Haji Mohamed Idris

Claude Alvares

Gustavo Esteva

Anwar Fazal

Ashis Nandy

Vinay Lal

Shilpa Jain

Website created by:
Vinay Lal, Associate Professor of History, UCLA, USA

All material on this site is coyrighted:
Vinay Lal, 2005.

Authors of individual pieces hold the copyrightto their own pieces. However, all material may be reproduced freely, without
permission, though it is requested
that proper acknowledgment be made to the author(s) of the pieces being




Ashis Nandy

The Gujarat carnage of 2002 should make us openly admit what we all secretly know but cannot publicly acknowledge-that our theory and practice of fighting religious and ethnic strife, armed with the ideology of secularism, has not helped us much. Nothing seems to have changed-from the complicity of political parties to the partiality of the police and the administration, and from moving but effete resolutions demanding action passed by the usual suspects to sane words of advise from well known universities in India and abroad. The only thing that has changed is the level of brutality, which has now risen high enough to acquire pornographic dimensions.

Today, we seem to be back to square one. There are some remarkable similarities between the Partition massacres of 1946-48 and the Gujarat riots. This is a wrong context in which to examine the vicissitudes of the Indian experiment with secularism. But I shall do so nonetheless, because it is doubtful if anything worthwhile can be built in this part of the world unless the rubble of dead categories occupying public space is cleared up first. Against this background, I revisit the domain of secularism with some trepidation.

First of all, I must nervously proclaim that I have nothing to do with the decline of Indian secularism. I have merely said that it is in decline. Strangely, when I first said so, it was already a cliché. There was also a consensus in the whole of South Asia that secularism was not in the best of health in the region and there was much lamentation on that count. That consensus survives. It also cuts across ideological boundaries and disciplines. There is little difference on the subject between Asghar Ali Engineer and Lal Krishna Advani, T. N. Madan and Achin Vanaik or, for that matter, between the functionaries of the India's main political parties. The differences that exist and have led to bitter debates in academic circles are about the reasons and the possible responses to this decline.

Before turning to these causes and responses, please allow me a word on the angry responses to my earlier essays on secularism. My writings seem to arouse more hostility when they coincide, accidentally or otherwise, with something that a large number of political analysts feel tempted to say by the insistent empirical realities of life but do not, for reasons of political correctness. Because they have to fight within themselves the conclusions they have reluctantly drawn, they feel disturbed, guilty and complicit when someone else brings them to the fore. Many criticisms of my writings, whether by worthy scions of metropolitan India or by living symbols of academic respectability elsewhere, act mainly as forms of exorcism. Sunil Khilnani is so offended by criticisms of the concept of secularism because he himself considers secularism a 'withered concept' and his commitment to secularism is, what clinicians call, counterphobic.

The second reason for discomfort has less to do with me. Any talk of nonmodern or traditional forms of knowledge in public life arouses the fear that such knowledge might lead to large-scale displacement or uprooting in the world of knowledge, that the familiar world of knowledge might shrink, if not collapse and, in the new world that might come into being, there will be less space for the likes of us. What Sigmund Freud says about the inescapable human fantasy of immortality-our inability to visualise a world without us-applies in this instance, too. Many of us are haunted by the question: 'What will be my place in a non-secular or nonmodern world?' We cannot conceive of good society without our ideas and us at its helm.

Now, to the causes and responses to the decline of secularism. The standard diagnosis preferred by Hindu nationalists is that secularism has failed because, as practised by their political opponents, mainly the Gandhians and the Leftists, secularism has meant the appeasement of minorities. The Hindu nationalists feel that Indian secularism, as a form of state policy, has been constantly biased against the Hindus. Particularly after independence, the kinds of reforms introduced in Hindu society-say, through measures like the Hindu Code Bill-have never been attempted in the case of other religions. What the Hindu nationalists say they want is genuine secularism, as opposed to the pseudo-secularism of most other parties but mainly of the Indian National Congress and the Leninists.
This might look like unalloyed hypocrisy, but it is also partly a political ploy designed to corner political opponents. One random evidence is that, today, only the Hindu nationalists have been left pleading for a uniform civil code. Almost all other mainstream parties oppose it. India must be the only country in the world where the ethnonationalists plead for a uniform civil code, their opponents oppose it. But then India is the only country where the ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, leading what some might call the world's largest fundamentalist formation, can boast that all its founding-fathers (Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Keshav Hegdewar and Balakrishna Munje) were non-believers. Only about thirty years after its establishment could the RSS find a believing Hindu to head it in Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar. Indeed, the Bible of the formation, Hindutva by Savarkar, explicitly flaunts its author's atheism. Nor has the BJP and its main ideological allies ever rejected secularism. (Frankly, that itself should have made at least some thinkers suspicious of the concept.) The policies and actions of the Hindu nationalists may often have not been secular, but a part of their soul has always been. Nathuram Godse's last testament in court, in which in a number of places he accuses Gandhi of flouting the canons of secular statecraft, is an example. The opponents of the Sangh Parivar, not finding any intellectual meaningful response to these anomalies, pretend as if they do not exist or paper over them with the help of trendy, imported theories of fundamentalism and religious extremism.

The other diagnosis of the failure of secularism, ventured by many liberals, finds voice in the belief that secularism would have flowered in India but for recalcitrant, nasty politicians and a biased law and order machinery. The usual solution to the problem, offered by those who venture this diagnosis-from Mushirul Hasan to Praful Bidwai-is that if these ungodly elements in the administration and policy élite can be eliminated, secularism would work perfectly well and in its pristine form.

Personally, I would love to agree with this diagnosis. I am only dirty-minded enough to suspect the premise that, after an adequate amount of exhortations from academic pulpits, South Asian politicians, police and militia will suddenly change their stripes and, like some of the characters in popular Bombay films, have a spectacular change of heart and begin to behave like obedient school boys. To expect politicians to jeopardise their political survival or the coercive apparatus of the state not to play footsy with politicians is like expecting academics to ignore the latest intellectual fashions and to be propelled only by the lure of de-ideologised empirical truths. Nor do I see the urban middle-class movements going very far by themselves.

Thirdly, there is a variation on the second position that claims that the Indian state and a sizeable section of its functionaries have never wholeheartedly implemented secular policies and they have never been entirely secular. They have made compromises all the way. For instance, instead of being irreligious, they have tried to get away with equal respect for all religions. This was bound to lead to disaster sometime or other, and we face that disaster today. Once again, I wish I could sympathise with this formulation. My belief is that states in South Asia usually muddle through a series of crises on a day-to-day basis. The kind of agency and coherence often imputed to these impersonal entities is usually a projection of our own inner needs and anthropomorphic fantasies; such feel-good attributions are a tribute to our trusting nature rather than to our political acumen. State-formation and nation-building have been criminal enterprises everywhere in the world and Rudolph J. Rummell's data show that in the twentieth century, of the more than 200 million killed by fellow human beings in genocides and democides, roughly 169 million were killed by their own governments, whereas about 8 million were killed in religious violence. To trust the modern state to ensure religious tolerance is a form of innocence that the existential psychoanalyst, Rollo May, would have certainly found 'inauthentic'.
Finally, there are the scholars who believe that something is drastically wrong with the idea of secularism itself, particularly in societies that do not share the experiences of Europe, do not have sharp inter-religious boundaries or church-like structures, and have for centuries lived with immense religious diversities. In such societies it matters that the concept of secularism is insufficiently grounded in culture, especially vernacular culture, that the concept makes virtually no sense to the common run of citizens. The picture gets even more complicated in complex, multi-religious, non-western societies where the citizens enjoy democratic rights and, hence, the ability to bring their preferences-including, horror of horrors, their Oriental prejudices, stereotypes, and other scandalous irrationalities, their ill-educated selves and terribly underdeveloped political awareness-into the public sphere. In that awareness, secularism has either no place or only a superficial presence. These are societies that enjoy the luxury of electing their political leaders periodically but alas, to the chagrin of their progressive academics, not the right to elect their people.

In the storms in tea cup that often strikes the mainstream academe, the last group of scholars are accused of supporting the most retrograde elements in society, though it is quite likely that many in the group do not like their own prognosis. In India, two critics of secularism, Triloki Nath Madan and Partha Chatterjee, have by no means jettisoned the idea of secularism. Claims that they have done so are stupid, if not dishonest and motivated. Knowing them, they might even be happy if their prognosis is proved wrong. Their main crime is that their diagnosis of the future of secularism in Indian public life can be said to be bleak. In the case of Chatterji, even that is not the whole story. He merely argues that secularism in its present form is politically unviable. They are like doctors who, after pathological tests and a clinical examination, feel called upon to inform the patient's relatives that the patient's days might be numbered. However, it is customary in the rat race called the global academic culture to shoot doctors who pronounce a patient a terminal case. Madan and Chatterji are being accused not only of being bad doctors, but also of trying to kill their patient.

My case is different. I have given a pathologist's report and declared the patient incurable. I have also said that the patient has had a reasonable good life and has done some good to the society, but now happens to be senile and infirm and suffering from diseases that are fatal. I may not have pleaded for euthanasia but I have said that it is time to give up on the patient and look towards a new generation of concepts. And I have said all this with a touch of glee, without obediently shedding tears for secularism. Being part of small religious minority in India, I have always grudged the patronising, arrogant Brahminism that has tinged South Asia's academic secularism. And the grudge shows. My critics have reasons to be bitter that I do not want to save my skin under their expert guidance, by declaring my allegiance to the shastras and rituals knowledgeable guides have borrowed for my benefit from Europe's past, or by being a docile, housebroken member of a minority with certifiably correct ideas who deserves the protection of the Indian state.

Fortunately, irrespective of my personal likes and dislikes, secularism in India is unlikely to flourish, at least in the near future. It might have staged an academic comeback in the Indian haute bourgeoisie, as a form of rebrahminisation and as resistance to the growing violence, but that has little to do with its political career. The only way it can stage a comeback is by ensuring the dominance of the urban middle classes in Indian politics. This is an empirical, not normative judgement. Here my critics have got it wrong. It is not the incompatibility of secularism with Indian culture-which is no doubt there-but the political unsustainability of secularism that has prompted me to look for alternatives. There are many alien practices with which the Indians have learnt to live. Many have learnt to say 'thank you'; others use toilet tissues or play cricket. In the case of secularism they do not feel obliged to learn. Mukul Kesavan recognises this but cannot admit it. To protect his familiar world, he stretches the meaning of secularism to include in it all forms of noncommunal attitudes. Like the medieval geographer who concluded that the best map of a country had to be as large as the country.

The alternatives to secularism I have explored might not be as good as secularism. Achin Vanaik, the Sikh Samurai never at a loss for words, has spent pages to argue at ridiculous length that the alternatives I have advanced are inferior or inadequate. He has wasted his breath. I am perfectly willing to accept that. Not only because I believe that those staying in the tropics deserve only the second-rate but also because, living in a democracy, we unfortunately have no option. For there has arisen a contradiction between democracy and secularism. Fortunately, as I have shown elsewhere, the inferior, inadequate concepts are the ones that have protected religious minorities in India. Imperfectly I am sure, because they also include principles of exclusion. But the fact remains that these inferior concepts are more accessible to the public; they are a part of their moral frame and social existence. Among these are old-fashioned neighbourliness or rather principles of neighbourliness, the principles of hospitality encrypted in the various religious traditions, and the persistence of community ties.

My fondness for these ideas has not come merely from personal research, but also from about three decades of exposure to empirical data, most of them produced by avowed secularists. It is not my fault that these secularists fear their own data and experiences. Nor are my formulations disjunctive with the available data. For instance, research on the non-Jewish Germans who rescued Jews in Nazi Germany shows that the qualities that distinguished the rescuers, from the passive witnesses and the complicit, were strong religious beliefs, family and community ties-none of the three in short supply in South Asia-however archaic and unfashionable they might look to us.

Many lotus eaters believe all this to be unnecessary. They insist that we affirm, even more aggressively, the ideology of secularism from our salons in metropolitan India, class-rooms and academic seminars, and through middle-class, urban movements. They expect their shrillness and stridency to clinch the issue. Strangely, even in these instances, to give teeth to their ideology, ideologues of secularism routinely fall back on Sufi and Bhakti poetry, medieval saints like Kabir, Lalan and the Baul singers of Bengal, and names from history like Ashoka, Akbar, Dara Shikoh, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Narayan Guru, none of whom drew their principles or values from the ideology of secularism. There are three interrelated reasons for this strange contradiction-why, to propagate secularism, the secular Indians have to constantly invoke the nonsecular. First, the older icons of secularism like Jawaharlal Nehru have begun to rust and no longer wield their old charisma; many have been forced to search for new heroes who would make some sense to ordinary citizens. Second, secularism has become the last refuge of the intellectually lazy, of those who refuse to confront the logic of their own political and cultural choices. They are afraid to ask why they have been forced to return to the past and to persons who consistently and openly used religion in public life. Finally, secularism by itself has proved to be sterile as a source of social creativity, at least in India. (The last reason is important. It explains why the secularists avoid like plague each other's writings when approaching or appealing to the common citizens and why such writings end up becoming the stuff of freestyle wrestling in academic stage shows.) I have reluctantly concluded that if the secularists themselves cannot produce a single secularist to exemplify the application of secularism in real life and have to depend on non-secular heroes who have never heard of secularism, I must take seriously these icons of secularism and decipher the analytic frames they used and then build on them. By doing so, I believe that I have taken the secularists more seriously than they have done themselves.

In sum, here too I have done what I have always tried to do-build upon what creative, successful resistance against communal violence has done and said over the centuries, rather than on the ideological baggage their secular admirers have imposed on them. I am perfectly willing to revise my ideas in the matter and re-embrace secularism, but only when someone shows me that this baggage can do better in the hot and dusty plains of India than the 'inferior' ideas of those who have successfully fought sectarianism in the past. By retrospectively and glibly calling all these forms of resistance to communalism secular we have not only shown contempt towards their theoretical apparatus-and towards their theology of tolerance-we have tried to distance these social activists and thinkers from ordinary Indians and brought them close to our world-to make them acceptable and respectable in our circles.

If we had not done so, we would have noticed that the resources these persons mobilised to become symbols of tolerance are still available to large sections of South Asians. The high culture of democracy in modern, metropolitan India today has as its substratum a deep fear of the people and a vague, free-floating anxiety that much of the citizenry might not need vanguards, experts in multiculturalism, or ideologically-driven, politically correct, Orwellian thought police. But that obviously is an unpopular stance; it smacks of class-betrayal. How can there be a healthy, humane Indian polity where the concepts and categories that characterise the mainstream, global, middle-class culture become superfluous or secondary? Where shall we and our respectable friends in respectable universities then be?

Hence, the other prescription the spin doctors of secularism infrequently talk of but frequently end up recommending-greater use of the coercive apparatus of the state to ram the ideology of secularism down the throat of the Indian citizenry and to promote an even more systematic use of the ideology as a principle of exclusion. Naturally, they have to insist that any theory transparent to a majority of Indians and not fully transparent to us has to be rejected as a return to medieval times. If for that reason we have to declare secularism as the one human concept that is outside time and space, outside history and geography, we shall of course have to do so.



At a Glance:
Mulitversity Related

Recapturing Worlds:
The Original Multiversity

Penang 2002: The First Conference on the Deconstruction
of Knowledge

Dissenting Knowledges Pamphlet Series (ed. Vinay Lal)

Radical Essentials Pamphlet Series (ed. Yusef Progler)

Penang 2004: The Second Conference on Redesigning Social Science Curricula

Special issue of Humanscape on Multiversity (April 2005)

Special issue of Third World Resurgence (2005) on Multiversity

The Dissenter's Library
Essays, Articles, Papers
Kamirithu: The Newsletter of Multiversity
Readers in the Disciplines