the-south-asian.com January 2003
JANUARY 2003 Contents
Page 2 of 2
Peace in South Asia - is it attainable?
the-south-asian asks Dr. Waheguru Pal Singh Sidhu
Which of the two is a stronger force – secularism or fundamentalism?
Neither secularism nor fundamentalism are constant and, therefore, static concepts. Instead, as you rightly point out, they are dynamic and, therefore, variable. Consequently, their strength (or weakness) is comparative and is dependent on a number of factors, such as the constitutional provisions, the composition of society and the political system.
Some constitutions (such as the Indian one) categorically provide for a secular state and make secularism legally binding on any government of the day. However, other constitutions are not so categorical and may even be non-secular (though not necessarily fundamentalist), which means that there could be a legal basis for the rise fundamentalism.
Societal composition could also determine the relative strength of secularism and fundamentalism. For instance, societies that are inherently multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-ethnic also tend towards secularism, as this is the only concept that would allow for the accommodation of different social groups within the same geographical space. By contrast, societies that tend towards a single socio-religious construct and may have even built their national identity around this concept, are less likely to be accommodating of other religions or social groups.
Finally, the political system (democratic versus non-democratic) can also determine the relative strength of secularism and fundamentalism. A truly functional democratic system, which allows both the majority and the minorities to redress their legitimate political grievances through constitutional (and non-violent) means, is likely to strengthen secularism whereas a less democratic system, which does not allow for legitimate political dissent, is likely to promote fundamentalism. It is no coincidence that states where fundamentalism flourishes are also the least democratic.
Can fundamentalism pose a serious threat to the secular traditions of the Indian sub-continent?
Yes, in the short term fundamentalism does have that potential, if the above mentioned factors are altered in favor of fundamentalism. However in the long term almost all states in the Indian sub-continent have recognized that fundamentalism poses a serious threat to the survival of the state (as well as the regime) itself and, therefore, the long-term trend will favor the secular traditions. This is also evident in the history of the Indian sub-continent. Fundamentalist forces – both Hindu and Muslim – have attempted to challenge the secular traditions but have remained unsuccessful in the long-term.
That is, indeed, the ideal definition of secularism, which argues that religion is an individual’s business and should not find place in the political arena. However, historically, religion has very much been part of the political discourse in South Asia. Therefore, the South Asian brand of secularism requires that the state need to embrace all religions to prove its secular credentials. That is why India, for instance, has the largest number of religious-related public holidays! That is also why ‘secular’ forces need to engage with the religious discourse, especially as it is often used by fundamentalist forces to interpret a particular religion to their political advantage. This is one of the lessons that ideal secular groups (like Sahamat) have learnt over the past ten years and have now begun to provide alternative religious discourses to ensure that religious teaching are not hijacked by fundamentalist forces for narrow political gains.
Is there room for faith-based institutions and political parties in a secular society?
Of course, but only as long as they are willing to respect the secular credentials of the very society that allows them this political freedom and allow other non-faith-based institutions and political parties to also express themselves politically. As I’ve mentioned earlier and as is evident from the history of the Indian sub-continent, faith-based institutions and political parties, which attempt to alter the secular fabric of society, are untenable in the long run.
This, in some ways, is directly related to the weakness of the political parties in South Asian countries, which invariably tend to be personality driven (even when they are based on ideology) and which lack genuine inner party democracy. Consequently, the leadership that these political parties throw up has a limited appeal at the national level. And if they do get elected they are beholden to the power brokers who helped to put them there in the first place. Coalition politics, which might actually strengthen democracy in the long run, also tends to curb the power of the leaders, who remains constantly concerned about losing vital coalition partners.
Why can’t there be more ‘Sadbhavanas’ (the project initiated by General Arjun Ray in Leh)? Are such ideas not an answer to the much-needed unity?
Of course there can be… all you need are more people like General Arjun Ray! Certainly, grassroots level movements are critical to ensure unity but it is also important to realize that such movements, if not formalized or institutionalized, can also become personality driven and short-lived. The key is to not only to have more such movements but also sustain them. Here the recent study done by Ashutosh Varshney in his book Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India is particularly useful in providing pointers of how such movements can be sustained.
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