Surendra Bissoondoyal

The Secular State

“Secular’ does not mean ‘anti-religion’. The essential elements of secularism are that religion is a personal matter and that the State should not discriminate on the basis of religion. Some countries claim that they are secular, but in practice they are not

Surendra Bissoondoyal

When India obtained its independence from the British in 1947 after the country was divided into India and Pakistan, it did not want to project an image of ‘Hindu India’ to counter the setting up of Pakistan as an Islamic nation. It enshrined the term ‘secular’ in its Constitution and Jawaharlal Nehru hailed the scientific and technological institutions that would be built as new ‘temples’ of learning. This is why Nita Deerpalsing has the merit of asking through a PQ whether we should not include the term ‘secular’ in the Constitution of Mauritius. A few days before she had the courage to take on some of the leaders of the so-called ‘socio-cultural’ organizations who sow the seeds of division and look after their own personal interests.

It is high time politicians of all parties realize the harm being done to our social fabric by kowtowing to Presidents of socio-cultural bodies in return for their political allegiance. This is encouraging the setting up of “socio-cultural” groups on the basis of caste, regional origin and what not. One of the Presidents had even the nerve to pontificate that Rama and Krishna were politicians and diplomats to justify his own actions!

Religion, as Tagore would have said, has lost its way in the dreary desert sand of dead habit. How many people really understand the meaning of their religion whilst being lost in the rites and rituals imposed on them? Religion, unfortunately, has to a large extent been hijacked by people who misuse it for their own benefit. But it has been a great force for good in the past, and continues to inspire many people seeking solace. We must not also forget that, throughout history, it has given strength to human beings to fight for their dignity and hope for the future.

Mahatma Gandhi used his faith in the Bhagavad Gita to show to India and the world at large the strength of non-violence without cowardice. He used this strength to sustain himself and to tell Indians this is the path they have to follow to regain their self respect, and through that self respect to achieve political independence. He was called a saint among politicians and a politician among saints. Long before that Christian priests were behind the fight for freedom and equality leading to the abolition of slavery.

When Sookdeo Bissoondoyal tabled a motion in the then Legislative Assembly some sixty years ago to ask for subsidies to be granted to all religions practised in Mauritius little did he know that the subsidies would be used for the purchase of duty free cars, for overseas travel and for other privileges and non-religious activities!

“Secular’ does not mean ‘anti-religion’. The essential elements of secularism are that religion is a personal matter and that the State should not discriminate on the basis of religion. Some countries claim that they are secular, but in practice they are not.  Coming to the term ‘secular’ to be inserted in the Constitution of Mauritius, it may be indirectly understood by many people that Mauritius is a secular state. But the way some religious and ‘socio-cultural groups exert pressure on the State and on political parties points to the need for the term ‘secular’ to be spelled out in the Constitution of Mauritius to make it absolutely clear. We will then be able to have a healthy debate about whether subsidies to religious groups and the Best Loser System are in order in a Secular State.

Surendra Bissoondoyal

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