A Tale of Two Secularisms

January 29, 2008

French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the Taj Mahal, 26 Jan, 2008/Philippe WojazerFrance and India are two countries that proudly proclaim the secular nature of their democracies. The principles of church-state separation and state neutrality towards religion are the same. But somehow the accents were different when French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited India last week. While they both were dealing with the concept called “secularism” in English, it was clear that Sarkozy’s thinking was based on the French word laïcité while Prime Minister Manmohan Singh clearly had the Hindi term dharmanirpekshta in mind.

The visit focused mostly on expanding investment and defence cooperation, with much gossip on the side about whether the freshly divorced president’s new flame Carla Bruni would join him at the Taj Mahal (much to the chagrin of the paparazzi, she didn’t).

Hidden behind the headlines, though, was a fascinating disagreement about Sarkozy’s plan to present Taslima Nasreen, an exiled Bangladeshi writer living in India, with the “Simone de Beauvoir Prize For Women’s Freedom.” This prize sponsored by CulturesFrance (part Muslim protesters burn effigy of Taslima Nasreen in Kolkata, 20 Jan. 2004/Sucheta Dasof the French Foreign Ministry) and a Paris publisher went this year to Nasreen and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, two women of Muslim background who have been threatened with death by Islamists because of their forceful criticism of the religion.

Sarkozy wanted to present the award to Nasreen in New Delhi, presumably at a ceremony to be broadcast back home where he is under fire for allegedly violating French laïcité. He was even thinking of doing it at the safe house where she is hiding from death threats. This caused considerable concern in the Indian government, which worried about a possible Muslim backlash over any honour for the award-winning writer they accuse of blasphemy. The Indian army had to be called in to quell anti-Nasreen riots by Islamist groups in Kolkata last November.

Taslima Nasreen in Kolkata, 20 Jan. 2004/Jayanta ShawIn the end, it didn’t happen. The grand French gesture was reduced to a request to India to “facilitate Ms Nasreen’s journey to France” to pick up her award.

It looks like a case of thinking that secularism was the same the world around. The French version, laïcité, was a reaction to the power of the majority Catholic Church and aimed to keep religion out of public life. Defending this is as natural for a French president as praising apple pie and motherhood is for his American counterpart.

With religion such a part of public life, India’s dharmanirpekshta aims more at making sure no one religious group dominates this country of 1.1 billion people. While Hindus are the majority at around 80 percent, Muslims are more than 13 percent of the population. Christians and Sikhs each account for about 2 percent of the population while Buddhists and other religions account for the rest. Indian law also makes major concessions to religions. For example, Indian laws on family, divorce and adoption differ depending on your religion.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Nicolas Sarkozy, 25 Jan 2008/B MathurPrime Minister Singh was largely silent on Nasreen’s case last year, sparking criticism from secular intellectuals that the government was failing to defend the country’s principles. In the Hindustan Times, Karan Thapar wrote of India: “Democratic we may be, but liberal we most certainly are not.” His low profile has also drawn fire from Hindu nationalists, who charged he was appeasing Muslims by not vocally supporting Nasreen. There may not have been much he could say. Criticism of the Muslims could have prompted the Hindu nationalist opposition to cry even more loudly that Islamist groups are a threat to the Indian state.

For the moment, it seems as if Singh has won on both counts. He headed off both Sarkozy and a possible uproar from Muslims over his award ceremony plans. In a recent Shah Rukh Khan sports his new French award, 27 Jan. 2008/Punit Paranjpebroadside, Jamaat-i-Islami Hind focused on the government’s decision to extend the visa of “a foreign controversial lady.”

Nasreen has since said she will not go to Paris for the award and asked that it be sent to her residence in Kolkata.

The controversy, for now, appears to be fading. And the French have bounced back into the cultural news headlines smartly with another, less controversial award. On Sunday, the French ambassador decorated the Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan with the country’s highest decoration for artists, the “Order of Arts and Letters.”

In India, it was a much safer bet.

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