Out Of Sync: Why Secularism Is A Colossal Failure In India

Secularism in its present form is the result of a collective historical failure, completely at variance with public ethos which is not secular

In High Esteem: Muslim women holding a framed photograph of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar during anti-CAA protes

Secularism was one of the most elaborately debated issues by the framers of the Indian Constitution. They were concerned about the impact of Partition and the possible ways of protecting the fundamental rights of religious minorities. The meanings of secularism oscillated between procedural justice to religious minorities to ‘principled distance’ between religion and politics. Secularism was burdened by the imperatives of protecting religious and cultural identities, on the one hand, and carrying out necessary ‘social reform’, on the other. Secularism was a double-edged sword that attempted to strike a balance between the majority and the minority and between tradition and modernity.

There has been a substantial reflection in Indian public debates on what secularism ought to mean but very little focus on the workings of secularism, of what it is and what it has come to be. Often, theory is normative but the workings of concepts in the empirical world are fairly messy and complex. Secularism was no exception to this norm. The way secularism was conceived had eventually very little to do with how it actually turned out to be in the way it was practised by political parties, social activists and religious minorities.

We need to revisit the workings of secularism and why it left most social groups with a deep sense of being short-changed? Why secularism managed to socially ghettoise caste, class and religious groups without a sense of ‘emotional and psychological identification’ between them? It succeeded neither in protecting the basic rights of the religious minorities nor in carrying out ‘social reforms’ meant to empower the vulnerable. What secularism aided was an unholy nexus between the overreach of a modern state and conservative traditionalism. It strangely produced anxieties within and between communities without any palpable and actual social/cultural change. It produced demands for hyper-recognition by both Hindus and Muslims without redistributive benefits. It is the cumulative result of a collective historical failure that has congealed into a majoritarian impasse.

To begin with, secularism created a wedge between an idea of institutional justice and a potentially inclusive policy framework and a near-complete absence of secular open-minded ethos in society. Secularism promoted politics without a philosophy and a strategy without politics. The state wished for a sense of neutrality and universality, while allowing for growing sectarian tendencies in society. Secularism in essence is about nurturing an ability to trust the strangers who do not share one`s immediate identity. It was supposed to build trust between Hindus and Muslims, between the caste Hindus and the ‘outcastes’ and between genders and linguistic groups, among others. The state was a conduit to actualise a project that needed to be realised in everyday social ethics.

However, Indian state, politics, political parties and policy never ever made any serious attempt to bring disparaging groups together. They never experimented on how to build dense social relations between communities. Secularism became an empty and top-down discourse of the state. It became a constitutional norm without resonating with what it would look like in everyday social life. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar had warned us that fraternity cannot be a constitutional norm; it needs to be nurtured in and through everyday ethics. Even today, we do not know what everyday secularism would look like, what we have is secularism as a legal–constitutional and statist discourse. The dislike and distrust of the state and politics is what gets reflected in the abject distaste for the discourse of secularism. When public protests such as Shaheen Bagh vouch for the Constitution and read out the Preamble, it reproduces the endemic gap between legality and culture and remains limited in its appeal. We need to build secularism which is connected to the ‘culture structures’, including myths, mythologies, memory and popular imagination.

Anti-caste politics in many unstated ways entered into conflict with secular discourse in their fight against entitled caste privileges.

Secularism became shorthand for ‘progressive’ caste Hindus not to discuss caste. Secularism blocked caste. Secula­rism lent caste elites the privilege of being progressive without addressing the question of caste. Anti-caste politics in many unstated ways entered into conflict with secular discourse in their fight against entitled caste privileges. As secularism became a proxy discourse to protect caste-based interests, it never managed to produce the social ethics of mutuality and cooperation. Secularism came to represent elite privileges, patronage and generosity. Bahujanism emerged in response, but it only reproduced sectarian mobilisation. Neither did it provide us a vision for better relations between religious communities nor did it forge fraternity between the OBCs and the Dalits. The ‘fight’ against secularism, often referred to as pseudo-secularism, has got inextricably entangled with anti-elitist mobilisation. Anti-secular mobilisation has also become the default template for mobilising the Dalit–Bahujans. The fight, figuratively, is between the secular Brahmin and the rightist Bahujan. In a recent Pew Research survey, while 65 per cent of respondents, both Hindus and Muslims, agreed that religious violence is a problem, less than 20 per cent of them see caste-based discrimination being widespread in India.

Today, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is breaking the glass ceiling by raising the demands of Pasmanda Muslims. Something similar happened with the gender question. Secularism under the Congress party came to be an alibi to deny justice to Shah Bano, under the BJP it is the denial of justice to Bilkis Bano.

The tragedy of secularism in India is the journey from Shah Bano to Bilkis Bano. Secularism has to find a way of becoming a discourse against caste and gender discrimination within religious identities, as much as recasting the relation between religious communities. It has to manage to do this simultaneously in a manner that can mutually reinforce both processes. Again, Ambedkar set an early example by being a ‘moral exemplar’ when he resigned on the issue of the Hindu Code Bill. He read gender discrimination in its connectedness with caste and religion. Ignoring Dr. Ambedkar, his writings and his warnings was the beginning of the crisis of secularism that fell through the cracks of democratic mobilisation and represen­tative politics. Finally, in today’s ‘New India’, after neoliberal reforms, we need a more expansive, and not a shrivelled, idea of secularism. Three decades of neoliberal reforms have damaged the very foundations of civility and shared ethos. There is not only a growing religiosity in politics but also a growing marketisation of religion. Secularism ought to be a way of recognising our shared interdependence and for this we need to move beyond the skewed idea that secularism is the sole concern of the religious minorities. Secularism is as much necessary for Hindus as it is for other religious communities. There cannot be an exclusively minority-centric secularism. The majority community needs a sense of sharing and mutuality to feel secure. Most upmarket colonies have banished Muslims from renting houses and ostracised them to the peripheries, but this ethic of discrimination has an afterlife in the abysmal relations between neighbours in these colonies. India`s caste Hindu middle class, true for other regions but certainly for the North, lives in a state of perpetual isolation and paranoia. The faceless urbanisation has made things only worse.

Secular ethos needs to be mobilised, as against its earlier emphasis on the national and global spatiality, at the level of forging the imagination of a common neighbourhood. We need a deeper sense of mohalla in the North, vada in the South and para in the East. This could be enabled by a robust state policy of encouraging a common neighbourhood schooling system that is inclusive and offers quality education as a public good.

Secularism as we practised it for over a half century has expired and dragging it beyond its shelf-life could further damage the health of the nation. From conceptual heights and textual towers, we need a fresh imagination of secularism on the streets. The philosophy of secularism will have a long life when it finds resonance with everyday ethics and emotions.


(This appeared in the print edition as "OUT OF Sync")

(Views expressed are personal)

Ajay Gudavarthy is Associate Professor, JNU. His forthcoming book is: Politics, Ethics and Emotions in ‘New India’