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A Tendentious Critique of India’s ‘Liberal–Secular Model’

Rahul Govind ( at the Department of History, University of Delhi.

Europe, India, and the Limits of Secularism by Jakob De Roover, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2016; pp 296, 995.

Jakob De Roover in Europe, India and the Limits of Secularism seeks to critique what he calls the “liberal model of secularism and toleration” as practised by the Indian state and in turn, blames it for the increase in conflicts between Hindus and Muslims since Indian independence.1 One might have expected a substantiation of this claim to consist of a detailed study of cases of communal violence and their relationship to the state or more specifically, to the state’s policy of liberal–secularism. However, the book argues for a different approach by providing a genealogy of the liberal–secular “model” through Christianity in the West. This genealogy, as cultural contextualisation, is meant to prove the inadequacy of secularism in India through three interrelated claims: (i) The basis of the liberal–secular model and its distinction between the religious and the secular is Christian; (ii) the contemporary West lacks a sufficient grasp of this basis and is, therefore, unclear about the liberal–secular model that it professes; and (iii) if even the contemporary West is insufficiently clear about the basis of its own models, the model cannot, with any seriousness, be considered applicable in India.2

Secular–Religious Distinction

De Roover characterises the contemporary liberal–secular model as divided between two spheres, one of state coercion and the other of “free(dom) to liveaccording to our own religious beliefs and values,” wherein, he argues, there is no consistent criteria to identify (and distinguish) one sphere from the other (p 15). This is seen as an irredeemable defect. A discussion ensues about the “landmark case of Lautsi vs Italy,” which revolved around whether a crucifix placed in a state school could be construedto be a religious symbol violating the principles of secularism. The case was controversial and involved national and international courts which provided varied rulings, also responding to public pressure and mobilisation. From the Lautsi case, De Roover moves to Indiato survey the Constituent Assembly debates, Supreme Court rulings, as well as contemporary discussions on secularism, all in less than 10 pages, to claim that in India too there appeared tobe no clear criteria for the distinction between the religious and the secular. This is, in turn, interpreted as proof for both the defect of the liberal–secular model as well as the lack of any clear understanding of the model and itscultural and historical context; a context that will provide the key to its very intelligibility.

This contextualisation is undertaken initially by examining certain contemporary accounts of the secular–religious distinction. Rawls, Taylor and Lilla are criticised for generalising European experiences, even though one wonders about the effectiveness of this critique since De Roover himself does not offer an analysis of non-European traditions.3 The other aspect of the critique is that these accounts are oblivious of the specifically Christian nature of European history. Christianity is characterised as a “schema of thought” where “a Sovereign Creator ontologically separate from the universe that is governed by his will” (p 52). Eliding the set of immense complexities and labours that would be required in the attempts at characterising Christianity,4 the thesis of S N Balagangadhara is adopted, with whom De Roover says he has been, along with others, collaborating, as part of a three-decade research programme. It will not be possible here to analyse this thesis of the “double dynamic of religion” where Christianity is interpreted as the paradigmatic religion; an account that is said to be at onceparticular and simultaneously universal. Christianity as a religion explains a specific event but since its truth is universal there is a tension between this “particular” and the “universal.” The dynamic is described as one which occurs when Christianity drops its own “particularities” to universalise itself in the confrontation with potential converts who may not believe particular aspects of its account. De Roover, followingBalagangadhara, argues that it is in this process that secularisation emerges as a moment, once it has cast off specific doctrines that are seen as obstacles to its universalisation.5 That is to say, secularism is inextricably tied with Christianity.

Secularism Tied to Christianity

Within this theoretical framework, De Roover’s main historical thesis consists in claiming that the Christian “political theology of the two kingdoms” is the origin of the liberal–secular model. He writes of the theology that

divided human existence into two realms or kingdoms: the spiritual kingdom, where no man could rule by god alone, and the political kingdom where the believer should always obey secular authorities. (p 88)

The reformation, in particular, that is proposed to have laid the specific grounds for the liberal–secular model, frames (modern) religious toleration as the outcome of the clash between “confessionalism” (“external” authority) and “anti-confessionalism” (belief in “conscience” and/as internal authority) leading to the key idea that “all forms of religion should be freed from authority and human laws” (p 136).6 Surprisingly, De Roover does not engage with Perez Zagorin’s detailed and convincingly argued thesis that modern toleration in the West has to be traced to the challenge and critique of Christian theories of persecution, that is, the idea that coercion could be used to instil true belief which had as one of its representatives, St Augustine.7

De Roover is right, if not entirelyoriginal, in making clear and relevant the crucial importance of religion infigures such as Locke and Bayle; and not only because there is a general tendency among Western historians to elide this fundamental dimension. However, the emergence of new loci of authority such as the nation and representative institutions in early modern and modern Europe altered the way arguments about God and scriptures were made, rendering their meaning and intelligibility significantly different from medieval or later medieval formulations of the “two kingdoms.” It is from here—the structures of legitimacy that the state provided through representation—that one may understand the aspirations and contexts of figures such as Jawaharlal Nehru and B R Ambedkar for whom secularism was not dissociable from democracy.

Colonial Consciousness

A chapter is devoted to the colonialperiod arguing for the importance of the Christian normative theory of toleration. To this is traced the idea that Christianity grounded colonial policy, and any conflict was framed and adjudicated with reference to the supposedly authentic and authoritative sources of religion. Such a Christian and colonial understanding of religion—defined in terms of authentic ancient textual sources—is said to have framed the positions of various reformers and nationalists across the ideological spectrum from Savarkar to Nehru and Ambedkar. This has been discussed in the historiography; De Roover’s contribution lies in emphasising that these positions are little more than the repetition and internalisation of Orientalist–Christian formulations. There is, therefore, unlike much of the extant literature, little argument here on the distinctions between the various positions; even if the condescension that marks De Roover’s treatment for Ambedkar and Nehru is not to be found for Savarkar.8 On these issues, there is much to disagree with but as an example one might ask how Ambedkar could be accused of merely repeating Orientalist arguments, when in sharp distinction to the latter, the principles of popular sovereignty and gender equality were guiding principles of his endeavors?

De Roover concludes his book with a discussion of some contemporary critiques of secularism in India, including thoseof T N Madan and Ashis Nandy. While sympathetic to this critique, De Roover laments that colonial consciousness pervades it and because of “a conceptual screen, Indian thinkers lose access to the intellectual traditions and experiential world of their own culture” (p 231). This notion of the Indians and their own authentic culture—not to be confused with the stained colonial consciousness of all those discussed from Rammohan Roy to Nehru to Ambedkar to Nandy—never see the light of day in this book; although we are promised of results from the larger research group in Ghent in time. Nandy’s critique is deficient apparently because his distinguishing between religion-as-faith and religion-as-ideology is inapplicable to Christianity and Islam.Nandy was not engaging with Christianity or Islam directly but with secularism as it exists in India. De Roover brings in Christianity because he believes that the modern liberal state is based on its distinctions, and he does not engage with the idea that the contemporary liberal state draws its legitimacy from institutions and principles such as popular sovereignty, representation and a national culture, as noted above. To engage with Nandy’s critique of secularism, one will have to address these aspects of modernity such as the state system, nationalism and bureaucracy; the violence of which, Nandy believes, secularism is unable to combat, and with which, according to him, it is often complicit. Unfortunately, De Roover’s treatment of Nandy is largely reflective of the broader method at play. There is simply no patient sustained analysis or investigation of corpus, event or figure; resulting in readings that are often tendentious.

A Tendentious Critique

The book gets off on the wrong foot by claiming that one of the model’s fault lies in the lack of clear and consistent criteria for a distinction between the secular and the religious; a claim that provides the rationale for the main thesis consisting of historical and cultural contextualisation. In both the cases of the “West” and the Constituent Assembly debates and Supreme Court rulings in India, the examination is far too cursory to convincingly establish either the lack of intelligibility or the need to find such intelligibility in the contextualisation that is undertaken. One could argue that even if a clear and consistent criteria cannot be delineated a priori it does not point to a fatal defect of the model because numerous distinctions in our everyday existence, whether public and private, capital and non-capital crimes, free speech and libel, free speech and security, are generally intelligible without ready-made criteria. In cases of conflict, no more than guiding principles, procedures and institutions, which are recognised to be legitimate, are required to determine on a case-by-case basis which category is applicable where. A critique of the liberal–secular model would have to pitch itself at this level and not be content to claim that lack of intelligibility is proved by supposedly missing “clear and consistent” criteria.9

However, for De Roover only the turn to the Christian political-theology of the two kingdoms can unlock the liberal–secular model’s principle of intelligibility, that is, this political-theology provided the sought after clear and consistentcriteria that were subsequently forgotten in the contemporary model. Such an argument is unpersuasive because it elides deep tensions and transformations within the “West” and Christianity. These elisions would include, the (Roman) imperial constitution of “canonical Christian doctrine” and such imperial reactivation in Reformation England; the simultaneous authorisation and authentication through divine sources by kings as well as popes; explicit divinely-sanctioned “natural right” arguments that were used in “temporal-political” affairs; and the Church’s involvement in such affairs.10 Thus, there were no clear-cut criteria available to distinguish the temporal and the spiritual; perhaps there is no greater evidence for this than the detailed argumentation and violent bloodshed that took as its site the ever elusive distinction between one and the other.11 It is important to emphasise this because it renders De Roover’s larger thesis—that the liberal–secular model is confusedin Europe but more so in India aboutits distinction, in comparison with the earlier robust self-consciously Christian formulation—precarious. In the case of both the liberal model as well as itsantecedents, institutions and procedures were required to decide on a case-by-case basis, and the difference lay in the nature of these institutions, procedures and their legitimating principles. Finally, in the context of the specific discussion around the Reformation and post-Reformation period which points to the key role of the distinction between external authority and inner conscience, De Roover does not sufficiently recognise that the very establishment of law (authority) would have to be religiously/divinely sanctioned, whether in Locke or any of his contemporaries. Even in the letter on toleration, on the dispute between the magistrate claiming to act for public good and the individual conscience, Locke says that only god will judge; reminding one of the Second Treatise where too the turn heavenward is indistinguishable from a call to war. There is no hope for theself-evident clear and consistent criteria here either, and as much of the scholarship on Locke, whether that of Dunnor Waldron, has argued the religiousdimension is absolutely crucial evenin “politics.”

Notwithstanding which, De Roover’s contribution to the study of secularism and religion is important in adding to the scholarship that has underlined the crucial importance of religion (and Christianity), in Western history and society. This view is unfortunately only marginal in relationship to the dominant—and contestable—interpretation of Western history as the bildungsroman of secularism growing out of religion and superstition. Taking aim at this is, thus, to reflect upon the tacit presuppositions of much social-scientific and historical scholarship on a range of contemporary issues in India.


1 De Roover cites select literature to suggest communal violence has been on the increase since independence. However, even if one accepts this premise, it does not establish that the reason for this is the “liberal–secular” model of the Indian state. One could just as easily argue, as many have done, that it is a departure from “liberal–secular” principles that has led to this rise in violence.

2 In the context of the Lautsi andother cases, De Roover writes, “If the liberal model keeps running into such difficulties within the Western world, one can only begin to imagine the troubles it encountered once it migrated to other cultures” (p 31). “The distinction between the religious and the political plays as central a role in the Indian debate as in the Western debates. The same set of problems returns in a stronger form here [India]” (p 34–35). These statements suggest that cultural context and historical genesis suffice to determine the applicability of secularism in a given country. They lie in tension with one of the initial claims in the book wherein it is argued that these in themselves cannot determine applicability. In arguing for the strong links between the liberal–secular model and its basis, De Roover argues, “In the absence of this background, the liberal model faces fundamental problems that threaten its intelligibility and accessibility. These problems arise from trying to provide secular foundations for the model of Christian freedom and its two kingdoms. In other words, Christian theology constitutes the basic conditions of intelligibility for normative liberal theories of toleration and secularism. Where it is not available, these theories threaten to become unintelligible” (p 168).

3 De Roover’s reading of Asian cultures and religions offers little substantiation. For instance, De Roover writes, “Before the late 18th century, Hindus did not defend their traditions in terms of doctrinal truth or texts” (p 198). Elsewhere, “many non-Abrahamic traditions of Asia lack the notions of “God,” “divine revelation” and “divine authority” (p 52). And furthermore, “To realise how problematic the idea of axial religion is, one need only reflect on the fact that experts insist that classical Chinese and other Asian languages lack the vocabulary to express such normative statements: there is no moral “ought” (neither prudential nor obligatory) to be found in these languages” (p 62); the experts referred to here are S N Balagangadhara and one article by Henry Rosemont. There is simply no evidence or argument presented to make intelligible, let alone establish, that these notions were absent. Each of these notions have to first be explored and explicated before they become distinguishing criteria. This has to be said as much for the traditions in the West as anywhere else. Analogously, whether it is the “God” of the Nyaya system or the Vedic “divine revelation” of the Mimamsa, statements concerning (these) philosophical traditions cannot, without evidence or study, be subject to the bald generalisations one finds in De Roover’s work that makes no reference to the wide extant literature on these issues. De Roover appears unaware that there were notions of authoritative texts and hermeneutic strategies to determine their import; whether one considers the Vedamula of the Mimamsa or the Buddhavacana of many Buddhists. In what sense this differed from Christianity can be addressed and understood only if this is acknowledged and known.

4 Ignored here is the fundamental issue of the trinity, and if there was something that bound the Early Church Fathers, Augustine to Aquinas and Luther, it was the problematic that god was “unknowable” and yet had to be obeyed and/or loved. This provided the site for persistent, subtle, manic, and bloody contestations between the apophantic and kataphatic, transcendence and immanence, creation and redemption; these issues have been examined from a range of perspectives, from D Carabine to G Agamben. For instance, Aquinas’s critique of the so-called ontological proof echoed the idea that one could not know god. This problematic—whether through the mystery of the Trinity, the “divine economy” or negative theology—has been the subject of sustained exposition, dispute, discussion (and violence) throughout Christianity and Christian Europe. All of this is elided in De Roover’s characterisations; the idea of a wholly separate god from the world would approximate more to a Gnostic heresy than what was slowly being established as Christian doctrine. Even a perusal of Aquinas, among others’ work, would make it clear that the import of scripture was hardly self-evident. In speaking of an “ontologically separate” Creator god all of this is elided, and in fact many excellent studies of the scientific revolution—A Funkenstein’s Theology and the Scientific Imagination—have established that the advances of the 17thcentury have to be understood in terms of the theological issues concerning the relationship between space/entity and the “Body of God;” none of which is comprehensible with theeasy and unexplicated characterisation, “ontologically separate.”

5 In De Roover’s words, “The never-ceasing interplay between two moments shapes the dynamic of universalisation of every religion.” A qualification is added, where “these are not two separate moments at every point the moment of prosletyzation recurs in the moment of secularisation and vice versa” (p 70). There is a lack of clarity, for one might ask if they are not separate, how is one to understand “interplay”? The spatial and temporal heuristics and metaphors are also obscure; how is there interplay between moments, and moreover the two are to recur at every “point.” On this one issue De Roover gives a miss to one of the more suggestive aspects of S N Balagangadhara’s thesis who does not limit the dialectic to a particular historical moment of proselytisation, but to the general tension between Christology (Specific Christ—related doctrine-ritual) and theology (linked with “God”) which articulated Christianity in its historical agency; see Heathen in His Blindness, (pp 184–85). This would not be the place to discuss Balagangadhara’s interpretation of Christianity or universalisation but in so far as it is so important a framework for De Roover’s thesis I wish to raise just one, though to my mind central, issue. Balagangadhara’s argument about the distinguishing feature of Christianity in relation to Roman religion is that while for the latter religion is tradition (practices that are carried on from ones ancestors without need for justification or interpretation), with Christianity religion becomes doctrine that is defended “rationally.” The evidence for such a characterisation of Romanreligion is by and large selected portions of selected texts, much from such a selected portion of a text of Cicero, but every more particularly, one argument given by one of the characters in On the Nature of Gods. This character, Gaius Cotta, argues in the dialogue, that as a priest he cannot find a rational defence of his religious practices which have been handed down by tradition. This is taken by Balagangadhara to be an adequate description of Roman religion in its essence. However, such an interpretation falls apart from even the most cursory examination of the dialogue—by even recognising that this is a dialogue—because Cicero’s explicitly begins his work by stating that since there is such a diversity of opinion on questions of religion, ritual, God and the sacrifices, it is important to scrutinise and evaluate the same. Hence, the dialogue consists of a discussion–debate between an Epicurean, the Stoic Baldus (which offers proofs for the gods), and the “Academic” Cotta (who remains unconvinced about these proofs). However, Balagangadhara omits this crucial introduction, just as he omits the ending of the dialogue where Cicero says that he found the Stoic’s arguments, which provided proofs of god, closer to the truth. In such a context it simply is not persuasive to argue that, “Continuing a tradition [religio] does not require any reason other than itself: what is being continued is tradition itself that is to say, no theoretical justification was needed to practice and uphold ancestral customs” (p 41); later, “Yet there was a sphere, the religio, not affected by critical questioning practiced because it was tradition” (p 42). This ignores the whole tradition of proofs and reasoning about such matters from Plato to the Stoics. The question of proofs of god and religion is a complicated one because even in Christianity—within India too such proofs were discussed of a god that was not a creator god—there was a complex evaluation of these issues. In fact this contestable characterisation of Roman religion—ancestral tradition practised devoid of rationality—is repeated ad verbatim by De Roover as a characterisation of traditions/religions in India.

6 In his thesis on the importance of religion,De Roover is necessarily inconsistent because he makes the distinction between religionand civil practice as something “self-evident to Locke” (p 180); as others in the Western tradition. However, this is only an initial distinction that can always come to crisis and lose its self-evidence without any formulaic criteria of discrimination. On the relationship between religion and state-formation, Jose Casanova makes the important argument that the religious wars of early modern Europe resulted not (immediately) in the “secular state” but rather into the “confessional absolutist territorial state,” which had in fact precedents even before the Reformation. See his critical response to Mark Lila’s The Stillborn Child in

7 De Roover’s brief discussion of Augustine does not take into account this dimension, which would undercut any easy correlation between the two kingdoms argument and the secular-religious distinction. Many of the characters that make brief appearances in De Roover—Dirck Volckertsz Coornhert, Roger Williams, John Milton—are discussed in greater detail and with greater clarity by Zagorin’s How Religious Toleration Came to the West. This is so even with respect to John Locke and Pierre Bayle, on whom De Roover spends relatively more time. While the religious dimension is recognised by both, Zagorin could not agree with De Roover’s thesis regarding the foundational role of the two kingdoms for moderntoleration.

8 “Ambedkar echoed such utterances [of European/Orientalist scholars] as though they constituted an objective rational analysis of Hinduism; in reality, these were scraps of a theology of false religion now presented as facts about the world” (p 216)“B R Ambedkar, the chief architect of the Constitution and advocate of social reform, borrowed the cliché from European Orientalists that religion in India covers all aspects of life from birth to death” (p 37). “Nehru’s analysis resulted neither from empirical research into Indian society nor from reasonable reflection on its problems. Instead, it embraced the flawed reasoning of normative disjunction: he simply accepted the orientalist discourse about Indian culture as a veracious description and then sold normative models of Western political thinking as the only future for India” (p 215). That he directly linked secularism and democracy and was popularly elected a number of times is not considered relevant in the supposed disjunction between him and those electing him; yet while the argument about Nehru’s cultural distance from the population that elected him has been made before, few reduce Nehru to only this one dimension, as is the case with De Roover. While discussing Savarkar, De Roover has the following to say on Hindu nationalism: “Paradoxically the project of Hindu nationalism tries to distinguish Hindu identity from that of Muslims and Christians, while modeling itself on Islam and Christianity” (p 199). This critique of Hindu nationalism has of course been well established in the extant literature although unlike De Roover it also focuses on the processes of modern state making and nationalism.

9 In liberal-democracies, there are public spaces where it is possible to question the legitimacy of the specific findings of these institutions—whether they be courts or governments. Of course, I hold no brief for the liberal–secular model, but even for critique, the model has to in the first place be more carefully engaged with. Many studies have questioned the rationale of distinctions made in the Constituent Assembly and Supreme Court, but to do so they would have to be examined and studied. Not cursorily, as a pretext to focus on other issues, as is done in De Roover.

10 It must be remembered that canonical doctrines of Christianity such as the Trinity were constituted by councils called by the Roman emperor. As W Ulmann has shown, Henry the VIII deliberately went back to this notion in claiming to be the politico-religious head. Among many studies, Kantorowicz’s work is still the richest demonstration of the ways in which the king/emperor and church analogously—through a kind of cross-fertilisation—sought divine sanction; Kantorowicz is cited once by De Roover but the citation providesno clue to the set of arguments that were made in the King’s Two Bodies. That tyranicide was divinely sanctioned to natural law is wellestablished, as the phenomena of divinely inspired attempts to intervene in temporal-political affairs. B Tierney’s The Idea of Natural Rights is perhaps the most detailed work to show that 17th century (and subsequent) arguments about “natural right” emerge from the poverty disputes of the 13th century, where the Pope’s critique of the Franciscan order was fundamental.

11 Whether it is the church, kings or “millenarian” movements, none proffer clear cut distinction between the religious and the secular. How would one, for instance, understand the Levelers or Diggers? In fact, even secondary sources to be found in De Roover’s bibliography make this clear. In an authoritative study of the investiture struggle and its implication for Western law and secularism, Berman writes in Law and Revolution, “The new meanings of the secular were derived from the struggle between supporters of the secular and spiritual authorities, respectively. Those who deniedaltogether the papacy’s distinction between the secular and the spiritual, and who insisted on maintaining the sacral character of imperial or royal rule, were generally defeated. But the actual boundaries between the two realms—the specific allocations of functions—were worked out by reconciliation and compromise between opposing forces. They could not by the very nature of the problem, be defined abstractly” (p 111). As Berman explains the issue in part because of the fact that even secular rule was divinely established and so became another site for contestation. A consequence, as Berman argues in detail was that “Both [papal and royal parties] sides came to agree that there should be two distinct jurisdictions, one ecclesiastical, the other royal. They could not agree, however, on the boundaries between them” (p 268).


Balagangadhara, S N (2005): The Heathen in His Blindness, New Delhi: Manohar.

Berman, H (1983): Law and Revolution Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Casanova, Jose (2007): “The Stillborn God: The Great Separation,” The Immanent Frame,

De Roover, J (2015): Europe, India and the Limits of Secularism, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Funkenstein, A (1986): Theology and the Scientific Imagination, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kantorowicz, E (1957): The King’s Two Bodies, Princeton: Princeton University Press

Tierney, B (1997): The Idea of Natural Rights 1997, Atlanta: Georgia Scholars Press

Zagorin, P (2002): How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Updated On : 3rd May, 2017


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