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Ashis Nandy

Acrylic on cloth by SUSANTA MANDAL

In the storms in teacups that often strike mainstream academe, the last group of scholars are accused of supporting the most retrograde elements in society, though it is quite likely that many in the group do not like their own prognosis. In India, two critics of secularism, Triloki Nath Madan and Partha Chatterjee, have by no means jettisoned the idea of secularism. Claims that they have done so are stupid, if not dishonest and motivated.6 Knowing them, they might even be happy if their prognosis is proved wrong. Their main crime is that their diagnosis of the future of secularism in Indian public life can be said to be bleak. In the case of Chatterjee, even that is not the whole story. He merely argues that secularism in its present form is politically unviable. They are like doctors who, after pathological tests and a clinical examination, feel called upon to inform the patient’s relatives that the patient’s days might be numbered. However, it is customary in the rat race called the global academic culture to shoot doctors who pronounce a patient a terminal case. Madan and Chatterjee are being accused not only of being bad doctors, but also of trying to kill their patient.

My case is different. I have given a pathologist’s report and declared the patient incurable. I have also said that the patient has had a reasonably good life and has done some good to society, but now happens to be senile and infirm and suffering from diseases that are fatal. I may not have pleaded for euthanasia but I have said that it is time to give up on the patient and look towards a new generation of concepts. And I have said all this with a touch of glee, without obediently shedding tears for secularism. Being part of a small religious minority in India, I have always grudged the patronising, arrogant Brahminism that has tinged South Asia’s academic secularism. And the grudge shows. My critics have reasons to be bitter that I do not want to save my skin under their expert guidance, by declaring my allegiance to the shastras and rituals that knowledgeable guides have borrowed for my benefit from Europe’s past, or by being a docile, housebroken member of a minority with certifiably correct ideas who deserves the protection of the Indian state.

Fortunately, irrespective of my personal predilections, secularism in India is unlikely to flourish, at least in the near future. It might have staged an academic comeback in the Indian haute bourgeoisie, as a form of rebrahminisation and as resistance to the growing violence, but that has little to do with its political career. The only way it can stage a comeback is by ensuring the dominance of the urban middle classes in Indian politics. This is an empirical, not normative judgement. Here my critics have got it wrong. It is not the incompatibility of secularism with Indian culture — which exists, no doubt — but the political unsustainability of secularism that has prompted me to look for alternatives. There are many alien practices with which Indians have learnt to live. Many have learnt to say ‘thank you’; others use toilet tissues or play cricket. In the case of secularism they do not feel obliged to learn. Mukul Kesavan recognises this but cannot admit it. To protect his familiar world, he stretches the meaning of secularism to include in it all forms of noncommunal attitudes. Like the medieval geographer who concluded that the best map of a country had to be as large as the country.7

The alternatives to secularism I have explored might not be as good as secularism. Achin Vanaik, the Sikh Samurai never at a loss for words, has spent pages to argue at ridiculous length that the alternatives I have advanced are inferior or inadequate.8 He has wasted his breath. I am perfectly willing to accept that. Not only because I believe that those staying in the tropics deserve only the second-rate but also because, living in a democracy, we unfortunately have no option. For there has arisen a contra diction between democracy and secularism. Fortunately, as I have shown elsewhere, the inferior, inadequate concepts are the ones that have protected religious minorities in India.9 Imperfectly I am sure, because they also include principles of exclusion. But the fact remains that these inferior concepts are more accessible to the public; they are a part of their moral frame and social existence. Among these are old-fashioned neighbourliness or principles of neighbourliness, the principles of hospitality encrypted in the various religious traditions, and the persistence of community ties.10

My fondness for these ideas has not come merely from personal research, but also from about three decades of exposure to empirical data, most of which were produced by avowed secularists. It is not my fault that these secularists fear their own data and experiences. Nor are my formulations disjunctive with the available data. For instance, research on the non-Jewish Germans who rescued Jews in Nazi Germany shows that the qualities that distinguished the rescuers from the passive witnesses and the complicit, were strong religious beliefs, family ties and community ties — none of the three in short supply in South Asia, however archaic and unfashionable they might seem to us.11

Many lotus eaters believe all this to be unnecessary. They insist that we affirm, even more aggressively, the ideology of secularism from our salons in metropolitan India, class-rooms and academic seminars, and through middle-class, urban movements. They expect their shrillness and stridency to clinch the issue. Strangely, even in these instances, to give teeth to their ideology, ideologues of secularism routinely fall back on Sufi and Bhakti poetry, medieval saints like Kabir, Lalan and the Baul singers of Bengal, and names from history like Ashoka, Akbar, Dara Shikoh, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Narayan Guru, none of whom drew their principles or values from the ideology of secularism.

There are three interrelated reasons for this strange contradiction — why, to propagate secularism, the secular Indians have to constantly invoke the non-secular. First, the older icons of secularism like Jawaharlal Nehru have begun to rust and no longer wield their old charisma; therefore many have been forced to search for new heroes who would make some sense to ordinary citizens. Second, secularism has become the last refuge of the intellectually lazy, of those who refuse to confront the logic of their own political and cultural choices. They are afraid to ask why they have been forced to return to the past and to persons who consistently and openly used religion in public life. Finally, secularism by itself has proved to be sterile as a source of social creativity, at least in India. (The last reason is important. It explains why the secularists avoid like plague each other’s writings when approaching or appealing to the common citizens and why such writings end up becoming the stuff of freestyle wrestling in academic stage shows.) I have reluctantly concluded that if the secularists themselves cannot produce a single secularist to exemplify the application of secularism in real life and have to depend on non-secular heroes who have never heard of secularism, I must take seriously these icons of secularism and decipher the analytic frames they used and then build on them. By doing so, I believe that I have taken the secularists more seriously than they have themselves.

In sum, here too I have done what I have always tried to do — build upon what creative, successful resistance against communal violence has done and said over the centuries, rather than on the ideological baggage their secular admirers have imposed on them. I am perfectly willing to revise my ideas in the matter and re-embrace secularism, but only when someone shows me that this baggage can do better in the hot and dusty plains of India than the ‘inferior’ ideas of those who have successfully fought sectarianism in the past. By retrospectively and glibly calling all these forms of resistance to communalism secular we have not only shown contempt towards their theoretical apparatus — and towards their theology of tolerance — we have also tried to distance these social activists and thinkers from ordinary Indians and have brought them close to our world— in order to make them acceptable and respectable in our circles.

If we had not done so, we would have noticed that the resources these persons mobilised to become symbols of tolerance are still available to large sections of South Asians. The high culture of democracy in modern, metropolitan India today has as its substratum a deep fear of the people and a vague, free-floating anxiety that much of the citizenry might not need vanguards, experts in multiculturalism, or ideologically-driven, politically correct, Orwellian thought police. But that obviously is an unpopular stance; it smacks of class-betrayal. How can there be a healthy, humane Indian polity where the concepts and categories that characterise the mainstream, global, middle-class culture become superfluous or secondary? Where shall we and our respectable friends in respectable universities then be?

Hence, the other prescription the spin doctors of secularism infrequently talk of but frequently end up recommending — greater use of the coercive apparatus of the state to ram the ideology of secularism down the throat of the Indian citizenry and to promote an even more systematic use of the ideology as a principle of exclusion.12 Naturally, they have to insist that any theory trans parent to a majority of Indians and not fully transparent to us has to be rejected as a return to medieval times. If for that reason we have to declare secularism as the one human concept that is outside time and space, outside history and geography, we shall of course have to do so.

p. 1 p. 2 Notes

Ashis Nandy, political psychologist and social theorist, is Senior Fellow of the
Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi