Head-on | The hijab case has allowed some to subvert the meaning of secularism

The Karnataka High Court’s hijab verdict has reopened the debate around religion, secularism and the role of the Constitution in defining ri...

The Karnataka High Court’s hijab verdict has reopened the debate around religion, secularism and the role of the Constitution in defining rights and obligations. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the case shortly.

At its core, secularism means this: Favour none, empower everyone. This is the classical definition of liberal secularism where caste, religion, language, gender and region are irrelevant to the state. It treats everyone fairly and equally.

I’ve written extensively on secularism and will not repeat myself except to say that the hijab controversy has allowed some commentators to once again seize the opportunity to subvert the real meaning of both secularism and liberalism.

Arghya Sengupta, the research director of Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, and Raag Yadava of National Law School of India University (NLSIU), in a joint op-ed in The Times of India (17 March 2022) titled “Have Faith, Be Liberal”, make several errors based on first principles while arguing the case against the Karnataka High Court’s judgement.

Also read: Karnataka hijab controversy: Indian democracy enters uncharted territory of grave danger

Barred from exam to dropping out of school: How the hijab ban has affected Muslim students

They write: “The question is on what grounds can governments restrict persons from exercising their free choice to wear the clothes they want, whatever be their reasons for wanting to wear them. The Constitution is clear – these grounds have to be limited to public order, morality, health or any other fundamental right in the Constitution. When it comes to the hijab, which is a purely self-regarding activity, no case can be made out that the requirement of a uniform flows from any of these grounds. The court’s order is unsurprisingly muted on this issue.”

The authors deliberately distort the issue. Free choice is not unrestricted choice. Institutions have dress codes. If you don’t agree with them, go to an institution which does not have the dress code you object to.

By insisting on flouting an institutional rule, the women students were not objecting to the rule at all. They had complied with it for years. But now, as members of the Campus Front of India (CFI), the student wing of the radical Islamist group Popular Front of India (PFI), the women students were being used as pawns for a political agenda. The authors are silent on this because they too have an agenda.

What is that agenda? It becomes clear when they write: “Secularism means that the state should not impose any religious authority on our lives. But to say that political power must not align with any particular religious belief is not to say that the public sphere itself cannot be deeply religious. If the Indian public sphere is to retain its Indianness, it must protect this sphere from the artifice of a coerced sameness. What it means to be Indian is to feel secure and comfortable in our own skin, not only in our own homes, but also when we step out, without having educators and judges dictate how we express ourselves.”

This is a more refined use of language than, for example, the Saudi Arabian government employs to basically say: “Don’t interfere. We’ll do what we want. The law is subservient to religion. Faith supersedes courts.”

This of course is arrant nonsense. It was wrong to say this in the Sabarimala case and it is wrong to say it in the hijab case. Court judgements, not religious diktats, must always prevail in a constitutional democracy.

But it doesn’t end there. The authors fall into a trap of their own making when they write: “The young hijab-clad women are not imposing themselves on anyone, but is imposed upon in the name of an unfortunate and foreign understanding of secularism designed to create sterile and lifeless public spaces shorn of vitality, individuality and life itself. Today it’s the hijab, tomorrow it may be the burqa, but a day will come if the Constitution is read in this misguided fashion that it will be the mangal sutra, the angavastram or the vibhuti that is prohibited from the public sphere.”

This is classical sleight of hand: If you don’t let us flout rules, be afraid, very afraid, you will lose the right one day to wear your mangal sutra.

The mask slips. This isn’t a defence of the hijab. It is communalism dressed up as faux secularism. I didn’t want to restate what liberal secularism is. But the authors of this subversive commentary need a crash course in it.

This is what I wrote: “Jawaharlal Nehru was a secular man. He would have been mortified at what passes off as secularism in modern India. In its purest sense, secularism requires treating religion as a private matter. It must not enter the public domain. Pray in public or pray in private. But keep your faith at home.

“When former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh said Muslims had the first right to India’s resources, he violated the first principle of secularism: Religion-neutrality. By appeasing, but not empowering Muslims, Indian politicians have consigned two generations of Indian Muslims to poverty, backwardness, joblessness and radicalism. Real secularism empowers. Fraudulent secularism disempowers. Mainstream Indian politicians have preached real secularism but practised the fraudulent version. The victim of this fraud: The ordinary Indian Muslim.”

When the Supreme Court hears the hijab case, it is unlikely to be swayed by subversive arguments that attempt to replace constitutional secularism with oxymoronic religious secularism.

The writer is editor, author and publisher. Views expressed here are personal.

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