India Strays from Secularity
In January of this year, eight-year-old Asifa Bano was kidnapped near the city of Kathua in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. She was declared missing for a week before her body was discovered by villagers. She had been held captive, raped by multiple men, hit over the head with a heavy stone, and eventually strangled to death.
What seems like a straightforward case of horrific sexual violence soon turned into a religious conflict. The eight men charged in connection to the rape and murder of Asifa Bano are all Hindu, and Asifa was a Muslim. Asifa is thought to have been a pawn in the ongoing Kashmir conflict, where religious tensions are unusually high: Muslim-majority Kashmir has been in a state of armed revolt against adjacent Hindu-majority Jammu since 1989.
The details of the crime are gruesome and horrifying. When I first read them, I was brought to tears. People must be outraged about this, I thought, remembering the 2012 “Nirbhaya” rape case in which a massive public outcry led to a much tougher set of anti-rape laws. I was right — but not in the way I had imagined.
Following the arrests of the accused, Hindu-nationalist activists and lawyers took to the streets in their defense, in some cases physically blocking courthouses to prevent charges from being filed. Protesters claimed the men’s arrests amounted to Hinduphobia and the police opposed Hinduism. For them, this case wasn’t about the brutal rape and murder of a young girl, but a casualty in an ongoing ideological war.
India is technically a secular country. The highly contested 42nd Amendment to the Indian Constitution, enacted during the even more controversial Emergency Period of 1975, states that India is a “sovereign socialist secular democratic republic.” What exactly that means is questionable. In practice, this so-called secularism is almost nonexistent. One of the best examples of this is the “beef ban,” referring to the ban on the sale and slaughter of cattle that is already in place in 18 Indian states. The current government has called for this ban to be expanded nationwide. Although the government argues the aim of the policy is to prevent unregulated animal trade, the proposal has obvious religious ties: cows are considered sacred in Hinduism, and their slaughter or consumption is frowned upon as a result. If India was following in Germany’s footsteps and banning meat for environmental reasons, it would fall safely within the bounds of secularism. But the ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, and its Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, have previously been accused of stirring up communalism, and I am doubtful that the beef ban represents the noble intentions its backers claim to have.
I am not opposed to these policies in and of themselves, but I believe that in truly secular democracies, bans of this sort should have strong, fact-based defenses rather than religious or moral justifications. We fall into dangerous territory when we start legislating morality, because it is different in each religion and with each worldview.
This argument also applies to the United States. We should remember that this country was founded on a basic separation of church and state. Although we are nowhere near the level of conflict that is tearing India apart, debates concerning controversial issues like abortion and the death penalty hint at discussions of morality rather than fact. There are fair, factual arguments held on both sides of these debates, but opinions such as the claim that humans do not have the authority to decide who lives or dies, for example, are inherently questions of morality that cannot and should not be legislated. If reasoning like this is what justifies our laws, I worry that the downfall of secularism is imminent.