National

Superficial Ways Of Being Secular

Modernity opened up a secular sphere where religion could no longer simply remain religion. It has transformed religion for the better and worse.

The Idea of India: Protestors after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. Photo: Getty Images
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For orthodox secularists who only adhere to the positive meaning of the word ‘secular’, the January 22 event at Ayodhya is a matter of religion and a religious takeover of a secular polity. The matter is not that simple and certainly not so straightforward. American philosopher Charles Larmore argued that the transcendental aspect of God allowed the secular argument that if God must rule the other world, human beings need to take charge of this world.

The process of secularisation and rationalisation that changed Europe since the middle of the 16th century had a deep impact on our relationship with religion. In fact, since modernity, faith has never been faith in a strict or pure form. There has been a dramatic infusion of worldly matters into matters of faith. The politics of religion, called communalism in India, has also been a process where the secular and the religious have lived side-by-side, instrumentally used for political advantage.

This secular game with religion in the political sphere, one must keep in mind, is antithetical to the principle of secularism that a secular state follows as a matter of policy. A secular principle involves equal respect for all religions. India did not take the European route by banishing religion from state policy but rather looked for harmony, a necessary ethic in a multi-religious society.

The idea India adopted for constitutional secularism, as political theorist Rajeev Bhargava put it, was “principled distance”, and not drastic separation. There were disputes that involved religion, which the state had to arbitrate by upholding a principle that did not dismiss the religious nature of the dispute but by following a principle of justice that was secular—in other words, by gathering this-worldly reasons (historical fact, nature of argument) to make a judgment.

The politics of religion, called communalism in India, has also been a process where the secular and the religious have lived side-by-side, instrumentally used for political advantage.

It must also be added that disputes of a religious nature were also not strictly religious (or matters internal to religion) but were historical and political in nature. In other words, there was a distinctly secular (or this-worldly) reason behind these religious disputes and demands.

The Shankaracharya of Puri, Swami Nischalanand Saraswati Maharaj, issued a statement on January 14 that the Pran Pratishtha (consecration ceremony) at the new Ram temple in Ayodhya deviated from religious guidelines, and said, “If this event is not religious, then it is political”. The Uttarakhand Jyotish Peeth Shankaracharya agreed with Saraswati Maharaj and reiterated that the ceremony was in violation of the scriptures. Their statements suggest that something profane was taking place in the name of the sacred.

The Jyotish Peeth Shankaracharya, however, praised the prime minister on January 22 for making Hindus “self-aware” and strengthening their identity. The identity being referred to here is strictly not a religious, but a political one.

Since modernity ushered in the public use of religion, religious identity was always attached to claims and competitions that were secular in nature. These were also political claims made by Hindus and Muslims during the colonial period competing against each other to gain favours from the British.

Communalism, in this sense, was also a secular or secularised mode of solidifying a collective political identity. Jinnah’s speeches that fused the idea of Pakistan with Muslim identity, and Savarkar’s right-wing manifesto, 'Hindutva' (1923), where India and Hindu were fused together into a majoritarian idea, were rival ways of imagining and establishing communal identities. These attempts were religious and political at the same time and involved a deceptive secularisation of identity.

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Opposed to the superficial ways of utilising the secular, the secular ideal as a self-ethic, as well as a political ethic, means not imposing one’s religious power and holding prejudiced views against people of other religions. This meaning was important for Gandhi, who never failed to proclaim himself as Hindu and yet did not follow the logic of communal politics. Gandhi fought for unity and harmony between communities in the religious sphere, not always strictly adhering to what is considered religious. It was impossible for him, or anyone else, to do so.

Gandhi was often accused of Christianising Hinduism or compromising Hindu interests by his friendly overtures towards the Muslim community. It did not matter to Gandhi whether he was strictly following the dominant understanding of religion. For instance, his argument against most interpretations that it is possible to draw out a modern ethic of non-violence from the Gita (where Krishna exhorts Arjuna for a just war by controlling his senses and ignoring kinship affections). Gandhi was trying to establish dharma, or an ethic of political and social life, based on various sources that also included non-Hindu ones (Tolstoy, Ruskin, Sermon on the Mount, among others).

Modernity opened up a secular sphere where religion could no longer simply remain religion. It has transformed religion for the better and worse.

Faisal Devji made the argument in his book Muslim Zion (2013) that the founders of Pakistan took the Zionist example to formulate a demand for a nation. They refused to understand Muslims as a minority, but rather as an identity abstracted from geography and history and demanded a homeland out of it.

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A similar adherence to the Zionist principle has also been located in the Hindutva argument that a land solely belongs to the people who can make historical claims in the name of origins rooted in mythology. It is interesting that seemingly rival ideas of ethnocentrism, if understood purely on religious grounds, are actually ideas grounded in a secular sense of identity where religion plays second-fiddle to politics. This is possible because the idea of the nation has taken over from religion as the unifying force of solidifying identity in a world fractured by modernity.

The ideology of nationalism thrives on achieving political power where the nature of the argument can be based on reason as well as unreason. It doesn’t matter. The use of reason and the death of reason—just as the use of the secular, and death of the secular—are both dangerous sources of a will to power.

All religious communities have prejudices against others (including those who are othered within). They play the game of inclusion/exclusion in various ways, depending on the mode of hierarchical power. This mode is transferred, or replicated, in the politics of nationalism. The minority is the other par excellence. What the secularised politics of religion in nationalist politics across the world has done is recast prejudice into theories of exclusion, (possible) disenfranchisement, and even elimination. The play of the secular and the religious has not allowed people to be strictly either, or escape the deceptions of both.

(Views expressed are personal)

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Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is the author of 'Nehru and the Spirit of India'. He is currently working on a book on Gandhi.

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