Exploring the Disjuncture in Indian Secularism

Exploring the Disjuncture in Indian Secularism

Aejaz Ahmad

There is no escaping the fact that modernity was imposed on India from above. The values associated with modernity, such as secularism and democracy didn’t essentially emanate from the core of Indian society as it did in the West. What we ended up creating is what can be called ‘tactical democracy and secularism’; tactical because in today’s India secularism has served as a ‘political tool’ rather than an end per se. Instead, these ideas, in order to thrive as ends, must entrench themselves in a state of mind, before they can be manifested in the state of affairs.
With the political resurgence of the right wing in India, a new kind of public sphere has emerged, also witnessed via social media, that is abusive, abhorrent and irrational. On a recent debate on a national news channel, one of debaters termed this a ‘majoritarian awakening’, a majority which, according to him, had so far been denied this ‘agency’. The academic Shiv Vishvanathan has rightly dubbed them as ‘tactical people’, devoid of ethics. In this charged public sphere, we find ‘secularism’ as an unfortunate victim of irrational contestation. Those on the right called those on the left ‘sickular’ and those on the left call those on the right ‘fascists’.
Is there a crisis of secularism in India? I argue that we may call this a crisis in academic parlance, but in the common or layman’s parlance, the problem reside somewhere else, it lies in the disjuncture between the common understanding in India (one that circulates in the public sphere these days) and the constitutional understanding of secularism. This will require some explication.
Secularism literally means that religion and politics shall not criss-cross each other, rather both will be separate in theory and practice. This is a typical Western understanding which grew there organically. Being organic to the West, it has blossomed there as a value. In India, secularism took a different route consistent with Indian conditions. The constitution envisaged such a diluted understanding best captured in the Gandhian phraseology of ‘Sarva Dharam Sambhava’. It literally means equal respect to all religions. In common language, it entails that the state shall not discriminate between religions. This principle recognises the value that religion carries in Indian society.
A western replica in India would certainly have invited an unthinkable backlash, which the constitution successfully avoided. Rajiv Bhargava, a renowned political theorist, has, accordingly, termed the Indian version of secularism as “contextual secularism” based on non-sectarian principled and non-absolutist separation of religion and politics. In other words, it constitutionally enjoins the state to include religion for some purposes such as the Hindu Code to correct social maladies, but exclude it for other purposes such as Muslim personal law, a ban on cow slaughter and so on. It is for all these reasons that Ashish Nandy, a celebrated political psychologist wrote “An Anti-Secularist Manifesto” in 1995 and called himself an anti-secularist as understood in the Western sense. It is because he affirmed faith in the Indian conception of secularism best captured by ‘Sarva Dharma Sambhava’
It is pertinent to mention that the above accounts of secularism are primarily an academic and constitutional understanding. When we venture into the public sphere or into the public domain, we find an altogether different understanding of it, almost diagonally opposite to the constitutional enshrinement. In the public sphere, what is contested is not the constitutionally enshrined secularism, rather it is the western understanding of it that informs the argument. Thus, the acts, speeches and gestures within the society are being targeted not from the standpoint of the Indian constitution, but from Western secularism of clinical separation of religion and politics. The logical corollary of the manner in which the Indian constitution has envisaged secularism is that religious invocation is bound to occur, intentionally and unintentionally. It is open to discussion whether this obvious invocation is a bane or if it can be internalised. But one thing is conspicuous: such invocations have become an igniting substance for irrational contestations on secularism. Social media is replete with a plethora of such incantation of religions in the political arena. This may certainly be an unfortunate outcome of constitutional secularism.
The constitutional understanding of secularism has certainly not penetrated the minds of the common people, rather the common understanding which essentially reflects the clear separation of religion and politics (a western one) has been catapulted as if it is a constitutional one. The right wing forces have been instrumental in creating this dichotomy or disjuncture within the constitutional understanding of secularism. The undertone of the BJP’s old demand of a ‘uniform civil code’ is a clear evidence of an attempt to supplant the constitutional understanding with that of the Western one. The left approach to these attempts has largely been ambiguous. On the one hand, they have ideologically supported the uniform civil code; on the other hand, they have constantly been concerned about minority rights.
I have so far argued that the crisis of secularism in today’s India is attributed to the disjuncture between the constitutional understating of secularism and the mass understanding of it. The constitutional understanding was supposed to trickle down into the society, but it has not. Rather, it is now the mass understanding of secularism (Western one) that is pushing back at the constitutional understanding. It is this covert struggle that marks the present crisis of secularism in India. The new public sphere in the form of social media has given an articulation to this crisis that was hitherto uncrystallised.
It all pops up a pivotal question: Will the mass understanding of secularism in India, that is constantly emerging now, push back and replace constitutional secularism by enshrining the ‘uniform civil code’? The answer to this question is difficult. The stakes are numerous. The uniform civil code, a canny attribute of western secularism, will certainly clear away the religious incantation and bickering in the public arena, thereby giving presumably less space for religious conflicts. However, it is imperative to note that the uniform civil code is not a panacea for all ills.
Globalisation has intensified the identity politics across the world by making differences disappear. The Western countries have recently been in crisis with the emergence of multiculturalism rights despite a uniform civil code already in place. The West is increasingly becoming multicultural in character and so new problems have emerged for them, be it Muslim values, Asian Values or the Indian Diaspora. The politics of difference and recognition has returned into public debates. The Indian state incorporated these concerns long before the West did by recognising India as a multicultural state. This is the reason why Yogendra Yadav and others have called India not a ‘nation-state’ but a “state-nation” which is based on multiple but complimentary political identities. India is, in the final analysis, quite diverse and any homogenisation project may prove inimical to it.

The writer is at the department of political science, University of Delhi

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