Debate Secularism but Don’t Let the ‘Enemy’ Get Too ‘Intimate’

People have the freedom to follow any panth or dharm. But a secular state forbids political claims in their name.

Sanchi stupa. Credit: Travelling slacker/Flickr

Sanchi stupa. Credit: Travelling slacker/Flickr

Hot on the heels of the Modi government recently declaring ‘secular’ to be the “most misused” word’ in the Indian political lexicon, the well-know political psychologist Ashis Nandy has given an interview  in which he has once again questioned the idea of ‘secularism’. But this time, apart from reasserting his old quarrel with the term, especially in the Indian context, he comes out in favour of the new twist to the Hindi meaning of ‘secular’ given by the Union home minister in parliament, as ‘panth nirpeksh’ (non-sectarian) and not ‘dharm nirpeksh’ (non-religious).

Though Nandy does not believe the BJP is genuinely secular, he accepts the translation offered by Rajnath Singh that secular means ‘panth nirpeksh’ rather than ‘dharm nirpeksh’. According to Nandy, the word ‘dharm’, which he defines by the phrase ‘ethical conduct’, cannot be something that anyone can be neutral about. Ethical conduct is a matter of choice and we cannot escape making that choice. But ‘panth’, which means ‘sect’ or ‘belief system’ as Nandy prefers it, is something we can be “equidistant” from or neutral about. That is in a nutshell what Nandy understands, which leads him to agree with ‘secular’ being ‘panth nirpeksh’, hence unsuitable or not possible as a principle of the state. He gives a further clarification of his stance when he says: “But I, as a State, cannot be nirpeksh (neutral) when it comes to the dharm of my subjects. That’s not my swadharm. I will have to take a stance.” And this is how he defines ‘swadharm’: “Swadharm is culture-independent, group-independent and person-independent. All beings have different ethics and we have to live with that.”

In the West, the idea of ‘secular’ and the ‘secular state’ simply means separation of church (or religion) from state. In other words, the state cannot owe allegiance to, or favour, any religion. But historically, a more complex phenomenon has emerged in the West’s dealing with the concept of secularism, primarily in dealing with its religious minorities. So a more dynamic concept of ‘secularisation’ has emerged, and is seen as a movement rather than a fixed concept, which however has had a bearing on the concept of the ‘secular’ itself.

There’s dharm and then there’s dhamma

Nandy admits the modern idea of ‘religion’ used even in India is largely “derived from Protestant Christianity.” The idea of ‘dharm’ as religion, Nandy clarifies, is a modern, and “narrow” phenomenon. The older meaning of ‘dharm’ is much more complicated and, presumably, wider in meaning. But is it so? At least in the case of Hindus, we know ‘dharm’ was a highly contextual issue. Can the idea of ārya dharm or kshatriya dharm in ancient texts, as specific to the larger Brahminical order of laws and conduct, be today considered ‘dharm’ without critical engagement (if not outright dismissal)? The idea of ‘dharm’ in Hindu society is deeply entwined in the caste structure. So the idea of ‘dharm’ is far from universal. Just as Ambedkar had sharply pointed out, the idea of ‘karma’ in the Gita is not a universal idea of ‘work’ but related to one’s specific, caste position.

In fact the term ‘dharm’ in our case has to be measured and argued against another important term: ‘dhamma’. Dhamma, coming from Buddhism, is in many fundamental ways, a critique of the idea of ‘dharm’ and Ambedkar understood it as such. In the part ‘What is not Dhamma’ from his treatise on Buddha’s life and Buddhism, Ambedkar identifies these aspects: Belief in the supernatural, belief in ‘ishwara’ (god), union with ‘Brahma’, belief in ‘soul’ or ‘atman’, belief in sacrifices and even belief in the “infallibility of books” as not ‘dhamma’. So it is clear, there are radical divergences within the ‘Indian’ traditions, of what constitutes ‘dharm’ and its critique in the idea of ‘dhamma’. The critique, one must note, is both philosophical (scholastic) as well as political (historical).

The source of diversity

If Ashis Nandy and Rajnath Singh find the modern idea of ‘secular’ alien, inhibiting or narrow, they have to enter into a debate about ‘dharm’, simply because there are other contending ideas from our past. If no majoritarian connections are made between the modern Indian state and Hinduism or what constitutes ‘Hindu’ identity, and if ‘others’ (to use an ethical term in this regard rather than the more sociological term ‘minorities’) are a legitimate part of this debate, then a more heterogeneous idea of what is ‘ethical conduct’ has to be determined. And the idea of this conduct is obviously not outside criticism. So before we move into the idea of ‘secular’ as ‘panth nirpeksh’ Nandy has to more deeply clarify the terms about ‘dharm’.

For Nandy, to use a term like “nasty dharm” for the Nazis, which he says found much support from the Sangh Parivar, simply doesn’t make sense – Can there be a nasty ethics? Is nasty ethics, ethical? Nandy, by defining ethics in terms of mere “conduct”, sets an ethical trap (or narrow corner) for himself. That is because Nandy doesn’t consider, at least in this interview, the question of violence with regard to what he calls ‘dharm’. This is precisely the question that led Gandhi to differ with other nationalists regarding the  Gita. And it is impossible to debate that text without Ambedkar’s racial critique. It takes us to the heart of Gandhi’s idea of non-violence situated in the individual and Ambedkar’s, in the social, which in turn may lead us to Ambedkar’s emphasis on ‘maitri’ (social friendliness or solidarity) vis-à-vis the idea of ‘daya’ (compassion)

One agrees with Nandy when he maintains that tolerance, or “acceptance” isn’t a “Hindu trait”. He places that trait in all “Indus Valley civilisations” which include, as he points out, Indian Islam, Jainism and Buddhism. Here I presume he is talking about various dharms which make up the Indian context. And this is what introduces, he says, “radical diversity” in our society. Clearly, here Nandy is not agreeing with the BJP’s idea that India is tolerant and secular because of Hindus or Hinduism alone. In fact, the distinction that is drawn even in the West between a ‘secular state’ and a ‘secular society’ can be drawn here as well in light of this “radical diversity” that exists in our society outside the norms set by a majoritarian idea of Hinduism or Hindu society. India is a secular society because various world views coexist for which no particular religion can take credit.

But Nandy makes a strange and contradictory gesture by agreeing to the idea of the ‘secular’ as ‘panth nirpeksh’.  In his essay, ‘The Distinctiveness of Indian Secularism’, Rajeev Bhargava mentions the existence of multiple religious traditions making up a kind of proto-secular aspiration as seen in Ashoka and Akbar. Interestingly, the example he takes of a ‘Hindu’ equivalent to Akbar and Ashoka is from the 14th century Vijayanagar that granted official recognition to Shaivites, Vaishnavites, and even Jains. This last example comes close to the idea of ‘panth nirpeksh’. But the question is, is it adequate anymore?

If we merge the idea of the secular to ‘panth nirpeksh’ we are merely granting leverage to sectarian modes of life and thought, and thereby completely ignoring the political sphere. It is not that sects may not have a political character. But if, as Nandy himself argues, modernity has ushered a more homogenous idea of religion since the 19th century, isn’t that the idea ruling all majoritarian ideas of religious nationalism? And isn’t secularism precisely an important concept to keep that idea at bay? Isn’t Nandy fudging the issue between what a state and what people should follow? People have the freedom to follow any panth or dharm. But a secular state forbids anybody to stake political claims in the name of any panth or dharm, even as it recognises their social and cultural (even religious) existence. Isn’t that political delineation important in preventing a majoritarian legitimacy or takeover? Isn’t secularism then to be regarded as an all-encompassing ethic in the social realm,  and a limited, partial but crucial value of the state?

Secularism as a challenge

Jawaharlal Nehru gives us an important clue when he writes, “We call our state a secular one. The word ‘secular’ perhaps is not a very happy one. And yet, for want of a better, we have used it. What exactly does it mean? It does obviously mean a state where religion as such is discouraged. It means freedom of religion and conscience, including freedom for those who may have no religion. It means free play for all religions, subject only to their not interfering with each other or with the basic conceptions of our state.” Apart from clarifying what I have been arguing as the limited but important political necessity of secularism for the state, Nehru in the beginning makes another crucial gesture: He confesses the difficulty in defining what is secular. This difficulty is perhaps not secularism’s weakness but its strength. Even Bhargava writes about the problems that ideas in general face, including secularism, “One reason for this is that we forget that they need continual interpretation: no idea can flourish without its defenders finding better and better ways of articulating and formulating them (my italics)”.

Perhaps it is a better idea to keep reinterpreting the word ‘secular’ and to always welcome any debate around the term. But not at the cost of designs to remove the word from India’s Constitution. Nandy cannot agree with an ideological group on the meaning of the term ‘secular’ and then disagree with them about what makes up our ‘radical diversity’. Or the ‘enemy’ might get too ‘intimate’ Prof. Nandy?

Manash Bhattacharjee is a poet, writer and political science scholar. His first collection of poetry, Ghalib’s Tomb and Other Poems (2013), was published by The London Magazine. He is currently Adjunct Professor in the School of Culture and Creative Expressions at Ambedkar University, New Delhi.