A man named Narendra Dabholkar was assassinated in India yesterday. I’d never heard of him. I’m even less tuned into to Indian rationalist networks than I am to American ones. Yet this bothered the hell out of me, more than normal.
India’s been the scene of religious violence in recent years. Terror attacks in Mumbai seem to be a regular occurrence every few yeas now. Tens of thousands have died in Jammu and Kashmir and in northeast India. There have been blasts at the Delhi high court, attacks on parliament, and repeat episodes of Hindu-Muslim violence in places like Ayodhya. After each attack, the attacked group has attacked back. It’s gotten to the point that my octogenarian grandmother freely admits that she’s taking her life in her hands when she goes to the market.
Narendra Dabholkar never attacked anyone. He was a humanist and rationalist activist speaking out against the harmful superstitions that still plague Indian society, such as “godmen” who scam people out of money, and so-called “black magic” practitioners. He built a movement in the state of Maharashtra and had even persuaded the state government to introduce an anti-superstition bill. Apparently, that’s enough to get you killed.
I’ve read the bill; from a Western perspective, I’d have some concerns about it on free-exercise grounds. But the facts are that superstition runs rife in India, and people die because of it. And apparently people die for taking a stance against it. Pretty odd for a secular nation. But especially of late, India has done a pretty horrific job managing its “secularism.”
India is a secular nation. It’s right there in the constitution. As a land, it has a tradition of skepticism, religious doubt, and pluralism reaching back thousands of years. Its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was an agnostic. The Indian independence movement strove to build a pluralistic nation where no religion or belief system would have primacy over another, where no one should have to fear that speaking their mind about a religious matter would put their life in danger.
What went wrong?
In truth, the seeds were probably there from the beginning, when Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu nationalist who thought he was too conciliatory toward Muslims. But the country could have pulled back from that. Instead, I think much of the problem lies in the way that “secularism” has been defined in South and Southeast Asia for the past half-century or so.
The common definition of secularism is that society is organized such that religious groups keep their fingers out of government and government doesn’t interfere with religion. Everyone is free to hold whatever beliefs they wish and to put that faith into practice as long as such practices do not violate civil law. In America, I think we actually make a valiant effort at this for the most part, despite faithy monuments outside courthouses and all the hubbub about prayer at city council meetings or teaching evolution in schools. We’re not without our problems, but neither are even more obvious secular nations like France or Sweden. In India, though, the definition of secular seems to have become warped to something like “if the government gives equal space to all religions, it’s secular.”
As a result, the law in India when it comes to religion is an inchoate mess. In areas like family law, especially, different religions get completely different laws for life events like marriage, adoption, and divorce. Only in the state of Goa is there a uniform civil code. Elsewhere, the law’s idea of secularism entails that a woman in a Muslim marriage should be treated differently from a woman in a Hindu marriage. If you’re in a mixed marriage and you want a divorce, who knows? If you’re an atheist? This kind of secularism means not that no religion gets special treatment, but that every religion does!
So in a sense, assassinating a humanist activist because he trod on your toes once too often makes a perverse kind of sense. You already get your own laws for marriage and inheritance and divorce. Your personal life is subject to religious law, not civil law. You truly believe your religion is correct in these matters, and the government has as good as agreed. Now along comes some guy saying you’re full of shit and you need to stop fleecing the gullible. He threatens your special treatment. He must go.
Frankly, I don’t think the government knows how to effectively handle India’s current religious pluralism. Corruption is so rampant that politicians can be easily bought off to neglect or push a particular position, and so what falls by the wayside is the approach that might actually uphold India’s secular banner: education and infrastructure, like Dr. Dabholkar was trying to build; preventing unscrupulous predators from taking advantage of people’s fears, like he was trying to do. But he’s dead now. Oops.
I realize my perspective is colored by my outside status. I admit I do not live the conditions on the ground. As such, I don’t feel like I can propose a solution, but I can identify a problem, and I can state what I fear it means. I love India. I love the color, the pluralism, the history, the vibrancy bordering on anarchy. And I’m afraid of seeing that collapse in on itself in an orgy of religious violence. A secular approach to government is the only way to prevent and stop that, but not the “secular” approach as it’s currently practiced.
I am scared of seeing the world’s largest secular democracy fall apart at the seams because they decided secular didn’t mean secular anymore.