However, in an Indian context, I am, if nothing but a die-hard secularist. [The BJP-VHP briade would no doubt label me a "pseudo-secularist."] In India secularism means something that we in the West take for granted: the idea that one's dignity as a human being is independent of one's religious identity, that the state has no business promoting one religion over another, that religious differences can be resolved in non-violent ways. These are ideas that are not immediately apparent, not part of the taken-for-granted background of the culture. They are still being negotiated, still embattled. [It would also seem that the Westernized elites of India who espouse secularism tend to understand this as being best served by a weakening of traditional religion and religious identity, but that's a separate question]. The huge religious divide of India is of course between that of Hindu and Muslim, and Indian Muslims continue to struggle with questions of patriotism, of needing to prove their love of country and their loyalty.
In this context, the following essay, which won the first prize for essays in English, in the Citizens for Peace/Indian Express contest on the theme "Not People Like Us: A Citizen's Dilemma" is a heartwarming and powerful reminder of the true spirit that underlies secularism so understood: the idea of human dignity, of the worth of every person, regardless of their beliefs or background.
The essay is titled "My colleague Kadar" by N Kunju of New Delhi, on enlisting in the Indian army with a Muslim friend, in the turbulent times of Independence and Partition. The full-text is at Dilip D'Souza's blog (with the decidedly (Western!) secularist title, "Death Ends Fun"!). Here's an excerpt:
India is said to be a symbol of unity in diversity. But in the Indian army, the diversities dissolve into unity. Here recruits enter the barracks as Punjabis, Maharashtrians, Bengalis, Tamilians, Telugus, Malayalis, etc. After training, they come out as Indians, speaking simple Hindi, relishing rice and roti equally, at ease in a dhoti or in a pair of pyjamas. Out they come marching in step, swinging arms, looking straight. Differences of short and tall, dark and fair, do not interfere with their measured steps. Differences of caste and creed, religion and region do not mar the geometrically correct rank and file formation. Integration becomes ingrained in their existence.Incidentally, Kadar is a form of the Urdu and Arabic word qadr, meaning dignity, or worth. [Hat tip: Desipundit.] [I don't know much about Citizens for Peace. However, in July, the weekend after the terrorist attacks, I was in Bombay at a prayer service for peace organized by this group. Good work!]
As mentioned earlier, we joined the army in June 1947. And within two months India became independent. Years later, when I boasted about it to a friend, he said the British did the wise thing; they could not have controlled the country with soldiers like me!
However, on the threshold of her freedom, India thought of us new recruits differently. Within weeks of our reaching the training centre in Ferozpur, communal riots broke out all over the North. Violence erupted in the town. We, who had never touched a weapon till then, were issued rifles and were converted into a 'peace keeping force'.
We marched along the streets, rifles slung on our shoulders, sending the fear of God into the minds of communal miscreants. No one knew the reality - that we were week-old babies in the Army, that our oversize jungle hats concealed faces on which hair had hardly appeared, that we did not know how to load the rifle or fire a shot. But the deception worked well.