Reviving the Debate on Indian Secularism in the Age of Religious Nationalism

The failure of the secularism project is also the failure of the democratic project. The country has already paid a heavy price for devaluing the concept.

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I have, over time, read Jawhar Sircar’s learned and courageous contributions to The Wire with some admiration. But I must confess that his latest piece ‘India’s Left Liberals Need an Urgent Mid-Stream Correction’ stumped me, somewhat.

I might have misunderstood the gist of his argument. But then I might not. In the penultimate paragraph of his essay, he writes that “we” – presumably “Left liberals” – have to move away from “the inheritance of antiseptic ‘no religion’ Western secularism and gravitate toward a more inclusive secular idiom that appreciates that religiosity is not synonymous with communalism”.

In the following section, I suggest that the argument is based upon two misconceptions: one is to conflate secularisation and secularism, and the other is to conflate ‘religion as faith’ with ‘religion’ as a ‘political project’.

‘Religion as faith’ is neither the problem nor the solution. The main problem is ‘religion as a political project’, which is obsessed with power in the public domain. We can only counter this trend through the adoption of a political project that sees secularism as a companion concept of democracy. I hope Sircar will take this suggestion as an invitation for a dialogue and not as criticism of his, admittedly, well-meaning argument.

Also read: India’s Left Liberals Need an Urgent Mid-Stream Correction

Let us begin with his description of Left liberals: former communists who, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, made common cause with the “offspring of Oxbridge and tenure professors”. He further tells us that the English educated class which included many who had studied abroad, or are deeply connected with the Western academia or media, invariably ape Euro-American liberals and disown religion as positively untouchable.

I think Sircar does injustice to those of us (Left liberals) who studied in the stimulating environment of our own public universities, who have been inspired by Pandit Nehru’s ideals, and who recognised with great distress, that his idea of democracy was increasingly under threat from the religious right-wing. Even if Nehru studied abroad, his ideas on secularism were moulded by political events in India, and not so much by Western academic outpourings.

Nehru on religion and the public sphere

It is well known that Nehru was extremely impatient with religion. It might be an anchor for some, he once wrote, but I do not seek harbourage in this way. “I prefer the open sea with all its storms and tempests.”

His biographer S. Gopal records that Nehru was to change his mind after the communal fury that accompanied the Partition of India. He cites a letter in which Nehru expressed discomfort with the role played by religion in collective life.

“I,” he wrote, “have lost confidence in myself though I am not usually given that way. But the last two or three years have had a powerful effect on me. My own mind moves on a different plane and most of my interests lie in other directions. And so, though I have given much thought to the problem and understand most of its implications, I feel as if I was an outsider and alien in spirit.”

One would have expected Nehru, a secularist in the Western mode, to banish religion from the public sphere of politics as Kemal Attaturk had done in Turkey. But, that would be bad history and bad politics. India had witnessed the politicisation of religion since the latter part of the 19th century. The colonial government had begun to define Indians on the basis of their religion in one census after another. Religious identity came to play an important role in competition for limited representation in legislative councils.

Also read: Flashback: When Nehru Insisted Government Couldn’t Back Religious Conference

On the other hand, the national project tied itself to religion in terms of vocabulary, in terms of understanding, and in terms of identity. By the beginning of the 20th century, religious projects provided a strong incentive for competitive nationalism. Competing religious nationalisms culminated in the Partition of India. Religion had been catapulted from the private into the public sphere as a form of pure politics.

Sircar writes that India had two variants of the secular ethos to choose from: Nehru’s aversion to religion per se and his brand of secularism that insulated against religion, and the Gandhian version soaked in religion which was truly plural.

Nehru was more than aware of an entire brand of politics that resulted from the politicisation of religion, and from the detachment of public religion from faith. He despaired because he would have preferred to see religion vanish from the public sphere. But he had to change his attitude to the role of religion in public life in the aftermath of Partition.

Jawaharlal Nehru. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

In a convocation address to the Aligarh Muslim University on January 24, 1948, Nehru rhetorically asked “do we believe in a national state, which includes people of all religions and shades of opinion and is essentially secular as a State, or do we believe in the religious theocratic conception of a State that considers people of other faiths as something beyond the pale?…[t]he idea of religious or a theocratic State was given up by the world some centuries ago and it has no place in the mind of a modern man. And yet the question has to be put in India today, for some of us, have tried to jump back to a past age”.

In pursuance of these objectives, Pandit Nehru was to declare: “[t]he government of a country like India, with many religions that have secured great and devoted following for generations, can never function satisfactorily in the modern age except on a secular basis.”

We can hardly subscribe to the view that he insulated society from religion. Even as he recognised the role of religion in public affairs, Nehru wanted to ensure that no one religion would dominate collective life, even if it was followed by the majority. Conversely, no religion would lose out, even if it was followed by a minority.

In 1961, in a preface to a work on secularism, Dharam Nirpeksh Raj by Raghunath Singh, Nehru further elaborated the concept of secularism. “It is perhaps not very easy even to find a good word in Hindi for ‘secular’. Some people think it means something opposed to religion. That, obviously is not correct. What it means is that it is a state which honours all faiths equally and gives them equal opportunities, that, as a state, it does not allow itself to be attached to one faith or religion, which then becomes the state religion.”

Pandit Nehru, in other words, recognised the distinction between secularisation or privatisation of religion, and secularism as an integral doctrine of the state that honours all faiths equally.

Also read: The Nehru That India Cannot Forget

Whatever be the private beliefs of people, in the public sphere, no one should be discriminated against, or favoured, because of her or his religious beliefs. Secularism is based on the same principles as democracy – no one should be discriminated against on the basis of factors outside their control.

The wider lesson is that we need to distinguish between secularisation and secularism. Secularisation is a sociological concept; secularism is a political concept. European societies were secularised in the 18th century, because religion was sought to be relegated to the private sphere. Religion did not go away as a system of belief, but it lost its commanding role in public affairs.

Secularisation is not another synonym of atheism. Atheists are non-believers; secular people can be religious. But they might feel that their conversations with God are a personal matter, and should not be used to discriminate between citizens.

Secularism and democracy in India

In India, circumstances were different. Religion was politicised in the late 19th century by the colonial government. Every census identified Indians by their religion. The colonial government spent its time counting how many Hindus and how many Muslims formed part of the governed, and how benefits such as limited representation can be portioned between them. As religious identities hardened, they became the basis of competitive nationalisms that culminated in the Partition of India.

Significantly the leadership of the Indian National Congress took care to spell out the responsibility of the state in a society where religion had been politicised. On March 31, 1931, in the aftermath of a deadly communal riot in Kanpur, Gandhi moved a resolution on fundamental rights in the open session of the Congress at Karachi. He spoke of the need for religious neutrality.

Mahatma Gandhi. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Mahatma Gandhi. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

“Let us,” he enjoined the gathering, “cultivate tolerance. Swaraj will favour Hinduism no more than Islam, nor Islam more than Hinduism.” “Let us from now on,” he concluded, “adopt the principle of state neutrality in our daily affairs. State neutrality in matters of religious affairs became a public creed, and a matter of faith for Congress. State neutrality towards religious groups is the first principle of secularism, because all faiths are held to be equal.”

This creed has been reiterated by the Supreme Court often enough. On October 27, 2016, amidst an acrimonious legal debate on curbing the role of religion in electioneering, the honourable justices of the Supreme Court rhetorically asked whether secularism meant a complete separation of religion from politics.

Also read: How Secular Is the Secularism of the Secular Parties?

The then Chief Justice Thakur, Justices Madan B. Lokur, S.A Bobde, Adarsh K. Goel, U.U Lalit, D.Y Chandrachud and L.N Rao concluded that secularism does not mean that the state should stay aloof from religion. It should extend equal treatment to every religion.

The Supreme Court, in effect, reiterated what an earlier court had ruled in the case of S.R. Bommai versus the Union of India in 1994. Different judges gave different, albeit overlapping, interpretations of secularism. The following themes were catapulted onto the constitutional understanding of the concept.

One, since secularism is part of the basic structure of the constitution, no government can amend it. Two, the honourable justices agreed that secularism is derived from the cultural principle of tolerance and ensures the equality of religions. The cultural principle is referred to as a Sarva Dharma Sambhav. Three, the court held that no religion will be at risk in a secular India, because the government will not be aligned to religion. Four, there is an essential connection between secularism and democracy.

These rulings are encouraging. Yet the country has failed to realise an essential aspect of the democratic state’s ‘religious neutrality’. The failure of the secularism project is also the failure of the democratic project. Discrimination on the basis of religion violates the basic creed of democracy: freedom, equality and justice.

This is not, perhaps, the best time to defend secularism. But it is also not the worst of times to revive the debate in India. The country has paid a heavy price for devaluing the concept. The near exit of secularism from political imaginings, and visions of how a plural and complex society can be held together, is a matter for some regret. We have landed up in a situation where hate speech and incredibly violent acts towards vulnerable sections of our society dominate the headlines of morning newspapers. Life in India has become fearful and intimidating, as a muscular nationalism is paraded on the streets by self-appointed custodians of a shallow political morality.

The marginalisation of the principle from political debate also happens to be short-sighted. This is because the binary opposite of secularism is not communalism, as is popularly believed, but an intolerant and majoritarian government at best, and theocratic government which rules in the name of one religion at worst. We need to expand our democratic imaginations to include secularism as equality or even a paler version of equality that is non-discrimination to counter this threat.

Neera Chandhoke was a professor of political science at Delhi University.