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A Contextual Account of Indian Secularism

Indian Secularism Urvi mukhopadhyay The validity of secularism as a political ideology has been put under question in the recent past, in the context of the communal violence against the Christian community in Orissa and in the jingoism against the Muslim community in the media in the name of

Economic & Political Weekly EPW april 4, 2009 vol xliv no 1427book reviewA Contextual Account of Indian SecularismUrvi mukhopadhyayIndian Secularism: A Social and Intellectual History 1890-1950 by Shabnum Tejani (Ranikhet: Permanent Black), 2007; pp xvii + 302, Rs 695.The validity of secularism as a politi-cal ideology has been put under question in the recent past, in the context of the communal violence against the Christian community in Orissa and in the jingoism against the Muslim commu-nity in the media in the name of “hunting down the terrorists”. The situation ap-pears close to an eminent intellectual’s claimthat“secularism is dead”. Since the post-Mandal agitations the political cli-mate of India has drifted towards the right andhas destabilised notion of “secular India”. This failure of secular ideology in India has often been interpreted as a manifestation of the inadequacy of the modernisation programmes taken up by the state where secular forces are seen as weak in handling the obstacles posed by religious sectarianism in a typical third world situation. The frame of debate around secularism here thus emphasises the issues of modernity and religion, which essentially invokes a western model where secularism as an ideology compre-hends the distance between the church and the state. This strand of argument employs secularism and communalism as analytical tools for explaining the reli-gious and sectarian identities in the context of the problems of integration with a liberal democratic state, and thus bypasses the historical evolution of the termslike “secular” or “communal” in the Indian scenario. Rightly pointing out this inadequacy in the recent research on secularism in In-dia, Shabnum Tejani indeed does a com-mendable work in her monograph titled Indian Secularism: A Social and Intellec-tual History 1890-1950 by taking up the study of the changing meaning of the term secularism in the context of nation-alism. The book traces the evolution of the term secularism from its emergence in political rhetoric to its culmination in the Constitution of India as a modern, liberal nation state. She points out that the idea of secularism has played a major role in ensuring a place for the minority communities in the Indian Constitution. This ideology, she argues, has recognised the differences, rather than the affinity with minority communities and has helped to construct the complex matrix of the official secular identity of the Indian nation state. However, Tejani does not view the Constitution as the ultimate manifestation of the (very particularly)Indian ethics of tolerance known assarva dharma samabhava. Contrary to this idea she interprets the Constitution as a con-genial framework of the new “liberal” Indian state where the dominance of the majority community – upper caste, middle class Hindu men – could be preserved against the challenges posed by the mar-ginal Muslim and the dalit communities. She presents her argument by following a historical analysis of the emergence and evolution of the secular ideology in India or more precisely in modern Maharashtra and the Sindh area from the 1890s to the 1950s. Through this micro-regional study she intends to search for a typical pattern of the “Indian” iden-tity formation that retained an upper caste Hindu male connotation in spite of its occasional alliances with other groups or communities to achieve its political goal. Thus, far from being uni-versal, the secular ideology is presented here within a specific socio-historical context where the politics of nationalism plays a defining role in the articulation of secularism.The book is divided into three thematic sections, namely, nationalism, communal-ism and secularism. The section on na-tionalism contains the history of articula-tion of the dominant notion of the Hindu nationalist self where not only the idio-matic usage of the Hindu vocabulary of identity but also its ultimate goal of asser-tion of political power over other rival communities such as the Muslims were clearly spelt out. This articulation, she argues, defined the mainstream national self where all the contesting cultural or religious groups or their opinions were categorised under the hated term of “communalism”. The second section called communal-ism is of course a borrowed term that de-fined the so-called “Muslim politics” of self-assertion in the contemporary situa-tion. Tejani’s research concentrates on “Muslim politics” since the time of the Morley-Minto constitutional reforms, when their presence was felt as the contenders to the Hindu nationalist movements. Dur-ing the anti-colonial upsurge just after the first world war they were picked up as an ally during the days of Khilafat and then non-cooperation movements. She retraces the emergence and articulation of the community-based representational poli-tics in the aftermath of the Khilafat and then non-cooperation movement and intends to situate the term “communal” as an antonym to “secular” in the Indian poli-tical vocabulary. Her pessimism about these superficial alliances is palpable in naming the last section as secularism where she traces the history of the bitter tension amongst the so-called non-Muslim Hindu community where the upper caste leadership preserved their dominance by providing reservations for the minorities.In spite of this thematic division, the book unfolds its argument in a chronologi-cal pattern. Retracing both the popular and constitutional history of this period this book attempts to answer two separate but pertinent questions. The first has to do with the emergence of secularism as a political doctrine in India. And the second refers to the politics of secularisation – a process whereby those activities deemed religious become differentiated from
BOOK REVIEWEconomic & Political Weekly EPW april 4, 2009 vol xliv no 1429of Mohammad Ali, the most respected leader of the Khilafat movement, she inter-prets how his criticism against the Con-gress nationalism was quickly rejected as a plea of communalism. Tejani has shown how the Muslim leaders were getting con-vinced about the discriminatory nature of majoritarian politics and increasingly opt-ed for a community-based representation-al mode of legislative structure especially after the failure of their joint effort of mass mobilisation during the days of the Khila-fat and non-cooperation movements. She situates the debates around the creation of the autonomous Muslim province in Sind as a part and parcel of the defining catego-ries of the national and communal selves where the opposing interests of the major-ity and the minorities were shaped to con-solidate as a totalising political rhetoric. She has presented the gradual rift between the once close political friends Sheikh Abdul Majid, Choitram Gidwani and Jav-harmal Totiram Mansukhani on communal lines during the post-Khalifat days as a case study for the emerging dominance of the community-identity based representation-al politics in the Sindh region.This detailed account of a regional reac-tion to the first so-called, mass-based all-India movement such as the Khilafat (and the non-cooperation movement) indeed adds extra value to the studies of the evo-lution of communal and the secular ideo-logies in India. However, overemphasis on the right wing majoritarian tendencies of the Hindu forces presented so meticulously in this book underplays the liberal visions of the early nationalism in that period. On page 170, a quote by Mohammad Ali ex-pressing his anguish for the contemporary deviation of the dominant nationalist dis-course from the “liberalism of the earlier generation of the (Hindu) reformers” thus gives a jerk to the readers of this book which has presented the Hindu upper caste dominance in the nationalist rhetoric as an uncontested political ideology. The book presents the Hindu upper caste domination in the nationalist narrative in such a linear fashion that it fails to make the reader aware of the paradigm shift in the nation-alist Hindu rhetoric with the ascendance of Hindu groups such as the Hindu Maha-sabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh during that period. The negligible focus on historical figures such as Abul Ka-lam Azad and Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan in the discussion about post-Khilafat politics in this book, I believe, has further weak-ened the case of liberalism, which has also contributed in the articulation of the secu-lar political ethics in the Indian context.1930s The last and the final thematic section named “secularism” dwells more with the making of the Constitution than with mass politics. Tejani has observed that since 1932 the question of nationalism took a legal turn and the categories such as “nation”, “community” and “citizenship” came to be articulated through the pro-cess of Constitution making. Chapter 5 focuses on the communal question as ar-ticulated by Ambedkar during the Round Table conferences of 1931-32. The colonial administration offered the plan of com-munity representation which they claimed would benefit the disparate interests of the fragmented Indian society on community lines. This was a cunning tool to deal with the mass mobilisation under Gandhian leadership that had the potential to para-lyse the colonial administration in different regional pockets all across the country.In the Round Table conference the ma-joritarian “pressure” of Hindu nationalism was accepted as an obstacle for the fulfil-ment of the “minority” development by the colonial authority. In this situation, Ambedkar started his campaign to secure constitutional recognition for the “de-pressed classes” – a colonial term used for the untouchables and demanded minority status to challenge the majoritarian sway of Congress nationalism, allegedly master-minded by the caste Hindu leaders. By this time, Tejani argues, the Muslims were accepted as a minority and thus excluded from the mainstream nationalist politics. But this demand from the untouchables was seen as a fissure withinthe Hindu so-ciety which could threaten the dominance of the contemporary Congress leaders. Te-jani interprets Gandhi’s historic fast unto death to save the unity of the Hinduism as a quintessential expression of the anxiety of the nationalist leader who was fearing yet another strand of minority separatism in the name of community representation. To save the unity within the majority group the process of appeasement started with the recognition of representational politics where the age old model of the securing the public sphere forcontesting groups was reiterated. Tejani interpreted the Poona Pact of 1932 as an expression of the secularisation process by including contesting communities within the natio-nal fold to preserve the dominance of the contemporary Hindu nationalist leader-ship against the Muslim “communal” forces within the Indian national space.Constituent Assembly DebatesWith the passage of time the political sce-nario of the 1940s was marked by greater conflict as the creation of a new nation on community lines became an increasing re-ality. Nationalism in the Indian context thus drifted closer to the idea of secular-ism that stood in complete opposition to the idea of communalism. The secularism debate in this stage, Tejani argues, was carried out in the Constituent Assembly debates (1946-50) which finalised the meaning for secularism in the Indian situ-ation. She describes the meaning of secu-larism in this context to mean the provid-ing of political safeguards to minorities against majoritarian dominance. Such safeguards were provided in the form of reservation quotas in legislatures and other public forums to ensure adequate representation of the minority interests.At the beginning, she observes that the minorities were considered as a single category where caste and religious groups were not segregated. But since the sub-mission of the review of the draft Consti-tution in the 1949 the assembly decided to limit reservation only to the scheduled tribes and castes, and not to the religious minorities. This was done to ensure the freedom of conscience of different com-munities before the law, which was seen as the essential quality of a secular state. Although “secular” was not part of the for-mal description of the Indian state before 1976, the protection of cultural, linguistic and religious minorities was assured in the resolutions on fundamental rights. After a lengthy discussion about the nature of the protection, the Constituent Assembly prescribed an uneven notion of protection for different categories of the minorities. The reservation for religious
BOOK REVIEWapril 4, 2009 vol xliv no 14 EPW Economic & Political Weekly30communities, it was apprehended, could foster a similar political isolation on com-munity lines that was spelt out in the crea-tion of Pakistan. But the reservations for scheduled castes and tribes were justified as a protective economic measure that would ensure equal opportunities for backward classes. She, thus, argues that the idea of secularism in India has not en-sured equal treatment of various commu-nities. The minority religious groups, she argues, have been barred from any claim to inequality in the plea of national integration – the cause justified and cele-brated in the Constitution by embracing the principle of secularism. She explains this particular meaning of the term secu-larism as an integral part of the natio-nalist politics where the creation of a liberaldemocracy could not oust the hegemonic rule of the “Hindu upper caste, middle class male” and continues to use secularism as a tool to preserve their political supremacy. The last section offers the reader to look into the politics of Constitution making in its historical backdrop. This perspective provides the reader a better understanding of the usage of the terms such as citizen-ship, rights and reservations in the Indian situation. The stated details of the debates within the Constituent Assembly and the pressure groups outside present a com-mendable matrix that helps us to engage with the complex process of Constitution making in India. In spite of the rigour in-volved in presenting the caste politics of the 1940s, the sparsely mentioned communal angle sometimes seems inadequate to grasp the wider political scenario of that period. The time frame mentioned in this section is perhaps better known for communal poli-tics, rather than caste politics. The idea of “secular” that came into being in the Constitution perhaps could have had a direct relationship to the complex politics of caste-class and religion of that time, rather than to the single category of “caste” alone.In spite of these fuzzy bits the mono-graph in general should be acclaimed as the fruit of a scholarly work which couldbe useful to the students and scholarsinterested in the evolution of widely contested political ideology, such as secularism in a third world situation. For the next edition, I would suggest that a general parity has to be maintained for the transliterated spellings of words like DeshasthaandKonkanasth. Despite these minor yet visible shortcomings, I must congratulate Permanent Black and Shab-num Tejani to take the courage to reinves-tigate the issue of Indian secularism in the present political scenario. Email: urvitinni@yahoo.comThe Colonial Staged: Theatre in Colonial Calcuttaby Sudipto Chatterjee (Kolkata: Seagull Books), 2007; pp 344, £ 16.99 Bengali Theatre HistoriographyLata SinghTheatre has been an important cul-tural site of hegemonic contest of dominant political forces and counter-hegemonic struggle during the colonial period in India. There have been general accounts on theatre, but a serious scholarly engagement with it has begun only recently. However, barring a few, most of the works on theatre have focused on post-independence phase. This book makes an in-depth study of theatre during the colonial period in Bengal, which has been an important playground of theatre. There is an intimate link between thea-tre and colonial history. Theatre responded to the forces of socio-historical changes during the colonial period, has grown out of the milieu of conflicts between cultures and social hierarchies, between economic and political sectors and among ideo-logical groups. The significance of Sudipto Chatterjee’s work is that it places theatre in a larger social and historical context. Chatterjee looks at performance history itself as “performance” within the larger performative contingencies of history. So the study is not merely a case of reading the social politics of theatre, but the theatre of social politics itself. Teasing out various strands of 19th century Calcutta theatre, the book is a detailed study of the Bengali theatre-makers, who laid the ground for a thriving modern Indian theatre.The book begins by giving a brief ac-count of the colonial theatre, a metaphor of imperial empire. In fact, culture has been an important hegemonic site of colo-nial authority. Colonialism appropriates, decontextualises and represents the “oth-er” culture and legitimates its authority by asserting its cultural superiority. But the major thrust of the book is the emerging modern Bengali theatre. The author, by forefronting hybridity as a conscious choice and an underlying process in the formation of modern Bengali theatre, sheds a significant light on theatre historiography, which generally offers a teleological account of modernisation of theatre by de-fining it as a straight, pre-determined rise from rural to urban. The words “new/ reform” commonly used in the apprecia-tion of this theatre posited it as a “refined” and “high” form suitable for the consump-tion of educated elite and respectable peo-ple. Indigenous popular and professional theatre was projected as degraded and “low” to this “high” culture. The discursive tropes of elite men rescuing theatre from the pits of negligence continue to charac-terise the historiography of theatre. How-ever, recent studies have been highlighting high culture as a construct. Popular forms fed into emerging forms of elite “high” the-atre, marking the tension in the configura-tion of a refined form of entertainment and highlighting the fragility of the respectabil-ity and modernity discourse. But appropri-ation of popular forms was simultaneously marked by the marginalisation of these forms by the elites. Hybrid TheatreRecently the concept of hybrid theatre has come into vogue. Hybrid theatre is being referred to as theatre which combines in varying degrees of synthesis, different ingredients in performance styles and repertoires. These ingredients include

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