Symbolism in the name of secularism: Skull cap as the new metier

Congress Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor has wondered why Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has no issues with wearing all sorts of “funny” and “outlandish” headgears — he was referring to those that Modi sports at events in the North-East — does not adorn the Muslim skull cap. Let us here keep aside the allegation that Tharoor has exposed himself to the charge of racism by ridiculing cultural symbols of sections of Indians, and focus on the point he seeks to make: That the Prime Minister, who practises the Hindu faith, must wear the skull cap on occasions, in order to be seen as secular.

Tharoor is not the only ‘secularist’ to voice this opinion. It has become a standard narrative in the Left-liberal circles. It has not occurred to these people to apply a similar measurement of secularism to people of other faiths. For instance, why should not a Muslim, to be considered secular, apply tilak or participate in bhajans at temples? What about instances of ire (the fatwas etc) that Muslim clerics have voiced against members of their community, who not attend Hindu festivals but also participate in their rituals? It is then said that the clerics are merely expressing the tenets in their religion.

The issue is simply this: A bizarre kind of logic has been propounded on the definition, or perception, of secularism in the country. Over the previous decades of Congress rule and influence of the Left-liberals, it came to be established that public figures must indulge in symbolism to keep religious orders in good humour, especially when nothing concrete was being done for these communities to empower them gainfully — economically, politically and socially. But then, what greatness is achieved when a ‘secular’ leader wears a skull cap for a mere three seconds and then removes it, or participates in a prayer at a Hindu temple and soon thereafter speaks of Hindu Taliban or Hindu terror?

All of this brings us to the core issue of secularism. How does one define it in the Indian context? The Constitution of India is of no help here, and understandably so. Framers of the Constitution were wise people, and they realised the folly of importing Western definitions to suit Indian conditions. They correctly said that secularism, while undefinable, was an inherent part of the Indian cultural ethos. Both Jawaharlal Nehru and BR Ambedkar opposed the inclusion of the term, ‘secular’, in the Constitution despite demands from some members of the Constituent Assembly, when the draft Constitution prepared by a panel headed by Ambedkar, was presented to the House for discussion and adoption. In November 1948, the constituent Assembly led by Nehru rejected the demand by a member to include the word, ‘secular’ in Clause 1 of Article 1 of the Constitution. The member wanted the Article to read as follows: “India shall be a Secular, Federalist, Socialist Union of States.”

One of the reasons why the likes of Nehru and Ambedkar refrained from the term’s inclusion was because of its ambiguity. There were questions on how secularism would be understood, interpreted and applied, if it were to be included in the Constitution. Nobody could have expressed the issue better than Ambedkar: “What should be the policy of the state, how society should be organised in its social and economic side, are matters which must be decided by the people themselves according to time and circumstances. it cannot be laid down in the Constitution itself because that is destroying democracy altogether.”

Stalwarts of the Indian freedom struggle and framers of the Constitution perhaps also had other issues at the back of their minds. If they were to over-emphasise on secularism by getting it into the statute books, how would that reconcile with the fact that they had also agreed to allow a separate personal law for the Muslims in the country? Or, the fact that the cow had been offered protection in the Directive Principles of State Policy. Indeed, a senior member of the Constitution’s drafting committee, HC Mookerjee, had gone a step ahead and observed, “If your idea is to have a secular state, it follows inevitably that we cannot afford to recognise minorities based on religion.”

Secularism, thus, was the spirit of the Indian nation, and it was not to be straitjacketed through definitions. Indira Gandhi thought otherwise, in her wisdom which was profoundly less than that of Nehru and Ambedkar. Having imposed Emergency, she went about making devastating changes to the Constitution, including tampering with Fundamental Rights. Along the way, came the amendment in the Preamble to the Constitution. India officially became a “sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic”. The move may have burnished Indira Gandhi’s secular credentials in the eyes of many, but the country had been secular before the amendment and would have remained so without it. India demonstrated its secularism when it rejected MA Jinnah’s two-nation theory, which led to the formation of Pakistan on religious lines.

It’s unfortunate that we have reduced the concept of secularism to symbolic acts of wearing skull caps. In sum, it would be worthwhile to know as to on how many occasions did Nehru or Ambedkar — both secularists — wore the Muslim skull cap.