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A ‘Democratic’ Test

Amir Ali ( teaches at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Tolerance, Secularization and Democratic Politics in South Asia edited by Humeira Iqtidar and Tanika Sarkar, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018; pp ix + 216, £75 (hardcover).


This volume of essays edited by Humeira Iqtidar and Tanika Sarkar is compiled with the perspective of looking at tolerance, secularisation and democratic politics in South Asia as a whole. There has been an impressive outpouring of writing on secularism in India, which tends to remain confined within the borders of the country and the most immediate stimulus for which has been the rise of right-wing Hindutva nationalism. This volume helps us appreciate how secular and democratic politics has wider ramifications and spillover effects across the various countries of South Asia. In the larger regional architecture of South Asia, India with its sheer size plays a pivotal and perhaps to the chagrin of smaller neighbours, a dominant role. India’s combination of a Hindu majority, with a constitutional and political commitment to secularism that is in turn combined with a larger civilisational appeal to tolerance, seems to act like a centripetal force to the smaller and slightly more outlying states that represent in varying combinations some of the elements that may not predominate in India, but which certainly constitute the civilisational ethos claimed by it.

Thus, there is the question of Islam on the basis of which Pakistan split from India in 1947, with its eastern and western wings splitting again, to create a new nation, Bangladesh in 1971. There is the question of Sri Lanka with the predominance of its Buddhist–Sinhalese population that again marks it off from India. Then there is the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal to the north, with its Hindu majority, yet with a politics that is again so markedly different from India. Four separate chapters in this volume capture this aspect of South Asia with Jonathan Spencer writing on Sri Lanka, Samia Huq on Bangladesh, Sara Shneiderman on Nepal and Sadia Saeed on Pakistan.

The set of essays in the volume is also notable for its concern to look at the concept of secularism as distinct from the process of secularisation. The concept of secularism can be understood to be located in the state, while the process of secularisation is understood to play out in the wider societal domain. In fact, the editors Humeira Iqtidar and Tanika Sarkar seem to express a certain impatience with the tendency in

South Asian scholarly and popular usages (to) often equate secularism with secularisation, and more often, make both interchangeable with state and social tolerance towards religious minorities. In other words we tend to conflate secularism, secularistion, and political and social tolerance, all into one neat package. (p 1)

What Secularisation Implies

The question of secularisation as a societal process tends to very often and rather simplistically be understood as a progressive diminishing of the role of religion to the extent of an almost complete disappearance or reduction into insignificance. The editors are quick to point out that rather than this being the case, what secularisation implies is a constant process of renegotiation between the spheres of the polity, the economy and religion, with each of these categories and especially religion emerging as distinct and discrete spheres of human activity. This renegotiation implies a qualitative shift in the understanding of religion in relationship to other spheres of human activity and does not imply a quantitative reduction in the role of religion. Such a deployment of an idea of secularisation understood as the differentiation of varied spheres of activity and their increasing autonomy, yields in Joya Chatterji’s essay “Secularization and Constitutive Moments: Insights from Partition Diplomacy in South Asia” the rather intriguing idea that in the very midst of the bloody partition of India and Pakistan, elites from both sides cooperated to create institutional measures and practices in the areas of diplomacy and border policing that created a secularising impulse.

Democratic politics, which is the further central concern of this volume, can also have varying effects on tolerance and secularisation. Among all South Asian countries, it is the largest one— India—which has had the most consistent and impressive experience. Yet one notes that it is a particular kind of democratic upsurge in recent times that seems to be undermining both tolerance and making significant reversals in terms of secularisation to the extent that it seems to have put secularism itself on notice. Sudipta Kaviraj in his essay “Languages of Secularity” notes how secular regimes in the West were established before the introduction of democratic suffrage, whereas in a country like India, secularism appears to be embattled as it is being subjected to a “democratic test”: “Ever since, this has been a question that can be reopened if Hindu nationalists get a sizable electoral presence” (p 32).

Kaviraj tries to look at the crisis of secularism in India as a result of a rising vernacular elite that occupied what he calls a kind of “ground floor” of public discourse, where the medium of discursive exchange was Hindi or any of the other vernacular languages. Above, on the first floor was a national elite that, to begin with, was conversant in English and the vernacular. However, in the years after independence, the deracination of this Nehruvian elite became complete, when they increasingly became monolingual by confining themselves to English alone. Remarkably the rising ground floor vernacular elite, especially with the opportunities afforded by globalisation, wants to become more like the English-speaking first floor national elite, despite the many resentments that may be harboured. What Kaviraj’s, neat two-tier analysis does not tell us clearly is whether the displacement of secularism happens with the ground floor elite wanting to join and beat the first floor elite in achieving the same degree of facility in English. Narendra Modi with his Other Backward Class (OBC) background and his struggle to express himself in English with the same ease and facility that he enjoys in Hindi or Gujarati, would be an instance of an insurrectionary ground floor elite breaking into the haloed premises of the first floor English-speaking elites, who rather ironically live in single storey bungalows in Lutyens’ Delhi. Narendra Modi would represent a threat to secularism itself. On the other hand ground floor elites such as Lalu Prasad Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Nitish Kumar, in that order, represent some of the most spirited defences of secularism.

The other essay in this volume that takes India as its central referent is Aishwary Kumar’s “In the Void of Faith: Sunnyata, Sovereignty, Minority.” Kumar begins by noting that B R Ambedkar, despite the liberal-constitutionalism that he is associated with, rarely takes recourse to the language of secularity or “invokes the trope of tolerance.” Instead, Kumar goes on a winding journey exploring Ambedkar’s religion that leads him to his famous conversion to Buddhism. Accompanying Kumar on this journey is a fascinating read, as with the elegance of his prose, Kumar brings up complex questions of the negation of god, the apophatic, and negative theology to talk centrally about the concept of sovereignty. Over the course of this journey, Kumar is able to successfully bring up the obsession within nation states of counting and consolidation of majorities that will forever be threatened by the insurrection of discontented minorities. It is here that one is left wondering if more frequent references to nationalism and the nation state, which are very few, could have helped tie up the many strands of argumentation that Kumar tries to weave in his essay.

Sadia Saeed’s essay “Secularization of Politics: Muslim Nationalism and Sectarian Conflict in South Asia” gives us a sense of how nationalism in general and the religious nationalism that was crafted in pre-independence India carried within its very warp and weft the tendency to discriminate against minority groups. Many have made appreciative reference to Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s 11 August 1947 speech, a few days before the country’s independence, when he seemed to be affirming a secular conception of Pakistan when he proclaimed: “You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State” (p 64). Saeed however, notes that immediately after this, in fact the first legislation passed by the Constituent Assembly had to do with the Pakistani flag in which the Muslim character of Pakistan was emphasised to the exclusion of religious minorities. Saeed reads this as one of a series of signposts on the continued path of de-secularisation that Pakistan has travelled down. This path of de-secularisation could be said to have been preceded in the early 1940s by a secular Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s silence on the question of Ahmadiyya inclusion in the Muslim League in the Punjab Province. Saeed notes that the path of de-secularisation would be consolidated with the Objectives Resolution in 1949, a kind of preamble to the Pakistani constitution that explicitly mentioned the centrality of Islam in the creation of the country and vested sovereignty in god. The movement down the path of de-secularisation was to continue with the 1973 constitution, enacted during the regime of the religiously non-observant Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, which nevertheless declared Islam as the state religion.


The Second Constitutional Amendment of 1974 was to declare the Ahmadiyya community a non-Muslim community. The story continued when in 1985 the more religious minded Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq incorporated the Objectives Resolution into the main body of the constitution. One positive roadblock down this path of de-secularisation that stands out in terms of its prominence and which Saeed does not mention is the 1954 Munir-Kayani Inquiry Committee Report that was set up to look into the 1953 anti-Ahmadiyya riots in Punjab. It remains a document that is relevant and should be read as a warning against the dangers of embarking upon the road of de-secularisation.

The early and mid-1970s seem to be decisive in the story of secularism in South Asia. In 1976, India was to incorporate the term secularism into the preamble of its Constitution. Samia Huq’s essay “Tolerance in Bangladesh: Discourses of State and Society” notes how in 1972 the constitution was to include secularism as a significant pillar. Jonathan Spencer’s essay notes how the 1972 constitution in Sri Lanka established the nation’s republican status and did away with the name Ceylon, while also according a special status to Buddhism.

Remarkably, Modi’s Hindu nationalism evokes significant opposition in neighbouring Hindu dominated Nepal. Sara Shneiderman in her essay “Materiality of Religion and Ethnicity in Nepal” notes the rise of an anti-secular Hindu nationalist movement since 2012 led by the Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal (RPP-N) which seeks the return of a Hindu state and has been enthused by the rise of Narendra Modi in India. The party’s stance on secularism and what impact this will have remains, at least for now, unknown.

While this volume remains eminently readable, there are just two limitations that this review would like to point out. Most of the essays, though by no means all of them, seem to insufficiently appreciate how the rising tides of aggressive nationalisms might upset the apple carts of secularism, tolerance and democratic politics, which of course are the central reference points of the volume. This book, like most other books on this part of the world never for even a moment stops to critically reflect on the term “South Asia” and how it has come to so comprehensively replace something like the Indian subcontinent. For instance, the Urdu term for the Indian subcontinent which is often used in Pakistan, would be بھارتی برصغیر (Bharati Barresagheer). One may conjecture that the dominance of especially American university area studies programmes has become so overbearing that the term South Asia has decisively stuck.


Updated On : 12th Jul, 2019


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