Nitish Kumar, a dark-horse candidate for the 2014 prime minister's race, has ignited a debate over the meaning of "secular" and thrown a monkey wrench into the beleaguered Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) efforts to close ranks before the election.
On Tuesday, Kumar rejected Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as a possible candidate for PM, saying that the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) should project a "secular face" for the nation's highest political office. Following on the heels of Kumar's rejection of Modi's support for his recent election campaign in Bihar (where the Muslim vote is important), the statements were seen as an implicit threat that Kumar's Janata Dal (United) party could drop out of the coalition if Modi is chosen to lead it.
But what does "secular" mean in India?
As many of the respondents to GlobalPost's article on so-called "Internet Hindus" have pointed out, the word has been too deeply politicized to be used as though its meaning is self-evident. (Right wingers frequently refer to the Congress and their ideological supporters as "pseudo-seculars" or "sickulars.")
Typically, the Congress (and, in this case, Kumar) use secular in a broad sense, meaning, essentially, "without religious prejudice." Thus, Kumar rejects Modi because of his alleged role in the Gujarat riots of 2002 -- where he was accused of holding back the police so Hindus could work out their anger over the burning of a train coach with many Hindus inside. (To date, Modi has not been convicted of any wrongdoing, and a special investigation team has dismissed charges against him for lack of evidence. But his opponents are not convinced).
But there's more than empty rhetoric behind the right's "pseudo-secular" tag, which the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh made clear in its response to Kumar's statements on Wednesday.
"Hindutva is the true synonym for secularism," RSS leader Ram Madhav told a gathering of RSS volunteers, according to the Hindustan Times. "It is a secular, liberal and all-embracing idea."
That's fairly difficult to swallow from an organization associated -- mostly through branch outfits of the "sangh parivar" or "RSS family" -- with various levels of violence against other religious groups. And Modi's own lack of prejudice is also in doubt. In several statements over the years, Modi has denigrated Muslims with various degrees of explicitness, by decrying relief camps set up for the victims of the 2002 riots as "breeding centers," for instance -- an obvious reference to right-wing fear mongering about the Muslims' suppose profligacy. (A few years ago, a member of the associated Vishwa Hindu Parishad supplied me with several pamphlets of disinformation on the topic).
But in contesting the accepted Indian definition of secular, the right wing does have a point.
Instead of a separation of church and state, India's idea of secularism is that the state should actively promote religious and ethnic diversity. Therefore, there are separate laws for different religious communities, and state funding for minority religious activities like attending the Haj.
The laws governing Muslims, for instance, allow Muslim men to marry four wives at once (a major, though illogical, foundation for the fears about a surge in the Muslim population). And Muslim men can end their marriages simply by saying, “I divorce thee,” three times in succession. Meanwhile, the laws governing Hindus have clauses related to women and inheritance that others object to.
But despite those relatively obvious flaws, when Hindu nationals call for a “uniform civil code” that will make the social laws, like the criminal ones, applicable to everyone, liberal Indians inevitably decry it as an attack on religious minorities. Hardly anyone acknowledges that the separation of church and state would also allow women equal rights across religious groups – simply by holding everyone to the same standard.
For what is secular, if it's not a state without religious laws?