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

A+| A| A-

Roots of Secularism

Secularism, Communalism and the Intellectuals by Zaheer Baber; Three Essays Collective, Gurgaon, 2006; IMTIAZ AHMAD Secularism continues to be hotly debated in India, but the terrain over which that debate takes place has become greatly circumscribed. It takes place now around two salient themes: whether secularism has a place in Indian cultural and religious ethos, and whether the adoption of secularism as a state credo has been generative of communal conflicts. This is broadly also the central concern of Zaheer Baber

secularism and allowed the communal forces to come centre stage and assert them-

Roots of Secularism

selves. Communalism did not raise its ugly

Secularism, Communalism and the Intellectuals

by Zaheer Baber; Three Essays Collective, Gurgaon, 2006; pp 90, Rs 125.

IMTIAZ AHMAD

S
ecularism continues to be hotly debated in India, but the terrain over which that debate takes place has become greatly circumscribed. It takes place now around two salient themes: whether secularism has a place in Indian cultural and religious ethos, and whether the adoption of secularism as a state credo has been generative of communal conflicts. This is broadly also the central concern of Zaheer Baber’s book.

Baber takes as his point of departure the writings of T N Madan and Ashish Nandy on secularism. He contends that their position that secularism had no roots in Indian cultural ethos is fundamentally flawed, but beyond repeatedly characterising their formulations as ahistorical and nonsociological, he adduces no substantive evidence or argument to support his critique. This raises two questions which need to be addressed, if we are to evaluate Baber’s critique.

Idea of Secularism

First, can secularism be traced back to Indian culture and history? Can one legitimately claim that the ready acceptance accorded to secularism at the time of Constitution-making arose from its being indigenous? On this point, the historical evidence is writ large. Unlike Europe, where the rise of secularism was precipitated by the emergence of social classes that found religious dogmas and the hold of religion over the apparatus of the state remarkably constraining, no parallel tendency existed in India. There existed certain philosophical ideas and social trends that had an elective affinity with the complex aspects subsumed under secularism and could be, indeed were, harnessed in the cause of lending support to the secular idea in India. Our leaders never tire of playing upon acceptance of diversity and toleration as a means for justifying secularism. However, this is not the same thing as secularism as it evolved in Europe and became an instrument of institutional reorganisation of state and society to bring both in consonance with the principles of secularism. Secularism in the Indian context remained a transplant for whose widespread acceptance a framework had to be created.

The second question relates to the point Baber makes by way of a critique of Madan and Nandy. His point is that both Madan and Nandy reverbrate the voice of communal forces and to that extent can be blamed for having created a space for the communal ideology, particularly of the Hindu variety, to operate and take hold. I do not see the communal forces of the Hindu and Muslim variety differently because both have a common strategy and objective of taking over state power through shaping mindset and gaining institutional hold over society. However, the more fundamental question in the context of Baber’s criticism is whether academics should structure their analysis with an eye on who might use it and towards what purpose. My own position would be that Madan and Nandy were not entirely wrong in suggesting that secularism had no historical roots in India and was a transplant from contact with and exposure to European philosophical traditions.

Pursuit of Secularism

Unfortunately, Baber glosses over an important link that remains crucial to the pursuit of secularism in India today and in the future. Since secularism was a transplant on Indian society, though elements within Indian culture and religious traditions could be harnessed to lend support for it, the adoption of the secular idea anticipated a more proactive role on the part of the state for the secularisation of society so that secularism becomes deeply entrenched. Such an imperative for the state was built into the Constitution. However, the tenuous standing of a leadership afraid to take radical measures and sail against what it perceived to be the popular current weakened the resolve of the state to pursue a policy of secularisation of society. One way of looking at why commitment to secularism waned in India in the 1980s and subsequently is that the state felt too deeply besieged to promote head during the 1980s, and subsequently, not because some intellectuals argued that secularism had no roots in Indian cultural traditions, which thesis Baber actually appears to be espousing. It came to centre stage because the state faltered on its charge of secularisation of society and this vacuum was seized by communal forces to re-emerge and start asserting their power.

On Hindutva

The remaining two essays deal with the growing salience of communal forces, particularly the Hindutva ideology and the transformation that communal conflicts have undergone in recent times. His central thesis is that communal conflicts in contemporary India have taken on the form of a racial conflict. He writes: “In conclusion, what appears to be a conflict rooted in the clash of cultures, religions and civilisations, can be better understood as a specific form of “cultural racism” at work. In addition to studies that have focused on the mix of political and sociological factors that have contributed to communal conflicts, a re-conceptualisation of communal groups as “racialised” categories could help at least in identifying the right questions that ought to be posed”.

This is a problematic proposition. It is true that the forces of Hindutva, whose ideological construction draws heavily upon fascist thinking, represent Hindus as a racial category and by implication similarly represent Muslims as a racial group. However, this form of representation does not cut much ice because Indian society is far too deeply segmented to be so simply categorised. The Dravidians do not see themselves as belonging to the Aryan race and foreign-born Muslims are clearly distinct from indigenous Muslims most of whom are drawn from Dravidian stock. A recent anthropological study has shown that except for the shias who represent a high degree of racial purity all others are racially intermingled to be distinguished on the basis of genotype. Since Baber lives in North America, where racial boundaries are relatively water-tight, it is understandable that he should be attracted toward seeing group conflicts in racial terms. However, the relevance of this perspective for Indian remains highly questionable.

EPW

Email: profimtiazahmad@yahoo.com

Economic and Political Weekly August 4, 2007

To read the full text Login

Get instant access

New 3 Month Subscription
to Digital Archives at

₹826for India

$50for overseas users

Comments

(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top