IT took the Pope 400 years to apologise to Galileo, who was excommunicated for inferring from his independent inquiry that it was the Earth that went round the Sun and not the other way as the Bible claimed. It is too early to count the decades if not centuries it will take India to recant, if ever, from its current headlong leap into obscurantism of diverse hues, which it is busy cultivating in a strange mÃ©lange it advertises as secularism.
Be it the orgy of violence unleashed by the Hindu right against Christian missionaries and their followers in Orissa --- in which both sides want greater access to the gullible and poor Dalits and tribes people to grant them spiritual salvation, moksha --- or be it the transformation of a separatist agenda of Kashmiris into a Hindu-Muslim standoff, or the ready use of Muslim ulema to canvass support against religious terrorism perpetrated by shadowy groups, the state has abdicated its secular responsibilities.
The fact that the ulema are leading their flock with the state's encouragement ignores the reality that they are responsible in the first place for imparting hidebound religious prescriptions that interfere with the functioning of democratic choices usually available elsewhere to citizens of different faiths and beliefs under a secular dispensation. Many of the maulvis who have been thrust into the forefront of an overrated campaign to disown Muslim terrorists are themselves guilty of keeping their followers riveted to fear and mistrust on the basis of another citizen's religious or other beliefs.
The state has happily indulged their mediaeval demands, significantly notorious among them being the Shah Bano alimony case. Leaders who denied a Muslim widow of her right to alimony are a key plank against religious terrorism. What could be more ironical?
What is happening in Orissa has two dimensions - prejudice and poverty. There is no doubt that Christian missionaries since colonial days have done wonderful things for the backward people of India generically called the tribals and the Dalits. Their motives, however, have not always been innocent. The Dalits are at the bottom of the Indian caste heap. And I say the Indian and not Hindu caste heap because there are Dalits in every major religion of India but the secular state only grants statutory affirmative action to Hindu Dalits, or what passes for Hindu. And this is part of the problem in Orissa.
The quasi fascist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a cousin of the mainstream BJP, is seeking to 'reconvert' Christian Dalits to its fold right across India, including in Orissa. It uses an unfair law enacted in 1950 that does not accept a non-Hindu Dalit as entitled to the crumbs that come with affirmative action. On the other hand, tribal converts to a non-Hindu religion, for example to Christianity, face no such handicap.
Non-Hindu Dalits want the privileges given to Hindu Dalits and this sets up political fault lines that are then exploited on both sides.
Christian and Muslim Dalits want the rights of Dalits they are otherwise denied for not being Hindu. This is an aspect of the secular state. Add to this conundrum the state's tendency to side with the more entrenched rightist forces, partly as a foil to liberal intervention but also to consciously break the natural solidarity of the weakest classes, and you have a classic profile of a state that is toying with fascist methods of social control. The leeway that organisations such as the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra are able to secure from the state appears to be part of this strategy - unleash rightwing mobs in the political arena, inject an obscurantist discourse and then negotiate deals with the concerned sides.
What happened in Jammu has less to do with caste, but the mobilisation over an innocuous-looking, if controversial, land transfer to a Hindu shrine committee has its eyes equally on the arriving elections, both in Jammu and Kashmir as also India's general poll due by mid-2009 but which may be held earlier. An overtly Hindu group tethered to the obscurantist ideology of parties like the RSS has been unleashed in Jammu out of nowhere. Their agitation may not have achieved much, but it has successfully marginalised moderate Muslim leaders in the Valley, including secular separatists as well as mainstream politicians.
At the same time they have enabled a rightist Muslim leader like Syed Ali Shah Geelani to take centre-stage. The politics whipped up in Jammu is not too different from the way the Sikh rabble-rouser Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was created in the Punjab. He rose to torment India's fragile tryst with secular politics and his memory remains a serious challenge.
Indian and Pakistani governments were dealing with the larger question of the Kashmiri dispute according to the parameters agreed by a Pakistani strongman with a rightwing nationalist prime minister of India, giving the accord a clout and credibility that eludes liberal politicians in the subcontinent. Kashmiri leaders, separatists and nationalists alike, were beginning to travel between the two national capitals with a degree of comfort and optimism they had not experienced before.
Then suddenly and quite inexplicably the agenda was changed and we are today confronting a communal polarisation in which Hindu and Muslim crowd-pullers are having a field day at the cost of the moderates on both sides.
A lot has been said and written about the plight of the minority Ahmedis of Pakistan where they were declared non-Muslim. So I was perplexed when India's own Ahmedi or Qadiyani leaders (meeting in a conference in New Delhi as I write) revealed that they were not allowed to be members of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, a body of religious leaders recognised by the government as representative of the 150 million Indian Muslims, for reasons that are similar to the ones cited in Pakistan. In effect, the Indian government has accepted the sectarian approach to informally exclude the Ahmedis.
Unless there is a more valid explanation for keeping the Ahmedis out of the Muslim body where is the basis for a secular state to accept one of the sects as non-Muslim? This can be an acceptable exigency in Pakistan, but in India?
In a country crawling with god men and superstitions, the media has not done any credit by encouraging rather than curbing the trend. Dozens of TV channels have dedicated 24-hour programmes fanning the pursuit of blind faith. I hear the channel with the highest TRP ratings has reached there by dumbing down of its current affairs and news content and supplanting it with dollops of faith healers, soothsayers and specialists in tarot cards, bead readers and so forth.
Other channels are churning out newer versions of religious tales. There is no room left, it seems, for any public debate between Galileo and the Pope. India is hurtling into obscurantism in the illustrious company of VHP, the ulema and Shiv Sena. The Jammu-based Shri Amarnath Sangharsh Samiti is its latest proud interlocutor.