Unmasking Indian Secularism: Why We Need A New Hindu-Muslim Deal

Book Review by Abhay Vaidya and Praneet Shukla

Seventy-five years after Independence, the need for an efficient, world-class judiciary and a trustworthy law enforcement machinery has acquired paramount importance for a nation like India, far more than ever before.
The time has come for us Indians to focus our energies on giving ourselves these institutions in the true spirit of social harmony [sab ka saath, sab ka vikas (together with all, development for all)]. Our efforts in this direction could not only strengthen and uplift the national spirit but also help in employment generation and economic growth.
A world-class judiciary, a trustworthy law enforcement machinery and employment and economic growth in the spirit of social harmony could also result in greater prosperity, peace and stability in the country.
In sharp contrast to this vision, Hasan Suroor’s thought-provoking book, ‘Unmasking Indian Secularism: Why we need a new Hindu-Muslim deal,’ argues that India will continue to witness communal strife as the founding fathers of the nation made a mistake by opting for secularism as the basic tenet of the Indian nation. The author questions whether the rationale behind choosing secularism as a state policy was correct. A well-known journalist who has written extensively on Hindu-Muslim relations, Suroor asks whether the Western concept of secularism is suited to a deeply religious society like India.
The central premise of his book is that the idea of secularism has been abused by political parties since Independence and is destined to fail. The rise of majoritarian Hindu nationalism in recent decades is here to stay and what is needed is a “new constitutional settlement” between Hindus and Muslims that would reflect the altered national mood and open a new road map to restore communal harmony.
“The story of Indian secularism is a classic example of good intentions being derailed by misguided practices,” Suroor says, adding that a discussion on secularism only leads to more acrimony and polarization. “The effort now should be to ponder ways to find a way out of the mess,” he says.
Suroor gives the example of Western Christian democracies, notably Britain, which is a denominational state with Christianity as the official religion and yet, the British society and all the institutions such as the bureaucracy, judiciary, police and education are secular.
He argues that “a modern Hindu state committed to democracy and the rule of law, both of which presuppose equal rights for all citizens irrespective of their faith or ethnicity, shouldn’t worry minorities too much. According to him, the fears that “this will automatically lead to a sweeping Hinduization of India with non-Hindus reduced to second-class citizens” emanate from the experience of minorities in authoritarian Islamic theocracies. Whereas, what he has suggested is following the example of Western Christian democracies.
The path suggested by Suroor is flawed on many counts: For example, where is the guarantee that India will not go down the path of an authoritarian theocracy?
Second, why can’t India take steps towards bringing greater efficiency in its judiciary and in undertaking reforms to provide the nation with a trustworthy law enforcement machinery? These steps to professionalise the law and order system can be done within the existing constitutional framework, bringing India a few steps closer to the rule-based societies in Western democracies.
Suroor also does not take into account the changed geopolitical reality, where India has a belligerent superpower as its neighbour. Any misadventure on the domestic front could seriously jeopardise social harmony and national security for India.
This slim volume of 190 pages presents a detailed analysis of the history of post-Independence politics around secularism and how it has been weakened over the decades. The author is correct that the nation “needs to find a way out of the mess.”

This is the challenge that India needs to confront and surmount.

(Abhay Vaidya is Director, PIC, and Praneet Shukla is Research Intern with PIC’s National Security vertical)