Secularism must be made a civic agenda

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By Pradip Phanjoubam

Although no flare ups of friction have been witnessed in recent times, sorry past episodes of religious tensions between different religious communities in the state ought not to be forgotten. The recent court ruling against unauthorised conversions of government infrastructures into churches and other places of worship is relevant in this regard. The state has seen traditionally non-Christian communities resisting conversion sometimes resulting in violence. What the state must be wary of is that there is no guarantee these incidents would not happen again if the government is simply content in its ridiculous policy of bolting the stable after the horses have fled.

The court ruling in this sense was welcome, but it cannot end there. If it is on an agenda of secularisation of public spaces, it must also have the Hindu temple inside the chief minister’s bungalow complex, built during the term of the late Nipamacha, moved to another location. The court should not have any fear of being rebuffed here because democratic laws are in practice at least in spirit and nobody is deemed above the law in a democracy. Where the brave judges of the court will probably not dare extend the principle of secularising public space, are the headquarters of the various central security forces. They too have been constructing Hindu temples, and seldom places of worship of other religions, wherever they pitch their tents. Is the Indian army secular anymore?

But leave aside the forces, for this would take the issue to a different dimension, and in the land of AFSPA, probably beyond the powers of the civil establishment to do anything and return to the civil space administration. Religious tensions we have seen were pronounced amongst the Zeliangrong Naga community. A large section of the Zeliangong community, constituting of Zemei, Liangmei and Rongmei tribes concentrated in Tamenglong, and the Imphal valley districts in Manipur, as well as Peren and Kohima in Nagaland, have still resisted conversion to the Christian faith, and retain their indigenous faith to this day, although it does seem like a losing battle.

It is however not just amongst the non-Christian Zeliangrong community, but we have also witnessed similar attacks in predominantly Hindu Meitei villages on Christian new converts amongst them. After every one of these explosion of emotions, almost as a routine this author has raised the same alarm that secularism in a good many ways can be, and indeed should be made a civic agenda as well. In this sense, because of what it has not done in all these years that the problem began manifesting itself, the near crisis Manipur is witnessing today on this front is of the government’s own making.

This hypothesis will require a little more elaboration. The suggestion someone who has an understanding of the situation out of intuition born of having lived and breathed the accumulating tensions over the years that led to the flare up, is that it is not so much about hate for Christians or the Christian faith, but a civic failure on the part of the administration which has allowed this to happen through its insensitive approach.

Secularism as the Manipur government sees it, and indeed as the Indian state by and large sees it, is an ideal and achieving it involves reforming the consciousness of the individual citizens so that they are able to tolerate differences. The strategy has also consequently been largely marked by political sermons and homilies, which as we all know are so drearily prone to be mere rhetorical lip services of politicians aimed more at electoral gains rather than problem solving.

One has absolutely no argument with the ideal. Secularism must not be just about tolerating differences but about respecting them as well. However, while the ideal must definitely be the guiding principle of policies, these policies cannot afford to ignore the reality on the ground. Religion is a very private affair, and those who chose to convert do so by an exercise of private decision. But the problem is, this does not mean one person’s private decision would not ever intrude into the privacy of others around him.

This is where one has been prodding the state administration to step in and do its bit. No, there cannot be a ban on conversion whichever way the conversion happens. The idea is simply ludicrous and goes against the very tenets of democratic ethos, for it would amount to what India born British author George Orwell so provocatively called “thought policing” in “1984: A Novel”.

On the other hand, administrative measures in the regards should hinge around giving tangible policy articulation to the metaphors of “private” and “public” spaces, and the need to clearly demarcate them. As already flagged earlier in this article, the conversion issue in Manipur is not so much about detest of any religion, but of mutual encroachments into privacies, hence success in preventing these encroachments would amount to half the problem solved.

The government hence must come up with a legislation which demarcates private and public spaces physically, and proclaim that no “new” houses of worship can be allowed in private localities. These edifices however can come up in spaces designated as public by the administration, and with the permission of the government.

What often happens as part of the Christian proselytising process in Manipur is, a neighbourhood house suddenly transforms into a church with it Sunday masses, hymn singing and midnight congregation and all else. Even non-Christians who have all respect for Christianity would probably feel the obvious affront in this.

The same would be the case if temples were to spring up at random in Muslim or Christian localities, which is also why we feel the blaring morning bhajans on shrill public address systems that emanate from various camps of Central security forces in the state is distasteful. Let the government come up with an appropriate and secular policy response, lest we get deeper into the mess and perhaps even land in the kind of induced insensitivity and intolerance the world witnessed in Kashmir in the Amarnath Temple Board land acquisition case some year ago.

New Year Old Problems

Thoughts such as these are inevitable in a multi-ethnic and multi-religion state like Manipur as December approaches and with it Christmas and New Year. It is easy to say the beginning of a calendar New Year is the time to ring out the old and ring in the new. Millions after millions are now accustomed to repeating this by rote or cultivated intuition today. It is however unlikely not many of all those who willingly drown and lose themselves in the tidal wave of New Year euphoria are unaware how extremely difficult it is in practice to either ring out the old or ring in the new.

All the same, we suppose it is one time in a year when a willing suspension of disbelief is well worth the while. Perhaps this very exercise of conditioning yourself to immerse in a transitory world of make believe for a few days in a year has a therapeutic value, even if the date fixed as the beginning of a year is arbitrary, much like weekends in the smaller cycle of the week on the same calendar.

In a circle there is neither a beginning nor an end, hence putting these markers would have to be at their genesis, a matter of fiat of an emperor or government. Except in the modern mind which has been conditioned to believe it is new, there is nothing new about a frozen January 1 when half the living world is in deep hibernation.

As is also so mistakenly believed by many, January 1 as New Year is not a Christian date either. Its origin stretches back to the days of the Romans who in the year 153 b.c. decided this date which coincided with the beginning of a civil war, to be the beginning of a new year. Till 1582 when the Gregorian Calendar adopted the tradition, it is said early Christians actually forbade the celebration of New Year as it was considered pagan. (Numerous versions of New Year celebration history tell the same story and many of them are available on the internet, one of which is at www.infoplease.com/spot/newyearhistory.html).

For Christians, December 25 would have been a much more significant and relevant marker on the Calendar as New Year day. For much of the indigenous world, the first day after the vernal equinox on the lunar calendar, or the first day of spring, is New Year day. Bihu, Sajibu Cheiraoba, Beisaki (Cheiraoba), and so many more, all within a few days of each other, would be some examples of this. These dates are a little less arbitrary too for they mark the beginning of a visible regenerative cycle of the natural world.

This is not a case for a shift in a calendar date though. This is just a reminder of how our sense of new and old year is just a matter of tuning the mind. Since we have all tuned in to it, January 1 is a great day for everybody. Whether or not empirically supported, at least the psychological catharsis this date brings is tangible.

So has Manipur been ringing out the old and ringing in the new every January 1? No, never quite so. When the newspapers hit the stands after a day’s break on account of the holiday on January 1, in all likelihood, it would begin day one of the brand new year with tidings of deaths in drunken driving during New Year celebrations. In the days ahead, it would be back to Manipur’s normal, which is anything but normal by any standard. News of violent deaths in counterinsurgency operations by government forces, custodial killings, grenades hurled by extortionists at the homes of those who resist their demands, bandhs, blockades, strikes, would all no sooner make it difficult to tell if old year has ended and the new one begun.

These are only some visible phenomena for it would be the same in all other fields. As for instance official corruption which we all know has come to be deeply institutionalised in the state is not likely to have had a sudden change of heart because of the year transition either. Reasons for violent conflicts too would have remained as tangible this brand new year. The lesson for Manipur in this, as indeed for everybody else is clear. While the universal euphoric sense of renewal that January 1 brings is refreshing, real changes for the better do not come automatic with the turn of calendar years. They have to be earned with unremitting commitment to peace and justice, ingenuity in approach to problems, and above all, a willingness to put in hard and honest work.

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