Secular riddle

Published : Apr 23, 2010 00:00 IST

These are relatively normal times for Indias secularism: there has been no serious internal threat to it, at least since the 2002 pogrom in Gujarat. Therefore, the present appears to be the appropriate time to seek dispassionately and understand the true meaning of secularism in India without being influenced by the compulsions of crisis-like events. Predictably, there has been no dearth of scholarly interest in the subject in recent months. Such interest is welcome as it helps to achieve clarity on what Indian secularism entails, well before we confront the next crisis.

The two books under review attempt to unravel the meaning of Indian secularism in the light of contemporary challenges. In the first book, Rajeev Bhargava, Director, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi, and a long-time student of Indian secularism both as an activist and as a scholar, has put together his essays written between 1990 and 2003 with a unifying theme. Those familiar with his earlier writings are sure to feel a sense of dj vu while reading some of these essays. However, rereading them in the light of new contemporary issues, interspersed with his fresh insights, is a stimulating experience.

Ronojoy Sen is a young journalist with The Times of India, New Delhi, and his book began as a PhD dissertation when the author was a research scholar at the University of Chicago. Sen had the advantage of using, among other sources, the scholarly output of Bhargava for his analysis of the Supreme Courts judgments on religion and secularism from 1950 onwards. Reading these two books together helps one to understand the similarities and differences in their approach to secularism.

Both the books start with Donald Smiths India as a Secular State, published in 1963, which is the locus classicus on the subject. Smiths conception of the secular state involves three distinct but interconnected relations involving the state, religion, and the individual. The first relation concerns individuals and their religion, from which the state is excluded. That is, individuals are free to decide the merits of different religions without any coercive interference by the state. This is the liberal ingredient within secularism.

The second concerns the relation between individuals and the state, from which religion is excluded. Here, the state views individuals without taking into account their religious affiliation. This is the egalitarian component of secularism.

As for the third, Smith argues that secularism entails the mutual exclusion of the state and religion in order that they may operate effectively and equally in their respective domains. A strict separation of religion and the state, he suggests, would help achieve religious liberty and equal citizenship.

The ideal of neutrality or equidistance is an essential component of Smiths view of secularism; this view does not tolerate the states interference to promote Dalits entry into temples or the minorities right to run their own educational institutions.

Rightly, both Bhargava and Sen disagree with Smith. According to Bhargava, Smith remained in the grip of a particular model of Western secularism and, therefore, was unable to get a handle on the basic features of Indian secularism. The distinctiveness of the Indian variant of secularism can be understood, he argues, only when the cultural background and social context of India is properly grasped.

The first feature of Indian secularism is the mind-boggling diversity of religious communities and the consequent conflicts over values. The second is the greater emphasis on practice rather than belief. Third, many religiously sanctioned social practices are oppressive, and they desperately need to be reformed. Fourth, reform can hardly be initiated without help from the state, in view of the tendency to resist change prevalent among all religions, especially within Hinduism.

Despite their shared disagreement with Smiths thesis, however, Bhargava and Sen depart from each other while explaining the Indian variant of secularism.

According to Bhargava, the separation of religion from the state could mean a policy of principled distance, which entails a flexible approach on the question of state intervention or abstention. In this, whether or not the state intervenes or refrains from action depends on what really strengthens religious liberty and equality of citizenship. Under this policy, the state may not relate to every religion in exactly the same way or intervene to the same degree or in the same manner. All it must ensure is that the relation between religious and political institutions is guided by non-sectarian principles that remain consistent with a set of values constitutive of a life of equal dignity for all.

Bhargava illustrates this policy of principled distance through some examples. By its refusal to allow separate electorates, reserved constituencies for religious communities, reservation for jobs on the basis of religious classification, and organisation of states on religious basis, the Indian state excluded religion from its purview, and the grounds for this was that its inclusion would inflame religious and communal conflict and produce another Partition-like scenario.

However, the state included religion in policy matters of cultural import. Thus, the state did not consider the adoption of a uniform civil code as absolutely essential for national integration. The Constitution granted separate rights to minority religious communities to enable them to live with dignity.

By making polygamy illegal, introducing the right to divorce, abolishing child marriage, legally recognising inter-caste marriages, regulating the activities of criminals masquerading as holy men, introducing temple entry rights for Dalits, and reforming temple administration, the state intervened in religious matters to protect the dignified life of its citizens. A secular state, in other words, need not be equidistant from all religious communities and may interfere in one religion more than another, explains Bhargava.

Sen, however, finds the principled distance argument somewhat problematic. One could question, he says, what principled exactly amounts to and who decides its content. Sen does not elaborate his disagreement with Bhargava further, as that is not the primary object of his book. He indicates that his proximity lies with the legal scholar Rajeev Dhavan, who disaggregates Indian secularism into three components: religious freedom, celebratory neutrality, and reformatory justice. Religious freedom covers not just religious beliefs, but also rituals and practices. Celebratory neutrality entails a state that assists, both financially and otherwise, in the celebration of all faiths. Reformatory justice involves regulating and reforming religious institutions and practices as well as setting aside some core elements that are beyond regulation.

On the basis of a wide range of Supreme Court rulings, Sen suggests that the Indian state has pushed its reformist agenda at the expense of religious freedom and neutrality. In particular, he makes two broad claims. First, the court rulings have had the effect of homogenising and rationalising religion and religious practices, particularly of Hinduism. Second, there is a significant overlap between the judicial discourse and the ontology of Hindu nationalism. This, he argues, strengthened the hand of Hindu nationalists, inadvertently.

Sen alludes here to Justice J.S. Vermas judgment in R.Y. Prabhoo vs P.K. Kunte (1996), laying down that Hindutva is a way of life and that any reference to Hindutva in the course of an election campaign does not make it communal. In conflating Hindutva with Hinduism, Justice Verma ignored the antecedents of Hindutva, Sen suggests. For example, Justice Verma did not consider V.D. Savarkar and M.S. Golwalkars use of the ideas of the sacred soil and race to include some and exclude others as foreigners.

The judgment made Hindu nationalists jubilant. The Bharatiya Janata Partys (BJP) 1999 election manifesto used Justice Vermas judgment to justify its Hindutva plank. Sen suggests that the precursor to Justice Verma was the former Chief Justice of India, P.B. Gajendragadkar, who authored the judgment in the Satsangi case in 1966. In this case, he described Hinduism as a way of life. While he remained Nehruvian in his commitment to the marginalisation of religion in the public sphere, he was a key figure in the tendency to rationalise and ultimately homogenise Hinduism, Sen states. In 1996, Justice Verma cited his judgment in the Satsangi case to achieve a result that went against secularism.

As Sen explains, the courts description of Hinduism as a way of life was based on the idea that there were certain foundational features of Hinduism, one of them being the centrality of the Vedas. In rejecting the claim of Satsangis that they were distinct from Hindus, the court appealed to the idea of a subtle indescribable unity underneath the divergence of Hinduism. This allowed the court to ignore the issue of the multiplicity of sects and beliefs within Hinduism and deny the right of exit to any sect or group. However, this propensity towards homogenisation due to Justice Gajendragadkars nation-building and unification concerns reinforced the Hindu nationalist dual project of unifying Hinduism on the one hand and subsuming all religions under the umbrella of Hindutva on the other.

Similarly, Justice Gajendragadkar is credited with developing the essential practices doctrine, which sought to cleanse religion of superstition and irrationalities. It was based on the premise that the state must protect only the essential and integral part of religion. While it was certainly desirable that the state would play a role in passing laws to abolish social practices such as untouchability and denial of permission to lower-caste people to enter temples, the Supreme Court permitted the state to become deeply involved in administering religious institutions, and even regulating rituals and modes of worship, Sens book shows. The involvement of the state in religious institutions flew in the face of the Nehruvian assumption that the domain of religion would shrink gradually. Instead of religion disappearing from the public sphere, the state became the principal agent of Hindu reform. This, Sen argues, resulted in the virtual takeover of temples, which completely undermines any form of secularism.

There is one important aspect over which Sen and Bhargava fundamentally differ. Sen suggests that it is the celebratory neutrality of the Indian state, or a state-sponsored tolerance, namely, sarva dharma sambhava, which is a sine qua non of Indian secularism.

Bhargava, however, argues that there are three interpretations of sarva dharma sambhava: religious coexistence, inter-religious tolerance, and equal respect for all religions. There are many good reasons why the ideals of religious coexistence and inter-religious tolerance should not be conflated. The mainstream idea of tolerance is that it enjoins us to refrain from interfering in the affairs of others, even when one has the power to do so, and, additionally, even when one finds the beliefs and practices of others morally repugnant. In this sense, tolerance is entirely consistent with a total refusal to respect the religion of others. It is also compatible with gross inequality and hierarchy. One may tolerate the religion of another person even as one treats that person as inferior. Secularism, Bhargava argues, on the other hand, is grounded in notions of equality equal concern and respect and therefore, goes beyond the notion of inter-religious tolerance.

Bhargava also finds it inappropriate to identify secularism with equal respect for all religions. Respecting other religions as equals does not entail their blind acceptance or endorsement, he says. Indeed, it is precisely because respect is consistent with difference and critique that the idea of equal respect for all religions is closely linked with the proposal for an inter-faith dialogue. Thus he suggests that Indian secularism does, in a way, respect all religions but by embodying the idea of respectful transformation of religions.

The distinctiveness of Indian secularism is also explained by Bhargava in terms of a significant facet of post-Independence history. The idea of separate electorates for Muslims was rejected in post-Independence India not by an appeal to a secularism of a strict separationist variety but on highly contextual grounds. The idea was rejected keeping in mind not some general moral necessity of separating religion and state but, as Sardar Patel put it, because separate electorates had sharpened communal differences to a dangerous extent and prevented the development of a healthy national life. The implication, according to Bhargava, is that if they were compatible with or somehow fostered a healthy national life, then they could easily have been endorsed.

Notwithstanding such subtle nuances, these two books enrich our understanding of Indian secularism.

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