Historian and Nehruvian Sri Ramchandra Guha categorically tweeted that he wanted the channel Times Now to be closed on account of their deviation from “Truth”. There is no equivalent word for ‘Truth’ in Indian languages. The usual suspect Satya does not convey the idea of truth (a theory based understanding) but rather the idea of real (an empirics based understanding). The concept of the theoretical understanding of truth comes from religion (discussed in Balagangadhara’s scholarly work The Heathen in His Blindness of which a brief synopsis is presented on Pragyata. An irreligious person does not have any absolute truth or falsehood but merely real and unreal things.
Sri Guha might have not thought so much before using the word truth in his tweet, but his use of the term summarises the central idea of secularism in India. It is primarily a belief system. It is often found that the secularist discards the logical argument from a ‘communal person’ on the ground that the argument has not put forth by a secular person. As a matter of fact, Sri Guha also rejects the right of Times Now to have their opinion on the ground that it deviates from some absolute version of Truth that he has. This is exactly a religious idea.
Let me illustrate. On perusal of the Book of Abrahamic religions, we understand the Creator is far less concerned about the idea of karma (actions) of a human being but chiefly concerned about whether that person-in-question acknowledges the Creator. On having that acknowledgement, called Faith, the concerned person receives eternal heaven in his afterlife. Otherwise, his destiny would be eternal hell, what else? Abrahamic religions do not much care about karma (an empirical idea; reality) but on Faith (a theoretical idea; Truth). Therefore, fundamentalist religious organisations whether ISIS of modern Iraq or Church practising Inquisition in medieval Goa, are not concerned about nature of a person but offer bullet or fire for lack of Faith of a person in their codified religion.
In the same vein, people like Guha do not insist on karma but believe in Faith in the secular system. Ones who they call non-secular or communal, are despicable irrespective of their good work/karma. On the contrary, they insist that those who label themselves as secular must be respected only on account of their secular faith. This simile with an Abrahamic religion is quite stark and non-ignorable.
Can secularism be a candidate for a religion? And, can the faith in secularism be a candidate for a Faith in a religion?
Affirmative. Let’s come to the celebrated bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind (2011). There, historian Yuval Noah Harari writes (Chapter 12):
“The modern age has witnessed the rise of a number of new natural-law religions, such as liberalism, Communism, capitalism, nationalism and Nazism. These creeds do not like to be called religions and refer to themselves as ideologies. But this is just a semantic exercise. If a religion is a system of human norms and values that is founded on the belief in a superhuman order, then Soviet Communism was no less a religion than Islam.”
Liberalism or secular liberalism is akin to a faith, in Harari’s scholarly observation. He provided his solid arguments in the book. I desist from repeating them here.
This is not the first time that such words are spoken. Reputed Bengali scholar Syed Mujtaba Ali said the same thing long ago (“Vacuum” of his book “Tuni Mem” in Bengali). He showed, point by point, that Communism and Nazism are very much akin to religious Faith. I will walk on his path only now to show the similarities between secular fundamentalism and religious fundamentalism.
The beginning of Secularism is with the Faith that all religions are exactly symmetric (perfectly equivalent). This is the Kalimah of secularism. Any opinion on any matter comes from this Faith. For them, all religions are exactly equivalent irrespective of their origin, history and idea.
There are two schools of seculars who though believe in the fundamental truth of their belief system, differ otherwise. One school is the cultural Marxist school who feel that all religions are equally false. The other school is Sarva-Dharma school who feel that all religions are equivalent and true in the exact same manner.
Within a religion, these kinds of schools whose beliefs contradict each other, are also quite common. For example, Catholics and Protestants are two branches of the Christians. The former ones believe in the authority of the papal church whereas the latter ones do not believe in papal authority. Similarly, Shias believe in the inheritance of the sons of Ali to caliphate whereas Sunnis do not subscribe to such a belief.
Any faith has a Holy Book such as the Bible of Christianity, the Quran of Islam. Syed Mujtaba Ali noted Das Kapital of Communism and Mein Kampf of Nazism. Likewise, the Holy Book for Indian secularism is the Indian Constitution. Instead of viewing it as a set of rules created by us in some point which may suffer from human fallibility, secular fundamentalists view it as a Holy Book which can neither be questioned nor be changed.
Religions have Prophets. Jesus Christ (son of God and Virgin Mary) for Christians; Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) for Muslims. For secular fundamentalists, it is Gandhi and Nehru. They were infallible men for a secular fundamentalist. As no Muslim fundamentalist entertains any criticism of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), no secular fundamentalist tolerates any criticism of Gandhi or Nehru. Books or movies exposing any dark side of their character are greeted with demands for their ban.
Religions have own festivals. Secularism has its festival which is the birthdays of their prophets.
Religions have pilgrimage sites. In the Soviet land, the mummy of the Lenin or Stalin was the pilgrimage site. Crowds of people used to visit them. In Delhi, Rajghat or Teen Murti Bhavan is the secular sites of pilgrimage. Any proposal to make such sites for other prime ministers makes the secular fundamentalist angry for the holiness of the site would diminish.
Faiths discourage contrary opinions to rise. In an Islamic country, criticism of the Quran is prohibited. In seminaries, criticism of the Bible is not encouraged. Under secular fundamentalism too, comparative study of religions is not allowed in India lest it exposes the hollowness of the equivalence of all religions – the faith of secular fundamentalism.
In every religion, there are some reformers who criticise the adherents of the religion remaining faithful to the religious dogma. For example, Martin Luther was a devout Christian but he criticised the Catholic Church officials. Under secularism too, there are some who call themselves true seculars and call other seculars pseudo-seculars. They vow to bring true secularism. Who are they? This is an exercise left to the readers of this article.
(Note: This is a slightly modified version of the Bengali article published on Bangodesh.com. It can be read here)
Economist by training; humanist in yearning. Interested in Dharma, Culture & Civilisation.