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Western Secularism and Colonial Legacy in India

In the west, secularism emerged as a protest movement of the 'oppressed' against a theocratic state for individual freedom. With the expansion of capitalism and trade, it was largely the bourgeoisie and merchant capitalists who championed secularism, though minorities continued to live in a segregated fashion in European states that remained, in essence, theocratic. While secularism as a notion denoting the separation of religion and state was accepted by the early Congress moderates in India, this idea of secularism, however, underwent a change with the impact of colonial policies, and the response of different sections of Indians to colonial rule. In colonial India, identity based on religion, as with other identities, became essential markers to secure privileges in a government that was ostensibly based on liberal political ideas derived from the west. In post-independent India, this has led to secularism acquiring a changed meaning: the idea that all religions shall be treated equal.

Western Secularism and Colonial Legacy in India

In the west, secularism emerged as a protest movement of the ‘oppressed’ against a theocratic state for individual freedom. With the expansion of capitalism and trade, it was largely the bourgeoisie and merchant capitalists who championed secularism, though minorities continued to live in a segregated fashion in European states that remained, in essence, theocratic. While secularism as a notion denoting the separation of religion and state was accepted by the early Congress moderates in India, this idea of secularism, however, underwent a change with the impact of colonial policies, and the response of different sections of Indians to colonial rule. In colonial India, identity based on religion, as with other identities, became essential markers to secure privileges in a government that was ostensibly based on liberal political ideas derived from the west. In post-independent India, this has led to secularism acquiring a changed meaning: the idea that all religions shall be treated equal.


ontemporary notions of “secularism” and “religion” have evolved under capitalism. The notion of secularism was primarily an offshoot of market morality that began to unfold as capitalism progressively expanded. It was premised on the necessity of individual freedom required for manoeuvre in the market, that would not be hampered by one’s religion, nor would religion obstruct the functioning of the market. In other words, “secularism” was the necessity of those individuals who, grounded in mobile wealth, were in search of market and profit. This new elite, with their political ascendancy after the 1640s, gradually replaced the supremacy of the pre-capitalist landed elite along with their traditional notion of “relegere/saecularis” (religion/secularism) with their changing notions of religion and secularism.

In ecclesiastical Latin, the word “saecularis” meant the world, the profane, the base, the lowly in opposition to the church that symbolised lofty ideals, the godly, the sacred, the otherworldly and selflessness. But it did not mean freedom from “relegere” or independence from church neither did it mean independence from sects. It was often used to debase an issue, a person or a philosophy while the church represented pure and superior virtues among mankind. In brief, the saecularis, colloquially was mainly a defamatory term, connoting the “materialists” while the church represented the “idealists”. In course of time it symbolised the protest movements of the oppressed. The term was in vogue in pre-capitalist Europe till the 17th century, from which subsequently the words secular and secularisation emerged, the latter in particular “came into use in European languages at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, where it was used to describe the transfer of territories previously under ecclesiastical control to the dominion of lay political authorities” [Eliade 1987]. The term became synonymous with a process which not only meant away from or independent of church but also independent of religion. This process crystallised in two forms: one, the state became independent of church and religion, and second, the individual became neutral towards religion and independent of the church in the public sphere. This process was new and different from the past. It took centuries for classical liberalism, which had played a pioneering role in laying the philosophical-political foundation of secularism in Europe, to fight against the continent’s bigoted past despite the variegated culture of its constituent countries. Its struggle against church and critique of religion facilitated the growth of civil society, religious tolerance and secularism, a development that was intertwined with the emergence and expansion of capitalism that created the space for and assisted the growth of individual freedom.

Secularism in Pre-Capitalist Europe

Europe’s pre-capitalist social formations and their cultural legacies were characterised by religious intolerance and a nonsecular praxis. In the absence of civil society such praxis, particularly in many pre-capitalist social formations, was an integral part of social life for a majority of the population. It was a historic social category, which has many equivalents across the globe, in which for centuries religious dissenters were persecuted. Not long ago, in fact, till the latter half of the 17th century John Locke was pleading for religious tolerance in England. It is interesting to read his A Letter On Toleration (1689), that was written against the social backdrop of the bourgeois democratic revolution which had politically compromised the English landed aristocracy. Culturally, however, it was still an intolerant society that was reluctant to accept divergent religious beliefs and practices. The different Christian sects were at war with each other, the dominant being the Protestants, once victims of Catholic dominance, but now in a position of power after the success of the civil war of the 1640s. In a reversal of roles they initiated the persecution of Catholics and others under the Clarendon Code of 1660s and the Test Act of 1673 and Locke’s Letter pleaded for toleration. He repeatedly emphasised that for “salvation, every man has the supreme and final power for judging himself, because he alone is concerned...(The) political society was instituted only to preserve for each private man his possession of the thing of this life, and for no other purpose. The care of his soul and of spiritual matters that does not belong to the state and could not be subjected to it, is reserved and retained for each individual” [Bramstead and Melhuish 1978:182-84]. Here Locke pleads for tolerance of divergent religious beliefs and practices, to create conditions for turning religion into a private affair, to provide individual liberty to non-believers as well as acceptance of different forms of worship. Incidentally, publication of Locke’s Letter and passage of the Act of Toleration by the British parliament that granted, to an extent, freedom to dissenters coincided. The act legally laid the foundation for separation of religious concerns of individuals from governance as well as separation between the religious concerns of two individuals. The government was to confine itself to “their worldly affairs” and the individuals were to look after their religious concerns.

Growth of tolerance and freedom to pursue one’s salvation, i e, the development of civil society and secularism had no smooth development. Neither was their progress inbuilt into Christianity, and in European society as Antony Black has argued. Black (2001) wrote that the Greco Roman ‘Civilitas’, which was “consciously related to qualities regarded as essentially human”, was present in European civilisation as manifested in Dante’s umana civilta. “In contrast to the umma of the Islamic west Asia, there was an explicitly secular dimension to the conception of society. Indeed, secularisation was perhaps implicit in Christianity.” Indirectly, for example, he posited “umma” of Islam as a conservative element requiring outside forces for its secularisation unlike Christianity which has an inbuilt tendency towards social progress. But contrary to this, as is known, religious intolerance was widely and intensely prevalent in Europe so much so that one of the pioneering countries in social progress like England, for example, where the bourgeois – democratic revolution occurred earliest formulated the Claredon Code (1660s) and Test Act (1673) that legalised religious intolerance even after a period of bourgeois dominance for more than 20 years.

Black’s postulates regarding Christianity possessing an inbuilt mechanism of progress is not a new presentation. In Hegel, we find a subtle indication of unfolding freedom under Christianity. But he remarked that it progressed in the age of world history; and in Marx an explicit mention of the progressive role played by either early Christianity or by Christianity under capitalism is found [Dickey and Nisbet 1999; Marx and Engels 1978]. However, their approaches of understanding Christianity were different from that of Black. Both Hegel and Marx never treated Christianity as “supra historical”. Rather it was, for them, a historic category playing reactionary and progressive roles under different social systems.

Marx’s Arguments

Marx’s interpretation of religion, mostly written in 1840s, was focused on (i) the critique of state policy towards religion or on the relation between state and religion (‘Leading Article in No179’ of Kolnische Zeitung, ‘On the Jewish Question’), (ii) on the philosophical role performed by religion, and the social condition providing sustenance to religion (‘Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law: Introduction’, ‘Thesis on Feuerbach’, ‘Feuerbach and End of Classical German philosophy’) and (iii) on the changing contents and forms of religion under different historical stages (‘The Early History of Christianity’). He began his philosophical work (doctoral dissertation) on the note that for whom the world appears without reason, hence who is without reason himself, for him God exists? Or lack of reason is the existence of God (Italics original); and he moved on to observe that religion is the “encyclopaedic compendium” of an “inverted world-consciousness” of the society, “its logic in a popular form... its enthusiasm, its moral sanction”, etc. In fact, apart from the brief critique of religion written in the concluding lines of “Appendix” in his doctoral work, his analysis of religion begins on a polemical note in context of its relation with philosophy and state. In the ‘Leading Article’, and more thoroughly ‘On the Jewish Question’ he analysed the political-philosophical dimensions of religion, its linkage with the state, and wrote a critique of state policy towards religion. The premise of the arguments were based on two themes: (i) a secular state provides the best guarantee for freedom of every religion; therefore, for the development of a religion in its true spirit, theocratic state is a bondage; (ii) and for freedom from religion, political emancipation is a pre-requisite which is a first but an important step. The theocratic state, on the other hand, treats religion as political ideology and disregards the essence of religion that is desired by the people. A theocratic state hampers the growth of civil society. A secular state, on the other hand, provides the condition for an onward march towards greater political emancipation. But it is only a precursor for the real, economic-social emancipation and not a complete emancipation in itself. Thus both these themes above revolved around the concept of emancipation of people.

In India, the impact of European ideas, both practical and theoretical, either of liberals or of Marx began to be felt in a major way and in most parts of the country only after the political dominance of British colonial capitalism was established. The political dominance facilitated a kind of social formation that perpetuated market society that in turn began to break, both openly and subtly, the old social relations. The new market society propelled new material needs and new ideas that were either borrowed from the west or were interpreted afresh from India’s past. Since capitalism arrived in India through the European route, that too in the colonial mode, new ideas were also transplanted from Europe. Hume, Kant, Hegel, Bentham, Mill, e g, became fashionable. Had capitalism evolved indigenously, the cultural symbols of the west would not have been transplanted. But the market social relations with market morality garbed in Indian symbols would have definitely formalised. For, any new system, whether transplanted from outside or evolved indigenously, in order to sustain itself must replace and co-opt the old values and must generate new culture. Tautologically, the growth of civil society and secularisation of minds, for example, are inevitable under capitalism.

The establishment of market relations gradually subdued, in essence every other social relation under its weight, irrespective of the appearance of the dominance of other forms of relations at the surface. The market facilitated by industrialisation, irrespective of its speed and expansion, created a mass society that gradually undermined the social base of religion provided by precapitalist social formations. As a result, religion became a private concern for state and society, i e, neither the state nor society intervened in the privacy of religious acts of citizens. In other words, individuals under the expanding civil society enjoyed the freedom to pursue their own religious/atheistic paths without any social/state coercion. The new system also gave births to individuals who struggled, out of conviction, for decades, generations after generation, to secularise Indian minds. They intended and attempted through different methods to lessen the impact of religion from the public spheres. The reformist – revolutionary zeal, however, clashed with the prevalent popular culture that did not tolerate dissent and a pluralistic outlook. Anyone not following the traditional, customary path was coerced by institutions such as the village collective, at least, at the micro-level. This situation in India was not much different from that of Europe prevailing before the 19th century. In fact, religious intolerance was much more virulent and intense in Europe.

Two Schools of Secularism

In India, philosophically, there emerged two schools under the impact of colonial encounter: one section of the elite became an intrinsic part of western liberalism which was best reflected in the speech of Keshab Chandra Sen when he declared in 1870 in London that your philosophy is ours, ‘we are one in thought’, ‘we are also intellectually united’, [Desikachar 1983:303]; the other section endeavoured for, change in tune with the civilisational ethos of India termed as “democratic nationalism” in contradiction to her becoming the “intellectual province of Europe” (ibid: 326), as Aurobindo had commented in Bande Mataram in 1908. It espoused regeneration from within the womb of Indian history in contradiction to the change brought about by the impact of ideological importation under the tuteledge of imperialism. Both sections, however, were the part of new elite and their philosophy formed the two different streams of liberalism that facilitated the development of nationalism. While the ideology of the former had a low anti-British content owing to the historical conditions of their development, the latter was stridently anti-British. The former was against the British rule, the latter was against the very “continuance of British control whether that control was used well or ill, justly or unjustly” (ibid).

The strand of thought represented by Raja Ram Mohan Roy espoused and requested the British to treat India as the British province and modernise its economy, laws and education, establish democratic institutions and procedures and reform its religion just the way the British government had done it in England. The un-British/unliberal rule of the colonial state anguished them. Keshab Chandra Sen and Dadabhai Naoroji had expressed it at different stages. Roy himself in a speech at Calcutta in 1829 had expressed “ that the greater our intercourse with the European gentleman, the greater will be our improvement in literary, social and political affairs; a fact which can be easily proved by comparing the condition to those of my countrymen who have enjoyed this advantage with that of those who unfortunately have not had that opportunity” [Roy 1947:83]. He believed that the investment of capital by Europeans in estates and their settlement in India would be beneficial for the development of India. “If Europeans of character and capital were allowed to settle in the country… it would greatly improve the resources of the country, and also the condition of the native inhabitants, by showing them superior methods of cultivation, and the proper mode of treating their labourers and dependents” [GoI 1977:56]. This school supported the religious neutrality of the colonial state but also sought its intervention in religious reforms as part of the modernising project of the country. In essence, their religious modernity provided impetus to individual freedoms by curtailing the public sphere of religion. Religion became a private concern and could not compel the community to behave in a unilinear/uniform way. Its role of public mobilisation was curtailed; or it no longer provided a platform for public engagement that was subsequently taken over by politics. In other words, the political role of the religion was marginalised as a result of religious modernity. Once this process accelerated, religious tolerance, at least within Hinduism, also increased. Like the classical liberals of Europe, the “Renaissance” men in India and their political successors – the moderates of the Congress – waged an arduous struggle for the secularisation of Indian minds. But it was a battle of elite against the popular culture; it was thus, elite secularism against popular religion.

The other stream of liberalism was represented by Vivekananda, Tilak and Aurobindo known as “nationalists”, who succeeded the initial reformers and who were no longer “dazed” and “surprised”, by the difference of governance of the British in comparison to pre-colonial rulers. They did not believe in appealing to the British; neither did they believe in convincing the English. This other school, therefore, argued that the future of India rested entirely in the hands of the Indians. If they realised their strength they would be free of foreign. For this, they had to seek “refuge in its own superior civilisation” discarding foreign goods, foreign habits, foreign dress and manners or foreign education. The people had to assert their national individuality. They argued that “to accept the dharma of another is perilous, it deprives the man or the nation of its secret of life and vitality and substitutes an unnatural and stunted growth for the free, large and organic development of nature”.1 They insisted on self-regeneration or reforms from within under the political rule of Indian and not its imposition from outside. Their emphasis on learning from India’s past and from Indian society as per the requirement and temperament of people in contradistinction to India’s dependence on learning from Europe, however, placed them under the category of revivalist. But interestingly, they never sought transplantation of vedic/ancient Indian society in their contemporary times; neither were they for a theocratic state or monarchical society. Similarly, they were not against industrialisation and democracy. What they were for was India’s identity as an independent nation with her civilisational history. They were for religion playing a public role as communicator and mobiliser. It was to be religion that was rational bereft of unnecessary rituals and orthodoxy. The state was to be secular treating every religion equally. It was not to be discriminatory state. They believed in individual religious freedom and believed that religious worship was concern of the individual who cannot be forced upon for unitary path either by community or state. The nationalist attempted to create an alternative non-European culture that incorporated the best of Indian history along with Europe’s knowledge of science and technology to put India at par with Britain. It was not ready to merge its identity with the British.

Theirs was a reaction to assert their identity that was denied to them by the British. In the process of their assertion, however, the meaning of words, concepts and symbols posited by them changed forever in the new historical context of capitalism that was fundamentally different from the social formations of the vedic/ancient India. While the initial reformers consented to the cultural domination of the British by internalising their virtues and accepting to the annihiliation process of Indian history; the nationalists challenged it by asserting their history and their criticism facilitated the creation of nationalism. In other words, the British cultural hegemonisation was rejected and in its place was emphasised the existence of India’s historic culture that had continued to exist transcending time barriers. They argued that there existed cultural similarities across India that created unity among people despite diversity, and there was timelessness to these cultural elements that already laid the foundation of nationalism. What was required was just to arouse the consciousness (soul) of the people and once it was awakened India shall regain its lost glory. This school was ideally represented by Vivekananda, Tilak, Aurobindo and Gandhi. Their praxis of being Sanatani was the negation of the culture of colonisation imposed by the British who attempted to deny the Indians their history and identity. They stood for the culture which was contemptuously treated and denigrated, and for which a new identity was created and then foisted upon the “natives”. In fact, they stood for the very organic development which was interrupted and replaced by a new foundation that in short span of history brought a paradigmatic shift from the past.

The difference between the two streams of liberalism may appear fundamental but actually the differences were only marginal resulting out of the historic conditions in which they had emerged. Tilak had expressed it the best. “In the beginning, all of us were taken by surprise. We were almost dazed. We thought that everything that the rules did was for our good and that this English government has descended from the clouds to save us from the invasions of Tamerlane and Chengis Khan, and, as they say, not only from foreign invasions but from internecine warfare, or the internal or external invasions, as they call it… But soon a change came over us. English education, growing poverty, and better familiarity with our rulers, opened our eyes.”2 It was a fact that in the initial years of colonialism the Indians were dazed by the superior organised power of the British, both coercive and non-coercive which created an admiration for them among the Indians. The admiration provided consent to their rule and a desire to be like them. There was also fear in the minds along with a realisation that Indians were lagging in the development. Being political losers, they were not in position to challenge them, once again, so soon. The best alterative, therefore, was to prepare the Indians to rise to the occasion when the situation demanded; and within the colonial framework, it was to become like the colonisers both materially and mentally. We, therefore, find in the early reformers emphasis on two points: one, appealing to the colonisers to perform like the British government, developing infrastructural facilities and initiating cultural reforms; and secondly, pestering Indians to reform themselves. They went up to the point of convincing the British electorate to elect a government in England that also performs in India. The demand for legal, administrative and tax reforms, elementary democracy, Indianisation of government services, freedom of press, capital investment in agriculture, introduction of new technology, and seeking support to cultural reforms were part of this project. Such demands also reflects that by the first half of the 19th century the British elite and a section of the masses had secularised itself to imprint indelibly its mark on the Indian elite. For, without that imprint and condition India would have still been quagmired in pre-capitalist formation at that point of history.

The other stream of liberalism emerged after 1857 that was as much a turning point as 1813 had proved the turning point for the emergence of a free market after the monopoly of the British East India Company was terminated. The year 1857 changed the psyche of the rulers and the ruled. It created fear among rulers and provided impetus for infrastructural development. Among the ruled, the perception to look at the rulers changed. It began to sink in that British could be challenged and defeated, for which only community consciousness and organisation are required. Thus, the focus shifted from Europeanising the Indians, which was alien and difficult to understand, to selfgeneration as per the best historical tradition which were easy to understand. The commonalities of cultural elements existing across India proved far better instruments in raising community consciousness and formation of organisations. The latter liberals sensitised the Indians in this aspect whereas the early liberals had attempted to Europeanise the sensibilities and values of the Indians. The objectives of both, however, were the same despite their varying routes. They attempted to modernise India in economy, polity and culture. Both these streams continued and thereafter were classically represented by different individuals at different stages of history subsequently, for example, by Gandhi and Nehru.

It is argued that the latter liberals were revivalists or inward looking a fact that impinged their secular credentials. They focused more on local cultural resources rather than on promoting universalism as the early liberals like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Keshav Chandra Sen had and subsequently following that stream, Ranade and Gokhale did. But even a cursory observation of Gandhi’s praxis, who carried forward the legacy of Vivekananda and Tilak, puts the spanner into such arguments. Gandhi had repeatedly argued particularly in 1940s, like Locke, that religion is “a personal concern and a matter between god and man”; that religion and state should be separate and the state should have nothing to do with it. He asserted that the state should be wholly secular3 and “no denominational educational institution in it should enjoy state patronage”. He opposed the idea that the government should provide religious education. “Those who want to give religious education may do so on their own, so long as it is not subversive of law and order, or morals. The government can only teach ethics based on the main principles common to all religions and agreed to by all parties.”4 He went to the extent of opposing aid given by the state to religious bodies. Such basic tenets of secularism were non-disagreeable across liberal streams either represented by Nehru or Tilak. In fact, even the Left was not fundamentally different from such a stated position though it was far more critical of their praxis. M N Roy, for example, had argued that “constitutionally, India will be a secular state; that goes without saying. But her political life, dominated by the party in power is not secularised; far from it. As a matter of fact it has attained its present position in the country by exploiting the religious sentiments and prejudices of the backward masses” [Roy 1948].

Secularism and the Left

Among the Left in India, too, the philosophical traditions of secularism of European communists had filtered through but its impact was limited. This was because the European notion of secularism was highly restricted and philosophically constricted; it was confined to a narrow elite segment, whereas the cadres and the masses they mobilised were still soaked in popular religious tradition. Their understanding of Marx and Lenin was more a heuristic knowledge rather than understanding it as part of a social context, philosophical logic and inheritance. Marx rarely indulged in the philosophical criticism of religion, in fact, that role, he argued, had already been performed by the bourgeoisie. His often quoted statement that religion “is the opium of the people” can be placed more as analysis of philosophical and social roles played by religion rather than as critique of religion. What opium does to an individual – makes him feel good and oblivious to imminent social realities

– religion does to the society. It inverts the consciousness; the world appears inverted, it masks the source of real distress in society and provides a rationale for its existence. But this is only one of the roles performed by the religion. Marx called religion the “spiritualistic point d’honneur” of society, its solemn complement, its universal source of consolation and justification… the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of the heartless, just as it is the spirit of spiritless condition” [Marx and Engels 1978:175].

The spirit of Marx’s philosophical works, along with its philosophical and social context, was rarely grasped among the cadres. Equally, it was guided by the Stalinist method of application and political struggle. Lenin’s policy formulation, which had arisen out of backward Russian context, had also influenced the Indian Marxists mainly members of the Communists Party. In fact, their strategy to fight out religious tendencies, within and without the party, or against the state, the party’s practical conduct towards religion, against the religious conduct of bourgeois parties, etc, were primarily learnt from Lenin. Lenin himself had learnt it from the German Social Democratic Party and interpreted many aspects of policy and strategies on his own. He had argued that

religion must be of no concern to the state and religious societies must have no connection with governmental authority. Everyone must be absolutely free to profess any religion he pleases, or no religion whatever, i e, to be an atheist, which every socialist is, as a rule. Discrimination among citizens on account of their religious convictions is wholly intolerable. Even the bare mention of a citizen’s religion in official documents should unquestionably be eliminated. No subsides should be granted to the established church, no state allowances made to ecclesiastical and religious societies. These should become absolutely free associations of like minded citizens, associations independent of the state [Lenin 1978:8].

However, most of his routine, and practical approach that also became modus operandi of Communist Party in India revolved around Lenin’s interpretations of Marx’s statement that religion is the opium of the people. He stated, “this dictum by Marx is the corner stone of the whole Marxist outlook on religion. Marxism has always regarded all modern religion and churches, and each and every religious organisation, as instruments of bourgeois reaction that serve to defend exploitation and to befuddle the working class” [ibid:18-19]. He equated the philosophical role played by religion in history as interpreted by Marx, with that of political role played by religious institutions during bourgeois regime. It was un-Marxian. It was unlike Engels who had “advocated freedom for Jesuits, their admission into Germany, and complete abandonment of police methods of combating any particular religion” [ibid:18]. Both Marx and Engels had regarded religion as a private matter in relation to the state but fought for secularisation of state and society. They opposed the Bismarckian method of police persecution of the German Catholic Party or the Blanquist method of declaring war on religion.

Differing Approaches

There was a difference between Marx-Engels and Lenin in their approach of treating religion. Lenin insisted on following the latter’s approach. But it was more in words, whereas in deeds, he differed considerably. Tragically, what dominated in India was Lenin’s approach rather than Marx’s approach, but it became worse. Practically, among the cadres in India it was the Stalinist method that acquired prominence. In their zeal, they declared war on religion instead of relating the inadequacies of religion with the practical experiences of the masses. They demanded “the expulsion of the missionaries as direct agents of the imperialists with confiscation of their property”.5 Simultaneously, they also sought “full protection of the rights of minorities”, no discrimination against them in services or in any other sphere of life and open repudiation of elements who preach that minorities are aliens inside the Indian Union. Interestingly, they equated minorities with Muslims and contrary to their demands, argued that “the country had been ruled by Muslim invaders for nearly five hundred years… they were always regarded more or less as aliens (italics mine) in the country. Religious antagonism and the consequent persecution was the order of the day in that period” [Adhikari 1978:75-76]. But surprisingly despite such important “religious antagonism”, religious questions never occupied prominence in their philosophical-political discourse. They subordinated this issue under the weight of economic struggle of the subalterns, the way Lenin had done it. As far as Marx was concerned, there were historical reasons, history behind him for treating the religious question unimportantly. The priority to fight religious bigotry were already accomplished by the bourgeoisie in Europe who at least, theoretically had introduced freedom of religion in the backdrop of their theocratic history which in turn, pushed back the religious issue from the forefront of political struggle. But in Russia or in India the case was different. The religious issues in both countries were important. It was a priority yet the communist parties, particularly in India, treated it somewhat shoddily.

In brief, the communists in India could not transcend the bourgeois paradigm either in their political demands or in their philosophical discourse except for citing repetitively the textual contents of Marx. They were more immersed in the need to protect antiquated minority rights rather than engage in pursuit of more modern uniform civil code. Instead of struggling to create a modern citizenry they facilitated the preservation of religious archaic laws of the minorities. They overlooked the issue that not only did they recognise the minority as social category, but they that had also created the category of majority community; that the recognition and preservation of one was inevitably bound to create the another. They failed to understand that the demand for protecting minority rights arose in theocratic states of Europe where the minorities were persecuted. The demand was for individual freedom which was an emancipatory issue; it was a libertarian quest against the papacy. The religious minorities, for example, like Jews or different non-catholic Christian sects were officially second grade residents who were denied many economic and cultural religious rights. The Jews, to refer a case, were debarred from purchasing land for agricultural purposes in most European states. The Left imported this European demand into India where minority religious community had ruled for centuries and instead of being religious victims they were the persecutors. In the absence of any theocratic state in India there was theoretically no curtailment of anyone’s religious rights. The freedom to pursue one’s religion had always largely existed in India. The quest for their protection, therefore, where freedom existed and persecution was officially absent, was a misplaced call. Imitation of Europe, in a different and distinct social context, was bound to boomerang. The artificial creation of a category was rebound to create another category; the creation of minority created the majority. The modest issue, instead would have been to demand creation of a modern citizenry that transcends the historic barriers of at least pre-capitalist social formations. The best position for the Left, thus, would have been to transcend, at least theoretically, the bourgeois notion of minority rights; but, unfortunately they fell into the bourgeous claptrap. The worse came in 1946-47 when members of the Left argued that “the League is free to plead for and get a separate sovereign federation of Muslim majority areas living in friendly alliance with a sovereign federation of Hindu majority areas”.6 It, finally and inevitably led to their consent to the religious division of India, which the Congress and the League had created, instead of opposing it in theory and in praxis.

There has always existed among liberals and Left, a dichotomy between their philosophies and praxis; this has been reflected in almost every aspect of their public affairs. The reason behind this is the dominance of their political ideology that provides short and mid-term benefits to them. In case of the bourgeoisie, the benefits are both economical and political, but, in case of the Left, the benefits are mainly in terms of personal political gain derived from being in control of governmental machinery or in being closer to the corridors of power. In the process of being beneficiaries, however, both the political – ideological formations exposed their opportunistic streak to the public. A survey of such contradictory posturings over the decades dominated by political developments that marginalised their philosophical – ideological stands is the best guide to understand their dichotomies.

Dilemmas of the Congress

To begin with, in the early years of the Congress’s existence, when Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, and other contemporary Muslim leaders and later, when there was the demand for separate electorates for Muslims or nominations of Muslim representatives by the British for their protection and representation, the Congress had agitated against such a political demand which was based on religion and community. Sir Syed Ahmed had argued on the contrary, “that the principle of one man, one vote was not suited to India, because it led to Hindu majority domination and was unfair to the Muslims”.7 The Congress posited the argument that the democratic institutions were based on the representation of the electorate rather than on the nomination of their representatives by others, that too based on their religion, caste or region. In the era of liberalism, democracy and good governance, the individual was more important than his or her “religion or caste”; similarly, his right of sufforage was more important than his representation determined by others. Thus, the Congress focused on the logic of individualism, representation and individuality and sought joint electorates on the basis of worthiness in opposition to the separate electorate. It opposed the 1909 Act that created communal representation in the polity. However, just a decade later, the same Congress at its Lucknow session in 1916 accepted separate electorate for the minorities. The separate electorate contained two important features that later created serious ramifications: first, it was extended to those provinces like Central Provinces and Punjab where earlier, it was nonexistent resulting into its soon acquiring an all-India dimension; secondly, but more grievously, it empowered the representatives (three-fourth in number) of the community to block any legislation that they felt harmful for the entire religious community. In other words, it allowed the opening up of a Pandora’s box against reforms among minorities on the pretext of safeguarding the cultural-religious identities among them. Tautologically, the Congress consented to the creation of social category – the minority – and the acceptance of a category of religious community that it had so vehemently opposed till the Lucknow session. In the process, it also gave birth to the category of and provided impetus to the growth of a majority religious community that ultimately resulted into the social division and segregation on religious lines in India. Later, when the impact of such policies was visibly felt in the form of partition, the Congress regretted the compromise of Lucknow. Earlier, in 1916, it had thought that consent for separate electorates to Muslim League would facilitate a united fight of Indians against colonial rulers, particularly during World War I when the British then in a vulnerable position, would be amenable to grant India, Home Rule.

In comparison to the Congress the very principle of Left secularism in India was flawed as it was borrowed and applied, without the historical context of the west. The Left assumed that like the west, the minorities in India needed to be protected and given freedom to pursue their religion and culture. The Left overlooked the point that the colonial state in 20th century was more protective towards the minority rather than being discriminatory against it. Neither did it create any legal impediments for them in as regards citizenship rights. In fact, it had side-stepped its own-evolved principle of citizenship to apply protective discrimination for the minorities. More importantly, at the societal level, minorities always enjoyed their religious freedom and like any other resident they had the freedom to choose their means of livelihood. There were no restrictions on their movement or on their profession. They congregated as a religious community in public without being restricted neither did they pay taxes as a minority. They ran their own schools and devised their owncurriculum. They enjoyed their customary laws of inheritance, marriage and divorce. The colonial state brought changes into personal laws only where the issue of property was involved under the religious-cultural wrappings. It had already done away with the customary criminal laws in 1860s that had become redundant under capitalism. It also brought some significant progressive changes in the personal laws but these were not holistic. The Left, blindly imitating the west, opposed the colonial state in bringing about such reforms in the name of curtailing the freedom of the minorities. It argued that the state was intervening in the personal affairs of the citizens. It built up a case equating the colonial state with the past theocratic western governments that had hampered the freedom of minorities; and in the name of freedom of minorities it opposed even the progressive legislation of the colonial state. Thus for all practical purposes, it stood ideologically at par with the Congress which had agreed along with the Muslim League after 1916, that the Muslim representatives of the Congress and League in the imperial and provincial councils could block any legislation, with the consent of three-fourth members of their group, that may affect their community. In the name of opposing colonial rule the Left opposed the progressive secular legislation of the colonial state. In other words, in the name of secularism, it opposed the secular act of the government. Few years later, it supported the religious partition of the country in the name of freedom.

Of all, the most tragic aspect of Left secularism was that it forgot the secular requirements of the hoi polloi and instead catered mainly to the needs of the elite. It overlooked the point that the customary personal laws were the product of the medieval property relations which favoured the propertied class male. Its protection, as demanded by the Left, benefited this elite. Its annulment, as opposed by the Left, benefited the bulk of women particularly of the lower strata who constituted their majority strength. The bulk of Muslim population, who were converts from the lower order of society and were property less, did not require these personal laws for their cultural-religious protection as there were no cultural-religious impediments in their existence. Originally, they belonged to the subaltern culture that was autonomous of the elite despite being influenced by it. The elite looked at them contemptuously despite being their coreligionists. There was, therefore, nothing much to inherit for them. Hence for the majority of Muslims there was not much at stake in the inheritance of personal laws. The male elite among Muslims, on the other hand, (a tiny minority) would have definitely lost their hegemony; and it were these men who were in the central and provincial councils. It was imperative on their part to oppose all the reforms that proposed to snatch away their hegemony like the zamindars who later had opposed the abolition of zamindari system. The Muslim elite in the name of identity and protection appropriated the leadership of their poor co-religionists and created a mass base to protect their segmentary interests. The Left supported these segmentary interests of the Muslim elite in the name of protecting the interests of the minority community and side-stepped the interests of majority among the Muslims. Thus, those among Muslims who needed reforms were devoid of Left support, those elite who were opposed to reforms got the support of the Left. The Left that had emerged for the masses ended up supporting the elite.

This irony of the Left is the by-product of a tragic paradox that unfolded in India after the formation of colonial capitalism. Under its aegis there began simultaneously, two processes:

(i) segregation of communities based on their religious identities and (ii) secularisation of modern state and society under the impact of market and democracy. Both these processes operate till date. The segregation process began at two levels which was also, partly, a carry forward of the past prejudices inbuilt in any structurally divisive societies and deliberately used by different classes and segments for their interests. At the grassroot the competition for getting work, wages or livelihood compelled the people to use different historical prejudices to eliminate the competitors. Among the elite, the intention was to appropriate the surplus produce/value which led to struggle among them for dominance. At both levels, religion was used as an important medium to eliminate a segment among competitors. With the advert of Islam, it created a different cultural identity among the locals who converted to Islam and adopted some of its imported cultural-religious elements. It created a new division among the local population. The local converts, on the other hand, mostly of lower caste hierarchy created a division in Islam. Indian Islam was “casteised” as some of the local castes were “Islamised”. The differences, nonetheless, persisted despite assimilation.

Role of Colonialism

Interestingly, colonial capitalism, at one pole facilitated, strengthened or began the segregation process; at another pole it also simultaneously began the secularisation process of dismembering societal rigidities. It separated the profane from the sacred and confined it to ecclesiastical centres away from routine transactions of society. Among Hindus this spread fast cutting across caste. Among the Muslims, it was relatively slow. The process of secularisation took time to filter through their castes/segments and influenced them less. The basic reason for it was that there was no intermediary or middle strata among the Muslims as was among Hindus, for instance, there was no Muslim business caste at an all-India basis. The khojas or vohras, the small business segments were located and confined to coastal areas. The Muslim elite was the landholder; the others belonged to the lower economic strata of society. Both the classes were largely antithetical to mercantile capitalism as well as antithetical to each other’s culture. But in the given historical context, they had one commonality, religion. They were initially reluctant towards secularisation. In the absence of formation of any Muslim bourgeoisie, the secularisation process was delayed. For instance, in Islam’s germinal years it had opposed the practice of moneylending which was an important catalyst of capital formation. Subsequently, moneylending did make its foray, silently, among Muslims but it hampered the formation of business caste/segment or checked their role in society. When capitalism arrived in India the “Hindu” bourgeoisie seized the opportunity and wrested the initiative not only to break free from the traditional structure but also to move ahead of their Muslim counterpart. It facilitated the capitalisation and secularisation of society.

The political-electoral process was the other medium of secularisation. In fact it was a double-edged sword that played a negative role of segregation as well as positive role of secularisation. In the entire process the focus was on political mobilisation that weakened/ broke the primordial ties and brought people onto a common platform for the larger objective. It propelled people to transcend local traditions and smaller units of family, village, caste and religion. The movement for independence or even for Pakistan could become possible only when these smaller units and local traditions of religion/caste were transcended. Looked at from below, the people transcended these units only when they consented to the larger political objectives or when they did not resist the objectives. Further, they identified with the objectives because that touched their desire for freedom and for a better future. However, primordial elements such as religion were used by the elite for their own interests but at certain points the masses did identify with or provided consent to them. In any form, however, the political process played an instrumental role in breaking local level primordiality and brought forth people on to the streets and out of their homes. It inflamed passion under the banner of religious identity and obfuscated the larger universal objective. In that context it played a retrogressive role. However, the nitty-gritty of everyday existence under capitalism submerged the primordiality in course of time and facilitated the inevitable, onward march of secularisation. Appeal to basic primordial instincts and notions inherited from the past, aggravated divisive tendencies while for smaller, particular objectives such notions played a bonding role among the caste, religious communities transcending village or pargana traditions. The role of the religious and caste associations fitted into such a framework.

The secularisation/segregation process was further assisted by colonial education which like the electoral-political process was a double-edged sword. Colonial education was designed to cater to the developing capitalist structure that had an inbuilt tendency for modernisation. But being colonial in nature it was also built for domination and was alien to the local history. It linked India with Europe and through Europe with other regions of the world. It enlarged the knowledge of the reading public and propelled the development of democratisation. But it created a disjuncture with the traditional Indian historiography; in fact, it dissolved India’s past and recomposed it as per the knowledge and tradition of the British and changed the nature and content of public discourse forever. A new Oriental school, an exotic area in terms of scholarship, different from the Occidental was created. But simultaneously, a connecting link between the two histories through the medium of past language and race – similarities between Sanskrit, Greek- Latin and Aryans race – was also traced in to legitimatise their rule. The native’s history that was “created” had, in course of time, the desired impact on religious segregation. The communal periodisation as Hindu and Muslim phases provided a tool to the vested interests in the process of political mobilisation for religious issues. This history was brought into the picture to legitimatise their religious demands and create a world outlook of the participants in the desired fashion of the leaders. It not only prolonged colonial rule by dividing the natives but also accelerated the partition of the country. In the long-term, colonial education detached history from its people. It ignored the local cultural resources and their perspectives. It became either alien or distant from the people. Yet, in spite of such serious distortions, this ideological state apparatus of colonial capitalism was instrumental in orienting change. It was a new step in history. Its rational kennel-capitalist modernisation – was practically cosmopolitan and theoretically universal. It provided new methods of research, searched out India’s “hidden” civilisation and provided new insights to look at history. It encouraged social reforms and revolutionary breaks from the degenerate past.

At the near end of colonialism these processes were speeded up by the Constituent Assembly that envisaged an idealised capitalist modernisation of post-colonial India. Its basic tenets were a non-theocratic state, uniform criminal laws, political/ constitutional safeguards for religious minorities and uniform civil (excluding marriage and succession) laws. The non-theocratic state, further, was based on two sub-tenets: the separation of state from religion and formulation of uniform laws for marriage and succession. In the west, both had emerged out of the same philosophical foundation; but in India, however, it did not fructify, at least in the political realm and reflected in the ideological discourse and in the enactment of laws. While uniform personal laws were left to be codified by the future legislators, for the separation of religion from the state it was agreed upon by the majority in the assembly that the state in India shall not be completely aloof from religion neither shall it be anti-religion. On the contrary, the state would treat every religion equally which brought forth sharply two major differences between Indian and western secularism. While in classical western secularism, religion and state was separated by the revolutionary masses, in India the linkages between them remained intact despite the state being non-theocratic. Secondly, the religious minorities in the west unlike India, did not evolve as a separate constitutional category bestowed with separate rights and personal laws. These two differences had their derivative fallouts. In the first case, while a section of the radical bourgeoisie in the west became anti-religionist, in India they unanimously debunked it; in the second case, while the west formulated a uniform civil code, in India it was not codified. The old medieval religious laws continued to guide the marriage/succession/property relations. The constituent assembly ratified these measures to be adopted as part of governance which in course of history were accepted as an Indian variant of secularism discarding the old pre-Tilakite Congress’s ideals that abhorred the creation of religious minorities.



1 Aurobindo Ghosh in S V Desikachar (ed), op cit, pp 325-26. 2 Bal Gangadhar Tilak in Ibid, pp 323-24. 3 M K Gandhi was reacting to a question asked by a Christian Missionary

in September 1946, See his Collected Works, Vol 85, p 328. 4 Gandhi was replying to Zakir Husain, See D G Tendulkar, Mahatma, Vol 7, 1953, p 451. 5 Documents of the Communist Movement in India, Vol 3, NBA, Calcutta,

1997, p152. 6 Documents of the Communist Movement in India, op cit, Vol 5, p 190. 7 Ibid, p 191.


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