The Gujarat carnage of 2002 should make us openly admit what we all secretly know but cannot publicly acknowledge — that our theory and practice of containing religious and ethnic strife, mainly powered by the ideology of secularism, has not helped us much. Nothing seems to have changed — from the complicity of political parties to the partiality of the police and the administration, and from moving but effete resolutions demanding action passed by the usual suspects to sane words of advice from well known universities in India and abroad. The only thing that has changed is the level of brutality, which has now risen high enough to acquire pornographic dimensions.
Today, we seem to be back to square one. There are some remarkable similarities between the Partition massacres of 1946-48 and the Gujarat riots. This is a wrong context in which to examine the vicissitudes of the Indian experiment with secularism. But I shall do so nonetheless because it is doubtful if anything worthwhile can be built in this part of the world unless the rubble of dead categories occupying public space is cleared up first. Against this background, I revisit the domain of secularism with some trepidation.
First of all, I must nervously proclaim that I have nothing to do with the decline of Indian secularism. I have merely said that it is in decline. Strange ly, when I first said so, it was already a cliché. There was also a consensus in the whole of South Asia that secularism was not in the best of health in the region and there was much lamentation on that count. That consensus survives. It also cuts across ideological boundaries and disciplines. There is little difference on the subject between Asghar Ali Engineer and Lal Krishna Advani, T.N. Madan and Achin Vanaik or, for that matter, between the functionaries of India’s main political parties. The differences that exist and have led to bitter debates in academic circles are about the reasons and the possible responses to this decline.
Before turning to these causes and responses, please allow me a word on the angry responses to my earlier essays on secular ism.2 My writings seem to arouse more hostility when they coincide, accidentally or otherwise, with something that a large number of political analysts feel tempted to say by the insistent empirical realities of life but do not, for reasons of political correctness. Because they have to fight within themselves the conclusions they have reluctantly drawn, they feel disturbed, guilty and complicit when someone else brings them to the fore. Many criticisms of my writings, whether by worthy scions of metropolitan India or by living symbols of academic respectability elsewhere, act mainly as forms of exorcism. Sunil Khilnani is so offended by criticisms of the concept of secularism because he himself considers secularism a ‘withered concept’ and his commitment to secularism is what clinicians call counterphobic.3
The second reason for discomfort has less to do with me. Any talk of nonmodern or traditional forms of knowledge in public life arouses the fear that such knowledge might lead to large-scale displacement or uprooting in the world of knowledge, that the familiar world of knowledge might shrink, if not collapse and, in the new world that might come into being, there will be less space for the likes of us. What Sigmund Freud says about the inescapable human fantasy of immortality — our inability to visualise a world without us — applies in this instance, too. Many of us are haunted by the question: ‘What will be my place in a non-secular or nonmodern world?’ We cannot conceive of good society without our ideas and ourselves at its helm.
Now, to the causes and responses to the decline of secularism. The standard diagnosis proffered by Hindu nationalists is that secularism has failed because, as practised by their political opponents, mainly the Gandhians and the Leftists, secularism has meant the appeasement of minorities. The Hindu nationalists feel that Indian secularism, as a form of state policy, has been constantly biased against the Hindus. The kinds of reforms introduced in Hindu society, particularly after independence — say, through measures like the Hindu Code Bill — have never been attempted in the case of other religions. What the Hindu nationalists say they want is genuine secularism, as opposed to the pseudo-secularism of most other parties, but mainly of the Indian National Congress and the Leninists.
This might look like unalloyed hypocrisy, but it is also partly a political ploy designed to corner political opponents. One random evidence is that, today, only the Hindu nationalists have been left pleading for a uniform civil code. Almost all other mainstream parties oppose it. India must be the only country in the world where the ethnonationalists plead for a uniform civil code, while their opponents oppose it. But then, India is the only country where the ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, leading what some might call the world’s largest fundamental ist formation, can boast that all its founding fathers (Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Keshav Hegdewar and Balakrishna Munje) were non-believers. Only about thirty years after its establishment could the RSS find a believing Hindu to head it in Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar. Indeed, their Bible, Hindutva by Savarkar, explicitly flaunts its author’s atheism. Nor has the BJP and its main ideological allies ever rejected secularism. (Frankly, that itself should have made at least some thinkers suspicious of the concept.) The policies and actions of the Hindu nationalists may often have not been secular, but a part of their soul has always been. One example would be Nathuram Godse’s last testament in court, in which he repeatedly accuses Gandhi of flouting the canons of secular statecraft. The opponents of the Sangh Parivar, not finding any intellectually meaningful response to these anomalies, pretend as if they do not exist or paper them over with the help of trendy, imported theories of fundamentalism and religious extremism.
The other diagnosis of the failure of secularism, ventured by many liberals, finds voice in the belief that secularism would have flowered in India but for recalcitrant, nasty politicians and a biased law and order machinery. The usual solution to the problem, offered by those who venture this diagnosis — from Mushirul Hasan to Praful Bidwai — is that if these ungodly elements in the administration and policy élite can be eliminated, secularism would work perfectly well and in its pristine form.
Personally, I would love to agree with this diagnosis. But I am dirty-minded enough to suspect the premise that, after an adequate amount of exhortations from academic pulpits, South Asian politicians, police and militia will suddenly change their stripes and, like some of the characters in popular Bombay films, have a spectacular change of heart and begin to behave like obedient schoolboys. To expect politicians to jeopardise their political survival or the coercive apparatus of the state not to play footsie with politicians is like expecting academics to ignore the latest intellectual fashions and to be propelled only by the lure of de-ideologised empirical truths. Nor do I see the urban middle-class movements going very far by themselves.
Thirdly, there is a variation on the second position that claims that the Indian state and a sizeable section of its functionaries have never wholeheartedly implemented secular policies and that they have never been entirely secular. They have made compromises all the way. For instance, instead of being irreligious, they have tried to get away with equal respect for all religions. This was bound to lead to disaster sometime or the other, and we face that disaster today. Once again, I wish I could sympathise with this formulation. My belief is that states in South Asia usually muddle through a series of crises on a day-to-day basis. The kind of agency and coherence often imputed to these impersonal entities is usually a projection of our own inner needs and anthropomorphic fantasies; such feel-good attributions are a tribute to our trusting nature rather than to our political acumen. State-formation and nation-building have been criminal enterprises everywhere in the world and Rudolph J. Rummell’s data show that in the twentieth century, of the more than 200 million killed by fellow human beings in genocides and democides, roughly 169 million were killed by their own governments, whereas about 8 million were killed in religious violence.4 To trust the modern state to ensure religious tolerance is a form of innocence that the existential psychoanalyst, Rollo May, would have certainly found ‘inauthentic’.5
Finally, there are the scholars who believe that something is drastically wrong with the idea of secularism itself, particularly in societies that do not share the experiences of Europe, do not have sharp inter-religious boundaries or church-like structures, and have for centuries lived with immense religious diversities. In such societies, the concept of secularism is insufficiently grounded in culture, especially vernacular culture, making it virtually meaningless to the common run of citizens. The picture gets even more complicated in complex, multi-religious, non-western societies where the citizens enjoy democratic rights and, hence, the ability to bring their preferences — including, horror of horrors, their Oriental prejudices, stereotypes, and other scandalous irrationalities, their ill-educated selves and terribly underdeveloped political awareness — into the public sphere. In that awareness, secularism has either no place or only a superficial presence. These are societies that enjoy the luxury of electing their political leaders periodically but alas, to the chagrin of their progressive academics, not the right to elect their people.
Ashis Nandy, political psychologist and social theorist, is Senior Fellow of the
Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi