Secularism in India

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The Problem of Secularism in India
Secularism is one of the most contested ideologies in most parts of the world. As T.N. Madan (1997) states, we may not hear of wholly secularised societies, even in the West, which is responsible for introducing the ideology to the rest of the world. In the Indian context, no other ideology may have generated more attention, debate and controversy since the country’s independence. Yet, despite the vast and varied literature and public discourse, the ideal of secularism remains elusive. Another reason for this ambivalence could be as H. Srikanth states “Like liberal Hindu gods who can take different forms and give a chance to devotees to worship in any form they like, in India the concept of secularism has acquired so many interpretations and it now means different things to different groups of people” (Srikanth (1994) cited in Roover 2002). The term has assumed a negative connotation and is deemed as insult to be called “secular” in many quarters today. Many observers argue that what we have in India is pseudo secularism. This paper will examine reasons for failure of secularism as an ideology in India.

Let us begin with some commonly cited arguments against secularism. T.N. Madan (1997, p. 176) makes many persuasive arguments against imposing secularism on the Indian society. Firstly, Indian society has been predominantly Hindu. According to him, this presents the first dilemma in the discussion. Historically, it has been difficult to define Hinduism as a religion. Hinduism’s lack of a single deity, a unifying religious text, and any central beliefs or practices makes it more a ‘way of life’ than an organised religion. It draws from and influences Buddhism, Sikhism as well as Jainism. On the other hand, secularism has its roots in Christianity and is an outcome of 18th century Enlightenment. The ideal demands a separation of political and religious practices in the public domain. This poses many problems in a society like India where religious practices are so steeped in the public consciousness that they are now a part of the cultural ethos and mundane life.

Expounding further on this theory, he draws important references from classical Indian philosophical texts like the Vedas, Mahabharat, Dharamshastras and Arthshastra showing that religion (dharma and moksha) and politics (dharma and arth) have always been interlinked in Indian thought. Referring to works of well-known Indologists like Louis Dumont, Jan Gonda and Jan Heesterman (ibid, p.182) Madan explains that in Vedic societies, Kings (governors of society) were guided by Brahmans (religious heads) to discharge their duties in keeping with the moral codes of the philosophical texts. Thus, political action acquired its legitimacy through religious tenets. While a Brahman could enjoy individual power and status in society, a Kshatra / King was always dependent on transcendental (Brahmanical) assistance to validate his power. Therefore, hierarchically, religion preceded politics and both were continuous. Thus, the separation of religion (sacred) and state (secular) is a nonstarter in the Indian context. Madan solidifies his stance by quoting the distinguished Bankim Chandra Chatterjee who put it rather eloquently “You can translate a word by a word, but behind the word is an idea, the thing which the word denotes, and this idea you cannot translate, if it does not exist among the people in whose language you are translating” [(Chatterjee (1986, p.61) cited in Madan 1997, p.198).

Ashis Nandy (1997) on the other hand launches a tirade against modernity and posits that secularism is an instrument used by modern ruling elites to control traditional masses. The early left intellectuals and social reformers wanted to impose the monotheistic ideals on India and rather underestimated the power of inter-religious tolerance that had prevailed and sustained the country for centuries. These colonised reformers were apologetic of...
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