Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Is India Secular - Michel Danino lecture

Michel Danino, at CLT, IIT Madras

Michel Danino, a professor at IIT Gandhinagar delivered the second Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay Memorial lecture for the Vande Mataram group, at Central Lecture Theater, IIT Madras, on April 23, 2018. The topic of the lecture was “Is India a secular nation?”

He first showed a picture of Rani-Ka-Vav, a magnificently sculpted 11th century stepwell built by a queen of the Solanki dynasty at Patan, Gujarat. He asked if any student could recognize it. One did.
Circular segments, Rani-ki-Vav
This is my photo when I visited it
This is not the photo Danino showed
These are my notes from Michel Danino’s lecture.

A well is a secular structure, but this one is replete with Hindu sculptures. It has a central sculpture of Vishnu as Anantasayana, reclining in the ocean. Is it Secular?

The slabs of the well are segments of large circle, ten metres in diameter, sculpted on the ground, then lowered, and assembled. No craftsman in India can do this today.

Jawaharlal Nehru, the darling of the secularists today, said this in the Constituent Assembly: “I would advise those gentleman who throw about the word Secularism to consult a dictionary, before using it.”

Socialism and Secularism were not in the Constitution of India in 1950 but added in the Forty second Amendment by PM Indira Gandhi in 1976 during the Emergency

Secularism is the principle of separation of state from religion, according to the Oxford English dictionary.

It was introduced as a principle of government Established by Europeans like French philosopher Voltaire, who wanted to free  their governments from the influence of Catholic church.

In the Muslim world, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk brought about the Turkish revolution  to establish a secular republic.

Before 1947, there was no word of Secularism in any Indian language. Words coined in Indian languages like “dharma nirapeksha” in hindi and “madha chaarparra
” மதச் சார்பற்ற in Tamil express indifference to religion, not so much separation of religion and government.

In ancient India there was no state religion. Medieval Europe though, suffered from religious rule. No ancient Indian ruler ever imposed his religion on his subjects. Not even Samrat Asoka the most powerful king imposed his religion. In fact, his edict declares these principles:
  • All should be well learned in good doctrines of other religions
  • No condemnation of any religion
  • No excessive devotion or praise for one's religion

Kharavela, the Jain emperor of Kalinga around 150 BC has inscribed his own edict in Prakrit in the Udayagiri Khondagiri hills near Bhubhaneshvar, Orissa. He says, he fought to bring back Jain images, which were taken away by invaders. But he portrays himself as "worshipper of all religious orders,  the restorer of shrines of all gods."

People call this tolerance, but this is much more than mere tolerance. Tolerance is such a condescending word.

If there is no state religion, why talk of Secularism? It has no relevance in Indian context.

The only thing Indian kings were under a theoretical compulsion to follow were a code of ethics.

“India has been a nation of pilgrimage from South to North to places like Amarnath Badrinath etc and North to South to places like Kanyakumari.” This was said by Jawaharlal Nehru, at Madurai Congress session, in 1961.

Let us look at Vande Maatharam, a song composed by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. It is now controversial because he says let's worship our nation as a mother (maatharam), a Goddess. It became a popular song against Partition of Bengal in 1905, among both Muslims and 
Hindus. But later on Muslim politicians said they cannot sing any song that portrays a nation as a Goddess.

The Preamble of India’s Constitution guarantees equality of status irrespective of religion caste or gender. But Articles 28, 29, 30 give religious and linguistic minorities special rights to manage their

  • Places of worship
  • Educational institutions
But Hindus are not given  right to administer their own temples with the argument that they are too divided. Only Muslims and Christians are discussed as minorities. Not Sikhs Jains Buddhists Parsis etc.

Muslims are 190 million in number in India. This is three times the population of Britain. Can this huge a community be considered a minority? Are they oppressed minority in any way? 

I used to live in the Nilgiris in Tamilnadu for twenty years. In Nilgiris, Christians own almost all the big bungalows, the estates, educational institutions. Is this an oppressed minority?

Is the Hindu majority monolithic? Being Bengali is very important for Bengalis, being Tamil is very important for Tamils etc. Sometimes, more so even than being Hindu.

Tajamul Hussain, a Member of the Constituent Assembly  said: “Sir I don't believe there is any minority community in this country. I don't believe I'm from a minority. We all have equal status.”

Damodar Swarup Seth, another Member of the Constituent Assembly, said: “Minorities based on religion or community should Not be recognized in a Secular Nation. If done that would be negation of Secularism.”

How Secularism sometimes became allergic to Hinduism became apparent in the episodes relating to reconstruction of Somnath temple.

By the prevailing standards, Hindu community should be declared a minority in Kashmir. But the Supreme Court asks Parliament whether it should be so declared and Parliament asks the Supreme Court to decide on this. It's just a political football with no conclusion.

Even teaching Sanskrit was considered against Secularism, until the Supreme Court declared that you could teach Sanskrit without violating the Constitution.

I teach at IIT Gandhinagar and I'm afraid most Indians are terribly unaware of their own civilization and culture. Unlike say Egypt whose modern citizens have no continuity with their past civilization  of pyramids and pharaohs, India has a continuous living tradition.

Not everything about India was the best, there were dark spots, but the best of India is amazing. 

My words are not a final answer, but just a contribution.

Danino concluded with this statement made by Aurobindo Ghosh in 1908-09.

“In India we have been cut off by a mercenary and soulless education from all our ancient roots of culture and tradition… National education… [is] the education which starting with the pastandmaking full use of the present builds up a great nation. Whoever wishes to cut off the nation from its past is no friend of national growth. Whoever fails to take advantage of the present is losing the battle of life. We must therefore save for India all that she has stored up of knowledge, character and noble thought in her immemorial past. We must acquire for her the best knowledge that Europe can give her and assimilate it to her own peculiar type of national temperament. We must introduce the best methods of teaching humanity has developed, whether modern or ancient. And all these mwe must harmonize into a system which will be impregnated with the spirit of self reliance so as to build up men and not machines”

In response to a student’s question where “dharma nirapeksha” is a suitable Hindi word for secularism, and wouldn’t madham rather dharma be the word for religion, Danino replied, “Dharma is a Sanskrit word that is quite different from religion. But it is used to mean religion in Hindi. It's a great injustice to the word and concept.

Dharma doesn't even require a belief in God or belief in particular Gods, which religions do.

Another questioner asked if secularism is not important given the "current government which is inspired by Nazism". Danino retorted that this is the kind of uncivil language used by most advocates of secularism, that discourages honest debate. If this government is inspired by Nazism, where are the concentration camps, he asked.

Danino has written a book about the lost Sarasvati river and delivered a lecture about it for Tamil Heritage Trust. He was bestowed the Padma Shri by the government of India in 2017.

Links to related topics

Video - An explanation of the Kharavela inscription

My other lecture notes


Gurumurthy on Demonetization
Political Situation in Nepal - Kanakmani Dixit


1493 – The Columbian Exchange - Charles Mann
Art and the Brain - Vilayanur S Ramachandran
Sanskritam and Mathematics - Manjul Bharagava 
Faraday and GN Lewis - CNR Rao 
Clouds - Rama Govindarajan


Renminbi as international currency - Jacob Kurien


Subramanya Bharathi’s Essays - KRA Narasiah
Rajaji the writer - Va Ve Subramaniam
Vai Mu Kothainayaki - Va Ve Subramaniam
Siddharthan book on Samrat Asoka



Experiences of a lawyer and judge

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