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SECULARISM- In theory & Practice in the context of contemporary India

SECULARISM- In theory & Practice in the context of contemporary India

By Baisali Mohanty

Edited by Nidhi Singh, Junior Editor, The Indian Economist

In our own times, secularization has acquired the status of a ‘social myth’ that contains elements of truth, namely the empirical processes that constitute it, as well as the distortions of that truth, all in the service of diverse, even mutually opposed, ideological positions. While the so-called conservatives see secularization as a threat to their conception of the good, moral life, robbing it of its ideas of sacredness and value, the secularists look upon it as an anti-religious, emancipatory, historical process. The latter consider urbanization, industrialisation and modernization as the causes and symptoms of the ‘secularizing fever’ that grips our societies today.

The term ‘secularisation‘ was found used in 1648 at the end of Thirty Years War in Europe, to refer to the transfer of Church properties to the exclusive control of the princes. Again in November 2 of 1989, after the French Revolution, Talleyrand announced to the French National Assembly that all ecclesiastical goods were at the dispersal of the nation. Later in 1851, George Jacob Holyoake coined the term ‘Secularism‘ and led a national movement of protest. The idea of secularisation was built in to the idea of progress. Secularisation, though nowhere more than a fragmenting and incomplete process, however since, retained a positive consolation. Secularisation now-a-days is generally employed to refer to in the words of Peter Berger “the process by which sections of society and culture are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols.”It may be held that the concept of secularism as evolved over the centuries in the west, however, took an anti – religious character.

Niyazi Berkes explains the origin of the word ‘secular‘ as ‘Saeculum’ which means originally ‘age’ or ‘generation’ but which came to mean in Christian Latin the ‘temporal world’ . The word ‘secular’ has been used with this meaning in all the major 7 protestant countries.” Nearly the same meaning of the term is incorporated in Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, “Secularism is wholly unconcerned with that unknown world and its interpretation. It deals with the known world, interpreted by experience and neither offers nor forbids any opinion regarding another life.” Thusyt describes secularism as a movement intentionally ethical, negatively religious with political and philosophical antecedents.

Secularism in India is a multi-vocal word, what it means depends upon who uses the word and in what context. There is, therefore, no single or straight answer to the question as to why secularism in India has run into difficulties. We begin by Mahatma Gandhi because he is known as the spiritual father of Indian secularism. His vision was holistic with religion as its constitutive principle-as the source of value for judging the worth of all worldly goals and actions. Religion here means, above all, altruism (sevadharma), self-assurance arising from inner conviction, and the putting of one’s faith in the saving grace of God (Rama nama). Gandhian politics was inseparable from religion. Politics was sacralised by Gandhi. For Gandhi, as Bhikhu Parekh says, it was the citizen’s sense of moral responsibility for his actions that ultimately determined the character of the state. A Gandhian, according to Madan, would have to say that secularism has run into difficulties in India because the modern state is too much with us, and intrudes into areas of life where it has no business even to peep. The state is best which governs the least. A Gandhian critique of secularism in terms of ultimate values and individual responsibility is in some respects similar to Max Weber’s concern with the problem of value. What Gandhi and Weber are saying is that a secularized world is inherently unstable because it elevates to the realm of ultimate values it knows and these are instrumental values. Ashish Nandy claims that Gandhi showed us a way of rejecting modernity in favour of a non-modern way of tolerant religious living.

Gandhian remedies are believed by modernist Indians to be far-fetched and impractical, if not obscurantist. In relation to the character of the new state, Sardar Patel and Rajendra Prasad were no closer to Gandhi than was Jawaharlal Nehru which does not mean that their notions of a strong state were identical. Like all modern intellectuals he had implicit confidence in the process of secularization. He reaffirmed the primacy of the economic factor. Nehru attacks the bigotry and dogmatism of religion, but acknowledges that religion stands for higher things of life too. Nehru’s position on religion, religious conflict and the significance of the processes of secularization was what would be rationalist and modern. It was also idealist in the sense that it reflected more the ideals of European Enlightenment than the hard facts of society, culture and politics in India. A Nehruvian answer to the question why secularism has run into difficulties in India would be that the people are not yet ready for it. It requires a level of general education that is yet beyond them, and a liberal outlook on life and scientific temper which unfortunately they lack.

The framers of the constitution, it seems to Madan, overlooked the possibility that in a democratic polity the state may reflect the character of the society, and that a communally divided society and a secular society could be mutually contradictory. On the one hand, there is a danger of majoritarianism and, on the other, that of vesting the religious minorities with a kind of veto power.

Within the framework of majority-minority politics, although the exploitation of certain castes and communities at the hands of others over the centuries down to this day, cannot be denied, the idea of reservation quotas – notwithstanding the fact that it was intended to be a temporary protective measure for thirty years only(Article 334)- does not fit well with the idea of secularism, understood as non-discriminatory state policy, particularly if it threatens to become a permanent vested interest.

The militant secessionism of Kashmiri Muslims is more inspired by religious and ethnic considerations than by pure Islamic fundamentalism. But influence of the latter is not absent. Islamic fundamentalists regard the Kashmiri Muslims as imperfectly Islamized. Whatever judged to be the character of Kashmiri separatism, it is perfectly clear that it is against pan-Indian secular nationalism. The issue of Kashmir and the silence of Muslim political leadership underscores the tragic fact that all is not well with Indian secularism.

The destruction of Babri masjid in Ayodhya in December 1992 is a blow to Indian secularism. There was a widespread sense of foreboding; yet the Indian state became an accomplice, through acts of omission and commission, in this act of betrayal of both traditional cultural pluralism and modern secularism. As Prime Minister P.V.Narsimha Rao put it, ‘the demolition posed a ‘grave threat’ to the institutions, principles and ideals on which the constitutional structure of the republic has been built’. The most dangerous potent is the coming to power of the ultra-chauvinistic Shiv Sena, in coalition with BJP, in Maharashtra. Nothing is more inimical to the Indian secularism than the vituperations of the Sena Chief Bal Thakrey, against non- Maharashtrians and those Muslims whom he considers anti-national.

If India is to be saved from religious discord reinforced by fundamentalist tendencies present in all the three traditions (Hindus, Muslims and Christianity, and the resultant political divisiveness, we need rigorous rethinking and concerted action. What is at stake is the very survival of the Indian State. The end of the crisis of Indian secularism is not in sight.

Baisali belongs to the political science department of the prestigious Lady Shri Ram College for Women. For a brief period she has been associated with several international and national media houses including the Hindu, Times of India and Jasodhara Global Media. She has been involved with several national level campaigns including The honour for women campaign, One billion rising. Her contribution to several NGOs has also been quite noteworthy which includes OYSS, Kirti, Nirbhaya and several others.



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