Our ‘beef’ with secularism

The Indian state of Maharashtra has, in a new law, banned the possession and sale of beef. This has been made punishable with up to 5 years imprisonment and a fine. I think this development merits some discussion. It also requires a reflection on what secularism is, and why we need it.

But before I go on, it will be important to define what I mean by secularism. This phrase has a lot of meanings and confusion is easy. So for the purposes of this blog, secularism is a view or a framework which requires the state to treat all religions equally, and to promote religious tolerance in public life. Be aware that I have chosen this definition because the kind of strict Church state separation that is often associated with secularism, is very hard to maintain in India. Religion, all religions, are so important to the Indian people that they bleed into public life. Sometimes, religion is culture. And lest the Hinduta-vadis (i.e Hindu fundamentalists) get too smug at this, I think in India there is a tendency for all religions to expand and take cultural significance. We have seen this with Christmas, which the young in India celebrate with gusto. We see it with Eid, which though not as culturally mainstream as Christmas, is seen often as an occasion to  celebrate some wonderful cuisine. I know that when I was in school, irrespective of what religion we belonged to, we would hug and say Eid Mubarak, just like we said happy Holi. That was not a sanitized secular environment, but it was a secular environment.

These days, when I speak to some people on the Hindu right wing, they say that secularism is the pet of the upper class liberals, with no resonance for the common man. Of course the people making this statement often happen to be N.R.Is or those working in high paying jobs in Indian metropolis. I lack their perspicacity, but I have never been able to figure out how they get the right to speak for the ‘real India’ (whatever that means). But I don’t buy this argument that secularism, as I have defined, is something only the elites believe in. Yes, India is peopled with those who are deeply religious. But the same people often live in harmony with each other. Despite the importance of religion to Indians, it took a long time for a Hindu right wing party to form a Government in India, and even longer for them to get a decisive majority. And while instances riots and intolerance get publicity, instances of Hindu and Muslim girls getting together to celebrate Durga Puja (and Eid and Christmas) are not publicized. This lets people get away with the lie that secularism is the pet of the liberal elite. Sure, some versions are. But to say that Indian masses have been tricked into accepting the idea of secularism which they don’t believe in, is to say that the people are idiots. And no, that is just not true. Further, to think that the ‘masses’ represent one entity, with no difference of opinions, that thinks with one mind, is the height of condescension.

My mind goes back to a time, when religion really interested me. Not just my religion, all religions. I had heard of the incredible sense of peace that comes from praying in a Mosque, and I decided to try and enter one. So one day, while I was walking around in a small town in Orissa, that I shall not name, I chanced upon a small mosque, really a room against a wall. I wanted to go in. However, I felt that I should (in all fairness) tell the caretaker of the mosque that I was Hindu. When I mentioned it to him, his reaction was to laugh. We don’t discriminate between people, he said, and let me in to the mosque. This man may not have traveled much, but he showed a wisdom so many of our political leaders lacked. He was not a part of the liberal media nexus, just a man who was incredibly secure in his faith. So that makes me ask, isn’t his Islam and my Hinduism, versions that seek harmony with each other, as real as the chest beating of the fundamentalists?

We have a richness few countries are endowed with. We have diverse languages and religions that co-exist without crushing ethnic strife. This is a gift for a country to cherish. And if we are to cherish this gift, doesn’t the idea that the State should not play favorites, make a lot of sense?

Now, speaking of playing favorites, I want to deal with the issue of cow slaughter. Legally speaking, I don’t think a ban on cow slaughter is necessarily bad. Given the fact that even the Constitution, in the Directive Principles of State Policy, mentions the prohibition of cow slaughter. My problem is, however, with the provisions of this particular Act. Up to Five years imprisonment for cow slaughter, is disproportionate punishment. This, combined with the fact that the people caught under the ambit of this law are going to be poor, given that beef is often a meat eaten by the poor. I don’t even want to talk about the fact that making beef akin to contraband is going to make it out of reach for the poor, diminishing their nutritional status. There is a more fundamental problem. If you begin prosecutions under this law, the poor (you know, those guys that can’t afford good lawyers), are going to be caught in its net. Given the deplorable state of our prisons, do we want people to spend 2, 3, 4 or even 5 years in jail for possessing and selling beef?

But that does not begin to address the problems with this ‘cow slaughter is criminal’ political discourse. Imagine if passions are whipped up about this, and someone floats a rumor that there is cow meat being sold in ‘so and so’ locality. Does that not seem to be a fertile ground for a riot to spring up. If you need evidence on what the politics of polarization does, just have a look at what his going on in Uttar Pradesh.

So here is a small request to our policy makers. If cows mean a lot to you, then work on building shelters for them. Take them off the roads, where they imperil themselves and people. Improve their nutritional status. Crack down on the leather industry. Convince people that cow slaughter is not a good idea. If you must ban it, then have fines. But whatever you do, don’t impose disproportionate punishments for things that are really, well, religious crimes. This is not too different from bans on apostasy or blasphemy (and those who will make the argument that it is about helping all animals, well… note the fate of the water buffalo). We do not want to be a nation where state power backs one religion over all others. Because the people who lose are not just the minorities. We all lose a bit of ourselves.

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