India’s encounters with secular v/s anti-secular rhetoric


Ideological adherence to Hindutva premised on Brahmanical dominance is the rule of law that has seemingly been the prelude to an officially ethnic state or de jure Hindu state. In such a nation, Bahujan bodies are being dominated on a daily basis where nationalism has always been a construction of the mainstream that identifies itself as the essential core of the nation. In other words, it is the mainstream which defines the ‘soul’, ‘natural’ or ‘integral’ part of the land.

Often, on the question of citizenship, the idea of citizens v/s people is deployed. Further elaborating, Dipankar Gupta writes: “The tension is between citizens and people. Under nationalism, being “a people” means more than an aggregation of citizens. In a liberal democracy, however, it is not the people but citizens that take precedence.” As any decolonized nation-state, India too had to choose either the memories of blood and soil or the national identity based on citizenship. Although the latter was chosen, the postcolonial experience of roughly seven decades shows the majoritarian mobilization against the citizens by the people whose exclusive right over the holy land is asserted right from the birth of nationalism in the subcontinent. Whatever the liberal promises that had been made to the citizens appeared to have become invisible or made to disappear from the public conscience. 

India as a nation-state ought to be seen through the paradoxes of gross poverty existing together with democracy, of diversity with the liberal constitution, and anarchy with polity. From this premise, the argument over secularism also appears to have some food for thought. 

Nehruvian secularism, along with its shortcomings, determined the postcolonial reality to an extent. Though secular, it is under his leadership the Hindu Code Bill was enacted which expanded the legal notion of being a Hindu. Anyone who doesn’t belong to Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Zoroastrianism, is deemed to have been included in the definition of Hindu. Similarly, the Presidential Order of 1950 continues to hold that “no person who professes a religion different from the Hindu [the Sikh or the Buddhist] religion shall be deemed to be a member of a Scheduled Caste.” Hence, it would be a dramatic misreading that the Nehruvian secularism has had a rupture with the traditional society in which religious affiliation is the primary manifestation of social identity. 

There have been attempts to carve out an anti-secular manifesto to counter the shortcomings of Nehruvian secularism. Gurharpal Singh observes: “While many things divide the anti-secularists, they share two common characteristics: most are neo Gandhians; secondly, and far more importantly they occupy leading positions in the charmed circles of postcolonial theory.” 

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During the 1980s, the Hindutva organizations had gained the upper hand among the middle classes across Hindu society. Public Intellectuals, at the time, argued for an alternative method to combat the rise of Hindutva in the polity by adopting an approach of religious tolerance deriving mainly from India’s indigenous syncretic tradition. Ashish Nandy, who then was a leading advocate of the same, called for serious consideration as to how diversity could be politically managed. 

Singh further argued that some had even taken the task to reproduce the orientalist construction of Hinduism, its inclusivist interpretations, and tolerance from Nandy’s thought. As Peter van der Veer noted in his book Religious Nationalism: Hindus and Muslims in Indiatolerance is an inadequate term to define Hindu inclusivism which essentially is a form of hierarchical relativism. 

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“An important underlying concept here is that of hierarchy. The many gods and paths” he writes “are manifestations of the One who is formless, but some of these manifestations are higher than others (p, 68).” Precisely, the idea behind reclaiming the syncretic tradition is that of accommodating the “inferior beings”.

The question that needs to be repeatedly asked is, in fact about the compliance and conformity within the thoughts of secular liberals as well as its syncretic critics. Interestingly but not surprisingly, both sides are being occupied by Savarnas who mistakenly believe that they have been making a seriously radical proposition foreseeing fundamental changes in the polity.

Even if Bahujans are being accommodated under either of these Savarna categories, the inherently hierarchical social order supersedes at any cost. Like the Gandhian search for inter-religious truth lacked appeal amongst Muslims and lower castes during the colonial period, neo-Gandhians” religious tolerance’ has hardly been compassionate.

Apart from the conventional notions of democracy and secularism, a serious problematization of the same is indeed necessary. At least for the Bahujans, who vaguely constitute the lion’s share of the population across religious communities, it is a struggle to reclaim the public space with slogans that matter to them, to demand equitable distribution of state resources, to become economically self-reliant, and also to live, of course, with dignity.

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