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How long will India celebrate its secular constitution?

With Indian polity increasingly focusing on Hindu cultural nationalism, its secular constitution is under threat

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi

Published: January 27, 2021 03:17 AM GMT

Updated: January 27, 2021 03:49 AM GMT

How long will India celebrate its secular constitution?

Farmers take part in a tractor rally as they demonstrate against the central government's recent agricultural reforms in New Delhi on Jan. 26. (Photo: Money Sharma/AFP)

It is 72 years since India promulgated its secular-democratic constitution. The nation observed the anniversary on Jan. 26, just as in previous years, with a military parade in New Delhi. But an uneasy disquiet continues across the country.

Over the years, the parade added cultural tableaux from its provinces. Uttar Pradesh state's cultural tableau this year displayed the model of the Ram temple being built in Ayodhya town at a spot where an ancient mosque stood until 1992 when Hindu radicals demolished it.

The temple has political connotations for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has vowed to turn India into a nation of Hindu hegemony. The pro-Hindu party came to the national mainstream promising the temple in Ayodhya, their Hindu Lord Ram's birthplace.

Almost three decades after the demolition of the mosque, a major BJP promise is getting fulfilled. The government proudly displayed it at the parade celebrating the anniversary of the nation's secular constitution. That's the growth of Indian democracy!

True to the character of any democracy, there is a paradox in India's polity today. While the Modi government returned to power in 2019 with an enhanced mandate and his BJP winning provincial polls, the country is gradually turning into a grieving and protesting nation.

Are common people really happy under the Modi administration? Various sections of people, including religious minorities and farmers and teachers in some states, are unhappy with the way things are progressing. Still, an independent media survey by India Today said nearly 72 percent of Indians are happy with the government of Modi, whose policies, of course, have been largely revolving around building up a Hindu-only nation.

However, the government's performance has done little to create jobs and ensure overall calm, amity and harmony. For the last two years, protests have been  happening around important national days.

During the last Republic Day, it was agitation against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which is perceived to be discriminating against Muslims. This time the angry lot are the farmers.

Farmers across India are on the warpath against the government's three contentious farm laws. Thousands of farmers from two agrarian states — Punjab and Haryana — have been demonstrating near New Delhi since Nov. 26.

The protesting farmers laid siege to the national capital in a violent show of strength. The riot killed a farmer and injured more than 100 police personnel. Delhi police permitted farmers to have a tractor rally on Republic Day but the protesters deviated from permitted routes and sensitive places including the iconic Red Fort. Police resistance turned them violent.

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The government enacted new farming laws in September 2020, purportedly to reform the sector. But farmers and opposition leaders say the laws are meant to help big companies exploit the poor and should be repealed. The violence came after several rounds of negotiations between the government and the agitating farmers' bodies had failed. 

The farmers' rally on Republic Day also highlighted a darker side of Indian politics and governance. At least 60 widows of farmers who committed suicide in Maharashtra participated in the agitation.

According to government data, an average of 14,000 farmers committed suicide each year between 1995 and 2015 to escape debt and poverty because of farm failures. Modi's government came to power in 2014 promising action to help farmers, but since 2015 it has stopped publishing the data about farmer suicides. That's an effective way to tackle the issue in a democracy!

In some states, even teachers are unhappy. In the northeastern state of Tripura, thousands of "dismissed" teachers have protested for the last two months after a court verdict rendered some 10,000 jobless. Several tribal teachers, including some Christians, have committed suicide out of desperation.

Bhagaban Das, a BJP lawmaker, said the teachers should not blame the government. He said the state's former communist government appointed them through a faulty policy and a Supreme Court order nullified the appointments.

"The protests against the BJP are politically motivated as opposition parties feel threatened by the good performance of the Modi government," he maintained.

Others say the BJP leadership is indifferent to people's agony as Modi wants to establish dictatorial rule. It is palpable that the rise of Hindu nationalism in the six years since Modi came to power has left Indian Muslims and Christians nervous and worried.

The main apprehension among religious minority leaders and a section of left-liberals has been that the BJP could change the constitution to discard its secular character and the parliamentary system. This fear is not new.

In the 1990s, Modi's mentor and veteran BJP leader L.K. Advani, a former deputy prime minister, floated the idea of a presidential form of government. Advani said the Indian constitution required a "fresh look." The new Modi regime has been functioning more in a presidential form where Modi is the ultimate and only boss.

There has been a raging debate over allegations that the government has made subtle attempts to subvert constitutional bodies such as the poll panel and Supreme Court to meet its ends.

The government has pursued such an agenda, and on Aug. 5, 2019, it abrogated Article 370 of the constitution that gave guaranteed autonomy to Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir state.

In November 2019, the Supreme Court gave a mandate allowing the temple construction in Ayodhya, a move that certainly displeased Muslims.

BJP leaders in their election campaign always include temple visits and public prayers, accusing opposition parties and critics of being anti-Hindu. That has also resulted in Congress and other opposition leaders visiting temples, putting up a show for the media. The evaluation of secularism in India!

As political history progresses in India, the major question is this: how long will India's secular constitution remain intact, guaranteeing freedom of religion and expression to all citizens. That causes disquiet in many Indian minds.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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