Wednesday, January 4, 2012

On Rehabilitating Secularism

[This brief note was published in CRITIQUE, Vol-1, Issue-3. Critique is a Quarterly brought out by the Delhi University Chapter of New Socialist Initiative (NSI)]

- Devika Narayan 

Just the other day a friend of mine walked around Nizamuddin greatly puzzled by what she saw. The eerie silence which reeks only of bad news was palpable. The shutters were all lowered to the ground and the roads were strangely empty. A local mosque had recently been mowed down by the municipality. She asked a young boy who stood near a shop when it would re-open. “Kal, Jab masjid phirse bana denge tab.” He replied. The poignant naiveté of his response is jarring. At the brink of dawn when young children search for rationales to comprehend the unexpected disruption of their lives a bulldozer is clearing away the remnants of what used to be the neighbourhood mosque. 

Such incidents unleash a volley of urgent questions. When was the last time we heard of a temple being mowed down by the state? Are we suggesting that all temples in this country are built on land legitimated by the law? Why would the state be more cautious and ‘sensitive to religious sentiment’ when the issue of bulldozing temples comes to the fore? What does this speak of the state of secularism in our society? 

These are not benign questions of the intellect or some interesting philosophical quandary. The dominant discourse on secularism and the tenacity of its imprint on the actual workings of society is a matter of life and death for many. The last few decades have witnessed the vicious battering of this constitutional principle which has directly resulted in the rape of thousands of women, cost lakhs of people their lives, devastated urban communities and led to the annihilation of entire villages. 

1984, Delhi. 
1992, Ayodhya. 
1992, Bombay. 
2002, Gujarat. 
2007, Orissa. 

These are the proud historical milestones of independent, allegedly secular, India etched in flesh and inscribed in memory. This is our inescapable, collective past which continues to bleed into the muddy waters of the present. This is who we are. Garv se kaho... 

Ashis Nandy, a self proclaimed anti-secularist, writes, “Post-colonial structures of knowledge in the third world are a peculiar form of imperialism of categories. Under such imperialism, a conceptual domain is sometimes hegemonised by concept produced and honed in the West, hegemonized so effectively that the original domain vanishes from our awareness” Following this he makes the grand declaration that, “I call myself an anti-secularist because I feel that the ideology and politics of secularism have more or less exhausted their possibilities”[i]. This particular brand of argument declares that secularism is a western, elitist ideology which is being forcefully imposed on the religiously inclined masses. In a recent seminar Nandy complained about the fact that during state functions the lighting of lamps is not encouraged simply because it is a symbol of a particular religion. This for Nandy is unacceptable because it robs a people of their cultural rights. Nandy’s position on secularism is not only extremely dangerous but also theoretically laughable. Nonetheless there is a pressing need to systematically denounce these pseudo-intellectual arguments given that they voice exactly what the religious right wants to hear. The Sangh Parivar (the ‘family’ which has on various occasions butchered thousands of citizens whose crime it was to belong to the wrong religion) after all see themselves like Ashis Nandy, as the champions of cultural rights. 

Firstly let us distinguish between secularism of the public domain, i.e. in the matters of the state, judiciary and executive, and the process of secularisation as a broader social process. We, the elitist ideologues of secularism, demand that just as the state is prohibited to engage with its citizens based on their caste, class, gender, region, language, that it also maintain this with respect to religion. We demand that the state not discriminate, marginalise and kill on the basis of religion. We demand that the institutions of our society (schools, hospitals, banks, workplaces, courtrooms) not treat a person differently because they are Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist or atheist. Our contention is that a country where eighty percent are Hindus and twenty percent identify with a number of other religions, the state and public institutions will be unable to remain invested in matters of religion without being discriminatory. The second aspect has to do with secularisation as a larger social process, i.e. the reducing salience of religion in individual and collective lives. We, secularist bigots that we are, do not demand that people should be prevented from believing in a god; or that the ideology of secularism be ruthlessly administered in the lives of communities; that in some fundamental way religion per se is wrong. Any person with functioning faculties would be able to make this distinction. 

The problem of ‘Indian secularism’ has always been embroiled in intense debate and controversy. The meaning of the word itself is contested. Is one referring to the primacy of reason over faith? The decline of religious belief? The erasure of religion from social life? Or the mere tolerance of another community’s beliefs? Does it imply that matters of faith be irrelevant or absent from the public domain? Many have peered into the backrooms of history to search for answers, looking for obscure clues to shed light on the deeply contested but clearly hybrid variety of secularism spawned by a distinctive historical trajectory. What is more or less undisputed is the fact that the official mode of secularism in India is distinctive from that of many Western countries where the aim is to cleanse the public domain of anything religious in character. The separation of the church and state translates into a rigid stance of public non-engagement with religion, at least in theory. Unlike many countries in the west there was never a serious attempt to eradicate traces of religiosity from the public and thrust it into the four walls of the private realm. Instead a position of equidistance and equal involvement emerged. Rather than rejecting religion in its entirety, the state here recognises all religions but maintains equal treatment. In other words Indian secularism is not anti-religion, it does not position itself antagonistically vis-à-vis religion, rather the constitution envisions a kind of secularism grounded on notions of tolerance, equality and the freedom belief and practice. At the same time the state is unequivocally prohibited from being partisan. The state is permitted to ensure certain religious and cultural rights but under no circumstances allowed to privilege a particular religion. Of course we live in times when the state takes it upon itself to actively murders its citizens based on their religion (Citation: Gujarat, genocide: 2002), so all these constitutional intricacies seem pathetically hollow. The fact however is that Indian secularism was never militantly top-down or aggressive in flushing religion out from the public realm. One can even argue that Nehruvian secularism pandered to religious groups due to the fear of earning the displeasure of the electoral base. History shows that whenever there was a choice between standing by constitutional rights and appeasing religious groups, the state has invariably chosen the latter. Portraying Indian secularism as imposing a rigorous top down anti-religion ideology reflects an absurd degree of misrepresentation. 

The argument that secularism in India should be discarded because it is a western concept born out of modernity is equally preposterous. The assumption that all things worth preserving must to be sanctioned by the purity of tradition, that all things glorious lie only in the realm of the indigenous is deeply conservative. To treat tradition as if it were sanctimonious in some absolute sense is in fact a project of the privileged. Such a status quo-ist project gives its support to all the social inequalities which depend on the rhetoric of tradition and custom for their reproduction. Are you ever going to hear a manual scavenger in Tamil Nadu shout “please don’t deprive me of my right to clean shit! My family has done it for centuries!” Would the likes of Nandy also fight against the constitutional prohibition of untouchability and wholeheartedly embrace the caste system since it has had a ‘pre-modern’ existence? Ambedkar was a modernist for a specific reason and it was because he liked three piece suits. Democracy and universal human rights are also unquestionably modern notions which grew out of a particular historic moments - should we turn our back on these as well? Incidentally, whose ‘tradition’ are we referring to? This allegedly glorious past which we are today compelled to revive is an idea which the Sangh Parivar’s very existence depends on. This valorised tradition is reconstructed by the fantasies nurtured by those living in the present. Moreover, presenting tradition and modernity as if they were two independent, water-tight categories is empirically and sociologically absurd and is based on a skewed understanding of social change. Sociologist Zaheer Baber notes that the rigid dichotomies which Nandy uncritically adopts (sacred/secular, occident/orient, traditional/modern, western/indigenous) are ironically the lens given to us by the discourses of modernity and colonialism. To quote him, “overall, the sustained intellectual attack on secularism and the repeated attempts to identify ‘alien’ and ‘western’ cultural influences that have presumably contaminated the purity of indigenous institutions betrays a very ahistorical and non-sociological understanding of the constitution of cultures and institutions. It would of course be naive on my part to expect clear cut practical solutions, but the anti-secularist intellectuals should at least attempt to provide some theoretical clues as to how the universities, banks, the economy, hospitals, the judiciary, the civil services, the transportation system, etc. should be re-organised on non-secular, religious lines...”. 

Anti-secularists like Nandy make rather patronising assumptions about the lives of ‘the masses’. They privilege religion as a normative order by claiming that faith possesses an absolute everyday centrality which cannot be questioned. Religion is seen as constituting the essence of Indian social reality and any attempt to curb its influence amounts to violence against the culture of a people. Apart from being essentialist, such a position is extremely presumptuous and smug in its assessment of lived social experience. 

The point is not to imply that communal violence per se is single-handedly created by the state apparatus. One cannot deny that riots have always invited mass participation or that the BJP in its heyday had garnered substantial public support. The purpose however is to highlight the complacency of the state. The undisputable fact remains that over the last few decades the state has become increasingly blatant in its refusal to adhere to the principle of secularism as a constitutional imperative. In particular the unconcealed victimisation of the Muslim community is alarming. Here are some points to help refresh memory and retrieve facts which are easily lost in the dominant rhetoric of Islamic fundamentalism. 

- There have been many instances of mass violence and rioting where either the state has directly been involved in organising and inciting violence or failed to take any action on those who perpetrated the atrocities. The half hearted attempts to take action even when evidence has piled up in the public domain only demonstrates the rotten core of the police and judicial systems. The Srikrishna Report on the Bombay riots which illustrates the unambiguous role of the Shiv Sena in the butchering of Muslims has been reduced to yet another useless state document. What action has been taken on those killed the Christians in Orissa? The Muslims in Gujarat? The Sikhs in Delhi? 

- At times the brutal victimisation of certain communities does come to surface in moments of spectacular violence, but the attuned eye sees the underpinned banal reality of a silent, steady exclusion. The Sachar Committee Report in 2006 retrieved this issue from under the carpet and placed it firmly into the public domain. It provides the one thing that Indians lay their complete trust in: statistics. The literacy rate of Muslims is a full 10% lower than the national average. Muslims are hugely underrepresented in institutes of higher education, the civil services, the police force, the railways, banks and the public sector in general. The report shows that they form only 6% of the police constables and account for 4.4% in the health sector and 6.5% in transport. In terms of poverty levels, the conditions are only slightly better off than members of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (This is apparently our most reliable measure of exclusion. Now, are you two or ten notches better off? ) 

- On the 30th of September 2010 the Allahabad High Court gave two thirds of the disputed land which had been under the Wakf board for 400 years to two separate Hindu parties. A step by step analysis of the verdict at a fantastic seminar early on this January held in JNU, attended by historians, lawyers and archaeologists, only certified the magnitude of the farce. The proceedings of the case show that the judges had in effect taken it upon themselves to play the historian, archaeologist and indologist all rolled in one. Supriya Verma and Kumkum Roy’s presentation revealed how the judges had validated what clearly was fabricated evidence. Ashis Nandy of course has publically given the verdict unconditional support because it respects the will of ‘the people’. He writes “The judges have been injudicious enough to create a space for compassion and humane sentiments.[ii]” What is most remarkable is that Nandy who claims to be concerned about religious rights can’t seem to see that ‘secularist-fanatics’ also believe in the notion of rights, but unfortunately of the universal kind. 

It is true that there is a huge crisis in the state’s ability to remain impartial in matters of religion. For people like Nandy this implies that the fundamental problem lies in the concept of secularism, hence the immediate need for its disposal. This makes as much sense as declaring ones allegiance to patriarchy because sexism continues to be rampant. The point is that civil society needs to mount pressure onto the state, demanding that it respect the principle of secularism and remain non-aligned with respect to any religion. The increasing trend of outright disregard for religious neutrality is disturbing and needs to be vehemently opposed. For Nandy this demand is unacceptable as it requires an imposed ‘thought-police’ in a society which is inherently religious. The real enemy for him are the secularists and not the violators of constitutional secularism. However, basic commonsense informs us that allowing public institutions to operate on non-secular grounds (why not allow for caste as well?) would provide an open road to all kinds of mayhem and a free ticket for Hindu nationalism. 

[i] Ashis Nandy, “The Politics of Secularism and The Recovery of Religious Tolerance” in Secularism and Its Critics, ed. Rajeev Bhargava (Delhi: Oxford University Press: 1998), 321-344. 
[ii] From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 44, Dated November 06, 2010 
Devika Narayan is a Post Graduate student at the Department of Sociology, University of Delhi.


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