Re-Assessing Indian Secularism – OpEd


The sustained rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India has re-ignited debates on Hinduism and Hindutva. In response to neo-fascist attacks on the country’s democratic institutions, Indian liberals have taken refuge in the former, endlessly emphasizing how its tradition of tolerance differs from the bigotry of the latter. While this reaction may be well-intentioned, it is insensitive to the changing political landscape and ultimately contributes to the weakening of secularism. 

Present-day relationships between Hinduism and Hindutva need to be situated in their proper historical context. Britain’s colonization of India deeply communalized Indian society through practices such as the Census which constructed homogeneous communities from the diverse mass of locally practiced minor religions. These imperialist prejudices were internalized by the emerging domestic political class and accepted as a legitimate basis for self-representation. 

From the 19th century onwards, modernist social reformers and Hindu revivalists alike – spurred by the epistemic force of colonial knowledge – tried to craft a synthetic unity from Hinduism which, as Himani Banerji remarks, “is polytheistic, animistic, man-god ridden, sect divided and generally chaotic, unbounded by a central church, text or core myth.” Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi emerged as the most influential interpreter of Hinduism, creating a pluralistic form of Hinduism capable of accommodating different aspects of Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism. 

When S. Radhakrishnan – in 1936 – asked, “What is your religion?”, Gandhi replied: “My religion is Hinduism which, for me, is Religion of Humanity and includes the best of all the religions known to me”. While Gandhi’s moral vocabulary was profoundly respectful of existing religious faiths, it could not systematically articulate a secular vision. Firstly, the structural impact of colonialism made itself felt in the way in which he left unchallenged the entrenchment of religions as political categories. 

Instead of questioning the essentialist establishment of religion as the matrix of governance, he valorized religious traditions on account of their ideals of toleration and pluralism. However, these elements are insufficient for a robust secularism. In the words of Romila Thapar: 

“The Indian view of secularism generally speaks only of the coexistence of religions. That I find inadequate…it is not enough to say that the coexistence of all religions means a secular society unless there is also an insistence on the religions having equal status. If we associate religions with a majority community and minority communities, as we invariably do, then these distinctions assume a lack of equal status.”

Thus, Gandhi – driven by his Hindu civilizational worldview – came to view Muslims as a numerically weaker collectivity whom the state would “tolerate” and ultimately integrate into the organic family of nation. His paternalistic minoritization of Muslims was part of a wider cultural imagination which held that India’s Hindu cultural heritage possessed inherently positive values. While not openly majoritarian, this deeply engrained assumption silently rendered other religions as inferior to Hinduism’s universal qualities, evident in the frequent signification of the Muslim as an unduly religious figure, a sign of communal consciousness. 

Secondly, Gandhi’s attempted expansion of Hinduism’s horizons were partial because they were not accompanied by an over-arching economic ideology. When talking about the “the question of intellectual and moral reform, that is…the question of religion or world-view”, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci wrote: “Intellectual and moral reform has to be linked with a programme of economic reform – indeed the programme of economic reform is precisely the concrete form in which every intellectual and moral reform presents itself.” 

Without a determining discourse of radical economic change, Gandhi could not transcend narrow interests of Brahmanical elites; his efforts to make Hinduism expressive of the aspirations and interests of disparate groups did not succeed due to the fundamentally unequal nature of social life. Gramsci had captured these contradictions in his distinction between “ethical-political” and “economic-corporate” discourses. While the former is representative of the widest sections of society, the latter is tethered to overtly particular aims. 

Gandhi is situated midway between the two terms, imparting a degree of universality to Hinduism but finally faltering because “hegemony”, as Gramsci noted, “must also be economic, must necessarily be based on the decisive function exercised by the leading group in the decisive nucleus of economic activity”. These deficiencies of the Gandhian theologico-political experiment allowed Hindu revivalism to seep into the national arena, developing a fertile environment for the molecular movement of a religious commonsense. 

Indian political imaginary’s historical entwinement with religion persisted in the post-Independence years, surfacing periodically in the form of popular appeals to Hindu iconography. In “Radical Equality: Ambedkar, Gandhi, and the Risk of Democracy”, Aishwary Kumar remarks: “The enchantment with the idea of the state among the…most sophisticated proponents of Indian modernity would never be easily distinguishable from their prescriptions on religious conduct and spiritual affirmation.”

Heightened religiosity – a result of the anti-colonial movement’s precipitation of religious sentiments into a moral psychology of resistance – resulted in the re-definition of secularism as “equal respect for all religions”. While the constitutional right of coexistence among all religions served as a blueprint for an abstract national morality, the concrete ethos found in the family and in the institutions of civil society was far more rudimentary in its language, firmly attached to fuzzy but exclusivist definitions. 

In “Power and Contestation: India Since 1989”, Nivedita Menon and Aditya Nigam comment: “it can be argued that in the early decades of the twentieth century, Hindutva merely built on and systematized the prevalent common sense in literate Hindu society regarding “nationhood” and “Islam.”” As India moved from the Nehruvian social consensus to the neoliberal consensus, the Hindu symbolic world was more definitively radicalized to provide an identitarian anchorage to individuals marred by economic instabilities. 

And this progressive intensification of Hinduism’s discriminatory features has landed us into the current conjuncture of Hindutva. Taking into account the historical fact that Hinduism’s inclusive aspects never truly materialized as a well-defined principle in India’s social imagination, it is doubtful whether the scriptural invocation of the religion’s accommodative features will be effective in strengthening secularism. When religious revivalism has already gripped people’s psyches through an accretional process of diffusion, the use of a purely faith-inflected idiom – while referring to a pluralistic Hinduism – solidifies an environment of intense spirituality, which is very favorable to Hindutva. 

Therefore, Hindutva can’t be challenged on the terrain of religion alone. What is needed is a type of programmatic thinking which overcomes the shortcomings of the Gandhian project. This can be done by both according value to the democratic strands of Hinduism and incorporating these elements in a radical and systematic conception of the world whose core is pro-poor. Gramsci described this process as the critical reconstitution of the “common sense” of the masses so that it becomes “good sense.” The success of this ideological strategy depends on the willingness of Indian politicians to confront caste and class inequalities.  

Yanis Iqbal

Yanis Iqbal is an independent researcher and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at [email protected]. He has published more than 250 articles on social, political, economic, and cultural issues. He is the author of the book "Education in the Age of Neoliberal Dystopia".

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *