Secularism and Its Discontents*

When India became independent more than half a century ago, much emphasis was placed on its secularism, and there were few voices dissenting from that priority. In contrast, there are now persistent pronouncements deeply critical of Indian secularism, and attacks have come from quite different quarters. Many of the barbed attacks on secularism in India have come from activists engaged in the Hindutva movement, including the BJP, which has been described as ‘the principal political party representing the ideology of Hindu nationalism in the electoral arena’.

However, intellectual scepticism about secularism is not confined to those actively engaged in politics. Indeed, eloquent expressions of this scepticism can also be found in the high theory of Indian culture and society.1 Many of the attacks are quite removed from the BJP and other official organs of Hindu nationalism. In addressing the issue of Indian secularism it is important to take note of the range as well as the vigour of these critiques, and also the fact that they come from varying quarters and use quite distinct arguments. If today ‘secularism, the ideological mainstay of multi-religious India, looks pale and exhausted’ (as Ashutosh Varshney describes it), the nature of that predicament would be misidentified – and somewhat minimized – if it were to be seen simply in terms of the politics of Hindu sectarianism. While the attacks on secularism have often come from exactly that quarter, there are other elements as well, and the subject calls for a wider analysis and response.

Despite this broad and forceful challenge, secularist intellectuals in India tend to be somewhat reluctant to debate this rather unattractive subject. Reliance is placed instead, usually implicitly, on the well-established and unquestioning tradition of seeing secularism as a good and solid political virtue for a pluralist democracy. As an unreformed secularist myself, I understand, and to some extent share, this reluctance, but also believe that addressing these criticisms is important. This is so not only because the condemnations have implications for political and intellectual life in contemporary India, but also because it is useful for secularists to face these issues explicitly – to scrutinize and re-examine habitually accepted priorities, and the reasoning behind them. There is much need for self-examination of beliefs – nowhere more so than in practical reason and political philosophy.* Hence this attempt at discussing some of the critical questions about secularism that have been forcefully raised.

Incompleteness and the Need for Supplementation

The nature of secularism as a principle calls for some clarification as well as scrutiny. Some of the choices considered under the heading of secularism lie, I would argue, beyond its immediate scope. Secularism in the political – as opposed to ecclesiastical – sense requires the separation of the state from any particular religious order. This can be interpreted in at least two different ways. The first view argues that secularism demands that the state be equidistant from all religions – refusing to take sides and having a neutral attitude towards them. The second – more severe – view insists that the state must not have any relation at all with any religion. The equidistance must take the form, then, of being altogether removed from each.

In both interpretations, secularism goes against giving any religion a privileged position in the activities of the state. In the broader interpretation (the first view), however, there is no demand that the state must stay clear of any association with any religious matter whatsoever. Rather, what is needed is to make sure that, in so far as the state has to deal with different religions and members of different religious communities, there must be a basic symmetry of treatment. In this view, there would be no violation of secularism for a state to protect everyone’s right to worship as he or she chooses, even though in doing this the state has to work with – and for – religious communities. In the absence of asymmetric attention (such as protecting the rights of worship for one religious community, but not others), working hard for religious freedom does not breach the principle of secularism.

The important point to note here is that the requirement of symmetric treatment still leaves open the question as to what form that symmetry should take. To illustrate with an example, the state may decide that it must not offer financial or other support to any hospital with any religious connection. Alternatively, it can provide support to all hospitals, without in any way discriminating between their respective religious connections (or lack of them). While the former may appear to be, superficially, ‘more secular’ (as it certainly is in the ‘associative’ – the second – sense, since it shuns religious connections altogether), the latter is also politically quite secular in the sense that the state, in this case, supports hospitals irrespective of whether or not there are any religious connections (and if so, what), and through this neutrality, it keeps the state and the religions quite separate.

It is the broader view that has been the dominant approach to secularism in India.* But this, it must be recognized, is an incomplete specification. Secularism excludes some alternatives (those that favour some religions over others), but still allows several distinct options related to the unspecified distance at which the state should keep all religions, without discrimination. There is thus a need, in dealing with religions and religious communities, to take up questions that lie ‘beyond’ secularism. While this essay is concerned with scrutinizing attacks on secularism as a political requirement, the organizational issues that lie beyond secularism must also be characterized.* In analysing the role of secularism in India, note must be taken of its intrinsic ‘incompleteness’, including the problems that this incompleteness leads to, as well as the opportunities it offers.

Critical Arguments

Scepticism about Indian secularism takes many different forms. I shall consider in particular six distinct lines of argument. This may be enough for one essay, but I do not claim that all anti-secularist attacks are covered by the arguments considered here.

(1) The ‘Non-existence’ Critique

Perhaps the simplest version of scepticism about Indian secularism comes from those who see nothing much there, at least nothing of real significance. For example, Western journalists often regard Indian secularism as essentially non-existent, and their language tends to contrast ‘Hindu India’ (or ‘mainly Hindu India’) with ‘Muslim Pakistan’ (or ‘mainly Muslim Pakistan’). Certainly, Indian secularism has never been a gripping thought in broad Western perceptions, and recent pictures of politically militant Hindus demolishing an old mosque in Ayodhya have not helped to change these perceptions. Indian protestations about secularism are often seen in the West as sanctimonious nonsense – hard to take seriously in weighty discourses on international affairs and in the making of foreign policy (by powerful and responsible Western states that dominate the world of contemporary international politics).

(2) The ‘Favouritism’ Critique

A second line of attack argues that, in the guise of secularism, the Indian constitution and political and legal traditions really favour the minority community of Muslims, giving them a privileged status not enjoyed by the majority community of Hindus. This ‘favouritism’ critique is popular with many of the leaders and supporters of the Hindu activist parties. The rhetoric of this attack can vary from wanting to ‘reject’ secularism to arguing against what is called ‘pseudo-secularism’ (‘favouring the Muslims’).

(3) The ‘Prior Identity’ Critique

A third line of critique is more intellectual than the first two. It sees the identity of being a Hindu, or a Muslim, or a Sikh, to be politically ‘prior’ to being an Indian. The Indian identity is ‘built up’ from the constitutive elements of separate identities. In one version of the identity argument, it is asserted that, given the preponderance of Hindus in the country, any Indian national identity cannot but be a function of some form or other of a largely Hindu identity. Another version would go further and aim at a homogeneous identity as a necessary basis of nationhood (in line with the picturesque analogy that ‘a salad bowl does not produce cohesion; a melting pot does’2), and move on from that proposition to the claim that only a shared cultural outlook, which in India can only be a largely Hindu view, can produce such a cohesion. Even the unity of India derives, it is argued, from the ‘cementing force’ of Hinduism.

(4) The ‘Muslim Sectarianism’ Critique

In another line of critique, the proposed dominance of Hindu identity in ‘Indianness’ does not turn on the logic of numbers, but is ‘forced on the Hindus’, it is argued, by the ‘failure’ of the Muslims to see themselves as Indians first. This form of argument draws heavily on what is seen as the historical failure of Muslim rulers in India to identify themselves with others in the country, always seeing Muslims as a separate and preferred group. It is also claimed that Muslim kings systematically destroyed Hindu temples and religious sites whenever they had the chance to do so.

Jinnah’s ‘two-nation’ theory, formulated before independence (and historically important in the partition of India), is seen as a continuation of the evident Muslim refusal to identify with other Indians. It is argued that, while the partition of India has provided a ‘homeland’ for the Muslims of the subcontinent, the Muslims left in India are unintegrated and are basically not ‘loyal’ to India. The ‘evidential’ part of this line of critique is thus supposed to include suspicions of Muslim disloyalty in contemporary India as well as particular readings of Indian history.

(5) The ‘Anti-modernist’ Critique

Contemporary intellectual trends, primarily in the West but also (somewhat derivatively) in India, give much room for assailing what is called ‘modernism’. The fifth line of critique joins force with this assault by attacking secularism as a part of the folly of ‘modernism’. While post-modernist criticisms of secularism can take many different forms, the more effective assaults on ‘secularism as modernism’ in India, at this time, combine general anti-modernism with some specific yearning for India’s past when things are supposed to have been less problematic in this respect (particularly in terms of the peaceful coexistence of different religions). Elements of such understanding tend to form integral parts of the intellectual critiques of some contemporary social analysts.

Ashis Nandy notes that ‘as India gets modernized, religious violence is increasing’, and he expresses admiration for ‘traditional ways of life [which] have, over the centuries, developed internal principles of tolerance’. The denunciation of secularism that follows from this line of reasoning is well captured in Nandy’s sharp conclusion: ‘To accept the ideology of secularism is to accept the ideologies of progress and modernity as the new justification of domination, and the use of violence to achieve and sustain ideologies as the new opiates of the masses.’3

(6) The ‘Cultural’ Critique

The sixth and last critique I shall consider takes the ambitiously ‘foundational’ view that India is, in essence, a ‘Hindu country’, and that as a result it would be culturally quite wrong to treat Hinduism as simply one of the various religions of India. It is Hinduism, in this view, that makes India what it is, and to require secularism, with its insistence on treating different religions symmetrically, must turn an epistemic error into a political blunder.

This line of criticism often draws on analogies with formally Christian states such as that of Britain, where the particular history of the country and the special role of its ‘own religion’ are ‘fully acknowledged’. For example, the Archbishop of Canterbury conducts political ceremonies of the state at the highest level (‘no nonsense about secularism there’). Similarly, British laws of blasphemy are specifically protective of Christianity and of no other religion (just as in Pakistan the domain of blasphemy laws penalizes ‘insults’ only to Islam). India, it is complained, denies its indigenous cultural commitment in not providing anything like a similarly privileged status to its ‘own’ tradition, to wit, the predominantly Hindu heritage.

I shall consider these half-dozen critiques in turn. As was stated before, other grounds for rejection of secularism have also been offered. Some of these critiques involve elaborate conceptual compositions and estimable intricacy of language, and are not breathtakingly easy to penetrate (even armed with a dictionary of neologisms on the one hand, and courage on the other). I shall confine myself only to these six lines of criticism of secularism, without pretending to be dealing with all the arguments against secularism that have actually been proposed.

On the ‘Non-existence’ Critique

Is the ‘non-existence’ critique to be taken seriously? Many Indian intellectuals tend to view this kind of opinion with some contempt, and are rather reluctant to respond to what they see as the obduracy (or worse) of Western observers. This is sometimes combined with a general theory that it does not really matter what ‘others’ think about India (at most, this is something for Indian embassies to worry about). This studied non-response is not only insular (ignoring the importance of international understanding in the contemporary world), it also overlooks how crucial outside perceptions have historically been to the identity of Indians themselves.* Even the composite conception of Hinduism as one religion includes the impact of the outsiders’ view of the classificatory unity of the religious beliefs and practices in the country.

There is also the recent phenomenon of the support provided by opulent expatriates from the subcontinent to community-based political movements – of Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus – back at ‘home’. And because of the relevance of what they read and react to, we can scarcely take foreign reporting on India as ‘inconsequential’ – even for immediate issues of internal politics in India.

The ‘non-existence’ critique certainly has to be addressed (even if the more informed reader would decide to switch off while that addressing takes place). Is India really the Hindu counterpart of Pakistan? When British India was partitioned, Pakistan chose to be an Islamic republic, whereas India chose a secular constitution. Is that distinction significant? It is true that, in standard Western journalism, little significance is attached to the contrast, and those in India who would like the country to abandon its secularism often cite this ‘forced parity’ in Western vision as proof enough that there is something rather hopeless in India’s attempt at secularism when the new masters of global politics cannot even tell what on earth is being attempted in India.

Yet the distinction between a secular republic and a religion-based state is really rather important from the legal point of view, and its political implications are also quite extensive. This applies to different levels of social arrangements, including the operations of the courts, all the way up to the headship of the state. For example, unlike Pakistan, whose constitution requires that the head of the state be a Muslim, India imposes no comparable requirement, and the country has had non-Hindus (including Muslims and Sikhs) as Presidents and as holders of other prominent and influential offices in government and in the judiciary (including the Supreme Court).*

Similarly, to take another example, it is not possible, because of the secularist constitution of India, to have asymmetric laws of blasphemy, applied to one religion only, as it is in Pakistan. There is a difference between the legal status that Pakistan gives to Islam (as it must in an ‘Islamic republic’) and the lack of a comparable legal status of Hinduism in India. Not surprisingly, the ‘non-existence’ critique is aired much more frequently abroad than at home, and often takes the form of an implicit presumption – colouring Western analyses of the subcontinent – rather than an explicit assertion. That hardened belief turns on overlooking extensive and important features of the Indian constitution and polity.

Two qualifications should, however, be introduced here. First, the ‘non-existence’ critique must not be confused with the claim – not infrequently made, often by staunch secularists – that, despite the elements of legal symmetry, Hindus still have a substantive advantage over Muslims in many spheres. This would be, typically, an argument for practising secularism ‘more fully’ in India, rather than for discarding the secularism that is already there. Second, the rejection of the ‘non-existence’ critique does not identify the exact form of secularism that exists in India (nor of course assert anything like the ‘superiority’ of that specific form of secularism). Indeed, as was discussed earlier, the acceptance of secularism still leaves many questions unanswered about the attitude of the state to different religions. Even when the basic need for symmetry in the political and legal treatment of different religious communities is accepted, we still have to decide on the shape that this symmetry should take, and what the exact domain and reach of that symmetry might be.

To illustrate, symmetry regarding blasphemy laws can be achieved with different formulas – varying from applying it to all religions, to applying it to none. While the latter option fits in immediately with a secularist withdrawal of the state from religious affairs, the former pursues symmetry between religions in a way that favours no religion in particular. Just as a secular state can protect the liberty of all citizens to worship as they please (or not to worship), irrespective of their religious beliefs (and this could not be seen, as was analysed earlier, as a violation of secularism), secularism can, in principle, take the form of ‘shielding’ every religious community against whatever that community seriously deems as blasphemy. I am not, of course, recommending such ‘universal anti-blasphemy laws’ – indeed, I would argue very firmly against anti-blasphemy laws in general. But my rejection of ‘universal anti-blasphemy laws’ is not based on seeing them as anti-secular, but on other grounds that go beyond secularism: in particular, the need to prevent religious intolerance and persecution, and the practical unfeasibilìty of making anti-blasphemy laws really ‘universal’, covering all religions in India (including those of the various tribal communities that constitute an underprivileged minority in India). The need to choose between different secular forms remains, but this is a very different contention from saying that the requirement of Indian secularism makes no difference – that it is ‘immaterial’.

On the ‘Favouritism’ Critique

The ‘favouritism’ critique turns on interpreting and highlighting some legal differences between the various communities. These have been much discussed recently in the activist Hindu political literature. The difference in ‘personal laws’ has been particularly in focus.

It is pointed out, for example, that while a Hindu can be prosecuted for polygamy, a Muslim man can have up to four wives, in line with what is taken to be the Islamic legal position (although, in practice, this provision is extremely rarely invoked by Indian Muslims). Attention is also drawn to other differences, for example between the provision for wives in the event of a divorce, where Muslim women (in line with a certain reading of Islamic law) have less generous guarantees than those which other Indian women have – a subject that came to some prominence in the context of the Supreme Court’s judgement on the famous ‘Shah Bano case’ (involving the right of support of a divorced Muslim woman from her estranged and more opulent husband). The existence of these differences has been cited again and again by Hindu political activists to claim that Hindus, as the majority community, are discriminated against in India, whereas Muslims are allowed to have their own ‘personal laws’ and ‘special privileges’.

This line of reasoning has many problems. First, if these examples indicate any ‘favouritism’, in giving special ‘privileges’, in the treatment of the different communities, this can hardly be a favouritism for Muslims in general. Any unfairness that is there is surely one against Muslim women, rather than against Hindu men. A narrowly ‘male’ – indeed, sexist – point of view is rather conspicuous in the particular form that this political complaint often takes.

Second, it is not the case that the personal laws of the Hindus have been somehow overridden in post-independence India by some uniform civil code. The separate status of Hindu personal laws has in general survived. The issue of uniform civil codes has to be distinguished from the fact that the Hindu laws were reformed after independence, particularly during 1955 and 1956, with little opposition (indeed, they resulted from political movements within the Hindu communities). The possibility of polygamy was explicitly ruled out by reform of the Hindu laws. It did not follow from some ‘uniform’ civil codes being imposed on the Hindus but not the Muslims. Nor did it make the Hindu personal laws inoperative – quite the contrary. Several other provisions were introduced within the Hindu laws themselves, but the domain of Hindu personal laws continues to be quite substantial.

The makers of the Indian constitution did express some preference for ‘uniformity of fundamental laws, civil and criminal’, which was seen by Dr B. R. Ambedkar (the leader of the team that framed the constitution of India) as important for maintaining the unity of the country.4 In the event, however, such uniformity was not incorporated in the constitution that emerged, and the preference for uniformity was only included as a ‘Directive Principle of State Policy’ – without enforceability. The principle that was adopted demanded that ‘the State shall endeavour to secure for the citizens a uniform civil code throughout the territory of India’. Like all the ‘Directive Principles’ enunciated in the Indian constitution, this was seen as ‘fundamental in the governance of the country’, and it was specified that ‘it shall be the duty of the State to apply’ this principle, but at the same time this principle (like the other ‘directive’ ones) ‘shall not be enforceable by any court’.5

It is, of course, up to the courts to see how far to go in line with this Directive Principle. In the much-debated case of the ‘Shah Bano judgement’, involving a Muslim woman’s right to a better financial deal at the time of divorce, the Indian Supreme Court did indeed make a move in the direction of uniformity.6 The Court also revealed some disappointment at the government’s failure to move in the direction of a uniform civil code in line with the ‘constitutional ideal’ (and noted that this constitutional provision had ‘remained a dead letter’). In fact, as one observer has noted, ‘the intensity of Muslim reaction to the Supreme Court’s judgment in that case was partly explained by the inclusion of this utterance and the suggestion that what the government had failed to do, the Court itself might undertake’.7 The ‘Muslim reaction’ was not, however, by any means uniform, and there was support as well as criticism for the Supreme Court’s judgement, from different sections of that community.8 It was Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress government that ultimately ‘caved in’, and made fresh legislation that further supported the ‘separatist’ view, rather than following the Supreme Court’s push in the direction of more uniformity.

The general issue of asymmetric treatment is indeed an important one, and there would, of course, be nothing non-secular in pursuing the possibility of making the provisions of a set of uniform civil laws apply even-handedly to individuals of all the communities. On the other hand, as was argued earlier in this essay, the principles of secularism will also permit an arrangement by which separate personal laws continue well into the future (so long as the different religious communities are treated with symmetry). In arguing against the latter option, considerations of justice may well be raised which demand some symmetry not only in the way the different religious communities are treated, but also in the way fairness is applied across other classificatory distinctions (for example, between the different classes, between women and men, between the poor and the rich, between the ‘elite’ and the ‘subalterns’, and so on).

The choice between these two options – and intermediate ones – remains open, and certainly cannot be closed in one direction or the other by the requirements of secularism alone. To note this is not to concede the failure of secularism, but is rather an acknowledgement of its circumscribed domain, and the affirmation of the need to go beyond secularism – with other principles of fairness and justice – to identify specific legal and social forms. While there is not much substance in the charge of ‘favouritism’ benefiting Muslims, and certainly no general case against secularism can be constructed on that line of reasoning, it is useful to integrate the discussion on secularism with the principles – such as those of justice – that lie beyond it.

We have to distinguish, in particular, between (1) the need for symmetry among different religious communities (a secularist consideration), and (2) the question of what form that symmetry should take, a concern that has to be consolidated with other principles of justice which take us well beyond secularism into, on the one hand, the importance that may be attached to group autonomy of religious communities, and on the other, the inescapable issue of equity for different groups of Indians, classified in non-religious categories, such as class and gender.

On the ‘Prior Identity’ Critique

The question of political and religious identities raises issues of a rather different kind. There can be little doubt that many Indians – indeed, most Indians – have religious beliefs of one kind or another, and regard these beliefs to be important in their personal lives. The issue that is raised by the claimed priority of this identity in the political context is not the general importance of religious beliefs in personal or even social behaviour, but the specific relevance of that identity in political matters (with and without the involvement of the state).

It is useful in this context to recollect the contrast between the religiosity of political leaders in pre-independence India and their respective beliefs in a secular identity. Jinnah, the great advocate of the ‘two-nation’ theory and the founding father of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, was scarcely a devout Muslim, whereas Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, the President of the Indian National Congress and a major leader of the Indian union, was a deeply religious Muslim.9

Similarly, Shyama Prasad Mukhopadhyay, the leader of Hindu Mahasabha, had very few Hindu practices, compared with, say, Mahatma Gandhi, who was both actively religious in personal life and in social practice (for example, he held regular prayer meetings which were open to the public) and also staunchly secularist in politics (insisting on symmetric political treatment of different religions and an effective separation of the state and religions). When Mahatma Gandhi was murdered by an extremist Hindu politician, the murderer’s complaint against him was not that he did not follow Hinduism in his personal life or in his social activities, but that he was, allegedly, very ‘soft’ on the Muslims in political matters, and did not give adequate priority to Hindu interests.

The importance of religious identity has to be separated from its relevance in the political context. It is thus odd to require that Indians must ‘go through’ their religious identity first, before asserting their Indianness, and even less plausible to insist that the Indian identity must be ‘built up’ on the constitutive basis of the different religious identities. That assertion of priority comes not only from religious sectarians (particularly, in recent years, the so-called ‘Hindu nationalists’), but also from those who have been especially worried about the usurping role of the state (as opposed to community), and about the violences committed by the state.

In this context, the issue of a national identity is often identified, misleadingly, I believe, with the philosophy of a ‘nation state’, thus giving an inescapably ‘statist’ orientation to the very conception of any political unity across religious communities and other social divisions. It is certainly true that in the emergence or consolidation of that unity, the nation state may well have an important instrumental role, but the state need not be central to the conceptual foundation of this unity, nor provide its constructive genesis. It is, for example, not a ‘category mistake’ to think of the Indian nation prior to 1947 as encompassing the residents of the so-called ‘native states’ (such as Travancore), and also of the non-British colonial territories (such as Goa), even though they did not ‘belong to’ the same state at all. It is a serious mistake to think that the idea of a nation requires the prior presence of a nation state.

A second problem concerns the use of this route to arrive at the proposed Hindu view of India. Even if the religious identities were somehow ‘prior’ to the political identity of being an Indian, one could scarcely derive the view of a Hindu India based on that argument alone. The non-Hindu communities – Muslims in particular, but also Christians, Sikhs, Jains, Parsees and others – are scarcely ‘marginal’ even in numerical terms in the country.

India has well over 140 million Muslims, not many fewer than Pakistan, and rather more than Bangladesh. To see India just as a Hindu country is a fairly bizarre idea in the face of that fact alone, not to mention the intermingling of Hindus and Muslims in the social and cultural life of India (in literature, music, painting and so on). Also, Indian religious plurality extends far beyond the Hindu–Muslim division. There is a large and prominent Sikh population, and a substantial number of Christians, whose settlements go back at least to the fourth century CE. There have also been Jewish settlements in India for nearly two thousand years. Parsees started moving to India twelve hundred years ago, to escape a less tolerant Iran. To this we have to add the millions of Jains, and practitioners of Buddhism, which had been for a long period the official religion of many of the Indian emperors (including the great Ashoka in the third century BCE, who had ruled over the largest empire in the history of the subcontinent).

Furthermore, large also is the number of Indians who are atheist or agnostic (as Jawaharlal Nehru himself was), and that tradition in India goes well back to the ancient times (to Cārvāka and the Lokāyata, among other atheistic or agnostic schools).* The classificatory conventions of Indian social statistics tend to disestablish the recognition of such heterodox beliefs, since the categories used represent what in India has come to be called ‘community’, without recording actual religious beliefs (for example, an atheist born in a Hindu family is classified as Hindu, reflecting the so-called ‘community background’).

Those who framed the Indian constitution wanted to give appropriate recognition to the extensive religious pluralism of the Indian people, and did not want to derive the notion of Indianness from any specific religious identity in particular. As Dr Ambedkar, the leader of the Indian Constituent Assembly, put it: ‘if the Muslims in India are a separate nation, then, of course, India is not a nation.’10 Given the heterogeneity of India and of the Indians, there is no real political alternative to ensuring some basic symmetry and an effective separation of the state from each particular religion.11

The programme of deriving an Indian identity via a Hindu identity thus encounters problems from two different directions. First, it suffers from insufficient discrimination between (1) personal and social religious involvement, and (2) giving political priority to that involvement (against symmetric treatment of different religions). Second, it fails to recognize the implications of India’s immense religious diversity.

In fact, the issue of religious plurality does not relate only to the relationship between Hindus and followers of other faiths (or none). It also concerns the divergences within Hinduism itself. The divisions do, of course, include those based on caste, and the nature of contemporary Indian politics reflects this at different levels with inescapable force. But the diversities that characterize Hinduism relate not just to caste. They also encompass divergent beliefs, distinct customs and different schools of religious thought.

Even the ancient classification of ‘six systems of philosophy’ in India had acknowledged deeply diverse beliefs and reasoning. More recently, in the fourteenth century, when the authoritative Hindu scholar Mādhava Ācārya (head of the religious order in Śriṅgeri in Mysore) wrote his famous Sanskrit treatise Sarvadarśanasaṃgraha (‘Collection of All Philosophies’), his discussions brought out sharply the extent of diversity of different systems of Hindu belief.*

In fact, seeing Hinduism as a unified religion is a comparatively recent development. The term ‘Hindu’ was traditionally used mainly as a signifier of location and country, rather than of any homogeneous religious belief. The word derives from the river Indus or ‘Sindhu’ (the cradle of the Indus valley civilization which flourished from around 3000 BCE) and the name of that river is also the source of the word ‘India’ itself. The Persians and the Greeks saw India as the land around and beyond the Indus, and Hindus were the native people of that land. Muslims from India were at one stage called ‘Hindavi’ Muslims, in Persian as well as Arabic, and there are plenty of references in early British documents to ‘Hindoo Muslims’ and ‘Hindoo Christians’, to distinguish them respectively from Muslims and Christians from outside India.

A pervasive plurality of religious beliefs and traditions characterizes Hinduism as a religion. The point can be illustrated with the attitude to Rama, in whose name so much of the current Hindu political activism is being invoked (including demolishing the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, claimed to be ‘the birthplace of Rama’). The identification of Rama with divinity is common in the north and west of India, but elsewhere (for example, in my native Bengal), Rama is largely the heroic king of the epic Rāmāyaṇa, rather than God incarnate. The Rāmāyaṇa itself is, of course, widely popular, as an epic, everywhere in India, and has been so outside India as well – in Thailand and Indonesia, for example (even Ayutthaya, the historical capital of Thailand, is a cognate of Ayodhya). But the power and influence of the epic Rāmāyaṇa – a wonderful literary achievement – has to be distinguished from the particular issue of Rama’s divinity.

A similar observation can be made about the claims to pre-eminent divinity of the other putatively divine characters in one part of India or another. If we must use the analogy of the ‘melting pot’ and the ‘salad bowl’, to which reference was made earlier, the Hindu traditions do not constitute a melting pot in any sense whatever. This need not, of course, prevent Hindus from living together in great harmony and mutual tolerance, but the same goes for a community of Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Parsees, Jews and people without any religion.

On the ‘Muslim Sectarianism’ Critique

I turn now to the issue of the alleged Muslim disloyalty to India. Spirited anecdotes abound on this subject, varying from the alleged frequency of Indian Muslims spying for Pakistan, to their tendency, we are told, to cheer the Pakistani cricket team in test matches.12

There is, in fact, no serious evidence for the hypothesis of the political disloyalty of Indian Muslims. A great many Muslims stayed on in post-partition India (instead of going to Pakistan) as a deliberate decision to remain where they felt they belonged. In the Indian armed forces, diplomatic services and administration, Muslims’ record on loyalty to India is no different from that of Hindus and other Indians. There is no significant empirical evidence to substantiate the critique, and the unfairness of this specious line of reasoning is quite hard to beat.*

Allegations of Muslim sectarianism are sometimes linked with a certain reading of Indian history (though ‘reading’ may well be the wrong word to use here). Muslim kings were, it is claimed, consistently alienated from their Hindu subjects and treated them badly. Since I have discussed the biased nature of this allegation elsewhere in this book (particularly in Essay 3), I shall not pursue this specific question again here. I will, however, comment on a point of methodology, rather than of empirical history. In the context of defending the importance of secularism in contemporary India, it is not in any way essential to make any claim whatsoever about how Muslim emperors of the past had behaved – whether they were sectarian or assimilative, oppressive or tolerant. There is no intrinsic reason why a defence of India’s secularism must take a position on what, say, the Moghals did or did not do. The ‘guilt’ of Muslim kings, if any, need not be ‘transferred’ to the 140 million Muslims who live in India today. Also, we can scarcely form a view of the political commitments of Muslims in contemporary India, or of their political loyalties, by checking what Muslim kings might or might not have done many centuries ago.

On the ‘Anti-modernist’ Critique

Turning now to the ‘anti-modernist’ critique of secularism, is it really the case that ‘as India gets modernized, religious violence is increasing’ (as Ashis Nandy says)? There are certainly periods in history in which this is exactly what has happened. For example, the communal riots immediately preceding the partition of British India in 1947 almost certainly took many more lives than any violence between the different communities earlier on in the century. But as the country has moved on from there (presumably not decreasing in ‘modernity’), the general level of violence has fallen from its peak in the 1940s – indeed, the number of incidents have been quite tiny in comparison with what happened half a century ago.

We must not, however, interpret Ashis Nandy’s statement too literally. The thesis presented deals with a presumed shift in the long run, away from a pre-modern situation in which ‘traditional ways of life’ had, ‘over the centuries, developed internal principles of tolerance’. There is undoubtedly some plausibility in such a diagnosis – there is some evidence that the level of communal violence did indeed increase with colonial rule. On the other hand, even in the pre-colonial past of India there were periods in which violence, especially by sectarian armed forces, had escalated sharply, and then ebbed. Nandy is right to assert that, in general, ‘principles of tolerance’ have tended to develop eventually, as people of different backgrounds have settled down to live next to each other. It is not, I believe, central for Nandy’s thesis to check whether the time trend of communal violence has been consistently upwards, nor particularly interesting to compare the numbers killed in recent years vis-à-vis those in the past (the massive increase in the absolute size of the population would bias those comparisons anyway). The point rather is the thesis that principles of tolerance do develop in multi-community societies, unless they are disrupted by contrary moves, and Nandy sees the development of ‘modernism’ as just such a move.

But what exactly is ‘modernism’ that could so disrupt the process of tolerance? The concept of modernity is not an easy one to identify, even though many post-modernists seem to share the modernists’ comfortable belief in the easily characterized nature of modernism. We may wish to resist being sent off on an errand to find the ‘true meaning of modernism’, and prefer to concentrate instead on the specific depiction of ‘secularism as modernism’, which is central to Nandy’s thesis. The point of departure would then be the argument forcefully presented by Nandy (as was quoted earlier): ‘To accept the ideology of secularism is to accept the ideologies of progress and modernity as the new justification of domination, and the use of violence to achieve and sustain ideologies as the new opiates of the masses.’ This is quite an articulate – indeed, terrifying – vision, but it would seem to be a rather odd characterization of secularism. The principle of secularism, in the broader interpretation endorsed in India, demands (as was discussed earlier) symmetric treatment of different religious communities in politics and in the affairs of the state. It is not obvious why such symmetric treatment must somehow induce inescapable violence to achieve and sustain ideologies as the new opiates of the masses.

I am aware that the nation state is under grand attack these days, and I also know that in this attack it is seen as a constant perpetrator of violence. And I am also ready to accept that the state in the modern world has been responsible for many violent things (not necessarily more than in the past, but significant nevertheless). I am also aware that, in a much favoured contemporary theory, a nation state tries to ‘homogenize to hegemonize’. But it seems, at best, intensely abstract to see such violence occurring whenever the state stops favouring one religious community over another.

It is thus hard to escape the suspicion that something has gone oddly wrong in the cited diagnostics. Nor is it obvious why secular symmetry should be a characteristic only of ‘modernity’. Indeed, even ancient states run by, say, an Ashoka or an Akbar went a long way towards achieving just such a symmetric treatment, but there is no evidence that these historical attempts at secular symmetry increased, rather than lessened, communal violence.

It is not really helpful to see secularism and modernism in these oddly formulaic terms. Indeed, ‘the principles of tolerance’, on which Nandy relies, are not really so remote from taking a symmetric view of other communities, and it is less than fair to political secularism to be depicted as it is in these indictments. The development of secular attitudes and politics can surely be a part of that mechanism of tolerance, rather than running against it, unless we choose to define secularism in some specially odd way.

Also, the idea of ‘modernity’ is deeply problematic in general. Was Ashoka or Akbar more or less ‘modern’ than Aurangzeb? Perhaps the question being raised here can be illustrated with another historical example, involving differences between contemporaries. Consider the contrast between the sectarian destruction caused by Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni in the eleventh century, and the reactions of Alberuni, the Arab-Iranian traveller (and distinguished Muslim mathematician), who accompanied Mahmud to India and felt revolted by the violence he saw: ‘Mahmud utterly ruined the prosperity of the country, and performed there wonderful exploits, by which Hindus became like atoms of dust scattered in all directions.’13 He went on to suggest – perhaps overgeneralizing a little – that the Hindus, as a result, ‘cherish, of course, the most inveterate aversion towards all Muslims’. That ‘aversion’ was, happily, not enough to prevent Alberuni from having a large number of Hindu friends and collaborators, with whose help he mastered Sanskrit and studied the contemporary Indian treatises on mathematics, astronomy, sculpture, philosophy and religion.*

However, Alberuni did not stop there, but proceeded to provide an analysis of why people of one background tend to be suspicious of those from other backgrounds, and identified the need for a balanced understanding of these problems (as was discussed in Essay 13): a ‘depreciation of foreigners not only prevails among us and the Hindus, but is common to all nations towards each other’.14 Those who like ‘modernism’ would probably prefer to see Alberuni as a ‘modern intellectual’ of some kind (albeit from the eleventh century). But we need not bring in modernism – either in praise or in denunciation – at all, to recognize wisdom when we encounter it.

On the ‘Cultural’ Critique

I turn finally to the ‘cultural’ critique, and to the suggestion that India should really be seen as a ‘Hindu country’, in cultural terms. This, it is argued, militates against secularism in India, since secularism denies that allegedly basic recognition.

There are two questions to be raised here. First, even if it were right to see Indian culture as quintessentially Hindu culture, it would be very odd to alienate, on that ground, the right to equal political and legal treatment of minorities (including the political standing and rights of the 140 million or more Indian Muslims). Why should the cultural dominance of one tradition, even if it exists, reduce the political entitlements and rights of those from other traditions? What should remove their rights as equal citizens?

The second problem with the thesis is that its reading of Indian history and culture is extremely shallow. The cultural inheritance of contemporary India combines Islamic influences with Hindu and other traditions, and the results of the interaction between members of different religious communities can be seen plentifully in literature, music, painting, architecture and many other fields. The point is not only that so many of the major contributions in these various fields of Indian culture have come from Islamic writers, musicians, painters and so on, but also that their works are thoroughly integrated with those of others.

Indeed, even the nature of Hindu religious beliefs and practices has been substantially influenced by contact with Islamic ideas and values.* The impact of Islamic Sufi thought is readily recognizable in parts of contemporary Hindu literature. Furthermore, religious poets like Kabir or Dadu were born Muslim but transcended sectional boundaries (one of Kabir’s verses declares: ‘Kabir is the child of Allah and of Ram: He is my Guru, He is my Pir’15). They were strongly affected by Hindu devotional poetry and, in turn, profoundly influenced it. There is, in fact, no communal line to be drawn through Indian literature and arts, setting Hindus and Muslims on separate sides.*

Another serious problem with the narrow reading of ‘Indian culture as Hindu culture’ is the entailed neglect of many major achievements of Indian civilization that have nothing much to do with religious thinking at all. The focus on the distinctly Hindu religious tradition effectively leaves out of the accounting rationalist and non-religious pursuits in India. This is a serious neglect, particularly for a country in which some of the decisive steps in algebra, geometry and astronomy were taken, where the decimal system emerged, where classical philosophy dealt extensively with epistemology and logic along with secular ethics, where people invented games like chess, pioneered sex education and initiated systematic political economy and formal linguistics.

To be sure, in his famous History of British India, published in 1817, James Mill did elaborate just such a view of India, an India that was intellectually bankrupt but full of religious ideas (not to mention Mill’s pointer to barbarous social customs). Mill’s ‘history’, written without visiting India or learning any Indian language, may, in some ways, have served well the purpose of training young British officers getting ready to cross the seas and rule a subject nation, but it would scarcely suffice as a basis for understanding the nature of Indian culture.

There are good reasons to resist the anti-secular enticements that have been so plentifully offered recently. The winter of our discontent might not be giving way at present to a ‘glorious summer’, but the political abandonment of secularism would make India far more wintry than it currently is.

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