Image by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič

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 system. I believe this process did not fully get going in India until the seventeenth or eighteenth century. There were tendencies, currents, and certain groups existed which very much wanted this system to develop but religionization was not successful. But before the end of the eighteenth century this process gathered momentum. So, for example, in the Indian context, if the ideology of  caste  provides norms of how people are to behave with one another, then it is not clear to me that it has always been a part of what we now called religion. There were a whole lot of ethics of self-fulfilment and each of them had a loose relationship with caste-based norms but this loose structure of norms and ideas did not constitute a singular system that could later be called religion. It was not until the late 18th and early 19the century that we begin to get an idea that a particular ethics, and that ethics alone is linked to the caste-system well demarcated from other systems. I would further propose that anybody who wants to protect power and privilege would want this religionization to happen, and anybody who would want to dismantle this privilege would not.

That fight is still going on. It gathered momentum in the nineteenth century and grew much stronger in the twentieth. The Constitution takes a stand against the formation of such a system by recognizing that the norms of social interaction in India were deeply hierarchical, and need to be abolished. But it also acknowledged the need for the various kinds of Hindu and other ethics should  somehow be preserved and allowed, in their best form, to grow. So, on the one hand, it wishes the preservation of religious pluralism; and on the other, it attacks the caste system. That is possible only if the link between them is loose. If it’s tight, then you have to get rid of the entire thing. Which is exactly happened in the West. In the West, secularization had to mean an assault  on Christian dogma, as well as an  attack on the Church. In India, because of the nature of Indian society and Indian ways of thinking, these two are not always linked. So you can safely protect this pluralist ethics at the same time as you attack the caste system. Therefore my view is that the Constitution tries to prevent in whatever way possible the religionization of society.

Now let me go over some of the problems we have been facing. One: we—both religious and secular individuals—have too readily accepted religion in the sense in which the Europeans had religion, and  alternative forms of religiosity are not given as much importance as they should. This is a mistake made by  secularists as much as the Religion-minded. But if we learn properly from history we can undo some of the damage. It is better done better if we  understand the various religio-philosophical traditions of India, and also see what kinds of parallel developments were  taking place in Europe. mind. I don’t  see why China and Japan can’t come into the story, because we have a lot of similarities with them in this matter, more than with Europe. They are also facing similar problems, they also have something like Confucianism that they have branded as religion but which everybody recognizes is not quite religion. So, far more collective work and mutual learning is required between India and South East Asia. The comparison with Europe is okay, but it is pointless if it is done without a broader comparison with other South East Asian religions.

Two: a lot of us, in my view, have not defended the version of secularism that I have tried to articulate and that is found in the Indian Constitution—we have either defended the French model or the American model. This, I think, is completely misguided. We have, on the one hand, Professors Madan and Nandy who have challenged secularism of this western variety, without telling us unambiguously whether we need some other version or not and we have, on the other hand, those who defend a universalist secularism that expunges religion from the public domain. Our Constitution sternly refutes both ideas.

Yet most Indian secularists have frequently defended not this complex, sophisticated, very Indian Constitutional secularism but instead some very limited and partial version of it or worse, one or the other western variants. Secularists have not demonstrated that they have properly understood their secularism. As result they have disregarded the complex and variegated ways in which inter- and intra-religious domination persists in the interstices of Indian society. At best, they have challenged it only half-heartedly.

One manifestation of this misunderstanding is the complete and exhaustive identification of secularism with a defence of minority rights, as if the only purpose of secularism is to equally respect all religions and to provide support to all of themmy third proposition. On this view, fighting inter-religious domination seems to be the only raison d'être of secularism. But this forgets that an equally important purpose of Indian secularism and indeed the primary purpose of all western secularisms has been to counter intra-religious domination. That one function of a secular state is to encourage freedom, equality and justice-centred reforms in every religion, to protect individuals from oppression by their own fellow co-religionists, indeed, to rescue ordinary Hindus , Muslims, Christians and Sikhs from their own religious extremists, to liberate religion from bigotry and fanaticism, simply slips off the radar of secularism. The marginalization of socio-religious reform in the agenda of Indian secularism and the resulting exclusive focus on minority rights lends credence to the mostly unjust charge of minoritism. If secularism is seen as concerned solely with the defence of minority rights, it can be viewed as a tool to protect the interests of Muslims and Christians, and having little to do with Hindus. It can then be twisted to appear as pro-Muslim and anti-Hindu. But secularism is needed as much to protect Hindus from their own extremists and homogenizers and from the exclusionary instincts of its traditional power wielders that have cared little in the past for Dalits and women.

Put differently, the reduction of secularism to a minority-protection device and the disconnection of minority-rights discourse from feminist and Dalit discourses has led to the weakening of the politics of all vulnerable sections of society. Instead of standing together and complementing one another, today, secular, feminist and Dalit discourses, in many contexts, confront one another as competitors, if not opponents.

The strength of Indian secularism—its defence of minority rights—is easily made to appear as its weakness and the burden of its defence, rather than be shared by all citizens, falls on the minorities and ‘pro-minority’ secularists. This is both unfair and unnecessary. The misunderstanding of Indian secularism, especially as an anti-religious doctrine has meant that secularists have not maintained a proper distinction between the communitarian and the communal. A communitarian position is one that an individual is at least partly defined by his or her religious/philosophical commitments and traditions (community) and therefore that there is nothing inappropriate in proclaiming that one is a Hindu/Muslim/Sikh/Christian/Marxist/Advaita and so on. Indeed, in some instances, a person may even take legitimate pride in one’s community and community identityas long as the person is also prepared to be openly ashamed when there is good reason to. A communitarian position is different from a communal one. A communal perspective is one in which one’s community identity is defined in opposition to, not in dialogue with, other communities (Recall the modern conception of confessional religion that I alluded to earlier) such that the existence and interests is necessarily viewed as being at the expense of other communities and community identities. It is communal to believe or act in a way that presupposes that one can’t be a Hindu without being anti-Muslim or vice-versa. Communalism is communitarianism gone sour. Perhaps, very much in line the tone and substance of the paper, communal is also a term that can be legitimately used for communitarian excesses that thwart individual interests and autonomy.

The conflation of communitarian and communal in India has often meant that secular persons with a Hindu background or identity have not found a way of articulating the religious or socio-religious interests of Hindus without sounding communal and have often appeared to have defended Muslim faith and interests in bad faith, as if in doing so, they were really being communal but this was permissible given the vulnerability of minorities in a representative democracy dominated by Hindus. The fact is that there is nothing wrong in articulating and defending some Hindu, Muslim and Christian interests when they do not come into conflict with one another. This can be done without guilt or shame. However, sadly, Indian secularism has rarely sorted out this issue and dispelled this confusion. Lack of clarity and honesty has bred indefensible swings from one communal position to another and a lot of avoidable hypocrisy. Proponents of secularism have managed to avoid this problem occasionally, sporadically, inconsistently, somewhat superficially and half-heartedly but had to and will have to do so with greater understanding of each other’s religious tradition, consistently, all the time. This brings me to my  final point, one that I make with less certainty but feel compelled to put on the table, all the same. This relates to my remark about the general ignorance of religious and philosophical traditions, both one’s own and of the other. There continues to exist deep fault lines in our education system. We have universities in India where there are no religious studies, and universities without departments of comparative religion. This means that students come out of the university system without a deeper, critical understanding of the great religious traditions of the world. As a result, both the critique and defence of our own religion and that of the other is at best shallow and frequently mischievous. This is so unlike the ‘secular’ West where the study of comparative religions is done seriously in institutions of higher learning. Some of the best studies of ancient Hindu traditions and medieval and modern Hinduism have emanated from university departments. I simply wish to flag this issue because I believe it needs greater attention, discussion and debate, not secularist posturing.

Furthermore, and this is true as much of the west as it is of countries such as India, the study of religion is not seen as central to humanities and the social sciences. In parts of the west, religion could be studied separately because at some point in their history, it became identified with doctrine and belief and belief came to be viewed not as love, allegiance or trust, as when one still says that I truly believe in him or his word, but rather something to do with propositional claims or assertions; Quite like, I believe that it is raining, I would say, I believe that God exists. A belief, on this view, is an idea in the head which can be true or false. This view of religion was neither prevalent in pre-modern Europe nor captures the complex phenomenon that it is meant to in the South Asian context, where religion is inscribed in the institutional, cultural and linguistic matrix of the whole society. It follows that here in India what we today call religion must be made integral to the social sciences.

My final, brief remark: Defenders of secularism need to do three things simultaneously and consistently. Their (a) defence of minority rights must always be accompanied by (b) a robust critique of minority extremism and all forms of communalisms and both of these must always reflect (c) a deeper understanding and defence of the best of every religious tradition. Our critiques of minority extremism and majoritarianism must reflect that we know minority and majority religious traditions from the inside.

Question And Answer Session

Revati Laul. Hi, I am Revati, I’m a journalist and I have worked a lot on what’s happened in the space of the religionization of our society as a whole. Can we still try to retrieve the communitarian versus communal distinction when people are being lynched every day? How do we get back the good side from the circumstances we are in right now?

Bhargava. This mob machine cannot be stopped by simply correcting our vision—you need laws and legal machinery, you need political will, building of wider public opinion. I think education and culture are the spheres where we, who work with ideas, should start. Ideological changes and changes in perspective cannot take place within a few years—this is something we can only achieve by education of our traditions as well as of other cultures. This is something which should have been done, I am sure some have or are already doing it but the effects are not yet visible. But all of must begin or join in this work, make sure it is carried forward by the next generation. It is possible to get things right on social and political matters—there is no one formula or solution, but there is a range of solutions which are objectively right and good. I don’t think we have properly started this work. We don’t have the answers, but we should, if we start the work properly in a few decades. And it needs a lot of work by people who think along these lines, by those who are shattered by the turn of events right now. Our senses are shaken almost every day by things which we never thought would happen in India but that are happening nevertheless. This kind of intellectual work that we do can’t stop that, but I think we can build the resources to fight it in the future.

Abishek Chakraborty. Sir, as a layman, my understanding was that secularism was a Western concept, not indigenous to us. In one of your papers, ‘Distinctiveness of Indian Secularism’,[1]you mention that it is very important for us to understand the later history of secularism, and that to understand it in a detailed way we must include the non-Western societies that have sought to install and maintain secular states. Could you please elaborate on the ‘non-Western perspectives of secularism’? Because laymen like us understand that secularism is all about the West.

Bhargava. Here obviously we are not talking about the word, because the word has Latin origins in ‘seculum’, and it’s part of Christian history. We are talking about the concept, regardless of what word we use—we can use ‘secular’ since people are used to doing so. Frankly, there is no other country which uses the word secular more often than India—in fact, when we started using the word ‘secularism’ in the scholarly arena, they were completely dazed. Of course, people understood what it meant. It was the Oxford Handbook of Political Theory, published in 2006, which had the entry ‘secularism’ in it—that was the first time secularism even became an global theoretical issue. Before that, Western political theory did not even deal with it. The concept of what we now understand to be secular has of course a pre-history, there are a whole range of conceptions that have a family resemblance to what we call secular today—they are not the same as and they can’t be the same as what we understand as secularism now. But they can be used to help us understand the cultural and historical trajectory of Indian secularism. If we only look at the modern history of secularism, then it has to begin with Europe. It is after the end of the religious wars, especially after the French Revolution that you can talk about secularism, but you can’t stop there. You have to look at other societies, their histories, and see how the concept of secularism has developed there. I believe that this history is not being written. We just stop at European history and say that it is the same as Indian secularism. This is completely ahistorical. You have to look at what happened in India from the nineteenth century onwards, look at patterns of how religion was conceived, how it was distinguished from non-religion, how it came into being in the sense we understand it now, what its relation with politics, in particular with the state was, how different people within the anti-colonial struggle imagined this relationship, and then consider the discussions at the Constituent Assembly. True,  the word ‘secular’ was introduced in the Constitution in 1976, but the concept itself is an integral part of the Indian Constitution; there is no doubt about that and all the articles add up to a certain form of secularism which is what I tried to articulate. And it’s not just Indian secularism—we’ve played a very major role in the development of the idea globally.

Uma Sankari. Hi, my name is Uma. I want to thank you for emphasizing the aspect of intra-religious domination. In that context you mentioned that the norms of social interaction and ethics were not as tightly connected in India as they are in the Western countries, given that any person who considers himself a Hindu also belongs to a particular caste and this hierarchy is endorsed by religious scriptures. Yet religious scriptures are different for different castes. I need more clarity on what you mean when you say they are loosely connected?

Bhargava. This is a big question and I am sure there are other people more competent to answer this question. I would say that Hinduism as we know it today was a late-eighteenth- century construction, not just a British construction—Guru Govind Singh plays an important part in the formation of this idea, there are certain Naqshbandi orders in the seventeenth century who play an important part, but both these are part of a very early history. In the nineteenth century, there are a whole lot of Hindu reformers, particularly in Bengal, who play a very important role in constructing the idea of Hinduism. In my view, they reinvigorate Dharamshastric Brahminism which unites the idea of how to achieve the ethical goal with a very strong varna-ashram dharma, but this is only one of the many ethics. In India, the Brahmins would like to believe that this is a dominant ethic but it’s not, it’s one among many. Many of these people who are followers and adherents of other ethics also belong to this caste order, but their religion has got nothing to do with it. So when does the caste system become an integral part of Hinduism which is a Brahminical ideology? I can’t answer this question because I am not a historian, but I suspect it is sometime between the modern and early-modern era. Ambedkar takes that as a self-evident fact and attacks the whole thing— he could have taken another track, saying he’s only attacking Brahminical ideology. And he actually believed in a kind of ethical pluralism. But if you call religion the whole thing which is literally modelled on a certain kind of Christianity, then of course you have to attack the whole thing, then as when disassociates from the caste system, you take away a crucial pillar of Hinduism and cease to be a Hindu. Whereas the other option is to attack the ideology of Brahminism or Manuvad and continue to be a Hindu as long as you have a pluralist ethic, This is my limited, currently formed view. Of course I am working on it.

Sarita Sameer. Hi sir, I am Sarita Samir, a teacher of political science in Pune. Whenever we have a debate in class on secularism, I find myself often defending our view and conception on secularism, the way we have been taught, because students of this generation, both from majority and minority groups, often call this secularism ‘pseudo-secular’. I read the term ‘Rehabilitating Secularism’ somewhere, which assumes that it is somehow under attack, so I would like to know your take on how I should defend Indian secularism from this attack.

Bhargava. ‘Freedom’, ‘equality’, ‘fraternity’ between various communities in our society— this is what Gandhi focussed on, and that is the common-sensical understanding of secularism. Some people call it ‘bhai-chara’ these days, or ‘sarva-dharma-sama bhava’, but I am afraid that is only one part of the story because it completely neglects intra-religious domination. You can’t respect everything about every religion—there are so many things in every religion that are despicable. And that’s why I use the term critical respect. If we were to use the term ‘pseudo-secular’ for ourselves, we would use it if we were to neglect the whole for a part and that too a distorted part . . .

To answer your question, the way this term is used by those who are robustly opposed to secularism: I just don’t understand them.Let’s take the idea of minority appeasement and minority rights. The idea of rights to minorities entails the notion that some things which are routinely available to the majority must also be made available to the minorities. But because they are not easily available and because they can come under attack, they should be given justiciable rights. So that when they are attacked, they can go to court. Minority rights are not privileges—they are to give certain groups what other groups either already have or very easily obtain. Just to give an example: if you have a cinema hall with a staircase, then all physically able people can run up the stairs and see the film. But there are two kinds of people who cannot easily do this: those who are very old, and those who are disabled. So you will have to use some resources to build a ramp or a lift. What you are doing then is enabling them to have that which the others possess routinely. So when you’re diverting some resources to them, you’re not appeasing them—you’re just enabling them to have what you already do. Minority rights have that status—they are not special entitlements. So if someone says that this person who defends minority rights is an appeaser, it is a load of nonsense. But there are instances where governments, instead of giving what is legitimately due to the powerless and vulnerable in a community, have actually succumbed to the more powerful section of the community in the name of secularism. That is appeasement. That has happened in India, and is certainly a ground for attacking certain kinds of secular practices. The ban on Satanic Verses, the Shah Bano case[2]—these are all cases of pseudo secularism. One could argue that there was a time in the 1960s where we could have introduced reforms within Muslim personal law, but we lost that opportunity and I think we lost it on pseudo-secular grounds. I call it ‘party political secularism’, to separate it from constitutional secularism. Party political secularism is pretty obnoxious, it’s the opposite of constitutional secularism—you can say it’s pseudo secular. You can tell students that these are legitimate instances of pseudo secularism.

Tina Servaia. The word ‘secularism’ was introduced in the Constitution in 1976. I want to ask you: how robust do you think the concept secularism is without the word—if you take away the word from the Constitution, is the concept robust enough to defend itself?

Bhargava. I think the fall of Indian secularism begins with the introduction of the word into the Constitution. The Indian Constitution was robustly secular before the introduction of that word. I think that if the Constitution is properly interpreted, there will be no difference in the characteristics of the concept even if the word was removed. But if you remove it today, it will be a political setback and a major tragedy. I wouldn’t want it to be removed now but I really wish it wasn’t introduced in 1976. It was not necessary. There are lots of things which we like and which should not be explicitly acknowledged. Labels are not that important. Don’t change things if they’re working as they are. And you can imagine how doing it during the Emergency compels it to carry a huge burden now. I feel very sorry about its introduction in ’76.

Kritika Dev. You defined secularism as a critical principled distance. Shouldn’t it and can it be applied to other forms of oppression which are non-religious in nature, like gender oppression, economic oppression and so on? I also have a follow-up question which is probably a larger question: Isn’t secularism the way you define it as a Eurocentric concept to begin with, a very evolved concept, one that arose from a very educated evolved society? So why should we fight and break our heads over why that cannot be applied to this society, which is getting to that point of evolution?

Bhargava. Critical distance states relationship with something else in the face of potential domination. And if that something else is language or ethnicity or gender, then I suppose you can use it. Although in the Constitution it fits more with religion. I have been trying to argue that it’s not so Eurocentric . . . there are multiple secularisms, and there is no fixed form or fixed origin.

Dev. But my question was, though that is a very evolved concept, the fact that you understand that minorities and religions have their own problems, you address those and not shy away from those and blankly ban everything—

Bhargava. Yes, it is a theoretical term used by scholars and ‘educated people’. But that’s true of almost every concept of that kind, like ‘democracy’ which is hardly understood in its full complexities and its ethical and moral connotations. Democracy is understood differently by different people on the ground, some of whom understand it perfectly well, so they are more evolved than you are. Theoreticians often learn from the ground, from what people are doing in practices and thoughts—people who are engaged can inform you much better than what you can generate in your own ivory towers, but they will not use the same terms and vocabulary. I would think that people understand when they are being oppressed, and I think if there is some mechanism which is available to them to redress that, they will intuitively turn to it. They might not use a certain language for it but the conceptual understanding is there. I know where you’re coming from—I think what you’re trying to say is that there is a gap between a scholarly theoretical term and what’s happening on the ground in terms of conceptual ideas. These terms are meant to bring together this whole range of ideas. Scholars and academics need to develop that vocabulary. People on the ground are also doing that but they don’t put them all together because they don’t need to. But it’s there.

Malay Pradhan. I work in a Youth Development Organization named Patang in Orissa. I am stuck in a dilemma: there was a time when it used to be said that when scientific rationality, positivism will arrive, they will drive away religious dogma and we will arrive at secularism. Now technology is so advanced, people are going to Mars, we have 5G and 6G—why do we still have so much dogma? Another dilemma I have regarding secularism is: as mentioned in the Constitution, anybody can practise, preach any religion. But when we talk to young people, many of them say that the Constitution is anti-religious or religion is anti-constitutional because it abolishes practices related to gender and caste which are intimately linked with religion. So should we still practise those religions or should we follow the Constitution?

Bhargava. I will try to answer the first question, the second in a short from I have answered already and elaborating it will take more time than allowed here. When we used to talk about scientific thinking, I think our understanding of it was very narrow—the kind scientific thinking that is relevant to society -social scientific thinking- is different from this narrowly conceived scientific thinking, in short, positivist thinking. We could not have reached anywhere in society and politics with that sort of thinking. We have to understand the form of scientific thinking could be useful for society, one that is  relevant for the transformation of society and politics. To elaborate this is not possible, given the limits of time.

Second, to think that religion will disappear with the coming of science—this was a part of the secularization theory but it has been proven wrong, and scholars have accepted it. This was not true for either Europe or America where there are so many big universities, where a lot of ‘scientific thinking’ goes on and people keep bagging Nobel prizes. Their societies too are not only religiously orthodox but also quite obnoxious. Religion can assume horrific forms there. And this horrifying aspect is increasing with the advance in scientific thinking. So this thesis was never operational in large parts of the West, but we used to think it worked for the whole Western world. This was wrong.

Third, in our cognitive endeavours which aid us in grasping reality, theory plays a very significant role. But myths and mimetic acts play equally important roles. We think that we have insulated ourselves from myths but literary forms, legends, folktales and utopian and dystopian literature, besides our films are extremely important modes of cognition. We cannot function without myths—even the most enlightened of societies require them to sustain themselves. Ethics is most relevant in our assessments in this domain. We need to judge even myths ethically, and those myths which are ethically correct have to be supported and we have done so—Nehru’s Discovery of India is a book of mythologies of the Indian past that we like and support, it’s not a rigourous work of history. We need these myths, of that liberal and magnanimous King of 3rd BC, Asoka, who taught us to live with deep diversity when the need first arose. We cannot expunge these myths at all. We shouldn’t think of science and myths as being in conflict, we cannot survive with only science and theory, we only run a small percentage of our lives on theory, the rest is run by other things—maybe that is why occasionally we need to go to a shrink.

Rajeev Bhargava is Professor at CSDS, Delhi and currently, Director of the Centre’s Institute of Indian Thought. He was also the Centre’s Director (2007-2014). He has been a Professor at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and between 2001 and 2005 was Head, Department of Political Science, University of Delhi. He was a Professorial Fellow, ACU, Sydney and is an Honorary Fellow, Balliol College, Oxford.

Bhargava did his BA in economics from the University of Delhi, and MPhil and DPhil from Oxford University. He has been a Fellow at Harvard University, University of Bristol, Institute of Advanced Studies, Jerusalem, Wissenschaftskolleg, Berlin, and the Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna. He has also been Distinguished Resident Scholar, Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life, Columbia University, and Asia Chair at Sciences Po, Paris. He has been a Berggruen Fellow at CASBS, Stanford, 2015 and Tsinghua University, Beijing, 2016. Bhargava has held visiting professorships at several universities.

Bhargava’s publications include Individualism in Social Science (1992), What is Political Theory and Why Do We Need It? (2010), and The Promise of India’s Secular Democracy (2010). His edited works are Secularism and Its Critics (1998) and Politics and Ethics of the Indian Constitution (2008). His work on secularism and methodological individualism is internationally acclaimed. He is currently working on religious and philosophical pluralism in ancient Indian Thought. Bhargava is on the advisory board of several national and international institutions, and was a consultant for the UNDP report on cultural liberty.

[1] B.R. Ambedkar, Writings and Speeches, Vol 8, Pakistan or the Partition of India, Education Department, Government of Maharashtra, 1990, p. 247.



Contact Info

(91-33) 2455-6942

Copyright © 2020 History for Peace.  

Designed by Pi Visions

Stay Updated

By subscribing to our mailing list you will always be updated with the latest news from us.

The Seagull Foundation

for the Arts

For the past twenty seven years The Seagull Foundation for the Arts has been actively supporting, nurturing and disseminating creative and critical activity in the field of the arts in India, especially fine arts, theatre and cinema, out of a deep conviction and commitment to the belief that the arts are everybody’s responsibility and a social commitment.