Rethinking Secularism

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Indian secularism needs a rethingking.

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Written with Bhagwan Josh and Purshottam Agrawal. First published in Mainstream, December 30, 1990.

1. Symptoms of Breakdown.

The all‑round crisis of the Indian polity, with its many social, economic and political aspects, has finally burst into the open. Today, many people are challenging the Constitution and the way in which this has been operated over the past decades. There is an insurgent situation prevailing in Kashmir and Assam and the North‑East in general. In Punjab, the Khalistani movement has succeeded in pressurising even the Central Government. In central India and the Gangetic plain, the RSS/BJP/VHP have unleashed unprecedented violence against the Indian Muslims, and launched a tirade against what they call “pseudo‑secularism”. In the process the state machinery has become increasingly subject to communal/ethnic/regional sentiments and rendered ineffective. The Indian Army has taken on what is now accepted as a stable role in policing Indian society. Today, what is at stake is not the future of this or that government, but the concept of a united India, and the very political structure known as the Indian Union .

Why is there so much ethnic and communal unrest and dissatisfaction with the concept of India? Part of the reason lies in the inheritance of a fragment of the colonial empire, without restructuring the concept of the Nation. In fact, the first expression of this failure was Partition. The national leadership, while articulating popular grievances and awakening social‑democratic aspirations, nevertheless remained elitist, constrained both by class/caste interests and the highly limited franchise permitted by the colonial rulers. It sought to manipulate communalism (of all varieties) instead of combating it, failed to infuse political radicalism with far‑reaching social reform, and capitulated to an undemocratic partition, that illusory solution to very genuine problems. Thereafter it framed a republican constitution incorporating democratic norms and secular‑liberal notions of citizenship, judicial administration, and social equity. And the Indian state, under Congress control embarked upon a path of industrialisation which it called “socialistic”.

But the pattern of “modernisation” turned out uneven and socially discriminatory. Regional imbalances and the inequities of status were retained and accentuated. Entire regions and zones such as the North‑East, Jharkhand, tribal areas in Central India, and J & K were left underdeveloped, even while being exploited to the full for the ruling elites. Overcentralisation has created a situation where the pursuit of state power at the centre becomes ruthless ‑ this encourages the development of authoritarian and violent brands of politics such as communalism. It also becomes both the cause for and result of an erosion of democratic functioning within the hegemonic party ‑ such has been the history of the Congress. Thus dictatorial parties and persons could equate their own interests with the interests of the nation.

Behind the mask of liberal individualism and citizenship, traditionally oppressed castes/communities, and women, in general, were denied adequate representation in the affairs of state administration. Untouchability was formally abolished in the Constitution, but the law banning the practice of it was enacted only 8 years after Independence and honored more in the breach. The promise of reservations gave much‑needed legitimacy to the state, but governments failed to provide the educational and other facilities required to make such action effective. (The three‑quarters of the population comprising the SC/ST’s and OBC’s possess only 11% representation in the Class I services of the country. This despite the constitutional provision for 22.5% reservation for just SC/ST’s alone.)

2. Pseudo‑Nationalism.

In the hands of the Congress the Constitution became an instrument for the pursuit of class/caste interests. Political and economic decentralisation, an ideal dear to Gandhiji’s heart, and important not as a matter of administrative convenience, but as a prerequisite for the harmonious distribution of political and economic power, was ignored in the interests of “savarna” capitalism. (It is significant that the share in trade and commerce of the upper castes is 97%, whereas the remaining 3 % of business is held by 85 % of the population. There are no Muslim owners among the top 50 business houses in the country.) Nationalism became an slogan used for the reinforcement of the privileges of the ruling elites, including big business, landlords, rich peasants, and their political representatives. Any attempt at articulating local grievances against the undemocratic polity hence came to be crushed in the name of the “Nation”. The caste consciousness and communalism of the upper castes could easily masquerade as “nationalism”, but the resistance of the oppressed was dubbed “casteism” and anti‑nationalism. The last Congress government repeatedly referred to the Jharkhand and Gorkhaland movements as “anti‑national”. As per its convenience, the “High Command” tarred the leadership of the J & K National Conference and the Akalis with the same brush.

Today we have a situation where the government fails to protect citizens’ lives, but questions their patriotism if they appeal to international sentiment; in which, six years after the single worst communal carnage since 1947, the instigators of the violence receive open political and state protection. This blatant contempt for law and the basic norms of justice has had profoundly negative repercussions for the credibility of the Union of India in Punjab.) Multi-nationals like Union Carbide can shamelessly manipulate the state‑ machine to evade their criminal liabilities, but their victims are tortured with neglect and harassment by their own government. We are also witness to the most blatant extra‑constitutional intervention since Independence, of big business in national politics, with gigantic sums of money being used for the purchase of MP’s and the RSS/BJP/VHP campaign for the destruction of Babri Masjid. Clearly, a significant section of the ruling classes has decided that democracy is no longer convenient for the perpetuation of their vested interests.

3. The need for Secular Nationalism.

Thus, the experience of our past was building up to the current explosion. Legitimate dissatisfaction with the patterns of development and the collapse of civic and judicial administration have been channelised into the politics of secessionism and communalism, and, in certain cases, a mixture of the two. The fate of independent India as an entity has hitherto depended, and still depends, upon a secular and democratic nationalism, a popular consensus with the content and orientation of balance, harmony and social justice. Such a consensus existed (in potentio) for four long decades. The majority of the long‑ suffering masses were prepared to wait for the realisation of these ideals, as long as they had faith in a democratic state which could act as an instrument of their aspirations. This is the reason why populist slogans such as “Garibi hatao” could give the Congress such powerful support.

The need for secular nationalism was linked to the need both to harmonise the five main religious traditions ‑ Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Christianity and (Neo) Buddhism, as well as recognise and realise the egalitarian aspirations of the hitherto oppressed castes, ethnic groups, and Indian women as a whole. In part, this implied a democratic (as opposed to an authoritarian) reform and rejuvenation of Hinduism, and all the above religious traditions, a cultural revolution which could transform their intensely hierarchical sensibility into a new, philosophical acceptance of the modern concept of human equality. But the Congress and the elite intelligentsia (with a few noteworthy exceptions) failed to launch any attempt towards such a renewal of Indian society and civilisation. It further confused the situation by adding the label of “socialism” to the Constitution during the Emergency.

4. The Violation of the Consensus.

The continued and ruthless violation of the national consensus, has, after a long period of unrest among the socially and politically marginalised citizens, finally created a crisis for the Indian state as a whole. All these years, an overcentralised polity and the domination of ruling classes, castes and regions ‑ (the Centre over the states, the North over the South and North‑East, the upper‑castes over the SC/ST’s, backward classes and minorities; the capitalists, landlords and rich peasants over the working masses; and patriarchal culture over women) has operated through unwritten codes, with the written and overtly liberal constitution functioning as the facade of these unwritten codes.

The practice of secularism, instead of being expressed as a creative dialogue between religious traditions, degenerated into the granting of concessions to competing communalisms. Now, since the Indian State’s practice of “secular nationalism” is under challenge, the Hindu Rashtravadis are attempting to present for the ruling elites and upper castes/classes a fresh theory of nationalism, whose function will be the preservation of the existent forms of domination within a new political code. Thus, behind the contemptuous phraseology of “vote‑banks” and “appeasement” lies the disgust with the phenomenon of voting and democracy itself, and the desire to terrorise and blackmail the minorities and manipulate the religious sentiments of Hindus for propelling the RSS into power and to inaugurate an unashamedly despotic version of the Indian Republic. It is necessary to add that the Muslim communalists have aided and abetted this design by their stridently sectarian and patriarchal forms of mobilisation, especially over the Shah Bano and “Satanic Verses” controversies.

5. Understanding communalism.

Today, questions about secularism and communalism have to be set within this context. Thus, if communalism is seen, not as an arithmetical total of Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communalisms but as a political expression of an authoritarian and patriarchical culture, then several seemingly paradoxical phenomena, inherent in the communalist expression of social and psychic frustration become explicable. It is not accidental that despite their apparent mutual contradictions, all brands of communalism share a highly oppressive attitude towards women. Similarly the glorification of violence and cults of martyrdom, which are expressions of the same culture, can also bear functional and psychological utility for the politics of resistance to both real and perceived oppression. Thus, a continued trampling upon the basic civic rights of minorities can only strengthen the communal patriarchs and elite castes within such communities, as has obviously happened in the case of Indian Muslims.

Conversely an exclusively patriarchal content to nationalism will inevitably render it oppressive and communal. (Given the cultural and ethnic demography of India, it also becomes understandable that Hindu communalism can masquerade as hegemonic nationalism). In addition, communalism gives illegitimate power to the more intolerant and conservative among religious leaders, raising them to the level of “natural representatives”, not democratically responsible. This inherently militates against political democracy. In sum, communalism is the very antithesis of a democratic culture, and its habitual paranoia about the “Other” community is an externalisation of the latent fear of “its own” women and oppressed “lower” strata.

6. Indian secularism.

The Indian version of secularism signified the peaceful co‑ existence of religious communities and a creative interaction between various traditions. It did not imply state atheism, or an active opposition to religion, or even a ban on the public display of religious sentiment, (as long as this was non‑ aggressive). It is this positive connotation of Indian secularism which has been systematically destroyed by the violent and despotic cults of all the communalists. And it is this connotation alone which must be reconstructed and evolved further in order to understand and deal with the religious aspect of disrupted social and political relations in the current crisis. Any notion of secularism for which religion is a purely private affair of the individual fails to comprehend that religion plays an important role as a source of ethical inspiration and in the creation of social identities.

How is this possible? To begin with, it is necessary to recognise that the peoples of the Indian subcontinent carry with them not single, but multifarious and overlapping identities. These include identities of caste, region, dialect, gender,and community. Whereas gender is natural (although gender oppression is certainly not), the rest are historically created, with varying lineages. The categories of the “Nation”; of monolithically defined communities; caste‑federations or estates; and class‑alliances and class organisations originated in the late colonial period and carried political functions within the context of a retreating imperialism. Sometimes these identities conflict with each other, pulling groups and individuals in different directions : thus, women as oppressed gender and women as members of this or that patriarchically defined caste or community; Muslims as Pakistanis versus Muslims as Bengalis; Assamese as caste‑Hindus and as inhabitants of an underdeveloped region; Neo‑Buddhists as self‑consciously rejuvenated citizens versus Neo‑Buddhists as “scheduled” castes, etc.

Upon the older, pre‑colonial matrix of identities were superimposed two new sets of identities. One was linked to the language of the colonial administration, coloured both by its motivations and inadequate comprehension of Indian culture. The British also introduced enumerative categories through the censuses, something which profoundly influenced the self‑consciousness of the Indian intelligentsia. The second set of identities was also a product of the colonial churning of Indian society. They included the Nation, the community and the caste‑blocs, and became political forms of expression of the popular striving for change. Because of wide disparities in wealth, education and opportunity, these structures came to be dominated by an elite intelligentsia, often mobile as leaders within different categories.

But the different categories had an uneasy co‑existence, because not all social and political elites had a desire for democratic renewal. Hence the construction of monolithic “communities” became the political project of the more conservative elements within the different religious traditions, and their version of religion was more of a political‑cultural project, quite at variance with the older, folk traditions. The communal sensibility influenced the broader nationalist consciousness, particularly because of the dominant social position of communal leaders and the restricted franchise. (This gave exclusive political privileges to the castes/classes to which these leaders belonged.)

The national movement proved unequal to the task of blunting the reactionary politics of the upper‑caste and feudal/usurious elements. For these groups a democratic consensus within a republican constitution which gave the oppressed even a glimmer of hope for a social democracy, was unacceptable. They floated alternative, exclusivist concepts of nationhood, such as “Hindu Rashtra” and the “Two‑Nation Theory”, to try and co‑opt popular aspirations. The undemocratic Partition strengthened the reactionary elements on both sides of a nation divided into two states. Whereas the direct control by Muslim communalists over state‑power in Pakistan led to a rapid slide towards autocracy, in India the struggle between the conflicting social‑democratic and authoritarian traditions of nationalism was more prolonged.


This struggle has been going on in India, both within and sometimes outside the plane of the Constitution for the past four decades. The struggle for equality and democratic functioning has lain at the core of the conflict between the “upper” and “lower” caste‑blocs; the central government and the state governments; the backward regions and the state as a whole; between city and country; women and the patriarchal structure of society and polity; rich and poor, etc. The current political turmoil is but the latest (and most serious) expression of the critical stage that the struggle has reached. If it is not recognised explicitly even now, no amount of state militarism (or Hindu communalism) can prevent the breakup of the country. Therefore, the positive aspects of the nationalist platform have to be resurrected and made the basis of a renewal of democratic commitment by the people towards their own future.

Thus, tensions about identities in India are expressed through various different codes. It is necessary to strive for an alignment of those codes which express the social‑democratic aspirations of the oppressed factor in our society, and isolate those codes which lead to more violence and authoritarian politics. As a starting point, a consensus may be notionally accepted which will include the basic values of non‑violence, women’s liberation, the end of caste oppression, democratic practices, and the freedom of the individual. Any consensus which violates these values will negate the concept of democratic secular nationalism, which is the only possible basis for the continued existence of the Union of India. An acceptance of this concept will, on the other hand, help heal the religious divide, because the values we have outlined are just as much contained within religious traditions as are their negative features. Our current experience of perverse religiousity owes much to the products of patriarchy, communalism violence, and a euro‑centric understanding of secularism. This consensus can hold India together, and begin the long and painful process of healing the wounds inflicted on society by the decades of “savarna” capitalist rule.

(A) The federal nature of the Indian polity must be re‑iterated, with a promise made to restructure the balance of power between centre and states within a specified time period. The aspirations of backward regions must be addressed.

(B) The legitimate aspirations of ethnic and religious identities must be recognised, on the ground of the above mentioned non‑aggressive consensus. This redressal too, must be time‑bound.

(C) The question of women’s equality, embodied in concrete legal and constitutional norms, should be placed at the centre of a debate on secularism, so as to construct a new cultural basis for Indian nationhood.

(D) The prolonged quest for social equality, justice and redressal of grievances by victims of communal/caste violence; and by the victims of environmental‑industrial oppression must meet with the promise of realisation, again, within the foreseeable future.

The four items of this agenda should form the pillars of national, secular renewal as the basis of India’s democratic republic.

Featured Image Credits: Anand Thakur on Unsplash

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