When Salman Rushdie was effectively prevented from attending the recent Jaipur Literary Festival because of threats from unspecified “underworld” elements, writer Praveen Swami lamented that the event would be marked as a “milestone that marked the slow motion disintegration of India’s secular state.”
But India’s Nehruvian secularism has always taken the form of appeasement, not eschewal, of all religions—witness the state’s monetary and infrastructural support for the massive gatherings of both the Kumbh Mela and Haj pilgrims. Religious freedom in India has a thin veneer which tends to crack when tested; after all, this is the country that banned Joseph Lelyveld’s book on Gandhi and Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, sight unseen. Secularism gets diluted by political cowardice coupled with a real concern for law and order, since religious fundamentalists have effectively used mob hysteria as a (often literal) cudgel to influence politics and suppress dissent. The Rushdie embargo can easily be ascribed to the upcoming elections around the country.
Political calculations tend to interfere with the ideal of secularism because religion is such a useful tool to rally supporters around. The United States, with its sturdy protections for free speech, is often held up as an exemplar of the secular state. The founders of this country took care to keep the words “God” and “Creator” out of the Constitution. But two centuries later, political candidates still need to pass an unspoken test of faith and, in the case of one party, disavow science in favor of religious beliefs to be considered electable. Today religion is attempting encroachment on that most secular of institutions, the public education system, with calls for school prayers, classes in religious studies, and the inclusion of creationism/intelligent design as just another theory of evolution.
Some of the devolution in America can be attributed to globalization, which brings with it social and economic upheaval, rich fertilizers for religious orthodoxy and resistance. But when that orthodoxy is successful in infiltrating government, when faith steps out of the personal and into the political sphere, it can have unhappy consequences, like Kansas Governor Beshear’s $50 million investment in a Bible-themed amusement park that is offset by cuts to higher education, and initiatives across several states to promote abstinence education and illegalize abortion. In this election year it would be good to remember that the depth of a candidate’s religious beliefs is not a measure of competence; it is cause for alarm.