Secularism And Its Discontents

by Keerthik Sasidharan - Dec 25, 2015 12:26 AM +05:30 IST
Secularism And Its Discontents

If Nehruvian secularism is now seen by many as a farce hidden inside expediency wrapped by sanctimony, this is neither Nehru’s fault in its entirety, and yet nor can he be fully absolved of leaving behind a vocabulary of moral righteousness that was ready for abuse.

In 1975, an ancient Vedic ritual called ‘sagnícayana atirātrám’ (commonly called ‘Agni’) took place in the village of Panjal, Kerala. It was officiated by Erkara Raman Namboodiri, the greatest living ritualist of the srauta tradition. Erkara was born in the last century and by 1975 was a living legend among the Vedic ritualist community who had by then slowly fallen on hard times in Communist Kerala. The srauta community found their way of life not only in economic peril but many among them recognized an existential irrelevance to their mores of being, just as Kerala earnestly set out to shed its pre-modern social structure. This disenchantment was all the more so because their Vedic rituals were, in many ways, far removed from conventional Hinduism of our times. [The great Sanskritist scholar Michael Witzel, elsewhere, argues that the difference between Vedic Hinduism and present day Hinduism is as marked as the Old Testament Hebrew religions are from modern Christianity.] The 1975 Panjal Atirātrám was thus one of the first of these ‘ancient’ rituals to be performed in full view of the public. It was to be both, a religious ceremony, a social experiment, and an anthropological exercise.

Among the rituals however was a stipulation to sacrifice animals, referred to as pāswalambhanam, at specified moments during the twelve-day long ceremonies. Given the public interest, the idea of animal sacrifice led to “morally, religiously, and politically” motivated protests that were led by the Gandhians, Jainas, and the Communists respectively. Faced with such uproar, Erkara proposed an innovation called ‘piSTapaSu’ (पिष्टपशु). Thus, instead of living animals, replicas of animals in clay and dough were deemed as satisfactory stand-ins for the transubstantiation, which was the conceit of the sacrifice. The scholar T. P. Mahadevan notes that Erkara was inspired by Vaishnava traditions for this ‘innovation’.

By 1978, not only did Erkara bring out a collection of 18 essays called Amnāyamathanam (“The Churning of Tradition”) that provided the ‘paddhathi’ (regimen) of the rituals that were to be practiced hereafter, but for those very writings he was awarded one of the 1978 Kerala Sahitya Akademi award. The success of the Panjal Atirātrám – its strangeness, the hum and drawl of the priests, the subliminal memory of some ancient hour – also made it a target for those who decried this revivalism of ritual. Within a decade, numerous voices rose against the Atirātrám. Accusations declared that the Vedic ritual hurtled back individuals to some obscurantist age, that some of the claims made on its behalf were unscientific, that it was socially exclusionary (notwithstanding the fact that the 1975 Atirātrám was the first ‘public’ one funded by researchers from America and Europe), that it was casteist, that the whole effort was politically inspired, and perhaps most devastatingly that it didn’t behoove a ‘secular’ India. By 1990, a counter-backlash found its votaries in the great Malayalam poet Akkitham Achyuthan Namboodiri and the scientist Rajan Chungath (who was born into a Christian family) who brought out a volume that spoke out against a sterile scientism that dismissed ‘Agni’. They called for a socially inclusive, scientifically engaged form of revivalism of these rituals. By 2011, however, when the Atirātrám was performed once again in Panjal, the rise and ebb of skepticism and protest were part of the smoke and noise of the ceremony. The usual suspects on both sides of the debate droned in their arguments, while the ceremonies were performed, no different than many other publicly displayed religious spectacles. What is striking, however, is that by the 1984 Agniṣṭoma in Thiruvananthapuram, the 1990 Agnicayana in Kundoor, and the 2003 Agniṣṭoma in Thrissur, the reinterpretations provided Erkara were internalized by the new generation of ritual officiants. No animal has since 1975 been sacrificed.


An obvious, and thus little remarked, lesson from this episode is not that traditions evolve (which, of course, they do in response to social and internal pressures) but that changes which come from within the fold are more likely to survive thanks to legitimacy, repetition and the periodic shedding away of historical excrudescence. The end of animal sacrifice in the Agni rituals is one such instance. What is however less obvious is the answer to question which asks: how does one abandon a set of norms that were, ostensibly thus far, critical to the ontology (“a schema of entities we accept as real”) that sustained a ritual, a life of a community, or even an age. Any answer to this question is essentially claiming to offer a theory of change itself. What historical evidence, to the chagrin of our public policy managers, is that social changes percolate into practice over time not by the fiat of individuals, nor by the institutional provision for arguments or even by an enlightened vanguard operating on the basis of some ideology. But they occur, as the philosopher Richard Rorty reminds us, thanks to the the disuse of a particular set of words, vocabulary and actions. Collective human memory fades rather than it willingly abandons a cultural practice.

This dynamic of disavowal and adaptation isn’t limited to one group of people, India, or even cultural spheres but is widely observed across human initiatives. Thomas Kuhn writes in The Copernican Revolution that the fact that the universe isn’t geocentric wasn’t adopted overnight by the Europeans when faced with evidence but rather it was (in Rorty’s words) after “a hundred years of inconclusive muddle”, when micro-observations imbricated into macroscopic paradigms to facilitate a new way of looking at the world. In an old democratic system like France where the tripartite motto of “liberté, égalité, fraternité” marks its self-conception, we forget that those emancipatory ideals were debated for nearly a century after the 1789 Revolution before they were eventually adopted at the beginning of the Third French Republic in the 1870s. The unfortunate efforts to repeatedly make “untouchability” illegal, in parts of India, reveals how anemic State sanctioned legal regimes can be when faced with the intractability of a cultural practice. A useful recognition, however, in all of this is the importance of time, the ebb and flow of events to tide over passions of our age so that we emerge on the other end of history in one piece.

This view, a gradualist one if one is being charitable, or a pessimistic view of humanity, is an anathema in our age where politicians of Right and Left catapult themselves to power offering up the promise of change. Change of what exactly is unclear or unasked. But, the evangelist is at the doorstep and his gospel of change has a seductive ring to it despite its emptiness. As far as real, sustainable, and meaningful change in society is concerned, there is little substitute for time, its push and pull, to allow for what Erkara called amnāyamathanam, the churning of tradition.


In contrast, the history of the modern Indian Republic – right from its inception – is cloaked in diktats, words and sentences that have shown little patience with this reality. The rhetoric and substance of the debate sought to decree – with its votaries lurching from a creed of social isolationism to those who actively sought to fashion Indians into some more recognizable to themselves, something less pre-modern. As often is the case with a many headed monster of democratic politics, the effort to fashion Indians died still born somewhere between the birthing bed of Enlightenment era idealism and the many early childhood diseases of political venality, expediency, and feasibility. In this project of half-measured reconstruction of the new Indian, no one looms as large as Jawaharlal Nehru, who once said to the French writer Andre Malraux that his greatest difficulty after Indian Independence was to create a “just State by just means.”

Malraux wrote that the “friendly and clearheaded” Nehru, whom he had interviewed in person, as the steward of the newly independent, democratic, and abysmally poor India faced a unique set of challenges unlike any. On one hand, like Caesar, Charlemagne, and Napoleon, Nehru had to create a new State while on the other, like Lenin, Mao, and Mussolini, he had to strengthen the old Congress Party apparatus. One may quibble about this or that fact in such a descriptor, but the staggering cornucopia of challenges that awaited newly independent India is still hard to wrap one’s head around. Much hagiographical ink however has been spilt to extol the premium on “just”-ness that Nehru’s places in his assessment. Whether this was Nehru’s own effort to signal his distance from the totalitarian ethic of Stalinist USSR as well as the iniquitous archipelago of racial segregation of Eisenhower’s America, we cannot tell. What we can do, however, is observe how little thought is expended on the implicit vocabulary of the day that Nehru easily adopts: the responsibility of a father-figure to create a just State. Perhaps this is natural. It was an era that began with Ataturk and his invention of modern Turkey in 1920s, the newly formed states under Sukarno in Indonesia (1945), Tito in Yugoslavia (1943), Ben-Gurion in Israel (1948), Mao in China (1949). That Nehru employs a similar vocabulary of top-down change to think of, not just India, but society in of itself, ought not to surprise anyone.

Secularism And Its Discontents

In this Nehruvian self-description of the challenges he faced, lay the belief that as long as a State could be designed through ‘just’ mechanisms, the rest would follow. The State was, in a sense, to be a repository of procedural norms and pedagogical training. It is as if Indians – their prejudices and private languages, their self-conceptions and mental hierarchies – were all putty in the hands of an extraordinary vanguard who designed the Constitution and computed on input-output cards their algebras of human fates. Most importantly, it was as if under the glare of Nehru’s world historic role, Indians then and in the subsequent generations would not just contest terms of self-description employed by the new Republic but also fail to see through this effort to cast their minds. Nehru, many were convinced, was history inside a sherwani. Not just to his admirers but also, often-enough, to his ideological opponents.


While Malraux and many others have praised Nehru’s assessment of the real challenges faced by India, hidden inside our first Prime Minister’s prescriptions is a vanity nursed by humanity since the Enlightenment. It often congeals and erupts into the open as an abiding faith in the ability of institutions to change humans. This has been the premise of all Utopian projects that, whether they acknowledge openly or not, seek to create a New Man. Part of this conceit, nursed since the French Revolution, is to recognize that the truth of life is a confluence of vocabularies employed, malleability of minds, and the self awareness of prejudices. Once this engineered schematic of the human soul is arrived at, this can then be put to use (be it via textbooks, patronage, preeminence of some over the others et alii) in service of the State.

This faith has found full expression and respectability in a certain set of political thinkers, at least since Robespierre, who arrive at the crucible of history with the charge of building out a State on the back of societies. Not just any State, but a singular one premised on Utopian visions with a specific vocabulary to describe its reality and with metrics to measure the degree of conformance to the new ideology. When this possibility was imported into India, this conceit of the French Revolution that new descriptions of the collective self would birth a modern Indian, if you will, quickly runs into a many layered wall. Here, in India, old institutions, ‘irrational’ faiths, ancient sources of sectarian power remain untouched. While the French revolution and the accompanying Jacobin violence led to the overthrow of many older modes of power, the Indian independence merely changed the whites for a set of native elites as new rulers, while keeping the architecture of how knowledge was produced, how power disseminated in the society unchecked. Thus we had a strange amalgam of the old and the new. Our fledgling new State, like V. S. Naipaul’s ‘mimic men’, spoke a language that was imported and had an accent to it while it sought to describe a reality that straddled between the future and millenias past, and more so changed at a pace of its own choosing.


In 1976, by when Nehru had been dead for eight years, a hitherto Sovereign Democratic Republic was transmuted into a ‘Sovereign, Socialist, Secular, Democratic Republic’ under the 42nd Amendment. The complicated past of India’s post independence was traduced into a single man’s vision – a travesty to Nehru’s own many layered writings – precisely as his heirs began to mount anti-democratic Emergency measures. For good or for worse, Nehru was saddled with secularism and socialism in the public imagination. All that was done in the name of secularism and socialism could now be traced back to Nehru and by 2015, Nehruvian has become an adjective as well as a taxonomical class in of itself. By now, Nehruvian secularism is built on the conceit that the State can recognize what qualifies as religion, it knows how to classify it, and how to categorize it. A prominent social scientist and winner of the Padma Bhushan told me in person, when I described my experiences of watching shopkeepers hang lemons and perform aartis outside their shops in Chandni Chowk, that theirs was “not religion, just magic.” Built in such assessments is a kind of epistemic arrogance that plays arbiter in matters that it cannot know how to measure and classify. When State policy is built on public expressions of such private vanities, it not only reeks of paternalism but, worse, allows group characteristics to become proxies to reduce individuals and thus deny them agency to describe themselves. Thus, over and beyond the expediency of the constitutional changes in 1976, what it further attests to is a persistent Indian ailment, paternalism codified by law. The institutions that govern modern India since then, and those that existed earlier, were now retrofitted to be ‘secularism’-compliant. In public discourse, among the big four self-descriptors – Socialist, Sovereign, Secular, and Democratic – no word is presumed to have the talismanic powers over the listener, and more importantly on the speaker, than ‘secular’.

Secularism And Its Discontents

In 2015, those four descriptors remain despite the fact that the substantiveness of their meanings have undergone challenges, reevaluation, and even an hollowing out. While India is still not rich enough to be socialist (fact: you get the socialism you pay for), it remains a procedural democracy (that increasingly elects an oligarchic elite) with territorial sovereignty (albeit bound by international commitments) and a ‘secular’ State with deep sectarian instincts. Whether these 1976 changes have achieved what they hoped to (what was that?), there is now a gradual (but inchoately articulated) sense that our original founding fathers were perhaps right all along to have described India to the world and itself as merely Sovereign and Democratic.

Part of this slow turn of the wheel is thanks to demographic shifts in political leaderships and, more importantly, among citizens. As many of these imperious, scene chomping presences of Indian political life bid farewell from their elaborately architected political tableaus – ousted by time or human agency – their legacies have come undone. Nehruvian socialism, like Mahalanobis’ 5-year plans and slide rules, is now a fossil with little use for all, including the socialists. Nehruvian sovereignty with its ideas of Panchsheel and nonalignment have been reduced into curiosities that students of International Relations learn by rote as mere curiosum no different than an intellectual equivalent of foot binding – painful, unnecessary, and ultimately more about show than substance.

Nehruvian secularism meanwhile has devolved, in practice, to a signaling game among the barons of Indian politics to select for those who kowtow to the extant hierarchies. None of this has come about due to the ideological opponents of Nehru, who nurse their own private ambitions and vocabulary that is yet to find full purchase in India despite electoral victories. But rather, the decline of Nehruvian inflections on Indian public life is courtesy the inorganic nature of what was planted in the Indic soil in the name of nation building and social amity. The slow whittling of such Utopian ideals is a painful process where many convenient big lies that attested to the big truth of the Republic’s existence must give way to smaller, piece-meal lies on which any sophisticated society relies on to conduct its intercourse and commerce. Of these Utopian ideals, none is more dearly or frequently cited as ‘secularism’. Those who either contest the relevance of ‘secular’ in our public self description – be it as fundamentalists, revivalists or as skeptics – are tantamount, we have been told, to questioning that (soporific) shibboleth ‘the Idea of India’. Like many an earnest word spoken by men in search of their place in the world, the word ‘secular’ is today employed by Nehru’s political descendants to cloak their conception of India in something they recognize as respectable, translatable to Western political sensibilities, even if it was born out of different historical contexts and smells of some one else’s sweat. Over and beyond this mimetic borrowings, part of this emptiness is also borne out of the lack of intensive knowledge of India’s history of debates on public Reason. To cultivate this knowledge, particularly by the Anglophone elite, requires study – not just anthropologically, but linguistically and philosophically – and often failing their natural recourse has been to borrow readings mediated by institutional readings that legitimize contingent historical turns.


In 1928, a consensus developed among the Congress elites that ‘Nehruvian’ secularism – not Jawaharlal’s, but Motilal led ‘Nehru Committee Report’ – would be an ideal worth pursuing. This report, among others, denied any separate electorate on the basis of religion. After the cataclysm of the Partition, what we have is progressive legitimation of what the Nehru report stood against. While we are still away from ‘separate electorates’, the politics of reservation on the basis of religious adherence returns, like common cold, to weaken the body politic. By 2015 what we have is a public discourse where arguments aren’t measured by their intrinsic worth or usefulness to larger society, but by whether they adequately comport with all the requisite markers needed to be classified as “secular”. (The Supreme Court declared in Ismail Farooqi vs Union of India that a fitness test to check for ‘secularism’ was indeed appropriate: “The Preamble of the Constitution read in particular with Article 25 to 28 emphasizes this aspect and indicates that it is in this manner the concept of secularism is embodied in the constitutional scheme as a creed adopted by the Indian people has to be understood while examining the constitutional validity of any legislation.”) To instantiate this view further, the presence of separate cultural and education rights (Article 28, 30) in the name of protecting linguistic and religious minorities – minorities whose numbers exceed 200 million people – is deemed as not just adequate but sacrosanct.

No society’s organizing principle can sustain its legitimacy for too long by endorsing this schizophrenic two tier approach: carving out specific enclaves of public life in the name of protecting minorities (when in practice, demonstrably, only furthers elites among minorities) while simultaneously subjecting every public utterance and expression to a litmus test in the name of ‘secularism’. The State that ostensibly has no religion seems to be unable to acknowledge that its citizens can have identities that are equally extensive as well as constantly in a flux. What the 1976 provisions seek to do is affix a theoretical appropriateness to what constitutes an acceptable citizenry. Instead of opting for an acceptable minimal, it seeks to expand its definition to catch all permutations.

The result also is that the State offers individuals who belong to minority but seek to define themselves in different fashion – outside the straightjacket of community based identities – little hope. Public provisions of resources, often apportioned in the name of secularism, forces individuals to willingly retreat into community based identities and thus, ironically, mocks the Constitutional contract between individual and the Republic. This isn’t however solely a problem that India faces. Egypt offers similar protections to its Copt minorities who, however, are genuinely a numerical minority, with little ability to sway elections or hold government formations hostage. Yet, the tensions remain between community based descriptors that allow individuals the refuge from the swell and sway of the majority while denying the very same individuals and their citizen-peers the freedom to expansively reimagine themselves in manners and language that are private to each of them. Despite the evident hollowing out of both the ideal and substance of ‘secularism’ in real life, political scientists like Rajeev Bhargava argue that ‘differentiated citizenship’ is completely in line with modern ideas of secularism and that the Indian State may choose to be intimate, interventionist, or agnostic to any group as may be deemed necessary. This line of reasoning, in a way, is an argument that allows the pall bearers of Nehruvian secularism some historical breathing space, for a generation or two, even as they sleep walk into the crematorium where the lofty intentions of Motilal Nehru Report shall be duly scattered to the winds.


In daily life secularism has become a “moral judo” (as Kundera writes elsewhere) that every thinking Indian is invited to participate in by the State, its entrenched establishment, and its enemies. Even the Maoists, who ostensibly seek the destruction of Indian State, project their political rhetoric as ‘secular’. How the State has sacralized secularism is a question few can now ask, for so deeply interwoven are the two that to question the intelligibility of one is deemed as questioning the viability of the other. In this sense, even if Nehru’s ecumenical intelligence and world renown has slipped in its influence over the Indian imagination, Nehruvian secularism has won by making itself a necessary expedient tool for every political pundit and knave. (To wit, the State and the garment of secularism it wears tempts one to utter: the Leviathan has no clothes) The consequence of this is clear.

That meaningful questions or forums on what forms secularism ought to take in the public space has increasingly little purchase among our political elite and its people. One must either view secularism as a “paradigmatic quality” of Indian state or one must reduce it to a handmaiden of cynical electioneering. Neither is it possible to think about what it means to be secular and what discursive relationship secularism may have with the State, without being accused of a closet sectarian. Secularism has been elevated into a transcendental quality of the Indian state at par with beauty in poetry or truth in physics.

The reactionary response to all this, as evidenced on social media, is to point out what the ideal of secularism promises and the naked partisanship performed in its name. As coarsening this constant harangue about public hypocrisy is to our discourse, this is reflection of a deeper malaise that can only be traced to the State’s prolixity that seeks to define away humans. As more and more young Indians hurriedly clamor into modernity and actively find newer ways to describe themselves, when they come face to face with a State sanctioned public virtue that reduces every debate into for or against secularism, what follows is an identity crises that manifests as rage towards the status quo. If Nehruvian secularism is now seen by many as a farce hidden inside expediency wrapped by sanctimony, this is neither Nehru’s fault in its entirety, and yet nor can he be fully absolved of leaving behind a vocabulary of moral righteousness that was ready for abuse. Either way, what is evident to any public minded Indian is that the road to the future of the Republic is shrouded in a fog of secularism. In this sense, Nehru looms large over our public discourse, whether his political descendants have use for him or his ideological enemies like it.


A striking fact of Indian public life is that the average Indian (a useful mythical construct), despite being marked by dizzying set of identifiers (gender, caste, community membership, religion, sect, sexual orientation, sporting loyalties etc) is a remarkably ‘secular’ person. One merely needs to look around India’s neighborhood – from Saudi Arabia to Burma – to see how private prejudices spill out into the public to abet organized forms of bigotry and institutionalized sectarianism. The average Indian educates herself, raises a family, and contributes in her own way to society at large. Yet, if one were to read our newspapers or listen to some of our public intellectuals, our average Indian has regressed. She is precisely the opposite: she is craven, bigoted, and intolerant. If she belongs to the middle class, this pejorative view is all the more strongly held by the opinion making elite of our times. If one is of a Statist mindset, all social ills are reducible to her purported intolerance, while any social gains are thanks to processes, institutions, and governmental programs. Assuming this convenient (and schizophrenic) view is indeed correct, a useful counterfactual question to ask is – why is India so peaceful? After all, more than a billion people go about improving their lives on a daily basis in a complex society without civil wars, sectarians riots, or mass killings. It isn’t the fear of our police services, the efficiency of our public goods provisioning, or the rhetorical insights of our intellectuals, authors, or political class that prevents the onset of social cataclysms. This peacefulness of our daily lives is due to the accumulated wisdom of how to live with each other, the many compromises we have learnt to make with those different than ourselves without any positive reinforcement from a manual issued by the State or the teachings of a political philosopher. In fact, an incremental willingness of generation after generation to experiment, to abandon and accept practices that ultimately allows for expansion of freedoms is the real story of modern India. That this has came about without the negative presences of an overarching ecclesiastical order, the authoritarian gaze of a religious class or the overbearing zealotry in the name of a holy book is the real miracle. Much of these gains have come in the past couple of centuries, and more particularly over the last few decades when Indians woke up one August morning and found themselves consecrated as citizens of a ‘free’ India. None of this is to deny the many lived realities in which life pushes individuals into a quagmire of discrimination, violence, and inequity. But the story of Indians remains one of steady, incremental progress, where they arrive, like guests at wedding, sometimes early and on other occasions late, into the antechambers of modernity. It is important to remember this because this empirical observation is key to retaining faith in the citizen of India and more so to efface the paternalism that marks much of our discourse. As the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton reminds, it is hard to remember what we have.

In contrast to the average Indian citizen who is often deemed as intolerant and non-secular, it is the Indian State that is hailed as ‘secular’. This is a form of secularism, in contrast to say state decreed secularism of France, Turkey, or Egypt, which is unique – one that involves free elections, fractious polity, and innumerable religious inflections. For most parts, it is Nehru’s free thinking spirit and the moral authority he exerted during his life that informed how the Indian state institutions began their largely non-partisan nature. There is, thus, a certain advantage in having the secularism of the Republic sacralized in form of one man.

Secularism And Its Discontents

But it has its downsides too. It runs the risk of conflating one’s opinion of Nehru the man with the ideal that is most associated with him: secularism. More perniciously, this essentializing approach allows one the comfort of thinking oneself disillusioned with Nehruvian secularism if one can can express lack of faith in many of his other policies. It is important, and increasingly difficult, to think about secularism and how it interacts with the State without the supervening presence of Nehru. Add to it the fact that Nehru was singularly unfortunate – as the historian Ramachandra Guha rightly points out – to have descendants who have progressively deteriorated in their political acumen, many continue to transfer disapproval of their actions to all that Nehru stood for. It is easy to forget that in the history of post-colonial states and its leaders, Nehru is still a shining star for the breadth of his ambitions and peaceful State that he left behind. Yet, what his experiments with the Indian State tells us is that institutions that locate their originary premise in the personality of individuals are likely to devolve into unrecognizable forms when those very individuals are no longer on the scene. This is a lesson that is worth keeping in mind in 2015 as it was in 1951.


In 1993, writing in wake of the Babri Masjid mosque’s demolition, the political scientist Ashutosh Varshney described Indian secularism as ‘pale and exhausted’. By 2015, with the rise of Narendra Modi on a majority mandate, a liberal political observer may be excused if he describes Indian secularism as ‘wounded and unconscious’ or even worse. Such dire assessments often point to the rise of the Hindu nationalist movements to prove the self-evident nature of their observations. But such simple minded conflation of political movements that rise in response to the contradictions at the heart of the Indian State mistake the symptom for its cause. By making the Hindu nationalists into villains who threaten to subvert the Republic’s ethos, one merely shifts the blame onto a group that may be, like many others, burdened by their own incoherent responses to the nationalist project (for example, many Hindu Rightists admire Bose and Rajaji simultaneously) and those who have entered modernity, not lacking in talent or intuitions, but without the requisite vocabulary to describe themselves.

The challenge for the India’s Right is to learn to put in words what they intuit and contexts they experience but are unable to articulate in words to fellow Indians and the world that goes beyond their spheres of influence. What is often little noticed is that it is the very same citizens who go about daily lives with millions of fellow Indians peaceably who have also voted in the Hindu nationalists to power after nearly half a century of voting Left-leaning parties into power. More than the shift in political preferences, which is subject to reevaluation with electoral cycle and can be explained to varying degrees of satisfaction, it is the substantive reevaluation of what ‘secularism’ can mean in public discourse that poses a challenge.

The difficulty rises as two opposing waves continue to slosh into our public discourse: the seemingly ineradicable persistence of Nehruvian secularism in form and ritual along with the continuing emptying out of its substantive claims. The result is an electorate that swings between form and substance of secularism, rewarding political class as and when it chooses, privileging neither. It is tempting to think that this is a sign of a mature electorate, but it is equally likely this is a case of an electorate whose political instincts, like Buridan’s donkey who was unable to choose between alternatives, is slowly being stripped of its discriminating faculties by this schizophrenia. The result of this inbetweenness is the easy lure of spectacle politics – where ‘events’ replace engagement, where public posturing becomes a stand-in for public dialogue, where familial privilege becomes a proxy for critical evaluation – and thus a democratic process that reduces secularism into a procedural requirement, no different than an electronic voting machine.


Declarations about India’s secularism are often earnest and any contestation of the idea come laced with sanctimony. So much so that when some of our widely known public thinkers like Amartya Sen describe themselves as an “unreformed secularist”, one suspects that to be a ‘secularist’ is not just a way of describing oneself, but also a strategy to subtly browbeat any opposition to their ideas into an argumentative corner reserved for fundamentalists. More likely, however, it seems like an effort to paper over deeper suspicions about the viability of the secular project in India, where the material conditions for the creation of an ideology of the State are radically different than what existed in 19th century Europe. A usual technique to browbeat any political challenges to how secularism has been institutionalized – particularly by the Hindu nationalist movements – is to point fingers at the internalization of colonial epistemologies by the Rightists. Implicit in this accusatory note, seen as recently in an interview with the renowned historian Romila Thapar with the journalist Barkha Dutt, is the presumption that the Left’s championing of Secularism is an immanent feature of the human condition under late modernism. Much of this merely reveals a casual understanding of how diverse and polyphonous the religious thought is within the Hindu Right, far less within India. In a way, this is understandable.

Marx, the Abraham to our polity’s latter day intellectual-saints, had little use for religion (writing as he was in the age of epistemological upheaval in 19th century Europe). His efforts were informed by the radical possibilities that the French Revolution had lain bare. Part of this effort to forge a New Man was the necessity to break out of the rigidities imposed by the Church. But merely transferring that experiential struggle between Reason and claims of Revelation to India reveals in our intellectual class not just the unwillingness to think for oneself but the disconnect between the many identities and ontologies Indians simultaneously locate within themselves. Little reflection reveals how limited Marx’s perspectives on the diversity of self-understanding that the religious have and, even more so, how difficult it is to gauge honestly the nature of religious affiliations is in country like India. Instead, writing as he did as a reaction to the influence of Christian ecclesiastical authorities and following Ludwig Feurbach, Marx saw religion as a projection mechanism: the witless effort by the “alienated” to transpose the powers of their human selves onto “an anthropomorphized” deity. Only by breaking away from such bonds could man become a “species-being”. In this sense, Marxism proposed an eschatological corpus that transferred Christianity ’s original radical premise under Christ into something more material and recognizable.

The lure of such convenient one-size-fits all explanation is easy to understand. It gives the believer of such Marxist reductionism the comfort of having “understood” what the religious think or feel. It also absolves them of having to study not just the texts or its contexts, or to painstakingly document their efforts, but ultimately to recognize that unlike many taxonomical efforts from the Enlightenment era, one can only understand the nature of another’s religious belief in an anthropological sense. That any knowledge of the ‘varieties of religious experiences’ is contingent, partial, and ultimately unknowable in sense that we expect knowledge from the physical sciences. It is not clear to me if Nehru critically read Marx, or like many of his generation instead the great German thinker was filtered through the warm glow of the October Revolution and Lenin (of whom Edmund Wilson wrote: “a pail of milk of human kindness with a dead rat floating at the bottom”).

Faced with the evidence of how Indian secularism has metastasized into game of strategic intolerance and grandstanding, a handful of thinkers have sought out explanations. The social scientist Bhikhu Parekh points out that the reduction of Indian experience with modernity into the term ‘secularism’ is not just inadequate because of its limited cultural context but precisely because it can only find its expression within the ambit of political vocabulary. Indian State may think of itself as secular, but the Indian people have little use for abstractions. They negotiate with each other in ways that have thankfully little to do with the pieties thrust upon by the State. What is left unsaid here is that ‘secularism’ becomes a metric to measure your commitment to the Republic.

Some others like T. N. Madan think of secularism as an elite social myth that is politically weak and thus accrues its powers solely by relying on the State. The dynamics of the discourse between the State and secularism thus can be both opaque in how policy is implemented on the ground and also transparent in its efforts to dot the i’s and cross the t’s of legalisms. Typical to his contrarian style, Ashis Nandy works from evidence of riots in urban areas to conclude that the India of the villages has yet to find its bearings in the socio-political modernity that has been unleashed on them. They find little meaningful content in boilerplate claims like ‘secularism’ to be of help to them. His thesis, if one tries to summarize it for succinctness, is that when the “Indian village” with its own norms of how to tackle religious differences comes in contact with “Indian cities” with its own expedient genuflections to secularism, what results is a form of ‘clash of civilizations’. Yet, this isn’t a ‘clash’ per se, for a clash presumes equality between rivals. Instead, as the philosopher Akeel Bilgrami says elsewhere, what results in Nandy’s explanation is a conquest by urban India over its rural parts. The result is that officially blessed modes of how secularism ought to manifest defaces more ancient and time tested methods to cope with differences.

Most of these explanations carry a smell of over determinism, with their melancholic conclusions that see state sponsored secularism as force that derives its malevolence by denying to Indians what its Constitution guarantees and modernity holds out as a reward: individuation. The ability to describe your own self into being. This may be true but is only partially so. In contrast, Bilgrami argues that the failures of the Indian State secularism can be traced to the failure at the Republic’s inception to facilitate negotiation between communities. Instead what we got was a Nehruvian fiat from above with little space for the lived realities of the Indian people who have their substantive commitments to their neighbors, friends, and lovers who may not belong to their religions. Thus, instead of a burbling up of agreements on the nature of the public space after a series of discussions and negotiations between communities, what we got was a concentration of power by the wards of the Congress Party who presented themselves as a locus of all secular thought. In essence, in the name of averting violence induced by Partition era sectarianism any dissenting voice or public discussion on Secularism was squelched. In response to such critiques, the standard fare response of mandarins of secularism has been to trace India’s self-awareness about how to be secular and what to do about religious differences into a series of historical blandishments about Nehru, Akbar and Ashoka.


What is little noticed is that the discourse of Secularism can be historicized as well. How we think about Secularism has changed over time. This metamorphosis is all the more the relevant when secularism interacts extensively with the State and its organs. Less obvious are answers to questions about how the discourse of Secularism has enforced an equality among ex-ante hierarchies. What is often sought to efface out of Indian political discourse is that the secularism project, midwived into modern consciousness by the Enlightenment thinkers in 18th and 19th century Europe and adopted for India’s post-partition Constitution, is an abstraction that has purchase only as long as it is translated into Indic ideas of equanimity towards all. Secularism has been sold often enough as an anglicized version of sarva dharma samabhava. Even the Supreme Court has relied on such equivalences. Yet, part of the suspicion towards the Secular project that even the professed secularists intuit is the presence of the extraordinary burdens placed on an individual representative of the State (say, a municipal clerk) to abandon his private beliefs in service of an ideal rendered in a formalistic language alien to him while dispensing his duties. The language necessary to think about secularism in an expansive manner or, even better to recast its end goals in a manner familiar to him, is absent. The necessary language, social relations and economic conditions (what Talal Asad calls ‘secularity’) to think about secularism may have been available to the writers of the Constitution. But after sixty years of lived experience, we find that in a highly competitive democratic politics the incentives to strategically resort to identity politics is writ large.

The intellectual and creative class, who were subservient to the political class for their access to institutionalized funding and employment now resort to an analytics of socially constructed differences. Then that very set of differences is presumed to be addressed by a homogenizing framework called ‘secularism’. What this does is that the history of differences and hierarchies of religions from the pre-modern era is transformed into a social problem with a technocratic answer that gains its moral legitimacy via the aspirational prowess suffused by an ideal of religious equality. An interventionist State, by convincing everybody that there indeed is a problem, offers up a two fold solution. One, is a separation of the State from the religions of its citizens; two, by dissolving the boundaries between the private and public by stipulating what constitutes religious identities itself. Modern liberal secularism, as Saba Mahmood writes, is marked by its ability to ‘construct and regulate religion’. The Hindu Family Act and the Shah Bano case exemplify this willingness to define religious identities and the obligations concomitant with that identity. The result is not just a reactionary backlash but more something more subtle. What we see is a gradual reinterpretation of premodern religious differences into a vocabulary blessed by the State. But because differences need to be reestablished under the new lexicon, political movements seek new stratagems of differentiation at the group level. New signals and symbolisms that borrow imageries from the past come to fore. Since religion has been deemed as “private” by the State, all contestations in the name of religion’s rebirth moved into homes, and more particularly into the bedroom. Sexuality and women become the locus for this struggle as religion tries to redefine itself. Part of the reason why minorities hold onto their monopolies over Personal Law is precisely because by ceding control, what would follow is a redefinition of power dynamics between genders. In all of this the Indian citizen is deemed without agency, a straw man buffeted by winds from all ends, thus all the more in need of the benevolence of the State.

Shah Bano
Shah Bano


What we need to recognize is the bald truth: only individuals can be secular, States can never be. For to be secular, at least in its dominant interpretation, is to be progressively disenchanted with the world. Not disenchanted in the sense of being filled with ennui or a sense of uselessness, but instead a progressive reliance on Reason to comprehend the world and its workings. More practically, this means a slowly disavowal of non-material claims that purportedly intervene in our daily lives. How exactly does a State become disenchanted? Of what exactly? For thinkers like Sen, a Secular State is faced often enough with problem that can be resolved by a calculus of extraction, allocation and distribution of resources using a mode discernible by all, namely instrumental reason. As long as the State does so without discriminating on religious basis, to Sen, this criterion fulfills a Secular State. This is the view of one who conceives of the State, society, its citizens, and humans within as impersonal constructs who are subject to rules, constraints, and rationality to operate and maximize social welfare functions of their times. In such an etiolated view of human interactions, there is little space for language, prejudice, and evolution of norms. Instead, if we recognize that only when individuals, irrespective of religions, are made equal under the law, only then can we no longer need provisions for group identities. Only when the Indian state decides to stop calling itself Secular and provisioning legislative and real resources in name of this ideal can Indians become truly secular. Else, we run the risk of transmogrifying ourselves into something that Nehruvian secularism ostensibly seeks to prevent. If that happens, we will have no one to blame, not even Nehru, but ourselves.

Keerthik Sasidharan was born in Palakkad; was educated in Canada and lives in NYC. His writings have appeared in The Hindu, The Caravan and other publications. He is working on his first book, to be published by Aleph Book Company.

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