Mr Asaduddin Owaisi, the leader of MIM recently remarked in a media conclave that ‘Muslims are not coolies of secularism’. The statement made perfect sense for his politics. He is the leader a party that aims to mobilise voters on the basis of them being Muslim. The unprecedented success of Hindutva under Mr Modi in recent elections has upset many old electoral calculations, and opened new opportunities. Mr Owaisi is smelling a chance for the MIM to expand beyond its turf in Hyderabad, to regions where non-BJP parties have been getting the major chunk of Muslim votes with the slogan of secularism, seen principally as the promise of protection from riots. For Mr Owaisi, the remark serves multiple purposes. Average Muslim citizens are deeply disillusioned with a political process that has resulted in the utter marginalisation of their community. For such voters, the statement is intended to clearly distinguish his party from the so-called secular non-BJP parties. It is calibrated to raise a doubt in their mind, why should only Muslims be expected to vote for such parties, when significant sections of the Hindus have sided with the communal BJP? It is also a preemptive answer to his political competitors and ideological critics, who are likely to accuse him of being communal.
Otherwise too, the secular discourse in India has largely become a minorities’ affair. It is said to be under threat when minorities are attacked. It is claimed to be flourishing when minorities rights are protected. A corollary belief among major sections of the so called majority community is that India could have as well been non-secular if there were no minorities in the country, or if they are put in their place as the RSS political programme demands. It is not difficult to see that once secularism is equated with minority interests, the majority interests would be perceived as non-secular and with a passage of time the BJP style of politics would become the common sense of the majority. Should India remain, or rather become secular, only for minorities’ sake? Then, why should the majority be interested in secularism? Only because of their ‘good neighbourly’ sense, or to avoid civil strife of communal clashes? The tragedy and the farce of Indian secularism is precisely this, that ever since its initial conception and practice during the freedom movement, it has remained hostage to a majority-minority framework, and it has implicitly answered all the above questions in the affirmative. Nothing can be farther away from the real significance of secularism for a modern democracy. There have been many non-democratic secular regimes. Secularism though is a democratic imperative. What everybody, including minority citizens, lose in the absence of secularism are distinct democratic freedoms which only secularism can assure.