The illusion of secularism

Last Updated: Sat, Jun 23, 2018 11:11 hrs
PM Modi

Since 2014, we are far more aware of the communalism in India because of the entitlement felt by the “proud Hindu” brigade. Cartoon: Satish Acharya

When one compares the Abrahamic religions and the ancient religions which are ruled by mythology rather than a code – Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Nordic, Hindu – the main difference is that the latter had fallible gods, who had human foibles, whose theories and actions were open to questioning and analysis.

The only religion among these to survive crusades of various kinds is Hinduism. But has it really survived? Or has it become its own version of an Abrahamic religion, adhering to tenets over logic, with an omniscient, omnipotent god whose purported word is law?

Since 2014, we are far more aware of the communalism in India because of the entitlement felt by the “proud Hindu” brigade. But the shift towards this virulent brand of Hinduism has been gradual and steady.

Three incidents in the last week – Airtel’s customer service fiasco, Krishna’s supposed assimilation with Eid, and the prejudice of a passport office employee – have raised the issue of communalism in India, along with the daily quota of lynching, so commonplace we have forgotten to be shocked.

Airtel found itself in hot water over its seeming acquiescence on Twitter to a woman who insisted on interacting with a Hindu representative. Shoaib, who had responded to her initial tweet, was replaced by Gaganjot.

Twitter, naturally, was outraged. Airtel went into damage control mode, putting out a note to say they did not “differentiate between customers or our employees or partners on the basis of caste or religion”. They urged people not to “misinterpret and give it unnecessary religious colour”, since the replacement was supposedly coincidental – the first available service executive had responded to the customer.

Soon enough, they got passive aggressive. An “official Airtel spokesperson”, claiming his or her name had been withheld to avoid religious colour, wrote that if it had not been for the Twitter reaction, their employees would not even have thought about their religions, and the Twitterati had forced poor old Gaganjot and Shoaib into thinking of themselves in the light of their faiths. Now, the spokesperson wrote, they hoped they could “let them stay innocent and bereft of religious considerations in the path of their duty”. Awww. How nice it must be to work with the innocence of lambs, protected from religious considerations by the patronising attitudes of one’s bosses.

Was it this “innocence”, then, which prompted Gaganjot to respond to a tweet riddled with communal prejudice, if not hatred, instead of contacting a superior or Airtel’s corporate communications, public relations, or human resources teams first?

What would have happened if the tweet and its response had not gone viral, with former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah, among many others, saying he would stop using Airtel’s services?

There was, admittedly, a three-hour gap between Shoaib’s tweet and the bigot’s response to it. Let us assume Airtel was telling the truth, and Gaganjot was not so much assigned to the bigot as happened to see the tweet. But why was the customer not called out on the bigotry? Ola had faced a similar situation a while ago, and its digital team was well-informed enough to escalate the issue so that someone with authority to do so could respond with: “Ola, like our country, is a secular platform, and we don't discriminate our driver partners or customers basis their caste, religion, gender or creed. We urge all our customers and driver partners to treat each other with respect at all times.”

All customer service representatives are used to handling irate interlocutors. They are, perhaps, used even to swallowing personal insult and swearing. But it does say something about the culture of the company and the employee’s own grooming that he did not see fit to raise a red flag.

The second incident, of people seeing Krishna point at a crescent in the sky on the occasion of Eid, is sadly symptomatic of the illusion of secularism we find it so important to create.

In a beautifully articulated piece published in the website Scroll, the dean of JNU’s School of Art and Aesthetics, Kavita Singh, decoded the miniature and its implications. It was a folio from the Bhagavata Purana, and Krishna was pointing at a solar eclipse and not the Eid moon, she explained.

The notion that Krishna was pointing at the Eid moon was perhaps fostered by the presence of a dignified gentleman wearing a costume one typically associates with Mughal noblemen. Singh explained that the man represented, in fact, Krishna’s adoptive father Nanda, and it was the Mughal influence on the artist and art of the time that prompted his depiction in this style – it was assumed that a person of wealth and influence would be dressed in that fashion. She goes on to dissect the Mughal influence on the Pahari art form.

But days before she wrote her piece, authoritative tweets from the likes of Shashi Tharoor and William Dalrymple had already given the image and its implication authenticity.

The saffron brigade got up in arms and insisted the painting was fake – a conspiracy, perhaps, by Muslims who were trying to convert a Hindu god to their faith retroactively. It was blasphemous, a concoction of the “sickulars”.

Some suggested the Muslims had converted to Hinduism, as all sensible people should, and Krishna was benevolent enough to point out the crescent to them.

More troubling than the saffron brigade is the secular celebration of interfaith harmony – the moment we begin to romanticise something we should take for granted, we have given space to fissures. We have told the bigots that they have won.

And the bigots feel so entitled as to overstep their bounds while in government service. It is this entitlement that the employee of a regional passport office in Lucknow exercised when he allegedly insulted an interfaith couple who had come to renew their passports.

According to a series of tweets to External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj by Tanvi Seth, and her husband Anas Siddiqui, this employee – Vikas Mishra – had told Seth it was her duty to change her maiden name after marriage, and told Siddiqui he should convert to Hinduism and do pheras if he wanted his passport renewed.

Seth said she was made to feel insulted for the first time in their 11-year marriage.

In one of the reports about the incident in the media, there was a comment that typifies the response of most bigots to news of discrimination against Muslims: “What would have happened if the officer was Muslim?”

He would probably have been lynched by his colleagues for encouraging love jihad.

And this madness is why we feel the need to celebrate religious harmony. The secularism enshrined in our constitution has become illusory.


More Columns by Nandini Krishnan:

When hooliganism is state-sanctioned




Tarun Tejpal case: When the media plays jury





Karnataka: Death of democracy




India shining as ecosystems die?




Tamil Nadu: The land of the lawless




When death does not deter


Power play at a time of crisis

A country in denial

The gods have left the temples

What cricketers' reactions to ball-tampering show

Even Chhota Bheem knows our data was never private

No Confidence Motion: Why is the BJP nervous?

Do we really have the right to die with dignity?

Democracy has no place for mobs

The Sridevi South India lost 


Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage. 

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