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Justice and Secularism - No Minority Appeasement

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Justice requires secularism of state. Justice also entails affirmative actions for the weak, oppressed, and marginalized. In a welfare state, there are affirmative actions, remedial measures, and rehabilitation efforts. But there is nothing like minority appeasement.

Secularism or Minority Appeasement?

If we agree with the National Secular Society of UK (NSS-UK) that secularism is the best chance we have to create a society in which people of all religions or those without affiliation to any religion can live together fairly and peacefully, we have to give secularism a chance in our day-to-day affairs. Given the fact that almost all the countries in the world today accommodate people from more than one religion, it becomes imperative for the countries to allow the mutual coexistence of different religions. This makes secularism a panacea for religious affairs in most countries.

According to NSS-UK, "Secularism is a principle that involves two basic propositions: The first is the strict separation of the state from religious institutions. The second is that people of different religions and beliefs are equal before the law." Although the meaning of secularism varies according to the context, in Indian context, secularism has often conflicting interpretations. When the liberals, leftists, secular politicians talks about secularism, a section of the minority labels it "pseudo-secularism" - meaning that this is just a talk about secularism with little practical implication or serious intention. The same is labeled by the right-of-the-center politicians and their supporters as minority appeasement. Going further to the extreme right, one can find a new but oft-used coinage "sickularism" in their political discourse.

However strange they may sound, but the truth is that in India all these connotations of secularism are in vogue. On the one hand, a liberal and secular idea, if not backed by a real plan of action, or sometimes, if it does not fit what the minorities would like, it becomes pseudo-secularism. On the other hand, if a secular initiative is aimed at providing justice or even a minimum relief to the religious minorities, a section of the right-of-the-center ideologues, would promptly and quite dishonestly label it as "minority appeasement" - knowing fully that the said initiative has nothing to do with appeasement. It is rather the duty of a welfare state to address challenges and hardships that her citizens face.

The third, and the most detestable, interpretation "sickularism" comes from the extreme right. So abhorrent of the seculars, liberals, and minorities they are, that anything coming from the liberals or secularists for the good of minorities, are sickening to them. So they connote the entire gamut of ideologies, principles and actions, as sickularism. This is why secularism is sickularism to the extreme right - which clearly shows the sickness of their state of mind.

Leaving the two extremes "pseudo-secularism" and "sickularism" aside as marginal, one is left with secularism and minority appeasement - the major connotations that often find significance in Indian polity and, more so, before the elections. It is, in this context, becomes essential to discuss what constitutes secularism, and when it becomes minority appeasement.

In the case of modern states, according to International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 2nd edition, secularism "in the twentieth century has come to refer to two interrelated practices: (1) a mode of political organization in which the state is neutral with reference to all established religions; and (2) later in the century, a political practice of the state that protects the rights of minorities in a multicultural society." If a state is able to achieve the former idea of secularism, ideally there should be no need of the latter, i.e., a political practice of the state that protects the rights of minorities in a multicultural society. While the first definition is widely accepted, the second, sometimes, is construed as a special favor to minorities.

However, in order for the former idea (1) of secularism to suffice, a number of implicit assumptions need to be satisfied. First, that justice and equity has already been established, i.e., the socioeconomic status of all the different groups or communities are similar and there exists an established equality of opportunities for practitioners of all religions or people of different communities; that the populace is also neutral about others religions and people of the other religions; that they don't "hate" the "other" religions, religious practices, the lifestyle of the people of other religions, etc. In short, different communities living in a country, in addition to the state, also need to be secular.

If one or more of these assumptions are violated, a social disequilibrium occurs and a communal disharmony emerges out of the disequilibrium. This is not an issue of inequality one or the other group. Violation of the aforesaid assumptions, leads to systemic problems. As a result, "we" against "them" situation starts. In such a situation, the physical, financial, intellectual, strategic, cultural, and/or numeric strength of the respective communities will decide which community becomes stronger, and which community becomes weaker.

Once these sorts disparity starts, some communities become vulnerable in the hand of some other communities. Usually, it is the minorities that become the "prey" of a section of the majority's prejudices and aggression. Here comes the role of state, from a welfare and humanitarian perspective to protect the minorities and uphold their democratic and human rights. Even if the state is perfectly secular, i.e., neutral to different religions or communities, because of the state of disequilibrium created by conflicting groups of people, a state intervention becomes imperative. Unless minorities are pro-actively protected by the state they will be dominated by the majority, they will keep getting weaker and ultimately vulnerable, and will gradually flee from the place and finally become extinct because of migration or death. Thus, in order to preserve the multicultural facets of the society, the state will have to protect and uphold the minority rights. This protection and upholding of minority rights is not an appeasement, it is the duty of a secular state.

If political strategies are designed to preserve the multicultural ethos of the society, promote equity, and empower the weaker sections, then such strategies are indeed secular. However, if political strategies are designed specifically to appeal one community or the other, then they are not secular. Here, it is a matter of sincerity of intentions. If the strategies are designed just to "lure votes" during the election-season, they are non-secular but if the same strategies are actually pursued and effectively implemented, with the intention of preserving the communal harmony and uplifting the vulnerable, then that is very much secular. Such a strategy once, again, is not minority appeasement, as some unscrupulous politicians and dishonest people would label it.

Why There Is Nothing Like Minority Appeasement!

If some people think that minorities are enjoying "minority appeasements" doled out by the central and state government(s), they need to wake up. Because there is nothing like minority appeasement - as the affirmative actions aimed at benefiting the minorities are just compensation toward what they have already lost in terms of their lives, livelihoods, places to live, and their right to live a dignified life! The affirmative actions are the state's response to injustice and lack of equity in the society, and not appeasement.

If we set aside a few schemes such as annual Hajj subsidy, which is on its way to be phased out gradually, most other minority-centric projects are either affirmative actions or remedial measures. The affirmative and remedial actions, which are unscrupulously labeled as "minority appeasements", arise mainly because of two reasons: Communal Riots and Denial of Justice. In almost all the communal riots in India, in the recent past, mostly the minorities - be it Muslims, Sikhs, Christians - are the sufferers. In an overwhelming majority of the cases of communal violence, it is the Muslims who have suffered. As of now hundreds of thousands of Muslims are now displaced all over India. The Gujarat riots (2002), in which about 2000 Muslims lost their lives, and an estimated 150,000 people were displaced during the violence. In Assam, in 2012, in the Bodo-Muslim communal riots, 77 people had died and over 400,000 people were taking shelter in 270 relief camps. In the recent communal riots in Muzaffarnagar (UP) in 2013, the violence claimed 43 lives and injured 93, and displaced over 50,000 people. Most of these victims are minorities.

The violence often accompanied incidents gang-rapes of the minority women. So lives, livelihoods, houses, and human dignity, all are lost. Who suffers the most: almost exclusively, it is the minorities that suffer. This does not mean the members of the majority community are immune from communal riots. People from every community suffers from riots. But the members of majority community are seldom displaced. Thus their sufferings are less in extent and their rehabilitation becomes relatively easier. But as the minority community gets uprooted from its native place, losing their identity, these people become completely vulnerable. This puts the lives of younger generation from such displaced communities in permanent danger due to poverty, insecurity, and above all - lack of access to education.

Thus most of the measures toward the rehabilitation of those who suffered from these communal riots are supposed to benefits the minorities. How can, then, any political party, section of media, or a section population, call it minority appeasement? Is it not a civic and human right of the victim of communal riots to be compensated for their loss from the riots? Alleging such rehabilitative measures as "minority appeasement" is not just despicable, it is inhuman. And those who make these allegations are clearly the most nefarious of people.

Another question often arises as to why minorities need to be given reservation, or any kind of affirmative action, at all? The reason is, once again, that it is a compensation against what they lose because of denial of their rights. In order to uplift the quality lives of the poor and the oppressed, the affirmative actions are ensured for them. The Presidential Order of 1950, though, on the one hand, benefits those it designates as the Scheduled Castes (SC) but on the other hand,  discriminates against the minorities in the sense that even the poorest and marginalized minorities are not entitled to the SC reservations unless they are from Hindu, Buddhist, or Sikh community.

For instance, Paragraph 3 of the Order prevents Dalit (marginalized) Christians and Dalit (marginalized) Muslims from being given the status of SCs, denying them the right to affirmative action from the government. A section of the Christians though get Scheduled Tribes reservations but Muslims hardly get any of these reservation. So Muslims as a religious community, suffer due to a systemic discrimination.

As a result of the affirmative action given to SC/ST communities, their poverty is gradually declining and they are getting mainstreamed. However, Muslims don't get these reservations, so the poor and marginalized Muslims, are not getting enough opportunities to getting mainstreamed. Therefore, any measure towards Reservation for Minorities is by no means a "special favor", it just a compensation towards the deprivation caused by the Presidential Order.

Other than that, taking initiatives to uplift the down-trodden is a duty of a welfare state. It is not a special favor, and certainly not an appeasement. Thus, remedial-rehabilitation measures and affirmative actions aimed at improving the quality of lives of minorities, are not "appeasement". These are their civic and human rights. So, to sum up, there is nothing like minority appeasement!

Originally published on India Tomorrow.
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Having graduated from Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) in 2006, Shahidur Rashid Talukdar moved to USA for higher studies. After completing MS (in Mathematics) from Youngstown State University, he joined Texas Tech University as PhD student in (more...)
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