Image by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič
masthead-3.jpg

Conferences

pattern-lines-white2.png
Search

Updated: Nov 23, 2020


This talk was delivered as part of the 5th annual History for Peace conference, The Idea of the Indian Constitution in July 2019.


I don’t think I have anything new to say—I’ll be merely reiterating what I have been saying for quite some time. What I am not sure is how many people have heard me say them. So I hope this may still sound new to some people.


My thesis is that Indian Constitutional secularism is not anti-religious but is against institutionalized religious domination which  assumes two forms: one, inter-religious and the other, intra-religious. In addition: Indian constitutional secularism is suspicious of, and, in all kinds of subtle ways, opposes and fights the ‘religionization of society’. I will explain what I mean by that.  I will do so in a self-reflexive manner, focusing not on all kinds of external attacks endured by secularism but on a few things which in my view have gone wrong in our understanding of secularism. I think this self-critical note is very important.


To substantiate my main point allow me to furnish some examples.


- A woman is burnt at the stake because she is believed to be a witch

- A man is stoned to death for heresy

- A woman is not allowed to enter a temple because she is more than15 and less than 55 years old, a time span in which she is menstruating and hence ‘polluted’.

- A man from the lowest caste, believed to be an untouchable is not allowed to take water from the well.

What is common to all these examples? In all these cases, (a) some person is discriminated against, excluded, marginalized, intimidated, oppressed or humiliated on grounds of religion or somewhere along the chain of reasoning behind it, a religious rationale is cited. (b) In each of these cases, both the victim and the perpetrator are from the same religious community. Call this intra-religious domination.

-religious domination takes other forms too as when (a) Ahmediyas are deemed to be non-Muslims and their places of worship prevented from being called ‘mosques’, (b) when Catholics are persecuted by Lutherans or (c) a Shaivite temple is desecrated by Vaishaivites.


Take another set of examples.

-A tax is imposed on Hindus but not on Muslims

-Churches are attacked by intolerant Hindus or militant Muslims

-Catholic schools are subsidized by the state but Hindu, Muslim, Protestant and Jewish schools are not.

- A person called Hussain is unable to get a house on rent in metropolitan cities

Here again we have (a) discrimination, exclusion, marginalization, oppression or humiliation on grounds of religion but (b) victims and perpetrators come from different religious communities. Call this inter-religious domination.


The point I wish to make through these examples is that Secularism must be seen as a critical social perspective not against every religious formation, or against religiosity or religion per say but against all forms of institutionalized religious domination.


Political secularism is a narrower part of this larger social perspective which claims that our states should be so designed so as to reduce both these forms of domination—so the state should not be captured by a particular group, nor align itself to a particular religious community. There should be some form of separation, albeit in a flexible way, between the two.


Now this form of secularism is an invention. If you might recall, from the early 1920s onwards, both sections of the Hindu and Muslim elites had got stuck into what might be called a majority-minority syndrome, a condition of spiraling estrangement between Hindus and Muslims, animosities circulated freely and adding layer and layer of grievances, antagonistic games played with no end in mind except the defeat and humiliation of the other, obviously with a lot of vested political and economic interests. Since Independence, the minorities were increasingly fearful of inter-religious domination and that, rather than going away, has been exacerbated by the formation of Pakistan. We have two problems now, the Hindu-Muslim problem within the territory of India, and the Indo-Pak which is outside, presumably between two countries. And the situation has worsened.


But the syndrome had another consequence. In the nineteenth century, a number of freedom- and equality-centric reforms had been initiated within both communities. Once this syndrome is set off by inter-communal rivalry, these freedom and equality centric reforms are forestalled and intensify the anti-reformist tendencies. Ambedkar grasped this point. He said: ‘When groups regard each other as menace, all energies are spent on meeting the menace, the exigencies of a common front against one another generates a conspiracy of silence over social evils. Internal dissent and conflict is squashed in favour of the idea that everyone must close ranks or the community will weaken.’[1]In other words, any fight against intra-religious domination is given up. Again, this is something that happened in 1947, both intra-and inter-religious domination on massive prospects.


There were clearly two options before us. One: a religion-centred state which would consolidate these forms of domination. A patriarchal, upper-caste, majoritarian state. That was always very much in the thought, imagination and practice of a number of people, not just within the Hindu right but also within the Congress—everybody knows that. Two: a secular state which would respect religion, which would counter these tendencies and reduce these forms of domination.


Credit must go to the people in the Constituent Assembly for taking the second option, despite the very strong presence and availability and backing of the first. In doing so, they developed a very distinctive form of secularism which countered these forms of domination, but was very respectful towards religiosity. Broadly speaking, the French model that interprets separation to mean one-sided exclusion is anti-religious in its ideal form—it doesn’t officially recognize religious community, it tries to remove religion from the public domain,  privatizes it, and very often shows active disrespect for religion. But Indian secularism doesn’t do any of that. It does not push religion outside the public domain. The Constitution recognizes religious communities particularly in the section on minority rights. And when the Constitution talks about giving funds to all religious communities non-preferentially, it also obviously recognizes (though not explicitly,) the majority Hindu community.


The other model is the idealized American model. There, instead of this one-sided exclusion, there is mutual exclusion—state and religion have their own respective areas of jurisdiction; the state cannot interfere in religion and religion cannot interfere in the state. That, of course, is something we can’t have in India. If we did, then we would not be able to ban untouchability, we would not be able to have legislations allowing entry of Dalits to temples, access to wells. Besides,  any kind of intervention in religion-based personal laws would be impossible.


The third model is  followed by the rest of Western Europe. There, after the initial hostility to Church or religion, what we have now are relatively religion-friendly states. This comes as a shock to many who think of Europe as a haven of secular humanism, which in some sense it is because it does defend individual rights, conceived independently of one’s religion. So there is no possibility of the non-religious to discriminate against the religious on any grounds. We like these aspects of the European states. Nonetheless, what we do not remember is that many of these states continue to have very strong institutional links with one church. These states are in some aspects secular, but they favour not just their own religion but one church of that religion. Now, this European arrangement should not really surprise us because secularism arose in societies which had already been religiously homogenized. This will take us into a long historical detour, but to explain things briefly: when there was a breakdown of Latin Christendom, there was a split between the Catholics and the Protestants. War broke out, there were efforts to bring peace, and one solution was to have One King, One Law and One Faith. This meant, quite literally, that the king had to proclaim (confess) his religion in public, and every single subject in his territory had to embrace this religion. Those who did not were banished or executed. Religious diversity, therefore, was never in issue there—that problem had been unethically resolved. There was one church, and the state was very closely aligned with the church.


In time, however, changes began to take place in the social, economic and political arena and people discovered that the church was socially oppressive and politically meddlesome. So they had ‘ unchurching struggles’ to separate the church from the state. At issue here was intra-religious domination—inter-religious domination was not an issue because religious diversity was not. And this is true even today because it was not until the twentieth century that religious diversity returns to Europe, thanks to immigration from former colonies and globalization. And we begin to have Christian faiths thrown together with pre-Christian and post-Christian faiths, leading to both religious diversity and tensions.


We can see that the Indian ideal is very different from the European model. And all those critics who have talked about Indian secularism being Christian and Western, have only got hold of a tiny bit of the story. A very large part of it is simply home-grown. Indian secularism has to fight two forms of domination, and it does so by a constitutional state which embodies critical respect towards all religions. It takes a complex, ambivalent view of religion which is neither wholly positive nor wholly negative. And so it has to interfere in some aspects of religion while leaving others alone, disengage with religions but also engage with religion positively and negatively—positively by giving protection to minorities, funding schools run by both majority and minority religious communities, so that there can be some kind of secular teaching along with religious instruction in some schools; and of course negative engagement in all kinds of ways like having in future a common civil code and so on. This stance I’ve called ‘principled distance’—to keep a non-interfering distance from religion in some contexts, for some purposes, or interfere, depending upon which of these strategies will help reduce the two forms of domination mentioned earlier. This is very different, as one can see, from all other models.


Let me now talk about the ‘religionization’ of society. In order to do that, I would like to draw a distinction between what I call an ‘ethics of self-fulfilment’ on the one hand, and norms of ‘social interaction’ on the other. What do I mean by ethics of self-fulfilment? We know that human beings have a lot of desires. And since we can evaluate our desires, we find that some are qualitatively more worthy than others. In fact we believe that some are of ultimate worth, and then we begin to realize that  a gap exists between what we currently are and what at our best we can be. And we develop ideals  of self-perfection and self-realization, and try and figure out different strategies or paths to achieve that goal. This is what I broadly call the ethics of self-fulfilment, and very often this is something we do not only with the help of other followers of the chosen path, forming ethical communities, but also by looking up to our guides or teachers. In short, we can’t achieve self-realization by ourselves—we always need other people to encourage and help us.


Every society has these ethical communities—some gods- and goddesses-dependent, some are God dependent, and many, independent of God, goddesses or gods. Early historians of India know this as well, that the first 1,500 years of recorded history in India are a history of major philosophical traditions that were completely independent of God, some of them outright atheistic. They might have gods and goddesses but those deities were always not very relevant. And so we had till the ninth century a very strong atheistic tradition. But the point I am making is that even in India, for the first thousand years after the common era, there was ethical pluralism, each group pursuing the idea of self-fulfilment in its own way. In some of these, a new factor was introduced which has then played havoc in the lives of these ethical communities and indeed in the whole world, and that is what we might call an emphatic conception of the truth—the idea that there is one true God, one true understanding of what the Good Life is, and by implication that all others are false. This is obviously not very hospitable to pluralism. Diversity is natural, but it is then obstructed by this emphatic conception of truth. This brought in a variety of ways in which new forms of hatred, new categorical identities, new forms of radical exclusivism were born. There is of course some radical exclusivism in the Abrahamic traditions, but, in my view, Dharamshastric Brahminism which is also a part of the story also resisted pluralism of the kind we wish to defend now, or defended earlier.


Every society has these ethical communities—some gods- and goddesses-dependent, some are God dependent, and many, independent of God, goddesses or gods. Early historians of India know this as well, that the first 1,500 years of recorded history in India are a history of major philosophical traditions that were completely independent of God, some of them outright atheistic. They might have gods and goddesses but those deities were always not very relevant. And so we had till the ninth century a very strong atheistic tradition. But the point I am making is that even in India, for the first thousand years after the common era, there was ethical pluralism, each group pursuing the idea of self-fulfilment in its own way. In some of these, a new factor was introduced which has then played havoc in the lives of these ethical communities and indeed in the whole world, and that is what we might call an emphatic conception of the truth—the idea that there is one true God, one true understanding of what the Good Life is, and by implication that all others are false. This is obviously not very hospitable to pluralism. Diversity is natural, but it is then obstructed by this emphatic conception of truth. This brought in a variety of ways in which new forms of hatred, new categorical identities, new forms of radical exclusivism were born. There is of course some radical exclusivism in the Abrahamic traditions, but, in my view, Dharamshastric Brahminism which is also a part of the story also resisted pluralism of the kind we wish to defend now, or defended earlier.


When I talk about religionization, I mean the conversion of the loose ensemble of religious views and practices into one syste