ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Secular, Secularism and Non-translations

This paper traces the conceptual-linguistic journey of the term “secular” in India and shows how its entry into any discussion was accompanied by questions of ambivalence about equivalence. An anxiety around its foreignness; or its inefficacy by being both excessive and inadequate as a word can be traced through multiple sites. It proliferates, meaning many things and nothing at all. What makes it so unsettled, so polyphonic, and therefore ready to be seized? Does that have to do with being neither fully embraced nor ignored, on the threshold of language, as it were?

This paper has benefited immensely from research help extended by Nitya Pawar and Vighnesh Hampapura. I have had the benefit of discussions with Sanjay Palshikar, Sudipta Kaviraj, Sehnaz Tahir, Catherine Clementine, Pascal Sieger, Kama Mclean, Abhijit Kothari and Robert J C Young. I particularly want to thank Sundar Sarukkai and Sarvar Shery Chand for detailed comments.

This paper is a set of reflections rather than a unified grand argument on what is one of India’s most used, abused and complex terms. The realm of this subject is too enormous to do full justice, especially as an argument. I am concerned with the words secular/secularism, terms used interchangeably, but also made distinct. Conceived as an aspiration for the Indian republic, secularism of the Indian state has a chequered history.1 It was enshrined in the Constitution without being specifically named so, and the word was added to the preamble in 1976 through the 42nd amendment. The success or failure of secular state ideology is not under discussion in here, but the journey of the word during different phases of both state and civil society discussions is relevant to our purpose. We follow the path of the English word “secular,” watch the theatre of language, and brood over the relationship between this word and everyday India. We may move between “secularism” and “secular” through the discussion; although practices of naming and blaming show a move away from the noun to the adjective. The noun is abstract; representing an idea. The adjective is used as a label, if not an accusation in the India of the everyday. It is a bad word when used by right-wing groups, to denote not only what they do not like, but whom they do not like. It would seem then that those who describe themselves as “secular” would make a focused use of the word.

However, that is also not true. If the word is pejorative in some cases, it is fuzzy in some others. How does this word refuse to be bound to a definite and consensual meaning in India, yet used freely, finding its definitions in objects rather than in ­itself? I would hazard that discussions typically have focused much on the concept and credo of secularism ­instead of asking how the linguistic sign “secular” fares the way it does in India. Spectre-like, secular appears every now and then, with shifting meanings and emphasis. Its protean and unsettled nature remains common across ideological ­persuasions. At this point it is important to clarify that a certain vagueness and inadequacy of translation characterises even words like “dharma” or “jati,” and the rupture between word and meaning may not be unique to the word “secular.”2 However, the emphasis of this paper is not on inherent limitations of language with respect to polyvalent words, rather it is the ­malleability consequent upon the word “secular” which makes it a term of abuse sometimes, evident even in spellings and pronunciations. The first half of the paper combines dominant and emerging views on secularism along with an ethno­graphy of the term “secular” in the everyday. The second half teases out the word/concept rupture and offers tentative ­theories of translation for a word in a state of motion. The ­linguistic sign, it will be observed, is the body on which ideo­logies are performed.

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Updated On : 6th Jan, 2022
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