Understanding Genuine Secularism

January 12, 2009

A very valuable addition to my personal library this week has been a beautiful Coffee Table Book from Amit Mehra titled India : A Timeless Celebration. I congratulate the Public Diplomacy Division of the Ministry of External Affairs for publishing this important book.

India : A Timeless Celebration

Amit Mehra is an outstanding photographer who has been contributing to several renowned magazines like Time, India Today, Der Speigel, Fortune, Vogue etc. Amit Dasgupta’s Introdution and Jaya Ramanathan’s textual explanation of the context of Mehra’s photographs are highly readable.

According to the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, a Coffee Table Book is “a large expensive book that usually has a lot of pictures in it and is meant to be looked at rather than read”.

Without doubt, the pictures with which Amit Mehra has embellished this book are a treat to scan. But to me, of even greater interest has been the Foreword written by Mark Tully, who was BBC’s celebrated correspondent in India and South Asia for twenty-five years. Mark Tully, whom I have known and admired for a long time, is now settled in New Delhi and has authored several very enlightening books on India and Indian Culture.

In his foreword, Mark Tully opens by saying:

Mark Tully

Mark Tully, the celebrated BBC correspondent in India and South-Asia

In the late nineteen eighties I wrote a book called No Full Stops in India appreciating India’s uniquely tolerant culture, which Amit Mehra celebrates in this book, and argues that it was threatened by Indians who were imitating the modern West’s materialist culture. When a television interviewer told me I wanted to drag Indians back into some mythical Golden Age which had never existed, I replied, “On the contrary I am talking about the tolerant culture India has inherited from the past, the culture which underpins today’s Indian secularism.” Then I asked him, “Do you want an India true to itself or an imitation of the West?” India has changed greatly since then and we should celebrate much of the change. But I think that question is even more relevant today.

Now India has been recognized for what it is, a country with the material and human resources to become one of the most important players in the global market. But the very success of the market economics, which have brought about this change, has led many in India to believe that the country’s future lies in following without questioning that school of economics. I believe that would be contrary to one of the basic principles of Indian culture – the principle which makes it tolerant. That principle is to accept the uncertainty of certainty, to acknowledge there are no final or complete answers, to keep an open mind. In No Full Stops in India I wrote, “The Western world and the Indian elite who imitate it ignore the genius of the Indian mind. They want to write a full stop in the land where there are no full stops.” For all the changes that have taken place since that book was published I still believe what I wrote is true.

Tully goes on to say:

Indian secularism does, as Amit Mehra’s photographs show, respect all religions and rejoices in the diversity of faiths Indians follow. One morning in Delhi I woke up to hear a debate on BBC World Radio Service suggesting that no one should send Christmas cards because they were not secular. The Secularist wanted to deny Britons all the fun, all the color of Christmas, the lights in London’s Oxford Street, the Christmas trees towering over passengers at railway stations, the carol singers going from house to house, because they were demonstrations of Christianity. It was proposed that cards should just carry the drab, uninspiring message, “Happy Mid-Winter Festival.” After hearing that view I picked up my copy of The Hindu, a national daily, to see a front-page picture of the Governor of West Bengal holding a Christmas party for children on the lawns of his house in the middle of Kolkata. The Governor was Gopal Gandhi, and he was following in the footsteps of his grandfather Mahatma Gandhi who once said, “My Hinduism teaches me to respect all religions.”

In one of several conversations I have had with one of India’s leading Islamic scholars, Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, he said to me “I am a Muslim, Islam is my religion, but I honour other religions. I also believe Muslims enjoy far better conditions in India than in any Islamic country. In Islamic countries they either have peace or freedom, in India they have both.” As a Christian living in India I rejoice in the freedom I enjoy. It was a Hindu teacher, Swami Avimukteshwaranand Saraswati who said to me, “There are many rivers flowing into the sea, and they are different; some twist and turn, some are straighter, but they all want to merge in the sea. So with God’s grace there are many ways we can reach God.” When I first came to India I didn’t believe that. I thought there was only one way to God and that was Christianity. It’s India’s tolerance, its secularism that has changed my belief.

Mark Tully concludes his Foreword with the observation:

I started with a quotation from a book I wrote nearly years ago, so perhaps I can end with a quotation from a book I have just written, India’s Unending Journey. The book describes what is India’s tolerance, and pluralism, its argumentative and discursive tradition, its acceptance of the uncertainty of certainty, have meant for me, and the message I felt India could given to the world of today. I wrote, “My experiences in India forced me to think again about the faith I had been taught because I felt I couldn’t ignore what was right before my eyes: the existence of many ways to God….. When I came to understand that, for thousands of years, in changing historical circumstances, in different countries, and cultures and climates, people had experienced what appears to be the same reality, although describing that reality differently, I saw that a universal God made far more sense rationally than one who limited his activities to Christians.” India taught me there has to be an element of questioning of doubt. That means we must be humble, we must never assume we have all the answers. That is the Indian tradition, which Amit Mehra’s photographs illustrate so well.

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The BJP has been of the view that in the circumstances in which India got its independence in 1947, the world would not have been surprised if after Pakistan declared itself an Islamic State, India also had opted for theocracy. But as I have written in my memoirs (My Country My Life) recently, it was Shri Guruji Golwalkar, Chief of the RSS, who had emphatically told me way back in 1948 that theocracy is alien to our culture and tradition. In the West, the word ‘secular’ may mean something that had nothing to do with religion. But India has given a totally different meaning to this word. It has been interpreted as Sarva Panth Samaaadar – that is, equal respect for all religions. This book and Mark Tully’s Foreword underscore this interpretation brilliantly.

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