A Secularist New Year Resolution


Ever since the BJP came to power, they’ve been crawling out of the woodwork – RSS ideologues, Hindutva radicals, and random school teachers. They want to remind you in speeches that India is Hindu; that Hinduism is great and any book or movie that says otherwise should be banned; and that their version of Hinduism (no short skirts! no public kissing!!) is the one that everyone must follow. It’s pervasive, relentless and, to the dismay of those of us who disagree, it is slowly moving from being intolerable to being irritating, but “chalta hai.”

There seem to be two aspects of what is happening. Let’s call one – What is Being Said. The other – Real Changes.

What is Being Said is getting crazier and crazier. Should we clamp down on inflammatory speech? Nitin Pai, a public policy commentator with Acorn, makes a good case that protecting freedom of expression is better and easier than restricting inflammatory speech. Why? Because you can’t ensure that nobody is ever offended.

It might be better, but I’m not sure it’s easier. Rioting in India is difficult to control because of the 24 X 7 news cameras and because the rioters tend to be unemployed youth for whom rioting is a source of income. The odds are stacked against the police.

In any case, there are laws on the books that supposedly curb hate speech. So perhaps there’s not much to be done here except murmur to yourself “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words can never hurt me.”

The problem is that things don’t end with What is Being Said. It drives Real Changes. Books are being pulped (Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus, Sekhar Bandopadhyay’s Plassey to Partition). Textbooks are being changed (Dinanath Batra has rewritten the Gujarat state school textbooks  where science and history are liberally mixed with mythology). And there are serious extra-judicial bans being placed on all kinds of ‘unacceptable’ behavior. Small, but Real Changes.

What is Being Said is not independent from Real Changes. When What is Being Said goes unchecked it supplies oxygen to Real Changes. It emboldens all the closet Hindutva sympathisers to come out in support of What is Being Said. Which gives the mistaken impression that there is broad-based public support for What is Being Said. And the next thing you know, a book or a movie is banned. Or it becomes OK to harass anybody who kisses in public. Suddenly, Real Change has happened.

Bit by bit, these ideologues and goons are chipping away at the edifice of our beautifully diverse, secular India. And it all begins with letting What is Being Said go unchallenged. While politicians and pundits rant about What is Being Said on TV (and that is important) the secularists among us are not doing our bit in the forums where opinion is formed – among friends and family.

We secularists tend to not engage with the Hindutva-flavored friends of ours on social media. It’s OK, we say. I can’t change the way they think so why engage in a meaningless debate. But that’s misguided. You can change the way people think. Most people don’t put too much thought into these issues. They tend to go with the flow – wherever they think the majority of their family, friends and people who they respect are going. We need to let them hear what we think about What is Being Said.

If the discourse on Hindutva in your homes and chai shops, on Facebook and Twitter, remains one-sided, then be prepared to lose what you love. Years from now you’ll look back and regret that when Real Changes were turning the clock back on secular India, you could have been more engaged and made a difference, but you didn’t.

Are you OK with that? I’m not. Ain’t gonna happen. No sir, not on my Newsfeed. I will engage. And that is my new year’s resolution.


  1. ayyappa says:

    I am from Kerala, highly diverse and probably most secular state, only (I think) state where BJP could not open account yet (but that record will be broken anytime now). I am not against BJP, but as you said, skeptical about the kind of noise you mentioned which they don’t seem to control. Very few leaders, including the PM, try to control what their supporters are doing/saying and set the tone right, which means either they don’t want to disappoint the vote bank or they are okay with it. Agree with you that more people need to get into the conversation. Even in the secular Kerala, polarization is increasing, which is what few might want, to reap the benefits – not just Hindutva, but other communities too are reacting to the extreme.

    Other than the noise (conversions, ram’s sons, godse statue etc etc), I was checking if Real Change is happening at all – what is really happening wrt campaign promises. Wish there was a timeline kind of way to track what is really happening on things that matter as well to make sure it not all noise and rhetoric alone.

    Lastly, the biggest problem the country might have right now is, lack of strong opposition. Even if the government is strong, lack of good opposition will make it unchecked. Current opposition should realize that the biggest disservice they are doing to the nation is by laying low, maybe waiting for an implosion or a chance – they need to reinvent themselves, find new leaders, find their voice and participate actively.


  2. Jagannath Moorthy says:

    Sorry but I disagree. You make it seem like we are in some kind of cultural emergency, whereas the reality is nothing like this.

    “Secularism” in India has been left leaning and premised on subjugating the majority point of view. As a consequence, there have been a lot of unjust laws passed (minority schemes, RTE) that discriminate against the majority Hindu community just for them being Hindu. As a society, this leftist POV is so ingrained that any move towards normalcy is couched in terms like “communal” and “saffronization”


    1. Jagannath,
      I have to disagree with you.

      First, we are in an emergency. We can’t see it yet. But it is coming. Notwithstanding the efforts of the Modi government to stay focused on development, there is going to more and more rabble rousing, demands for changes and extra-judicial bans on this and that from the Sangh Parivar. Just wait and watch.
      Persecution of the majority is a meme you will find in many democracies. (Fox News in the US will rant for days in the holiday season that Christmas is under attack in the US). Malarkey. I’m not going to defend every law out there, but Hindus in India do just fine. So do upper castes, while complaining about reservations for OBC and SC/ST.
      This is not about the few laws like UCC or reservations or RTE – where they may actually be room for debate and change for the better. This is about an environment being created where saffron parties are competing with each other to say the scariest things – scary to the minorities.
      Forget about majority vs minority. Just look at how this will play out for Hindus. Do we want our children to be taught from history textbooks where mythology poses as history? Do we want some people in gerua vastra to decide which movies are respectful enough to be released? Do we want our daughters to go in fear of being taunted because they are wearing skirts to school? Ask yourself these questions and then tell me that this is just course correction for secular India. To me it seems like a U-turn.


      1. vivek says:

        Apologies Basab, you’re being unnecessarily alarmist. There is no emergency and none coming. I can imagine that you could have written the same article in 1998, and no the emergency did not happen. Are fringe groups being empowered or is the media propensity to sensationalize otherwise ‘regular news’ now that the BJP is in power? For eg. VHP’s ‘ghar vapasi’ has been on since decades, why is it such a big issue now? Women are as safe / unsafe in India as they were a year ago (including wearing skirts!). Have we mixed mythology with science? The only case in point is Gujarat textbooks. Thats a pertinent question – but much more furore is being made of it than it bears. The textbooks have been that way for years – local language textbooks in most states are very bad. Some leftist, some rightist. It needs a fix, just like education needs reform in general. Still too early to call out how that’s faring. Secular India isn’t a narrow interpretation that has to contimue simply because it’s always been there. If anything, there’s been a rejection of that concept of secularism as it has been. Nobody’s asking for any less protection for the minorities. The news media is unhappy and that’s evident in their narrative. If you’d like to hear a ore reasoned, but nuanced, and passionate mix of perspectives, I’d suggest following social media more. Anyway, that’s all for now. Ciao.


  3. @vivek, I hope you are right. Meanwhile, if textbook changes don’t bother you follow the news on what’s going on at the Indian Science Congress. And no, this has not been happening since when…just this year.


  4. Swami says:

    Awesome post!! Thank you!


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