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The battle of ideas

February 06, 2013


THE seminar organised recently by the Forum for Secular Pakistan on ‘Democracy and Secularism’ drove home two basic truths.

First, there can be no democracy without secularism. Secondly, democracy needs a national democratic movement to survive and develop further. The keynote speaker I.A. Rehman, secretary-general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, elaborated this very succinctly.

On the occasion all the speakers did an excellent job of highlighting the dangers faced by the advocates of secularism in a Pakistan that is under threat of Talibanisation. For the audience, mostly likeminded liberals who had turned up in sufficient strength — by the standards set by such intellectual exercises — this did not provide new food for thought. The slogans for secularism have been raised again and again for a long time now. Read Sibte Hasan’s book The Battle of Ideas in Pakistan that appeared in 1986 and you know secularism is not a new demand.

Yet, I would say it is not bad strategy to revisit such ideals since this serves to strengthen the conviction of those who stand for them and refresh the memories of others who may have forgotten their history.

However, the core issue calling for attention is what Mr Rehman identified as the failure of the liberals to create mass awareness about the importance and advantages of secularism. Many may have missed the point because the focus of the seminar was on convincing an already converted audience that democracy could not survive if the state did not remain neutral in matters relating to religion.

I wish more had been said about why we have failed in spreading this message. It is the strategy that needs to be re-considered. The fact is that secularists today find themselves on the defensive because religious parties have cleverly trapped them in a groove which requires them to prove that they are not anti-Islam as their antagonists make them out to be.

They have a simple demand: let the state be neutral and let its policies be defined by democracy, the rule of law, human rights and social justice. What secularists need to realise is that if they want to strengthen their hand they will have to muster popular support for their ideas by mobilising the masses. People have to be told what secularism is all about. We have lived under dictatorships for so long that we seem to forget that to gain currency any idea must have the support of the masses.

Moreover the myth has been propagated that our people are bigots — intolerant, rigid and extremist in matters of faith. I do not subscribe to this point of view. True, there is a fringe minority that will fit this description but the majority is still reasonable enough to give the pro-secularism lobby a fair hearing. But for that we will have to talk to them and take the initiative to connect with them.

Taking a more positive view of our people — the silent majority — I feel nobody has ever asked them for their point of view on such matters. They may be conservative and religious but most are tolerant and rational about matters of public concern. We may be surprised to find the views of the man in the street more rational than those of educated middle classes that tend to have too many hang-ups from their past.

Certainly the discourse will have to be at the common man’s intellectual level. Remember, the masses are not educated; many of them are not even literate. But they can think and understand their own problems better.

In this context, the case of Dr Roop Rekha Verma, a modest and unassuming Indian scholar of philosophy, is most relevant. I met her six years ago in Lucknow. Dr Verma was the head of the Philosophy Department and Vice-Chancellor of Lucknow University when she bowed out of academia in 2003 to pursue social activism in earnest.

From writing research papers prolifically in Indian and foreign journals of repute, she went on to work at the grass roots for communal harmony, the empowerment of women, basic education and secularism. After joining hands with Saajhi Duniya, an organisation that had been in the field for several years, Dr Verma chalked out a strategy to enlist public support for her causes.

“We are not a mass organisation but we work with the masses. We mobilise the public by distributing pamphlets, walking through markets and talking to the shopkeepers and the people about the issue [we are working on], and holding rallies. Also, if we need to involve the youth more, we go to schools and colleges to talk to them. Our activities include awareness and training sessions with both educated and uneducated people.” Above all, Saajhi Duniya does research at the grass roots and that is where its advocacy is focused.

Some groups and parties in Pakistan (the newly formed Awami Workers Party and the Pakistan Institute for Labour Education and Research come to mind) have tried to take their message to the people but so far their reach has been limited. The spirit of secularism was captured by Sibte Hasan in the book mentioned above, in which he links the future of secularism in Pakistan with “the abolition of imperialist-controlled feudalist social structure, represented by comprador bourgeoisie, the big landlords, the military junta and the mullahs”.

These are formidable enemies. Only the masses have the numbers to resist them and thus destroy their power.