People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 01

January 01, 2012


Redefining the Secular in Indian Society


Sukumar Muralidharan


IT is a word that has been tossed around in political contests and minutely dissected in scholarly circles. But “secularism” still remains an elusive concept. And in practice, “secular” politics is besieged at a number of levels, unable at any time to rise above particular, sectional interests.


An event on December 7, organised by the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT) and Social Scientist, was the occasion for a scholarly inquiry into the deeper meanings and definitions of the “secular” in Indian society. There are numerous --- and mostly irreconcilable --- definitions already in circulation. December 7 became, for this reason, an exercise in redefinition and rediscovery, in retrieving a principle from depths of conceptual confusion.


The event had to be organised on December 7 as it was the Muharram on December 6, the anniversary of Babri Masjid demolition.




As it happened, the event took place only a few days after the eightieth birthday of Romila Thapar, one of India’s greatest historians. Though this aspect was downplayed in deference to the individual’s unease with the public observance of a personal milestone, all speakers opened their remarks with eloquent tributes to an institution builder, teacher and mentor for generations of scholars. Beyond the world of academia, Romila Thapar has illumined trails of history that have long remained obscure for the wider public, considerably enhancing the quality of public discourse.


The historian K N Panikkar recounted some part of the public debt owed this remarkable career as an academic and public intellectual. Romila Thapar combined “scholarly pursuit with social commitment” in a manner that lent “direction to many a public issue.” While exploring new frontiers in historical scholarship, she also had time to frontally combat the “political abuse of history” – which indeed was a term of her coinage from the dark days of the Ayodhya movement, when the forces of Hindutva had managed to recruit large numbers to the cause of effacing a medieval mosque. Aside from giving a rigorous scholarly orientation to the effort of defeating the spurious historiography of Hindutva, Panikkar remarked, Romila Thapar was at the forefront of the campaign for sanity and tolerance in public life.


In remarks that opened the evening’s discussions, Romila Thapar spoke about the shifty and elusive character of “secularism” as a political principle. It is not difficult to identify events and actions that are antithetical to secularism. But as an affirmative principle, “secularism” is very difficult to pin down.


In this conceptual vacuum, parties of an overtly communal stripe have portrayed secularism as a denial of religion and the primordial identities that make the Indian nation what it is. Others have turned its supposed principle of religious tolerance into the sanction for the perpetuation of a clerical hegemony. Still others have recoiled from the futility of the entire project of building a secular order in a society of intense religiosity, ascribing the pathologies of modern sectarian politics entirely to the denial of identities held basic to social existence.


Romila Thapar warned against all these possible outcomes of a muddled thinking. The definition popular in India, she said, “either equates secularism with atheism….. or else, more commonly, (refers) to the coexistence of all religions.” Neither has great validity, since “personal belief is not central to the secular” so much as the “control of society by religious institutions.” And religious coexistence or tolerance is a meaning that has evolved specifically in the Indian historical context, as an antidote to the communal politics of both the Hindu and Muslim stripe. Yet it is a definition that has not accounted for either the “fact of religions being of unequal status,” or for the “underlying hierarchy in concepts such as the majority and the minority communities.”




Coexistence or religious tolerance cannot in this sense be a primary criterion. The secular ideal originates in the western milieu where the issue of coexistence was of relatively little consequence, since subjects of the sovereign were normally enjoined to follow the faith he patronised. What was germane rather was the subordination of the religious authority to the worldly power. In the Romila Thapar’s words: “The secular implies the primacy of civil laws….. Identities of religion, race, caste, language and so on would be subordinated to the identity of citizenship, based on equal rights, duties and obligations of all citizens on the state.”


The focus then shifts from secularism as a principle supposedly embedded in the institutions of governance, towards secularisation as a process accompanying the consolidation of the nation-state. Religion loses its primary claim to citizen allegiance and is confined to a private sphere, while the civic compact takes over the public domain. People live together in “civil society” not because they resemble each other in terms of religion or any other marker of identity, but because they share a common set of values, embodied in a system of civil law.


But is this separation of the private and public spheres always feasible? And can religion be all that easily confined to the private sphere or demoted as a primary criterion of identity fixation? Religion is of course a medium for the socialisation of the individual and a private religion would be in some senses, a contradiction in terms. A more credible approach would be to view secularisation in terms of the balance of power between social institutions, as a process by which the civic compact as embodied in a secular constitution supersedes the decrees of religious authority.


Historically, secularisation has also corresponded to the diminution of the political power of the ecclesiastical orders, typified for instance by the loss of their tithes and titles to land. That understanding though, is of limited relevance in India, where an ecclesiastical order on the lines of the Catholic Church never really existed.


Instances when sovereigns have specifically enjoined tolerance for various faiths as a political commitment are not lacking from Indian history. So too are there numerous instances of the sovereign power patronising a variety of religious institutions and orders. But these cannot be used to buttress the argument for secularism, since their focus was “the furtherance of religion as a social force.”


A more credible source for secular doctrines in Romila Thapar’s assessment could be found in the various nastika sects which existed from the earliest times in India and despite all their internal disagreements, were almost all “opposed to divine sanction as necessary for civil laws.”


The nastika view was that “the universe is self-created” and life itself constituted by a combination of elements. Human consciousness and knowledge are finite and derived from perception, rather than revelation. In Romila Thapar’s words again, the nastika sects held that “laws, being man-made, can be changed.” These were arguments that the Buddhists and Jainas found extremely congenial to their mission of propagating “social ethics as the mainspring of human behaviour, where the laws and values of society should ensure the equality and dignity of its members.”




Moving rapidly forward to contemporary times, these aspects of Indian tradition are of obvious relevance to the modern debate on secularism. From being a rather pale assurance of religious tolerance, secularism becomes a more robust principle of ensuring that constitutional guarantees of liberty and equality are fulfilled. Key assurances of the Indian constitution, such as equality before the law and fair opportunity, have obviously been breached repeatedly and without any gesture of redress from the state. Words and deeds are being increasingly subject to control and manipulation in accordance with “invented laws of what are described as religious and cultural tradition.” The rich multiplicities of history are being effaced in “monolithic structures” that answer the seeming need for a nation-state to define itself by primordial identities rather than the civic compact.


For Romila Thapar, these circumstances made the task of “redefining the secular in Indian society” an absolute imperative. Opportunities were available, since as a nation, India still has “the freedom to choose the values that should govern our society.” The retrieval of the secular could begin by shifting the focus “from a passive coexistence of religions to the more dynamic coexistence of citizens with….. equal rights and obligations, guarded by the vigilance of a free and just society.”


Picking up on some of these themes, K N Panikkar drew attention to the need for understanding secularism in the context of “community formation” in modern times and the newly minted forms of religious identity that emerged within the colonial milieu. Small and diverse communities that existed on the basis of their economic and social functions, were under the influence of colonial modernity, incorporated into one or the other religious group. Religion had been a “perceived and experienced reality” in pre-colonial times, without generating a consciousness that transcended the local milieu. These identities became entrenched as civil society was incorporated into the colonial system. Moreover, in early nationalist propaganda, these newly minted identities were seen as congruent with “national” identities.


To view secularism as an outcome of religious harmony is to invert the perspective, since tolerance only emerges when secularism is in place. Secularism as a principle, however, began its journey in India burdened with the deadweight of religion, which in turn was perceived as a monolithic doctrine in which the multiple cultural diversities of the real world were effaced. Religious harmony fails to achieve the secular ideal because every religion has within it, various kinds of cultural and social hierarchies. Coexistence thus becomes a formula for the sustenance of difference and for the perpetuation of these inequalities within each religious order.


It was “logical” to have accorded a degree of priority to religious harmony, given the reality of Indian society, where multiple religious traditions had at various times sprouted and flourished. But the notion was not sufficient to achieve a truly inclusive social order. “For realising inclusiveness, cultural plurality is not sufficient,” said Panikkar, “what is essential is cultural equality.”


In its practice in India, secularism in both its state and society centred versions, was enclosed within the discourse of “religious consciousness.” It failed to reconcile between the “religious and material conditions of existence.” Redefining the secular requires that areas of human existence other than the religious, such as culture and economy, be incorporated into its praxis. It requires that “the values of democracy and social justice and cultural equality” be introduced as integral elements of the secular compact.




Secularism accorded priority to the political values of liberty and equality, over the codes of duty and obedience ordained by religion. Concluding the discussion, Prabhat Patnaik argued that what is often taken to be the purely ethical impulse towards freedom has a basis in reason. Every individual has a rational cause to struggle for freedom as part of a human collective, since nobody can call himself free while there are many who are unfree.


This collective endeavour for freedom fosters the domain of the “secular.” It creates the community that strives for a transcendence of narrower values imposed by religion. But it is threatened by the forces of reaction which seek to impose an order based on religious values. More subtly, the bourgeois order which retains a formal commitment to secularism, may seek to engineer schisms in the collective struggle for freedom, reducing each individual to an atomised existence, impelling him in turn to seek an anchorage in an older, familiar network of religious community.


The denial of human freedom then is the logical course of a bourgeois political order which exalts an individual’s seeming gain at the expense of society, as the ultimate benchmark of achievement. With the untold riches foretold on that pathway now proving illusory and the world order built on the unfettered and unaccountable rampage of finance capital in palpable crisis, the forces of reaction seem poised to resume their push towards absolute political power. A redefinition of the secular in Indian society is clearly a political programme of surpassing urgency.


Rajen Gurukkal and P Sainath also expressed their opinions on this occasion.