Secularism in India has always been a contested terrain at both conceptual and practical levels. With the advent of modernity and democracy preceding the wave of industrialization, unlike in the West, it has largely been understood as a peculiar Indian phenomenon distinct from the western secular models. All the three books under review acknowledge the unfinished nature of the secular project in India. Moreover, the challenges posed by the Hindu Right to the very concept of secularism forms the core of all their arguments.
Madhav Godbole, former Home Secretary and someone who is widely known as an ardent secularist, vows to give the first detailed operationalized account of secularism in India. Being well aware of the gargantuan task at hand, he goes about highlighting all the major issues that have strained the relationship between the state and individual since Independence. The book documents the historical development of all the major complexities including the separation of religion and politics, religious minority rights, right to propagate religion, ban on cow slaughter, communal riots
that left an indelible mark on Indian politics, controversies surrounding conversion debates and much more.
Throughout the book, there are copious references and citations starting from the Constituent Assembly debates to the views and opinions of legal luminaries, academicians and journalists. However, this quest for documenting the eclecticism of the historical churning of secularism also becomes its biggest weak point.
The references that sometimes even run into two or three pages leave little room for the author’s own interpretation on all the issues that are raised. More references and less reflection make it more of a passive documentation of the historical debates instead of a more active engagement. The constant back and forth movement of time in detailing the events along with the sources being of a secondary nature, at times becomes an additional strain. It is only in the last chapter titled ‘The Way Ahead’ that one comes to know what the author actually believes in. These come in the form of prescriptions wherein the author tries to deal with the convoluted questions that he himself raises in the early part of the book. Most of the suggestions are sharp and precise but also deeply provocative at the same time. Godbole suggests that the terms ‘secular’ and ‘minority’ should be clearly defined in the Constitution but does not provide any definition from his part. Similarly, a rigid distinction is sought between religion and politics failing which, he says, the country would cease to be a secular polity. That these concepts are inherently dynamic and thereby in a constant flux is a thought that does not get entertained when seeking universal definitions for the same. On the other hand, the author expresses his concern for granting religious
minority rights as he unequivocally projects it as something completely antithetical to the principles of secularism. He fails to provide a viable alternative and refuses to engage with the contemporary debates on a Uniform Civil Code for instance where the mere documentation of its historical trajectory remains grossly inconclusive. Unnerving suggestions are made like making voting compulsory without showing how it will affect the quagmire of secularism in any way. Lastly, there is an urge to keep the state equidistant from all religions without paying any heed to the fact that the Indian state has always been an interventionist state.
Even if the author is categorical about the blatant communalism of the Sangh Parivar, there is a cautious balancing of religious components in events that highlight communal conflagrations, thereby staying clear from blaming any one phenomenon that is hugely responsible for the rise in communalism. The book, with its scattered and sketchy account, heightens confusion about what exactly secularism stands for in India.
Nalini Rajan in her book The Story of Secularism attempts a more modest yet richly insightful interpretation of the fundamental debates that still continue to haunt Indian secularism. The layout is more in terms of a comparative perspective of three secular models, namely—French, American and Indian. The basic theme that binds all these models is the triangle of state neutrality, freedom of religion and equal citizenship. Rajan’s idea of secularism places more emphasis on the ideal of equality and makes a case for it being the very lynchpin for any model of secularism to become a success. The often valorized virtue of tolerance is seen as a limited goal that fails to strengthen the bond of equal citizenship. Instead, with the help of the above triangle, the first two models are explained by placing them in the historical context starting from the 15th to the 21st century.
The French model begins by charting the growing tensions between the Church and the state in a predominantly Catholic nation. Further, after signifying the role of Protestantism and the role of the French Revolution, the contemporary unease is marked by a distinction between greater freedom of religion (invoked in the name of democracy) and state neutrality and equal citizenship seen through the prism of the Rule of Law. The confrontation, as is also the case with the American model, brings out the biases of both the state and the courts in each and every case. The American model is shown to be a more classical case of separation between religion and state. The implied notion is also the open attitude it has toward religious minorities as compared to a more dogmatic model of French secularism.
In the Indian case, the author lays down the importance of the state intervening in religion but also brings out the dangers of a partisan, majoritarian outlook toward any religion. The courts’ Brahminical interpretation of Hinduism over the years is a case in point. The India section then engages with two anti-secular arguments, more on the lines of Ashish Nandy’s formulations and the secular responses in return from a more liberal-democratic framework of conscientiously following the value of principled distance. Two issues of conversion and Uniform Civil Code are highlighted in brief. The water-tight compartmentalization of semitic and pagan religions is done away with as a strong case is made to see even Hinduism as a proselytizing religion. For the second question, a more nuanced, reformative churning within personal laws is sought instead of an ill-planned implementation of the UCC. This will serve as an insightful primer for all those who want to get introduced to the subject. The graphics and illustrations also contribute in making the arguments accessible.
This minimum yet significant conceptual and historical clarity gets problematized at multiple levels in Secularism Under Siege edited by Zaheer Ali. The 20 articles of the volume are a collection of papers presented at a 3-day national seminar organized by the Centre for Promotion of Democracy and Secularism, sponsored by ICSSR in 2014. The articles range from providing synoptic overviews of challenges posed by secularism in India (Zaheer Ali, Rajeev Bharagava and Anand Teltumbde) to more topical and specific event, concept and methodology related issues. The book generic levitra 20mg does not portray a homogeneity of views emanating from a particular ideology as it is a rich compendium that provides ample space for points and counter points. The basic concern that strings through all the articles is the profound disconnect that is evident between a secular state and the deeply conservative society of India. This basis goes very close to the public-private distinction made by Partha Chatterjee while highlighting an overt consensus for secularism in the public sphere during the anti-colonial movement but an intransigent resistance of the same in the private realm. Majority of the articles also lament the fact that the unfinished project of secularization in the socio-economic realm has hampered the growth of political and ethical secularism.
Rajeev Bhargava, along with this distinction, expresses concern over the neglect of intra-religious domination because of a preponderant focus on the inter-religious divide. He goes about highlighting the dangers of confessional religion and how an institutionalized religious domination is a bigger threat than religiosity. He states that contextual secularism coupled with his much acclaimed notion of principled distance is the most desirable way to go ahead. Zaheer Ali gives a detailed historical background of secularism in India. He dismisses the charge of secularism being a western concept by providing ample evidences ranging from the beginnings of Indian civilization to the present times by saying that it has always been a practiced, experiential phenomenon for the Indian subcontinent. However, one wonders whether the popular examples of Buddhism, Jainism, Ashoka, Akbar and the salience of Bhakti movements are the only examples that make us a secular civilization. Also, amidst these examples, the relationship between Hindu and Muslim
communities at the societal, everyday level is conspicuous by its
absence which is markedly felt in understanding the same in medieval India for instance which could have served as a great foil to the usual tracing of degeneration from the British policy of ‘Divide and Rule’.
Of the articles that provide a more trenchant critique of this practised secularism are by Anand Teltumbde, Murzban Jal and Arun Patnaik. Teltumbde highlights the element of caste, along with the direct intervening of East India Company in religious affairs as something that accentuated the rift within communities. The Brahminization and Islamization of personal laws by the company with periodic succour provided by the elites of both the religious denomination, further exacerbated the relationship between the two. Religion and caste became instruments in the hands of the upper class that further alienated the people from each other. The excessive Hindu symbolism of the Congress also dampened the prospects of the growth of a robust secularism. Authors like Ram Puniyani dwell more on the class factor by bringing out the key role played by social movements of industrial bourgeoise and landless peasants in the West. The lack of the secularization process comprising material and social relations is said to be the main bone of contention. K. Srinivasulu makes a similar argument to map out the failure of the liberal framework which by focusing on electoral and political processes has not managed to make much sense of the ideological shift brought by the BJP.
Another drastically different ideological take is of Murzban Jal who seeks a reworking a secularism based on refurbishing revolutionary Marxism. With an intriguing title ‘Confronting Communal-Fascism@Bolshevik.Com’, he uses both dramaturgy as an idea of fiction that is simultaneously real and science to deal with the question of secularism. He makes a complex venture into understanding the caste-class nexus through Marx’s idea of the ‘secular’ thereby critiquing the ‘moderate’ liberal stand of ‘secularism as it is’ for failing to transform the conservative society and actually becoming a breeding ground for communal fascism. Marx’s idea of the secular i.e., historicization and humanization of society is preferred in order to transcend religion altogether and not giving it more leeway which would perpetuate its relevance. However, all the articles that deal with religion from this prism along with this one do not provide any prescriptions for how this will work in a deeply religious society like ours.
Arun Patnaik and Rajesh Bagh provide an excellent case study of the Kandhamal violence in Orissa by mapping out the devious role crony secularism plays which ‘does not want the communities to settle their own politico-religious disputes and solely relies on the time-consuming legal measure to settle their disputes’. How communities become mere pawns in the larger battle played for vested interests between the RSS and the Church is cogently brought out portraying the helplessness of both the communities involved in the violence. The case study shows that a more persistent dialogic encounter at the community level can become a more fruitful affair than the legal processes at hand.
Other articles, being slightly more limited become either repetitive or only manage to pose certain questions that more or less only get a perfunctory attention. Subhash Gatade on what do we exactly know about ‘minority communalism’, Shuja Shakir on the growing hiatus between preaching and practice, Asad Bin Saif on the intrinsic compatibility of democracy and secularism and Neetin Sonawane on how securing a decent livelihood becomes more pertinent than resolving religious conflicts are some of those observations. There are provocative suggestions as well that seem to be driven more by ideological bias than by concrete substantiation. Himanshu Roy argues for the annulment of religious rights in education as the secularization of society under market forces is deemed sufficient for their overall amelioration. Mohammad Fayaz gives a damning historical view of the AIMIM and how it does not contribute much to strengthen secularism. On the other hand, Himanshu Shekhar opines that secularism in India is a semitic-theological entity in the garb of secularism as according to him, the state has to pander to the rights of semitic religions. His rigid bracketing of pagan for Hinduism and semitic for Christianity and Islam fails to take a more societal, practised understanding of everyday religion and how the religious in the contemporary context are viewed as anything but homogenous entities. The critique of Partha Chatterjee’s secularism by Noorjahan Momin and the politics of Muslim reform as envisaged by Hamid Dalwai by Cybil Vinodon fail to contribute much in terms of original arguments.
All the three books, with all their insights, problems and limitations do raise a plethora of convoluted questions which need to be revisited systematically and more consistently. As there is a growing consensus among all the authors about India’s secularism being a peculiar one, it becomes even more difficult to agree on a broader framework for the subcontinent precisely because of its open ended nature.
Suraj Thube recently finished his post-graduation from the Department of Political Science, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.