ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

"Fixed Plurality" and institutional geometry of Indian secularism

NDTV organised an interesting debate ‘Preserving Pluralism in India Today’ on 19 January 2014 in which Bhiku Parekh, Arun Shourie and Mushirul Hasan participated. The discussion, as expected, revolves around the meanings of secularism and its relationship with the diversity of Indian social life in postcolonial India.  

The discussion eventually becomes quite one-sided. All three panelists seem to adhere to a conventional notion of secularism- a clear dividing line between the state and religion should be drawn so that a purely secular state could be established in India. Consequently, four obvious conclusions emerge:

·  Although secularism is not alien to Indian Hindu-Buddhist tradition in India (Parekh includes Akbar in it as well), secularism in India has actually failed.

·  If we want to revive the idea of secularism in India, we must push the state away from religion.

·  The principle of absolute equality of all religions should form the basis of public policy (though again Parekh brings in the rights of minorities, he somehow does not contradict the points raised by Shourie).

·  Identity-based reservation/quota system is against the spirit of secularism.                       

Arun Shourie was able to dominate the debate. He used his interpretation of law and presented it as ‘factual information’ to articulate soft BJP type version of secularism. In contrast, the other panelists, including the anchor, failed to respond to Shourie. They continued to operate in the realm of political rhetoric—Modi, Muzzafarnagar, Haj subsidy and so on. Even Shourie skilfully forced them to endorse his point that identity-based reservation goes against the spirit of secularism.  

Why was Shourie able to influence others? It would be completely inappropriate to assume that intellectuals like Parekh and Hasan were not fully aware of the conceptual sources of Shourie’s arguments. We know them too well - intellectually as well politically. However, they failed to underline the principles on which the complex secular institutional apparatus of the postcolonial state is based.

The Constitution, no doubt, can be treated as the main source of secularism. But these constitutional principles are not absolute or fixed. The departmental laws and public policy interpret them in a variety of ways. In this sense, there is a chain of institutions that relates Article 25-30 to the intricacies of events such as Muzzafarnagar riots or Modi’s slogan, ‘India First’. Shourie’s arguments operated in this crucial space.

However, for Hasan and Parekh this sequence was entirely unimportant. In fact that was the reason why they could not identify the inconsistency in Shourie’s facts. For instance, he says that the 1925 Act forces a person to define his/her identity strictly as a Sikh. However, this is not correct. The Section 2(9) of the Sikh Gurudwaras Act 1925 says:      

Sikh “Sikh” means a person who professes the Sikh religion or, in the case of a deceased person, who professed the Sikh religion or was known to be a Sikh during his life time. If any question arises as to whether any living person is or is not a Sikh, he shall be deemed respectively to be or not to be a Sikh according as he makes or refuses to make in such manner as the [Provincial Government], may prescribe the following declaration:- I solemnly affirm that I am a Sikh, that I believe in the Guru Granth Sahib, that I believe in the Ten Gurus and that I have no other religion.

Shourie’s point about the Sikh Gurduwara Tribunal was not valid because Gurudwara laws as well as the wakf laws are always defined in relation to the larger Constitutional provisions. This is also true about Haj subsidy, organising Kumbh mela or the recent debate on reservation for Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians. These instances underline Rajeev Bhargava’s famous argument that the Indian state celebrates India’s deeply religious-culture life, while maintaining a ‘principled distance’ from it.   

About Author

Hilal Ahmed (ahmed.hilal@gmail.com) ​ is Associate Fellow, Centre for the Study of Developing societies, New Delhi. He is the author of Monuments, Memory and Contestation: Muslim Political Discourse in Postcolonial India (Routledge/Forthcoming). Ahmed writes on popular Islam and Muslim politics. He is working on his second book project, Politics of Muslim Political Representation.     
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