Parivar”. So, as a Muslim (or Atheist was it??) for Secular Democracy, Javed Akhtar’s idea of Secularism is where Sangh Parivar is decimated. Well, I would have supported his idea if he was doing this because a lot of those guys are a bunch of idiots who can’t figure out what to do except “Agitation and Protest marches”! The issue is that Javed Akhtar is opposed to Sangh Parivar because they espouse the values of Hinduism (well, they don’t really, but for a guy who is a schizophrenic Muslim Atheist, any lever is good enough).
Because it is committed to the goal of ‘Hindu Rashtra’, the ideals of secular democracy have never been acceptable to the sangh parivar since its ideology is embedded in notions of majoritarianism and a deep-rooted hatred for the country’s minorities.Sustained hate propaganda, instigation of communal violence to polarise Indian society and painstaking organisation building have been its principal occupation for decades. Today, having made deep inroads into the mass psyche, having infiltrated and captured State institutions, the sangh outfitsare cynically misusing and manipulating the instruments and institutions of democracy to subvert them from within. (link)
For a Hindu (for example Sangh Parivar) to eulogize Hinduism is as much their right as an Atheist is to eulogize Atheism. Every believer – and YES, an Atheist is a believer of his own ideology – has the right to believe in what he says the way he wants, as long as it doesn’t create violence with others.
Islamic Kalma, Exceptionalism and Ethos of Inclusivism
As much as moderate Hindus can see, the Sangh Parivar is a reaction to Muslim exceptionalism. Yeah Yeah.. we will have the whole debate about who started first – which is easy to obfuscate. Heck, even the Partition violence sequence is fudged deliberately to the advantage of Muslims by ignoring and hiding the fact of “Direct Action Day” from public memory.
And, the Muslim Exceptionalism starts with their kalma itself. Which is used as a war cry in every war for a reason. By claiming a singular religious narrative that for its believers is unshakeable, kalma sows the seeds of violence and conflict from the get-go.
If I am looking for an Inclusive society that gives each one freedom to handle his or her ideas, then any. ANY form of Exceptionalism should be abhorred. That is why claims like “Jesus is the ONLY savior” (where the believers emphasize strongly on the ONLY word) or “Only Allah is the God, and Mohammad is his ONLY messenger” (where again ONLY is the keyword for the believers) – are bound to sow conflict.
Hinduism presented an ethos where two families – the daughter’s parents and in-laws could have different ishtas – family deities. An ethos where Exceptionalism was thwarted at the root itself. In Vedas, the prayer is not for the equivalent of “Israel’s children” or “Mohammad” – but for the Universe. For all. Even plants, animals, and galaxies!
All beliefs are useless when it comes to living life in a manner of mental clarity. But if we have to find a model that saves us from multi-group conflict, then India always had one! To denounce that model, because its adherents dared to defend themselves – which is what Hindus did in the aftermath of Jinnah’s “Direct Action Day” – and equate it to the very reason why such defense was indeed necessary is to be a masochist and outrightly Communal.
True Secularism is in Unequivocal Defense of Inclusivism
Conflict arises when I say that I am better than you. More importantly, my saying that I am better than you and you are a useless creation is not just my right but a violently enforceable right. Peace amidst DIversity can only happen when Inclusivism is saved and nurtured with a passion.
Hinduism’s greatest misfortune has been a complete and almost masochist adherence to this concept of Inclusivism. When the kingdoms which let the Christian or Islamic rulers and voyagers (like Vasco Da Gama) set base in India such that they were free to follow their belief systems – they SHOULD have insisted that they can ONLY do so, as long as they ADMIT that everyone’s idea and belief of God or Religion is as much valid as their own. So, if you believe that Jesus is the ONLY way to Salvation, then you will have to edit that narrative to one which says “Jesus is A way to Salvation”.
This non-insistence of Inclusivism on part of the guests on the shores of India has brought this rather incredibly Inclusive culture to a point where the very folks who follow the Inclusive ethos have had to defend it against Exclusivist forces and that has become their sole certification of being in the same bucket as the Exclusivist.
Because sooner or later, the Inclusivist will realize that the ONLY way to defend against an Exclusivist is to stoop down to his level. That’s it! The very defining feature of the Inclusivist is gone!
Democracy needs Inclusivism, not Secularism
Secularism is defined by different people in different ways. I have yet to find a “Secular country” or even a small group or organization on this planet.
However, Javed Akhtar’s articulation of it leaves me with many questions about where his central compass lies.
To be secular is to affirm the universality of that principle, its applicability to all countries, irrespective of who constitutes a minority or majority. Secularism rejects not only the theocratic state but also a majoritarian state that discriminates between citizens on the basis of religion, race or ethnicity; or, worse still, that pits one section of society against another. The claim that Hindu Rashtra would not be a theocratic state is no good news, because a non-theocratic fascist state can be worse. (link)
Let us look at this statement for what it says in concrete terms, beyond the misty altruism.
Democracy is a form of society, where everyone has ONE vote. Based on the MAJORITY vote the polity and the social direction is decided upon. This is an inviolable decree of Democracy. No one, whether you are Einstein or a Dalai Lama, can have more say, than a laborer. What it means is that if there are 10 laborers and 2 Einsteins, and the majority decides to invest in construction as opposed to science, then construction it is! For Einsteins to then go ahead and claim “discrimination” is a violation of democratic principles. For, if they want science to be the main investment of the state – “because it is the better investment for the state” – then they can only put their case in front of the majority laborers. Not enforce it. If they do try and enforce it, then they have just violated the democracy itself. They are now, whatever they may want to call it or think of it, in a state of ANARCHY.
And, THAT was the Point of contention between Jinnah and Nehru. Jinnah wanted Muslims to have an “equal say” in Governance, EVEN THOUGH they were in a minority. Nehru said that was a violation of democracy. If everyone has one vote, then those who cast the most votes have a greater say in the Governance of the nation.
It was on this basic and fundamental difference of opinion on what a Democracy is, that Jinnah issued the call for “Direct Action Day” on August 16, 1946.
Now, look at what Javed Akhtar is saying. “Secularism rejects…. a majoritarian state“. Well, if it does, then it ALSO has to reject Democracy! For, Democracy IS a Majoritarian Polity.
Any Civics book will tell you how a law is passed. You need at least 51% majority (often 2/3rds) to pass a law. If you are to press for Equal rights for “all groups”, and if the country has just 3 groups, what direction does the Governance take?
So, Mr. Akhtar, your definition of Secularism flies right in the face of a Governable Democracy.
In comes Inclusivism
This is where Inclusivism comes. Whether you are a secular, democracy or whatever, if the people admit that all belief systems have equal standing – for good or bad – then the conflict will not be there. India, prior to the Islamic invasion did have that ethos. Jainism thrived. Atheists (Charvakas) thrived. Ascetics thrived. Devotional people thrived. 330 million Gods thrived – one for everyone. And yes, Buddhism was born and thrived. And it went down not because of “sword” but because of the wider set (buffet) of options being available.
What is essential to a healthy society is Inclusivism. And, to democracy, it is all the more critical. But, Inclusivism is not a “free for all” call. It comes with a responsibility to enforce that creed. This means in current religious terms, for Muslims to tweak the Kalma to make it more Inclusive; and for Christians to get off the “Jesus is the ONLY Savior” bandwagon. Such Exclusivism does no one any good! If these two groups are to be admitted to the “Inclusive Stage” then they have to fashion their beliefs along the Inclusive lines.
And if everyone instinctively and inherently understands the importance of diversity of beliefs (which ironically is predicated on the irrelevance of the beliefs for existential reasons) then peace and harmony is a must.
One may want to “strive for equality”, but in a world as diverse as ours, where two leaves on the same branch are different, it is better to come to the realization that we are ALL DIFFERENT. And, find a way to rejoice as well as sanctify that Diversity.
Secularism cannot do it. Religions and non-religions cannot do it. Beliefs or lack of it cannot do it. Only a realization and celebration of Inclusivity can.