In India: secularism or multiculturalism?

India is currently witnessing widespread protests against the recently passed Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the anticipated NRC (National Population Register). Although the Prime Minister has said that no decision has as yet been taken on an all-India NRC, and that citizenship will not be taken away from any person, there has been one common refrain: namely, CAA is “anti-secular”.

These protests began immediately after the Indian Parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Bill in December 2019. The new Act makes it easier and quicker for “persecuted religious minorities” from the neighboring countries of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan to obtain Indian citizenship. However, In effect the new Act fast tracks citizenship for Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Paris and Christians from these countries who had entered India before 31 December 2014. Since Muslims constitute the majority in the identified countries, migrants from this community are not to benefit from this amendment.

The Indian government has explained this decision as a measure to protect religious minorities in this region – minorities whose numbers are steadily decreasing in the identified countries. Yet, this explanation has not satisfied the protesters who maintain that claims of citizenship should be delinked from considerations of religion and religious identity. For them CAA contravenes the secular character of the Indian constitution.

The ‘return’ of secularism to the centre of political debate is both interesting and intriguing, and it calls for careful reflection. First, in India secularism has been on the backfoot for sometime now as the Bhartiya Janata Party (which has emerged as the single largest party in the last two general elections) identified it with ‘minority appeasement’, thereby making it a suspect doctrine, at least in the eyes of the majority. Second, in recent times, appeal to the principle of multiculturalism has been more effective in challenging the rhetoric and policies of majoritarianism.

In India, when the government prohibited sale and consumption of beef, or some states disallowed animal sacrifice in open spaces on Bakr-Id, or renamed streets that bore names of Muslim rulers, or asked for re-writing history textbooks to include all those ‘great’ men who fought against the Muslim ‘invaders’, it is the constitutional commitment to religious diversity and the plural fabric of India that was invariably invoked. A similar trend can be seen in Europe and other parts of the world which have witnessed the rise of majoritarian nationalism.

Expressions of majoritarianism vary but almost everywhere it has pushed forward by capturing the public domain and proclaiming what is not acceptable in these spaces, and identifying ‘outsiders’ who pose a threat to the security of the nation and its settled way of life. Whether it is the question of wearing a full or partial veil, religious headgear in schools, constructing minarets on buildings or pointing a finger at immigrants who resist integration, it is multiculturalism that has countered these assertions head on.

By arguing that integration is best achieved by accommodating minorities so that they develop a sense of belonging, it has checked the urge to seek assimilation and adherence to what the majority considers acceptable. At the same time, it has analysed concrete policies, such as, public holidays, or food served in hospitals (which appear to be neutral) to show that these are not ‘neutral’ decisions and they invariably impact minority communities adversely.

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