He was indeed a poor boy from a backward caste in the erstwhile Travancore State (now part of the Kerala state) in pre-independence India. Though poor, he was diligent and intelligent and others who knew about his family background raised their eyebrows when he scored the highest marks in the then Travancore University both for History and English Literature. That the boy was able to win such laurels despite the fact he was often asked to stand on a bench or in the corner of the classroom because of his failure to pay fees on time demonstrates the inner resolve of the promising youth.

The Dewan of Travancore, Sir CP. Ramaswai Iyer summoned him one day and told him that he would send him to Oxford, but later, to the shock of the boy, the Dewan withdrew his offer and offered him a job in the Government. The youth was baffled by the sudden change in the attitude of the Dewan, but screwed up courage to ask him: “Sir, could you give me a job as a lecturer instead? The Dewan was furious, banged the receiver and told him: “In that case leave your address and details with my personal assistant”. It dawned on the young aspirant that the fact that he was a Dalit came in his way.

It was a long journey for him from a remote village in Travancore that encountered several whirlpools and eddies until the people of India installed him as the President of India on July 25, 1997. Mr. K.R. Narayanan became the President of India not because he was a Dalit. A scholar and a great diplomat like him would have become the President of India even if he had no caste label. The politicians in India enjoy mentioning the caste label even if an individual is entitled to a high position by virtue of his sheer ability. Caste is just an accident. Likewise, Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam is the President of India by virtue of being a great scientist. The fact that he is a Muslim is secondary. But the so called ‘secularists’ in our country take pride in the fact that “even our President is a Muslim”, “Our Prime Minister is Sikh”.

By constant abuse at the hands of politicians the word ‘secularism’ has become a double think in hypocrisy. One must wonder whether there are any genuine followers of secularism in our country!

Religions of the world- Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism Jainism, Sikhism-are great binding forces. They see humanity is their founders and protagonists emphasize harmony among all and peace on earth. But we have lost both with people mistaking religious harmony for fanaticism. Hindus and Muslims who have been living for centuries as amicable neighbours in the Indian subcontinent played into the wily hands of British politicians who thought it was the best policy to leave both the communities with daggers drawn if they had to quit India. The vivisection of the subcontinent saw one of the worst bloodbaths in history, and one of the greatest exoduses. The same scenario unfolded in West Asia a few months later when the Western politicians carved out Israel from Palestine. So was created the second theocratic state-the first being Pakistan, a state exclusively for Muslims Rest is history. And neither the subcontinent nor the West Asia lived in peace thereafter, thanks to the politicians who perfected the art of dividing people and stoking him embers of lasting enmity in the name of religion.

Gandhiji was a great Hindu, but he respected all other religions, like great people before him, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Swami Vivekananda, Guru Nanak Dev, Sant Kabir, he regarded all religions as different paths to the same goal. “My religion is Hinduism which, for me, is Religion of humanity… I am being led to other religions through Truth and Nonviolence. I.e., love in the broadest sense. We are all sparks of Truth. I am being led nearer to it by constant prayer”. He believed in no dogma or rituals. Wherever you are, you hear the echo: “Ragupati Raghava… Ishwar AllahTero Nam!” Gandhiji epitomized secularism. He was no politician.

In a review of the book, Confessions of a Secular Fundamentalist by Mr. Mani Shankar Aiyar, the eminent historian K.N. Panikhar says: “The secular practice of political parties, particularly those in power, has been far from satisfactory. Although committed to the ideal of secularism there were instances in their history when they succumbed to the easy political gains from communalism. Be it the Kashmir issue or Shah Bano case or Ayodhya or the Hindu-Sikh relations the Congress Party foiled to live up to the standards set by Nehru”.

There cannot be two yardsticks while tackling or treating communal violence. No party is entitled to don “holier than thou” mantle. If the Gujarat riots were condemnable, equally condemnable were the well-organized massacre of the Sikhs in 1984 connived at by the politicians. And none involved in the killings has been punished despite the lapse of 21 years. Is there a secular party in India? Mere lip service would not make one secular-minded.

What is secularism? Fifty-eight years on, we are still struggling to find an answer. A leading author and once editor of a prominent weekly, supposed to be well-informed, wrote this caption in his magazine decades ago: “President V.V. Giri offering prayers at the Venkateswara Temple in Tirupati. And he claims to be the President of a secular India”. According to this journalist, the First Citizen of the country ceases to be secular the moment he offers prayer according to the religion he belongs to.

In the last few decades, religion and caste have become the trump cards for politicians to swell their vote banks. Votes are sought unabashedly in the name of religion and caste all over India. None will dare dispute this claim. Hiere is no dearth of castes in India in different communities and politicians have no qualms in seeking votes in the name of their caste or religions. Sectarian violence is quite common as in Bihar where caste violence, so common, seldom hits headlines. There are constituencies where candidates of a particular caste or religion alone can win. Better ask any politician and he will give you a broad grin in approval. Casteism still rules the roost; with all the modernism you boast of. An undercurrent of casteism and canvassing for one community still prevails in certain constituencies.

Beyond doubt, it is the duty of the nation to see that people who were oppressed for centuries because of their births in castes considered as backward needed special care. This was the philosophy behind reservation in education and employment. With the passage of time more communities lobbied for inclusion in the Other Backward Classes category. The Mandal Commission recommendations sought to be implemented during the Prime Minister, Mr. V.P. Singh’s regime created a great uproar among students in India as they feared that this would further limit the legitimate job prospects for the poor students belonging to the so called forward communities.

Recently, the Andhra Pradesh Government has decided to introduce 5 percent reservation for Muslims in Government jobs and Government institutions. The move was criticized by the Opposition on the plea that the Government cannot classify Muslims as a backward class and the creamy layer must be excluded from the benefit. Said The Times of India in its editorial: “It is bad both in principle and in policy. It goes against the principle of secularism enshrined in the Constitution. The Constitution does not sanction religion-based reservation. It provided reservations for SCs and STs as a special case for a limited period. Instead of phasing off reservations which militate against merit and put us at a disadvantage in an era of global competition, it is sad that the government should be extending it to new groups. In doing so the Andhra Pradesh Government is paying its debt of gratitude to the minority community which has helped it return to power after many years.”

Politics is game political parties will stoop to any extent to garner votes. And religion comes handy in this regard. There has been reservation for the Muslim community since 1950s in Kerala and this reservation still continues despites is controversial statement made by Mr A.K.Antony, as Chief minister a few years ago that Muslims in kerala are economically better off than in Northern India and that Muslims and Christians in kerala are economically better than  the Hindus in the state. This statement stirred up a hornet’s nest in certain sections among Christians and Muslims in general and the chief minister was asked to retract the statement. One or two intellectuals endorsed the chief minister’s view point. The growing clout of the so called minority communities only underscores the need for reservation on the basis of economic backwardness that could help all people in all communities.

Gandhiji visualized an Indian where there is no division by virtue of religion, caste or language. But his followers, while pretending to be champions of “secularism”, will do everything possible to stoke the fires of hatred as between communities and castes.

Kissa kursi  ka! Grabbing power at any cost. If religion, caste and frequent chanting of the mantra ‘secularism’ are absolutely necessary, why not use them every now and then? And use the name of Bapu whenever you want to drive home your point.