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A Critique of India's Political Secularism

This article takes a cue from Charles Taylor that a secular theory/practice must transform a nation's social imaginary in order to gain ascendancy in popular imagination. It may however be added that in case it does not do so, then it would leave a series of voids between social imaginary and secular politics, which would then be available to anti-secular forces to gain domination over the popular.





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A Critique of India’s Political Secularism

Arun K Patnaik

This article takes a cue from Charles Taylor that a secular theory/practice must transform a nation’s social imaginary in order to gain ascendancy in popular imagination. It may however be added that in case it does not do so, then it would leave a series of voids between social imaginary and secular politics, which would then be available to anti-secular forces to gain domination over the popular.

This article was presented in the symposium on “Secularism Today” at the Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad, on 26 April 2011. I am grateful to Rajeev Bhargava, Charles Taylor and other participants for their comments.

Arun K Patnaik ( teaches political science at the University of Hyderabad.

Economic & Political Weekly

october 22, 2011

he recent confession by Swami Aseemananda regarding his and other’s complicity in the terror attacks in Malegaon, Mecca Masjid, Ajmer and the Samjhauta Express have exposed the links between terrorism and Hindutva, particularly the role and inspiration of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). In response to this, secular intellectuals and politicians have condemned the RSS and asked it to introspect about its role in the rise of religious terrorism and fundamentalism. They assume that India’s political secularism is not responsible for the rise of religious terrorism or fundamentalism, as if the latter grows in disaggregation from the secular political society. Apart from their deep utilitarian and atomistic assum ptions of political community, I would like to differ with the substantive claims made by the secularist argument.

On the contrary, the time has arrived for India’s political secularism to introspect on the following questions. What might become of secularism both as ideology (world view, logic, etc) and politics (strategy and tactic), if religious fundamentalism/ terrorism becomes a pan- Indian mass phenomenon and captures state power? Can political secularism learn from our “social imaginary”, a concept used recently by Charles Taylor, and enhance our “background understanding”, a pre-theoretical exercise, in order to renew itself both in theory and strategy?1 Therefore, I would

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like to urge secular intellectuals and politicians, who draw comfort under the shadow of the secular constitutional system, to re- examine their doctrines, concepts and strategies. I will mention briefly what I consider “anomalies” arising due to a certain politically rigid mentality or opportunistic

politics of the secular front.

First, let me turn to Taylor’s concept of social imaginary which is a sort of background understanding available to a secular theory. Let me do a Gramscian reading of Taylor’s concept. Following Gramsci, social imaginary may consist of (a) “common sense” – religious or non-religious,

  • (b) “folklore” – religious or non-religious,
  • (c) “religion of the popular” – rebellious or non-rebellious and also (d) “religion of the intellectual” – right-wing, moderate or left-wing.2 As hinted above all these four distinct aspects could form our social imaginary in many different senses. For Gramsci as well as Taylor, all these forms are pre-philosophical understanding with which a critical secular theory and politics must engage with.
  • Now suppose political secularism, being an elite-initiated project, refuses to critically learn from this diverse social imaginary and decides to stay away or even oppose it. Then, our social imaginary becomes easily available to the anti-secular camp, without even any challenge from the secular front.

    Take, for example, the idea of vananchal (the forest-dweller’s homeland). By using this concept, the Hindutva forces gained ascendancy in the social imaginary of tribal populations during the 1990s. Though the Congress secularists were never interested in this project, the idea of vananchal was originally conceived in the secular front of the communists and Gandhian socialists during the 1950s. The Congress


    secularists were opposed to the idea of vananchal for the most part of independent India, whereas the communists and socialists abandoned it in favour of electoral provincialism in Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. As a result of the wishywashy character of the secular front, the idea remained in their social imaginary rather than in a framework of a secular political society. The tribal organisations alone, thinly aided by splintered groups of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), fought for vananchal sporadically for a long time since 1960s. But in the absence of a secular mobilisation by pan-Indian forces, as promised in the 1950s, an anti-secular theory could penetrate the tribal social imaginary during the 1980s and 1990s. If secular theory and politics leaves a void vis-à-vis the social imaginary of a particular group, it is then available for anti-secular forces to mobilise and gain access to it. An honest attempt to explain the rise of Hindutva politics among the tribes today must include the “weaknesses” of secular front as above. Otherwise, a mere critique of Hindutva politics appears opportunistic.

    Positive but Passive Secularism

    Gramsci makes a further distinction between negative and positive secularism. What then happens to Taylor’s social imaginary under Gramsci’s distinction? Negative secularism is in binary opposition with faith, whereas positive secularism may be dialectically engaged with faith but may recognise faith in a sectarian or in a nonsectarian mode. A non-sectarian positive secularism may include negative secularism or atheistic secularism as well. Jawaharlal Nehru’s definition of secularism is a classic case of non-sectarian positive secularism that includes atheism as well. However, the above is only ideological classification. In actual field of political practice, that includes our social imaginary, both the models – negative and positive – may converge. This is where India’s secular front needs to do homework with Gramsci. Following Gramsci, secularism cannot be simply defined as an ideological field or as a war of position. It has to be a war of movement as well. For, secularism in India needs to be built as envisioned in the Indian Constitution. Political secularism must include both ideological and political processes of building or rebuilding itself. It cannot merely fall back on constitutional mentalities.

    When positive secularism is politically passive towards a social imaginary, it may not practice what it ideologically claims due to a variety of reasons – methodological and strategic. In such cases, it may not, what Taylor calls, “transform/ penetrate our social imaginary”. Thus, a positive secular theory, in actual practice, may be disengaged from our social imaginary, reinforcing the negative model. The fear of legitimising the politicised faith or a ritual claim to dialectics or dialogic politics, or unitary definition of concepts deployed or policies of democratic appease ment are factors which may cripple the positive model.3

    Thus, an ideological engagement with the social imaginary may not necessarily lead to a political engagement with it. A well-formulated ideology may not give expected political outcomes. For a passive reaction, even though it may be positively intended, is as good as no reaction in terms of its end results. Dialectical theory of liberals and the Left may not lead to dialogic practice with religious faiths which are witnessed today. As a result, our social imaginary – religious or nonreligious – is offered on a platter to religious fundamentalism to gain ascendancy in popular imagination.

    I submit that new India under Nehru began with a non-sectarian positive secularism ideologically but soon collapsed into the negative model as it was caught with a passive model of political society where communities do not participate in settling their disputes and are asked to subordinate them to law and state power. India’s political secularism is thus caught between a negative model followed by orthodox Marxism and a passive positive model followed by the liberals, Gandhians and socialists. In terms of ideology, they may be different. But, in terms of political practice, they represent what Gramsci calls a sectarian or extreme “political society” (in other words, a legal state) which does not believe in mobilising civil society plus religious communities to build political secularism further. Due to the absence of a dialogical politics with

    october 22, 2011

    the social imaginary of religious communities, followed by a compressed/extreme view of political society, the secular project of building secularism through law is in deep crisis today, a point I shall return to later.

    Utilitarian Secularism

    Second, political secularism is trapped within the utilitarian perspectives which is the dominant ideology of neo-liberal capitalism. It projects group or individual rights devoid of inter-group responsibilities. Religious communities are now trained to think of secularism as a self-generating resource (or Kamadhenu, to borrow a term from Hindu mythology). Paradoxically, secularism becomes a fetishised commodity which is expected to provide maximum gains for religious groups. As political secularism becomes a political fetish, it can never satisfy the “insatiable greed” of each religious community.

    Secularism can only be built on their mutual sacrifices and not otherwise. When, religious communities emerge with maximalist positions, it is the beginning of the end of political secularism. In the majority-minority context, a differential model of sacrifice may be operative: the majority community will have to make more sacrifices than the minorities to gain their confidence and trust.4 However, religious minorities need to sacrifice certain exteriors too.

    Political secularism must exercise extreme caution in dialoguing with communities for sacrifices. By respecting intrinsic faith it can negotiate with communities for the relocation of religious sites which are built around intrinsic faiths.5 By not encroaching upon “intrinsic faith” of each religious group, it would be able to ask religious elites to sacrifice forms of “extrinsic faith” that may threaten humanism of subaltern strata within each religious group. A model of sacrifice needs to be clearly envisioned. Ritualistic references to sacrifice or dialogue as mere talk strengthen evasive interests.6 With evasive interests, secularism cannot be built any further.

    A series of dialogues, aided by a nonsectarian “political society”, which I define as a sum of the state, civil society and religious communities, needs to be contextually

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    worked out. This is one more case for introspection to break free from the utilitarian theory of rights. The language of sacrifice needs to be rebuilt into its strategy. Gestures in this direction must be appreciated. However, the opposite seems to happen today, if the virulent secular attack on the recent court verdict on Ayodhya is any indication. What is more disturbing is to note that the judiciary’s gesture (a gesture is not enough) for sacrifices is not even appreciated by all the liberal and left-wing activists who have, paradoxically, made huge personal sacrifices to survive in politics.

    Crony Secularism

    Third, political secularism has become “crony” over time. But it has become more apparent now than before, though such tendencies were visible immediately after Independence. Its method, which it hangs on to is one of manipulation of state power and its legal wing, rather than opening itself out to religious communities through dialogue and their participation in settling inter-religious disputes.

    I would like to cite the very recent example of the Ayodhya dispute. Look at the way the secular camp pushes the Sunni Muslim Personal Law Board to approach the Supreme Court for legal action, which is what the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), its opposite camp, also emulates. Already more than 60 years of valuable time have been lost in the lower courts. During this time, the entire nation has been embroiled in this dispute and social bonds have been eroded. Once the social bonds necessary for secularism are broken, these cannot be restored by law alone, as recently highlighted by Habermas.7 Yet, the secular camp does not mind going in for another round of legal battles with the full knowledge that the timetable for justice is neither in their hands nor in the hands of religious communities. Moreover, communities would not be able to participate in justice deliberation and therefore would not be able to introduce selfcorrection, if necessary.

    Last but not the least, it remains uncertain who will implement the Supreme Court verdict as and when it comes. Will the secular intellectuals compensate the loss of time in the Supreme Court, if politics

    Economic & Political Weekly

    october 22, 2011

    should settle the dispute? It remains doubtful whether the political executive, on its own volition, would be able to implement the Court order as it has so far passed the buck to the judiciary. Secular politicians hope that communities might forget the issue, if the Court drags the dispute, whereas this dispute has had an opposite effect: it has hardened our memories and fragmented our social imaginary by breaking social bonds. It has popularised and strengthened Hindu fundamentalism and weakened political secularism.

    Yet, nothing has shaken the faith of secular camp in following the same old method: the method of the legal state.8 This legal model of dispute settlement of the secular camp has been emulated by the Christian groups in Kandhamal, Dangs and elsewhere. Thus, political secularism is trapped within a crony mentality. It induces our religious minorities to think likewise. It believes in manipulation of state power and law and a policy of appeasement of elites across religious communities. Paradoxically, old disputes are not yet resolved but new disputes have emerged. The Ayodhya issue is not settled over the last 60 years but the conversion rage has picked up in the last 15 years or so, from the Dangs (Gujarat) to Kandhamal (Orissa) to Mangalore (Karnataka), thus marking a further decline of political secularism.

    Fourth, if political secularism is expected to dialogue with faith-based communities, what aspect of faith is to be recognised and what aspect needs to be reformed in each faith-based community? A dialogic engagement with faith presupposes a background understanding of the above question. As Rajeev Bhargava argues, as part of building political secularism in India we must understand and critique both inter-religious and intrareligious domination.9 The former refers to each religious community trying to dominate the other in several forms sanctioned by religion, instrumentally or otherwise. The latter refers to social hierarchies against individual or community secured and legitimised by each religion within itself. Political secularism must aim to constantly penetrate and transform both (inter- and intra-) types of domination operating from our past.

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    Caste male domination are forms of intra-religious domination which obtain sanctions from a religious order. One example would suffice at present. India’s secularism, through the Indian Constitution, has recognised intra-religious domination like caste domination in Hinduism or “Indic religions” (Ambedkar’s usage). But the same recognition has not been accorded to non-Indic religions like Christianity or Islam in India. Paradoxically, political secularism reinforces a Hindu prejudice that caste disappears once people become Christians. In Odia, there is a popular prejudice: “Twelve Jatis (castes) or thirteen Golas (shepherds); once they become Christians all distinctions vanish”. Only dalit Christians in Orissa and elsewhere know how this description is untrue and unfair to them. The recognition of caste within Indic religions only is accorded by the secular constitution in a one-sided manner by excluding non-Indic religions.

    Unitary Definitions of Secularism

    Fifth, our making sense of the story of inter-religious domination is no better. It is assumed, in recent times, that secularism is meant to prevent the religious majority from dominating religious minorities. Such an understanding is one-sided and unitary. It misses out many meanings of the term. The rise of Muslim fundamentalism and Christian fundamentalism also threatens idol worshippers and animistic religions and feeds into the growth of Hindu fundamentalism. It is the responsibility of political secularism to criticise varieties of fundamentalism and its multiple strategies. Moreover, that is how political secularism was originally conceived by Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar at the time of India’s independence.

    There are many forms of inter-religiousdomination: financial power over the other religious community; the exhibition of moral domination of a religion over another including animistic religions as referred by Taylor’s critique of conversion;10 the attempt to increase numbers as Ambedkar refers in the case of Christian missionaries; and an aggressive campaign for conversion by Christians, Suddhi by Hindus or Tabligh by Muslims as referred by Gandhi; the focus on sectarian social


    services (education/medical) to the followers of a religious community as happened in Kandhamal and so on. The above forms are part of inter-religious domination. Yet, unlike Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar, their followers today offer no ideological and political criticism of these forms of domination.

    Today, secular political society is not prepared to recall Gandhi’s dialogue with Christian missionaries or Nehru’s reservation about foreign missionary activities in tribal belts or Ambedkar’s criticism of missionary conversion. It is very hesitant to criticise Christian missionaries, while it is vociferous against Suddhi (reconver


    sion) by the RSS and its affiliate, the VHP.It has forgotten Gandhi’s threefold critique as above. As a result, secular political society has left a “social imaginary” wide open for Hindu fundamentalism to encroach upon. In the most recent Sabri Kumbha Mela held in the early 2011 in Madhya Pradesh, the RSS and VHP mobilised tribes across India with huge posters citing views of Ambedkar and Gandhi on conversion. The RSS is yet to discover Nehru’s views!

    As stated before, every moment of regression of a social group towards fundamentalism is at once connected with the weakness of political secularism. Every void between social imaginary (progressive or prejudicial) and secular theory/ polity, due to a variety of reasons as stated above, is left open to political play by the anti-secular front. Thus, the time for self-criticism, rather than criticism of the RSS, has arrived in the secular camp in order to regain ascendancy over India’s social imaginary.


    1 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London: Harvard University Press), 2007, Ch 4, pp 159-211.

    2 A Gramsci, Further Selections from Prison Notebooks, edited by Derek Boothman, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1995, pp 112-265. Also, for an excellent summary of Gramsci’s position, cf John Fulton, “Religion and Politics in Gramsci: An Introduction”, Sociological Analysis, 1987, Vol 48, No 3, pp 197-216.

    3 Ambedkar makes a distinction between democracy as appeasement and democracy as settlement of grievances. He argues that if democracy is seen as appeasement policy, it would produce “Hitler”(s) among elites of religious communities. That would degrade values of democracy. Democracy may still operate as “mechanism” but its “values” like secularism, liberty, autonomy, etc, would suffer erosion. The success of a democratic “mechanism” does not necessarily entail the success of its “values”.

    4 Gramsci argues that even in a class context, the subaltern classes must sacrifice/compromise some of their economic/corporate interests to strike alliance with the other subaltern classes or non-class subaltern groups. A historic bloc can be formed through sacrifices/compromises, if it also addresses the issue of autonomy/freedom of various subaltern groups. This is not merely true for a counter-hegemonic bloc but also a hegemonic bloc which may come about sacrificing/compromising economic interests of the bourgeoisie with subaltern classes, thus ensuring “partial autonomy” of the latter.

    5 It should serve a teasing reminder to secularists that in contrast with secular governments in other states, a “communal” government has relocated perhaps a maximum of Hindu temples (60 plus) in and around Ahmedabad during a road widening project. I hope that secularists learn positive lessons from a “communal” government in Gujarat. Learning from the strength of enemies is a typical Gramscian (or dialectical) principle.

    6 Lata Mani merely re-states about sacrifice as envisioned by the recent high court’s verdict on the Ayodhya dispute. Cf her paper, “Where Angels Fear to Tread: The Ayodhya Verdict”, Economic & Political Weekly, Vol XLV, No 42, 16 October 2010, pp 10-12. However, we need to debate on what is to be sacrificed or what cannot be negotiated for sacrifice from faith-based communities by political secularism. Also, the nature of political agency (such as legal state/ethical state/integral state) seeking values like sacrifice (such as mutual/ differential/unilateral/reciprocal) and its method (such as political dialogue/inter-faith dialogue/dialogue through law, etc) needs to be deliberated. Thus, the relevant forms of agency, value, method and dialogue format to settle major disputes as in Ayodhya or Kandhamal or others await our intellectual attention. I am afraid, India’s secular forums are wary of debating such points of view, indicating further impasse in secular mentalities.

    7 J Habermas and Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion (San Francisco: Ignatius Press), 2006, pp 35-40.

    8 Surprisingly, Nivedita Menon, who is otherwise very critical of legalism elsewhere, pleads before the Supreme Court to bring back politics to settle the dispute, forgetting altogether that her reliance on the Court may result in a severe loss of time, reducing “citizens” to a mere passivity, heightening national anxieties and so on which were on display in September 2010. See her paper, “The Ayodhya Judgment and What Next?”, Economic & Political Weekly, Vol XLVI, No 31, 30 July 2011.

    9 Rajeev Bhargava: “It Is the Only Secularism That I Know That Attends Simultaneously to Issues of Intra-religious Oppression and Inter-religious Domination” in author, The Promise of India’s Secular Democracy (New Delhi: OUP), 2010, p 69.

    10 Charles Taylor, op cit, Ch 20, “Conversions”. See his discussion of Ivan Illich’s criticism of certain institutionalisation of conversion that may end up in projecting every “stranger” as an enemy to be controlled or “civilised” rather than be treated as a “neighbour” in equal and friendly terms, p 742, Gandhi makes a similar argument against conversion/reconversion where “neighbours” or “cousins” look like strangers and enemies to be “civilised”.

    11 Except Walter Fernandes and R Heredia, no secular intellectual/politician has argued that apart from Hindu fundamentalism, Christian fundamentalism is also responsible for the Kandhamal impasse witnessed during 2007-08. When tribal and dalit activists gathered in March in Guntur, they reaffirmed Walter Fernandes’ view. Cf. dated 16 March 2011. But the All India Christian Council, despite my e-dialogue, has dodged this view (see Focus Orissa, Yahoo Groups, May 2011) thus contributing to a greater impasse in Kandhamal today. Sections from the American Left criticise Pentecostal churches aligned with neo-liberal forces for having created “Secular Distress” in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Cf Isabelle V Barker, “Charismatic Economies: Pentecostalism, Economic Restructuring and Social Reproduction”, New Political Science, Vol 29, No 4, pp 407-27. But I am yet to find the Indian Left taking a firm view on this religious issue.






    october 22, 2011 vol xlvi no 43

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