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In defence of secularism | HT Editorial – editorials

In a letter to the Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray, urging him to open religious places for worship, the state governor, Bhagat Singh Koshyari, commented on Mr Thackeray’s politics of Hindutva and asked him, mockingly, if he had “turned secular”. In a separate development, an advertisement for the jewellery brand, Tanishq, which portrayed a multi-religious home where Muslim family members adopted rituals to make their Hindu daughter-in-law feel at home at her baby shower ceremony, drew a backlash on social media for ostensibly hurting Hindu sentiments. The ad, which was based on the theme of unity, was withdrawn.

Both events — one related to the functioning of the Indian State and the other related to cultural trends in Indian society — are disturbing. Take the governor’s letter first. Mr Koshyari, as the constitutional head of the state, is perfectly within his rights to correspond with the chief minister, and even make suggestions — including the need to open religious places, though whether this is indeed wise in a state that has had the highest share of Covid-19 cases in India is open to question. But the problem is not the letter or its specific theme; the issue is the contempt with which Mr Koshyari used the term “secularism”, equating it with the closure of religious places. Secularism may be a controversial word for dominant sections of India’s polity, but it is a cherished constitutional value. There have been distortions in the practice of secularism, but this does not take away from the importance of the principle. To demean the word is not just to undermine the Preamble, but also encourage a majoritarian conception of the nation.

But what is equally worrying is the controversy around what was an evocative advertisement, which was about love and warmth between communities. The Hindutva Right, based on its entirely flawed and incorrect idea of “love jihad”, frowns at Hindu-Muslim relationships, especially if the man is a Muslim. The fact that even a moving ad triggered a backlash, and that the company withdrew the ad, speaks of a deep divide that could threaten the very idea of India. Both the State and society must return to the original constitutional vision of pluralism, coexistence
and integration.

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