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Secularization: Need of the hour for Indian Society

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“The term secularization implies that what was previously regarded as religious is now ceasing to be such, and it also implies that a process of differentiation which results in the various aspects of society, economic, political, legal and moral, becoming increasingly discrete in relation to each other. The distinction between Church and State, and the Indian concept of secular state, both assume the existence of such differentiation”

~ M N Srinivas (Noted Sociologist)

Secularization is a term that could make many jump out of their seats and scream. It  would attract even more attention if it is attached to the Muslim community in India due to the ‘secular’ nature of media discourse. Hence , I provide the definition of this term from the sociological perspective to clear the doubts of the reader as early as possible in this article.

Social media censure/criticism of  Indian cricketer Mohammed Shami by orthodox Muslims for ‘allowing’ his wife to wear an elegant dress instead of a veil should awaken conscience of liberal Muslims and Hindus alike. This nonsensical imposition of religious ‘morals’ on an individual is not just a random event. It is the symptom of medieval mindset that has been sustained and encouraged actively or passively by the forces that want to isolate Muslims from the mainstream.

This is not different from a ban of the hijab in some of the European countries like France. Invasion of the public or the state in matters related to the individual must be condemned no matter where we stand on other issues. Instead of occupying paternalistic attitude in the imposition or ban of the veil for Muslim women, men (politicians and clergy in particular) must stand aside and let them take the decision themselves.

The tendency of Hindu society to control women  was not very different. However, due to the forces of secularization, it has reduced to a large extent in urban India. In southern states of India, the rural scene is also changing at a rapid pace. Another passage from Mr. Srinivas’s book is relevant at this juncture.

“The sharp rise in the age of marriage of Brahmin girls enabled them to take advantage of opportunities for higher education  and this resulted in a breach of crucial locus of ritual and purity- the kitchen. Traditionally, a young Brahmin girl worked in and around the kitchen with her mother until her marriage was consummate and she joined her affines. All that was required of her was the knowledge of cooking and other domestic chores, the rituals that girls were expected to perform, and respect for and obedience to her parents- in- law and husband and others elders in the household. Education changed the outlook of girls and gave them new ideas and aspirations.”

This book was written in 1960s, a time when modernity and secularization was restricted to upper class urban India. The spirit of secularization has spread to small towns and villages as well in the internet age. There was a time when people in Hindu families were debating whether girls need education. Now, the debate is no longer there. Not educating the girl child is now considered ‘taboo’ in urban India.

Earlier, elders were reluctant to allow women to take up jobs. Now the resistance is negligible and rare in most parts of India. The contribution from women in Hindu families is now common and considered normal. In urban families it is almost a necessity. This is not just restricted to the Brahmin community but almost all Hindu families in the 21st Century. The contribution of women outside the kitchen has been immense.

Instead of giving a stronger voice to the progressive Muslims in India, the media has given more attention to the regressive ones. This has in fact slowed down the pace of secularization and forced progressive Muslims to become mute spectators to the dominant narrative. The infamous fatwa against Sania Mirza wearing a skirt during Tennis matches is a case in point. The following excerpt from her book ‘Ace Against Odds’, Sania writes:

“It is, of course, possible to rake up a controversy by asking a cleric a leading question and then presenting his “opinion” in a manner that would provoke a public reaction. If a scholar were to be asked whether he thought my tennis clothing was un-Islamic, I do not see how a conservative, religious man could have answered the question in the negative in the light of the teachings of the religion.

In a similar vein, if a scholar of religion were asked whether it was permissible for a Muslim man to watch a film on television in which a woman dances to music, I am sure he would have to give the verdict that it was un-Islamic. But, again, most importantly, this would not imply that he had issued a fatwa against the lives of all Muslim men who admired a heroine in a film and that he was going to kill them if they went against his edict!

The person who thought it important to raise a question on what he possibly knew was a contentious issue, could have chosen not to highlight the cleric’s response in his story. Instead, he went to town with it. Had he bothered to understand the true meaning of the word “fatwa” and shown the maturity to write with a little bit of sensitivity, I personally believe I would have been spared the burden of living under the stigma of a misunderstood fatwa for a major part of my career.

Need of the hour for this country is secularization. I hope that politicians and people in media further the cause of secularization rather that play the card of  minority or majority appeasement. Secularization is not just about ‘less religion.’ It is the vehicle that would takes us closer to a rational and progressive society.

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