As India was embarking on its journey as a democracy, it had the opportunity to deliberately opt for inclusive symbols. But of course, this option is not available to most countries of Europe today. So what is there to be learned from the Indian state?

The lesson is the importance of creating a diverse public sphere that is inclusive and welcoming to all. And, most of all, one where cultural choices—in dress codes, food habits, and modes of address in social interaction—are not shaped entirely by the culture of the majority. This is the opposite to what we see in modern-day France, for instance.

No easy solutions

India’s founding framework went far beyond the idea of liberal secularism; it made a deliberate effort to give minorities the space to continue with their distinct religious and cultural practices and to pass them on. Culture and religion-related anxieties can be exploited to nurture resentment, and this had to be avoided.

Visible differences that marked the bodies of citizens in different ways were not seen as threatening. One could get past them, or at least see them as markers of identity instead of prejudging them as liberal or anti-liberal.

This was an important starting point but it had to be supplemented by government policies that ensured equal opportunity and security for all. Governments at the political centre and in different states failed to perform these tasks. Repeated incidents of inter-community violence, such as the 2013 Muzaffarnagar and 2002 Gujarat riots, and the failure to punish the perpetrators of such violence have pushed vulnerable minorities into the arms of their community for solace and legitimised the hold of religious leadership.

These could have been avoided. The state could have given a stern message that such forms of violence and community targeting would not be tolerated. But in case after case, governments let their citizens down. Political parties were divided, choosing to stand with different communities at different times but always with an eye on electoral gains.

In an effort to curb such communitarian politics, the Supreme Court has recently prohibited appeals to religion and caste during elections. This is being seen as a landmark judgment by some, but even though it aims to force parties to think of all citizens, and not merely one community, it does not address all concerns.

It has not, for example, forbidden reference to Hindutvathe founding principle of Hindu nationalism. The courts claim it denotes a way of life rather than a religious doctrine used as part of a campaign for cultural homogenisation.

Space for dissent

The point is that, in a democracy, it is not religion per se but efforts to stigmatise and intimidate people or groups that is a matter of concern. This is what India has yet to tackle effectively. When political parties can reach out to religious communities, take up their concerns and show that they give representation to candidates from different religions, they give a voice to minorities. This stems the sense of alienation and neglect that radicalisation so often taps into.

The most serious challenge today is to make space for individual dissent and autonomy and protect a person from those who wish to enforce the diktats of the community or the nation. India has focused so heavily on equality between groups that it has neglected to protect individual liberty—something that is pursued more effectively in Europe.

India has much to learn on this subject from Western Europe. But its own journey shows that the presence of religion or its markers are not, and should not be, seen as the most important threat. It is not a case of more religion or less of it.

Anxieties about religion and the lack of respect for it can be tapped to create a rigid and more closed identity along with a politics of resentment. The focus must therefore be on creating a stake in democratic politics, involving different communities at different levels of institution functioning and extending avenues for equal opportunity.

The pluralised public sphere

It should go without saying that no state’s approach to religion is perfect, and India faces its own significant problems with diversity and integration, from religious violence to the persistence of the caste system. But that doesn’t mean there is nothing for Europe to learn.

Put simply, integrating religious differences is easier when religious freedom goes hand-in-hand with an understanding of the nature of religious commitments, and the creation of a pluralised public sphere.

Neutrality is insufficient when communities already see religion as an important part of their personal identity, one they want to hold on to along with their civic identity. It should be possible to have both.

Current political debates in the West need to open up to solutions that go beyond secularism, from places like India and from elsewhere. They need to embrace differences with policies for integrating minorities into education, the labour market and overall public life.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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