PCGT Conclave

A Reform from Within

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Indian perception of Secularism: An effective ideology for ensuring Unity in Diversity

Article by Abhiramy

The western definition of secularism as the separation of politics or the state from religion hardly fits into the multi-religious dynamics of the patchwork called India. Even in its place of origin – western Europe- the term is aching for a reform, as different religions evolve and die down in the multipolar world of today. The recent attack on a school teacher and three others by Islamist extremists in the city of Nice in France and the accompanying wave of global panic, proclaims that secularism should take on a different form leaving behind its vestiges of enlightenment.

India, a country with a sizeable population of at least three major religions- Hindu, Muslim and Christian and a home to many others – Sikhism, Jainism and Buddhism becomes a fertile ground for fervent religious debates and more often than not, extremist feuds and mass murders. But I don’t believe that the mere presence of differences can be the reason behind such animosity, the force behind this could be something Amartya Sen calls “engineered bloodshed” in his 2008 essay Violence, Identity and Poverty. He argues that ‘reductionist cultivation of singular identities based on vulnerability of humans to propaganda’ that makes use of racial, ethnic, religious etc. has been responsible for this.1

With expansion of the range of religions or basic philosophies existing in a country, the conception of secularism in the country must also change. Not only are our individual identities becoming multiple as in one can be a vegan, bisexual, Christian woman and all of those might together form her identity, but these mutating identities result in a very complex and interlinked identities network in a nation. Hence, the lack of understanding or effort to acknowledge growing plurality becomes one of the areas where fault lines start to occur.

The immigration of citizens from various places across the globe to countries like the U.S doesn’t only mean a cultural or ideological crisis but a religious one also which again makes it an identity crisis. Although our identities aren’t tied to merely religion, the onus of making sure it doesn’t is on the secular nature of a nation. This is where it becomes impertinent to think of religious groups as “interlocutors” especially in the context of plural societies.2 This results in a process of evolution and redefinition in a democratic, liberal context. José Casanova has pointed out how American Catholicism was originally targeted in the nineteenth century as inassimilable to democratic mores, in ways very analogous to the suspicions that nag people over Islam today. The subsequent history has shown how American Catholicism evolved, and in the process changed world Catholicism in significant ways.

Today in the Indian context, one of the biggest alternatives provided to secularism is going back to the pre-modern idea of tolerance said to be professed by the bygone era rulers before the colonial invasion when all religions have supposedly lived in harmony. But what the proponents of this theory forget is the arbitrary and undemocratic form of rule which existed then. That is if we try to keep aside the fact that every ruler tried to superimpose his own political superiority by either erasing every trace of the existing religion or subtly manipulating the minority. Exceptions are rare and debated to this day without a lucid conclusion. Any potential uprising was curbed using absolute force and the scarier fact is that the ruler couldn’t be held accountable in a way the ruling government today can be. Or maybe that is what the proponents want.

Another major counter-argument is that how can an “anti-religious” form of organization intervene in matters of religion and faith and that religious bodies should be given the sole right to do so. This is even more unreasonable, the complete autonomy and hence unchecked devolution of power to such bodies would result into extremist religious propaganda and might even result in fundamentalism. Moreover, the Indian constitution is anything but antireligious, made clear by the Articles 25 and 26. They grant a person, citizen and non-citizen, “the right to freely profess, practice and propagate his/her religion” and any religious section “the right to establish, manage and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes” respectively. So, to transform the current state of secularism in India into a more resistant and shock-proof variant is a reform from within. What I mean is, reformatory ideas and actions from within religious groups to strengthen secularism should be encouraged and at times insisted upon, as the successful examples of Ram Mohan Roy and Begum Rokeya suggest. This can be an effective tool to avoid the coercive forms of interventions the state invokes and the greatest advantage is that the community can mould the changes according to itself because practices like Sati never saw a comeback and were condemned by the succeeding generations as well. But how to bring about such changes and most importantly how to convince people steeped in extremist ideologies to embrace tolerance is a big conundrum.

But historically throughout the world, bodies of power have been dominated by the religious and clergy and being secular wasn’t even a valid view point, rather heresy punishable by death or worse. These institutions did not reform naturally from within when left alone, in fact when left alone unchallenged, it resulted in the adherence to even radical interpretations of their beliefs. Discontent with this status quo and the domination of the religious was broken first not in a gradual peaceful manner, but in the most violent of events in modern human history, beginning with the French revolution and with the emergence of the French laïcité.

But the attitude of the state towards religion impacts many other dimensions of everyday life also. The recent controversy involving the Amazon Prime web series Tandav speaks volume about the nature of secularism of the Indian state. The team has been accused of hurting religious sentiments of a section of the audience, especially the scene featuring Zeeshan Ayyub, who, dressed as lord Shiva, was seen mouthing lines about ‘azaadi’. After numerous complaints, the makers released a statement apologising for unintentionally hurting people’s sentiments and agreed to snip ‘problematic’ sequences. Even censorship couldn’t guarantee Tandav’s safety. After apprehensions regarding an arrest, select members from Tandav team approached the Supreme Court to grant them interim protection from arrest. Their plea was rejected by the apex court, and they were asked to approach the high court for anticipatory bail or quashing of FIRs. It is not a standalone incident and state has intervened before in issues pertaining the sanctity of art. But rather than asking whether it is the “right” kind of secularism or not, the question should be does it ensure unity?

Therefore, it would be unwise if the flag bearers of secularism leave the religious institutions unchallenged, to be transformed by some vague internal reforms. As can be seen in the French example, laïcité, now is an integral part of French political structure and appears in Article 1 of the constitution. Still one cannot presume that this alone would solve the problem. A constant impetus to reform from within and from external intervention be it the state or the civil society is needed to fully capture the essence of such a complex term like laïcité. I believe it is high time we start putting in our efforts on these lines because we might devise advanced policy measures to counter intolerance but nothing will work until we try to reach the people and their minds.

  1. Sen, A. (2008). Violence, Identity and Poverty. Journal of Peace Research, 45(1), 5-15. Retrieved October 31, 2020, from http://ezproxy.tiss.edu:2067/stable/27640620
  2. Taylor, C. (2010). The Meaning of Secularism. The Hedgehog Review.

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