At a session dedicated to explaining the RSS at the Jaipur Literary Festival this year, the moderator, Pragya Tiwari, asked about secularism. Manmohan Vaidya, the All India Prachar Pramukh, or media in charge, responded by dismissing the term in two ways – by saying that it was merely a descriptor used to malign a certain set of people and keep them out of power, and that, since India had never had a theocratic state, secularism was neither needed or demanded. This response is illustrative of the confusion around the term.
This is what makes Nalini Rajan’s, The Story of Secularism: 15th -21th Century, illustrated by Priyanka Kumar, so timely. The book is meant to be an introduction to the concept of secularism, looking at how it is practiced in France and the US, but primarily focussing on how these relate to Indian conditions. It is also meant to be a ‘graphic book’ – although what this means is unclear. A graphic novel would have meant that the whole text is explained largely through illustrations. Unfortunately while Kumar’s illustrations are excellent, they are, at best, either used to introduce or conclude a point. Given their quality, it is a shame, as it is possible to imagine the whole book as a graphic novel – in the style of Joe Sacco, or David Mazzucchelli’s adaptation of Paul Auster’s City of Glass.
The book begins with examples from Vijayanagara and the Mughal Empire, illustrating how power in undemocratic societies was deeply dependent on the vagaries of the rulers, thus it was less a principle than a whim. The choice to leave out Ashoka – who far preceded these rulers – is a little odd if we are supposed to look at secularism in history. As Sten Widmalm shows in his book on democratic roots in India, Ashoka’s evocation of dhamma – without defining the details of that dhamma – allowed the accommodation of religious difference without it impinging on citizenship. This is the kernel and core of the secularism that Rajan is talking about.
This chapter ends with Rajan speaking about three principles that are negotiated in a secular state, that is state neutrality, equal citizenship, and freedom of religion, ending with:
Remember, there is no ideal secular state. There is always room for negotiation in a secular state. If one emphasises the principle of state neutrality or equal citizenship, one is forced to tone down the principle of religious freedom, and vice versa.
These are excellent points, and well worth remembering.
The next chapter, on ‘Secularism in France’, could possibly be better called ‘Secularism in Europe’, since major actors and their contribution such as Martin Luther, John Calvin and Karl Marx were anything but French, and their actions and writing are – as Rajan demonstrates – central to the ideas of the French Republic. It is somewhat strange to see Voltaire – with his well-documented anti-Semitism (“in his Treatise on Toleration (sic), 1763, wrote that the Jews are, “the most detestable [nation] ever to have sullied the earth…”) – as part of the exemplars of secularism. Luther and Calvin’s vicious sectarianism also goes unmentioned. For the sake of amusement it is worth reading the Catholic Encyclopaedia on Mohammed, which happily quotes Luther’s vicious diatribe against Mohammed (“a devil and first-born child of Satan”).
Rajan’s contention that, “Perhaps also no other country has faced challenges to secularism in the present day as has France,” is also a little funny. If you visit France you will find lovely churches and cathedrals, all maintained at public expense and free to the public. When a state spends more than 700 million Euros per year for the maintenance of the places of worship of one particular community it has limited right to call itself secular – either in the equal treatment of those from religious community or in separation of state and church. That aside, Rajan’s articulation about the current issues related to secularism in France, especially related to the hijab, is both well-told and detailed. The role of women’s organisations such “Ni Putes, Ni Soumises (‘Neither Whores, Nor Doormats’)” is important and helps give a good example of organisations that are able to challenge dominant discourses, whether from their own communities, or from the state.
The next chapter is on the United States, which is somewhat odd, as Rajan has previously mentioned that the US Revolution preceded (and, in fact, inspired) the later French Revolution. One of the defining factors of the US war of independence is the establishment of the first modern, constitution-based, democracy – one which has existed relative stably since 1776, unlike France’s history of revolutions, coups, and counter-revolutions. At the centre of US constitution are two immensely important concepts – the first, being the articulation of equal rights of all people, “We hold these truths to be self-evident…), and the second, the separation of church and state.
Although Rajan mentions that the second principle became embedded and actualised into law rather late, it is worth remembering that the original British “pilgrims” who founded US colonies were also fleeing the religious repression they experienced in their own countries. The framers of the US constitution, therefore, spent considerable effort in creating that distance. It is also worth noting that Mohammed III of Morocco became the first head of state to recognise the United States. While it is possible to overstate the consequences of this, the US history of dealing with people of differing faiths is a rich and long one.
As Rajan shows, this has not necessarily worked out so well in practice. She focuses on particular legal cases, especially those challenging the teachings of Darwinian evolution and its challengers. This makes for great reading, but there is a more obvious example of religious discrimination. In the more than two centuries of the country’s existence, it has elected 45 presidents. All except one were Protestant Christians – John F. Kennedy Jr – and he was assassinated. The prejudice against Catholics is obvious in the racist undercurrent in jokes against Italians, the Irish, the Poles and the Hispanic community and has a long and violent history. When the Pope contributed a stone for the Washington monument, political rebels sank the boat carrying it in the middle of a river. For some reason Rajan does not remark on this dominance by a particular sect of Christians controlling access to the most powerful positions in a country for so long.
After these overviews of the French and American cases, Rajan dives back into India. Using the examples that she has presented in the sections on France and the US, Rajan turns her attention to three major anti-secular arguments: (i) that Indic spiritual traditions are very different from European ones, (ii) that communalism is a new thing and that communities could live in peace without secularism, and (iii) that in practice the state can never be neutral between religions. Taking apart these arguments, Rajan does a commendable job in showing how these arguments depend on cherry-picking facts while ignoring large amounts of verifiable history.
Lastly she focuses on two main issues – that of religious conversion and the Uniform Civil Code and women’s rights, giving a detailed overview of the debates.
This is a great little book, informed by the 15 years that Rajan has been teaching the subject at the Asian College of Journalism. If it has lacunae they emerge out of two problems – firstly this is a hard subject to simplify and as demonstrated above, you can easily leave out many, many interesting details. Secularism, as Rajan herself states, has been pursued differently by different polities, with no perfect solution. The second problem is that Rajan’s writing reflects a certain Socratic model of question and answer teaching. This is fine in a classroom and is to be recommended. It works less well in book form, as the recipient of the lecture cannot debate, question or ask for an explanation, as they would in an academic setting.
That said, this is a great introduction to a complex topic and a good way for young readers to start thinking about a difficult subject that we will continue to debate for many years to come.