The Weakness Of Indian Secularism – OpEd


In a video that has gone viral on social media, a Muslim woman named Haseena Bano, a BA first year student of MBR College in Balotra in Barmer district of Rajasthan, is heard narrating how on November 21, 2022, a class discussion on Gautama Buddha took an Islamophobic turn. According to her, the history professor Badam Singh suddenly started talking about how Aftab Poonawala had killed Shraddha and dismembered her body into 35 pieces. In a falsely generalizing manner, he adduced this as evidence of the ruthless nature of the Muslim community. Singh asked the class of 150-200 students whether any Muslim was present in the class, after which he continued with his discriminatory remarks. He declared that Muslims earn a reward equivalent to Haj if they kill a Hindu and that they attain heaven if they kill two Hindus. Labeling Muslims as “terrorists” and “Pakistani,” Singh asked the students to stay away from the minority community. When Bano got up from her seat to protest the teacher’s overtly offensive attitude, the latter claimed that such things are mentioned in the Quran. 

The Muslim student added that the college authorities took no action and instead asked her to bury the hatchet. When she exited the college, student leader Raju Chaudhury started threatening her. In her words: “He told me go to the police station if you can, then you know what we will do to you…he ran his car on my foot and asked his peers to take me inside the college…kept me locked in for two hours…they said if you try to get out you know we are so many boys, what we will do to you…so I told them I will not tell anyone.” They kept following Bano till her home and warned her to keep her mouth shut.

This horrifying case of communal abuse and intimidation involved the entry of xenophobic religiosity into the pedagogical universe of the classroom. However, the teacher and concerned students articulated their criminal contempt for Muslims through a language of universality that considers the socio-ethical standards of Islam to be below the level of decency found in the majoritarian community. Earlier, in the Karnataka hijab row, communal forces had used a similar discourse of modernity to argue that the practice of wearing hijab amounted to Talibanization and the violation of secular uniformity. 

Highlighting the modern ideological structure of Indian neo-fascism shows the extent to which our country’s modernity has been marked by an incomplete break with past traditions. In India, secularism was regarded not as the civic equality of different denominational communities but as the religious practice of inter-religious tolerance. The cultural hegemony of religious identities was never displaced by the political equality asserted by the Indian constitution. This had many negative implications.

The idea behind toleration is to merely resist interfering in the internal affairs of other religious communities, even when one has the capacity to do so and even when one feels moral distaste for their practices. All religions base their doctrinal coherence upon the supposed distinctiveness of their theological precepts: a person follows a particular religion only insofar as he/she believes in its intrinsic superiority. This is evident in the case of conversion, in which a person tries to convince members of other religious communities of the divine preeminence of his/her own religion. In the words of Achin Vanaik, the competitive nature of deep religiosity means that it is hard to “look to a time when a Muslim can become a Hindu, or a Hindu become a Christian, in relationships of equality, with this fact ceasing to matter very much for the communities in question”. 

Since the very structure of religion contains feelings of superiority, the latent tendency to inferiorize other religious communities is engrained in the Indian construct of secularism-as-toleration. This tendency is activated whenever a communal political group gains the power to practice institutionalized discrimination against a specific community. This is currently happening in India as Hindu majoritarian entities sharpen the edges of entrenched religiosity to make it more exclusionary towards Muslims. Given that Indian secularism never diminished the competitive core of religions through a process of secularization, Hindutva ideologues are finding it easy to persuade Hindus that they are more “tolerant” than Muslims, that they need to fight against the “pseudo-secularism” of “primitive” Muslims, and that the ethos of Hinduism are better suited for helping India’s “civilizational” democracy. In opposition to this, we need to cultivate constitutional morality, which puts forward the political notions of equality – equal concern and respect for all religions. This will help secularize Indian civil society and privatize religion as an individual choice amenable to flexibility and revisability.  

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".

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