Religion, Modernity and Politics – Some Reflections on ‘Secularism’
I am grateful to Ravi Sinha for his post responding to the question of religion and politics that arises out of the brief exchange between Subhash Gatade and myself on Subhash’s post some time ago. Much has happened since the first draft of this response was written and with the advent of Narendra Modi as prime minister, ‘secularism’ too is back in public debate with renewed vigour.
Meanwhile, with Shiv Visvanathan entering the debate, flogging the long dead secularist horse, sections of the liberal and left intelligentsia seem to have gone into a tizzy. Shiv’s argument merely restates in 2014 what political analysts like Ashis Nandy had been saying at least since the mid-1980s and it does so without its nuance. The long and short of this argument is that secularism is the creed of a deracinated English-speaking, West-oriented elite which cares little about the beliefs and ways of thinking and being of the majority of their compatriots. (See also Visvanathan’s piece in Economic and Political Weekly, May 31, 2014, on ‘Narendra Modi’s Symbolic War’)
Somewhere between the two poles of the fast-dwindling tribe of the Leftist gung-ho secularist and the breast-beating liberal, the possibility of a serious debate dies a quiet death. The 1980s-1990s debate on secularism had raised all the important questions about secularism and its problematic practice that Shiv Visvanathan’s piece raises but which, it seems bypassed a whole generation of Leftists who either still seem to find it scandalous to relate to religion or are suddenly discovering their alienation or worse, the virtues of religiosity. Needless to say, such a rediscovery, in the face of political adversity is not likely to be anything more than instrumental use of religion.
The issues in 2014 invite us to revisit and indeed, go beyond what the earlier debate allowed for.
In what follows, I wish to respond to some of the issues that emerge in the debate, taking for the sake of convenience, Ravi’s response as representative of the first position (those who find any suggestion of taking religion seriously, scandalous). I will however not respond each proposition separately.
The Secularism Debate
There are two major difficulties one confronts in responding to Ravi Sinha’s article. The first, that it purports to avoid all reference to the actual history of secularism or the long debate around it in India itself (for about three decades now). The cavalier fashion in which he dismisses that entire body of thinking since the early days of the Ayodhya movement, seems to be certainly symptomatic of the dominant Leftist/ Marxist tendency to stay within its comfort zone and avoid all ideas that can make it uncomfortable. Here is what he has to say by way of dismissing it:
Many of the axioms of such a debate – e.g. church-state separation was specific to the west and even there it hasn’t worked; religion can never be separated from politics; such a separation, if it were to happen, would exclude the believers from the polity; in a multi-religious society only the maxim of “Sarva Dharma Samabhav” can be the desirable policy of the state; etc – do not appear obvious or acceptable to me. [Emphasis added]
His rendering of each one of these propositions (which for some reasons he chooses to call ‘axioms’), constitutes a misrepresentation, based largely on hearsay. The question of whether these propositions are acceptable or not, is a matter that has to be argued. They cannot simply be dismissed by saying that they “do not seem obvious” – which they certainly are not. And the reason why they are not obvious is because these propositions emerge from a re-examination of the received history of the secular ideal itself. Ravi, by refusing to enter into a debate on the critical issues involved here, prefers to stay with the supposed ‘obviousness’ of received history, or what Althusser had more damningly called the ‘obviousness of the given’, of so-called ‘common sense’.
The second difficulty in responding to him has to do with his refusal to engage with the actual practice of the Left movement in this country itself. One would imagine that if one refuses to engage in any debate with those who are derisively called ‘academics’ or ‘intellectuals’, then at the very least, a Leftist should be able to discuss how, in the actual history of the Left movement in this country, this issue has played itself out and why the Left has been unable to find an adequate response to the religion question. When I say ‘adequate response’, I mean evolving an approach that is able to deal with a key question that should be part of any serious Left agenda – that of social and cultural transformation. A position that affords one the comfort of purity but takes the Left away from the very ‘people’ or the ‘working class’ in whose name it exists (to the extent that it does), puts the activist in pretty much the same position as the much-berated ‘intellectual’. To my mind, we can proceed with the debate only if we take the theoretical/ academic debates and the practical empirical ground of Left politics as our point of reference. Without that the debate is bound to be reduced to a mere assertion of positions, which is anything but productive.
Let us start with what Ravi refers to as the second ‘axiom’ (of the protagonists in the academic debate) in the first quote above, namely, that “religion can never be separated from politics; such a separation, if it were to happen, would exclude the believers from the polity”. This, strictly speaking, was not the position of any of the protagonists in the first debate (1980s and 1990s), except TN Madan who ascribed this feature to the roots of secularism in Protestant Christianity and therefore thought the experience could not be replicated in other cultures. There is something to be said in favour of this position as well but the key issues that had a more immediate political relevance were different. Most others, especially critics like Ashis Nandy underlined the role of the modern nation-state in forcing the more inchoate, everyday lived religions to speak in one voice that could be recognized by the state. Theirs was not a critique about separation. It was about how, to use Nandy’s own words, ‘religion-as-faith’ (lived, everyday religion) was forced to give way by the modern nation-state to ‘religion-as-ideology’. In Nandy’s rendering, this ‘religion-as-ideology’ was already a secular formation, already reconstituted by the ideology of the modern state. It was this version of transformed Hinduism that Hindutva represented. To him, the resources of toleration were to be found in the inchoate forms of lived religion and religion-as-ideology merely mirrored the logic of the state and the violence of homogenization inherent in it.
This is a far cry from Visvanathan’s panegyric to Modi. Nandy will always make a distinction between the political machine that makes a Narendra Modi and the ordinary Hindu voter who might vote for him. In Nandy’s rendering, Modi and his ilk are not really believers – in stark opposition to Visvanathan’s claim that
Modi was soaking himself in civilisation. Varanasi was the oldest living city on the planet. It was a cosmos of its own, precious to Hinduism. Modi was not merely touching a cosmic pulse, he was creating a vibrant Hinduism as metaphor. (EPW, May 31 2014)
It does not matter in this panegyric that two of the Shankaracharyas and many other lesser priests actually came out openly in opposition to Modi, in the name of Hinduism. Visvanathan’s reduction of the Modi phenomenon to Hindu religiosity is seriously problematic – and ironically, mirrors the position of Leftist/ secularist he criticizes. However, the crucial point that needs to be made here – something that Nandy would always be careful to do – is that not everyone who votes for the BJP votes for ‘Hinduism’, however you want to understand it. In the first place, when more than 66 percent voters have voted against BJP/Modi, there is no ground to claim that the majority of Hindus have voted for it and spin a yarn of the kind that Visvanathan does. Usually, as CSDS surveys have routinely demonstrated, only a small fraction of BJP voters vote for it on grounds of religion. That was true even at the height of the Ayodhya movement when the appeal was explicitly grounded on Hindu identity and Hindu civilizational hurt. This time round, Hindu-identity was making a disguised appearance throughout the campaign. So, essentially, we need to get this false argument out of the way. Yes, a certain polarization was inevitable with Modi tipped to be the prime minister – and this polarization is anything but ‘religious’. It concerns the rights of minorities in our polity and not how they pray or what religious rites they observe.
I have argued elsewhere that the BJP/ Hindutva claim that the minorities should live without special privileges, as ordinary citizens under the same laws, is actually premised on the idea of formal equality. It is based on the rejection of anything like community rights or cultural rights, the individual citizen being the sole bearer or rights. This argument has great seduction for the modern mind. Yes, this logic preserves the dominant position of the Hindu majority but once again, as scholars like Sudipta Kaviraj or Nandy would argue, the pursuit of a majority is the concern of a modern enumerated community, whose quasi-state elite is out in search of power. This is another point at which Visvanathan cedes ground to some vague notion of religiosity. For the real point is this: strictly speaking the Hindutva argument of formal equality is a secular argument. Secularism as an ideal is incompatible with community and religious or cultural rights. To want to have secularism and community rights together is like eating your cake and wanting to have it too.
The point about formal equality should be understood clearly. It is in the nature of modern universalisms that the dominant culture ‘norms’ the code of Law. That is why the Christian Sabbath can be universalized and Sunday can become the universal day of rest, even in the most secular of states like France. It matters little that the Jewish Sabbath is Saturday or its Muslim equivalent on Friday. Once a formally secular law is in place, it is easy to demand that all individual citizens should submit to it equally, without regard to religion, caste, gender etc. This is the ideal that Hindutva strives towards – of a law that is framed according to the norms of the dominant culture which is presented as the repository of tolerance and progress. But what it does for the secularist is to throw her into a situation where she is reduced to demanding cultural rights of religious communities – the right, in other words, to be different. Gurpreet Mahajan has recently pointed out, correctly, that this insistence on community rights is more a part of the multiculturalist imperative rather than a secularist one. For, the multiculturalist position emphasizes what we could call substantive equality, that is, the need to offset historical disadvantage with some kind of special provisions in law. It is precisely for this reason that in the course of the debate in the mid-1990s, Partha Chatterjee, in his intervention ‘Secularism and Toleration’ had similarly argued that it is well-nigh impossible to meet the challenge of the Hindu Right on the secularism turf.
This is perhaps where my disagreement with Ravi will also become clear. We will come to the more complicated question of ‘separation’ in a moment but for now, it should be clear that the battle really lies elsewhere, not in the domain that he imagines it to be. The real battle is in the sphere of modern politics and how the question of community rights is dealt with. The culture war between communities is not – at least not in the arena of public discourse in India – between modes and forms of religious piety and worship.
This is also where I want to pose my larger question to Ravi Sinha and the Left, more generally. If the battle for democratizing the community is already being fought within the community (as the case of believing Hindus arrayed against Hindutva shows), where does the Left position itself vis-a-vis this internal struggle (and the same argument can be made equally for the Muslims)? This battle is fought on an altogether different logic and does not need the Left’s endorsement. The problem is for the Left to think through. Does it, in the long run, want all Hindus to be captive to the Hindu Right? If not, and given the fact that no Leftist worth his or her salt has any dialogue, or even the credibility for conducting a dialogue with the believers, what should its stance be? So, if someone like Arvind Kejriwal, as a believer takes a dip in the Ganga before taking on Narendra Modi, should that be the butt of Leftist ridicule?
I am not arguing that this is the only strategy or that Leftists should start becoming religious. My point, rather, is that Leftists are irrelevant as far as the two major internal challenges to Hindutva are concerned: one, the challenge from Dalit (and to some extent OBC politics) which rejects the Hinduism peddled by Modi-soaking-in-civilization; and two, the challenge from the believers within, say, broadly upper caste Hindus. Let us not forget that even in this election of the so-called ‘Modi Tsunami’ the combined vote of the BSP and SP, in 34 of the 71 seats in UP where BJP won, was larger than that of the BJP – the combined voting percentage of the two ranging from 44 percent to almost 57 and 58 percent in many seats. The form of the two challenges is different. While the former (dalit and OBC) is politically organized and has a formidable electoral presence, the latter is more inchoate but no less powerful for that. This second challenge is where a proto-Gandhian approach of the kind espoused by Arvind Kejriwal can be effective in finding channels for the political expression of that kind of challenge to the Hindu Right.
There is an additional question that is of relevance for the Left. For all its rhetoric of mass politics, there has been little engagement with the high degree of religiosity in all popular mass movements – in India as well as in other parts of the world. The Left has only celebrated the great peasant and adivasi uprisings of the past – from the Kol and Santhal uprisings and the Wahabi and Faraizi movements of the 19th century to the Mappila revolt and the 20th century movements led by Baba Ram Chandra and Swami Sahajanand Saraswati – as instances of the rebellious traditions of the Indian peasantry, virtually passing over the powerful, indeed framing, presence of religiosity in them, in embarrassed silence. The point is that the Left has not come to terms with its own history or the history to which it instrumentally lays claim.
The Question of Separation
For Ravi Sinha, the question of separation is quite ‘obvious’ – for he only seems to accept what is obvious as valid. As he puts it, it is a hallmark of “differentiated societies” [i.e. modern] that religion comes to occupy a negligible place – if at all – in the political domain, and becomes confined to what he calls the ‘lifeworld’. This kind of ‘obviousness’ is misleading for it is based on a virtual ignorance of societies across the world how they define the relationship of political power with religion.
Now, between the writings of Jose Casanova and Charles Taylor, the idea of separation even in the West itself has become so textured that the ‘Church-State relationship’ no longer lends itself to such easy rendering as Ravi believes it to be. In the writings of Taylor and Casanova we see a re-examination of the history and theory of ‘secularity’ in the modern West, from where our own idea was drawn. It is something that we would, therefore, do well to examine at some length if we are serious about our politics.
The idea of ‘separation’ is problematic, not because it is impossible; it is problematic because it draws from a very specific history but masquerades as universal history. Its operation therefore produces the effect of a distorting mirror. It makes us see ourselves in a mirror that seems to look like us – but not quite. And the question of the relation between religion and politics can be posed in this way (as separation) only from within that history.
For the question of separation made sense only within the universe of ‘Latin Christendom’ where there was a complete fusion of ecclesiastical and temporal power. In large parts of the world, even those ancient societies like Kautilya’s India, this was hardly the case. Kautilya’s Arthashastra, for example, actually lists the Vedas as only one of the four sources of law – and even a cursory reading of texts like it show that statecraft in ancient India was hardly a religious affair. In fact, Kautilya’s Arthashastra comes at the end of a whole tradition of Arthashastras which did not recognize the Vedas as a source of law at all. We also know that right through the Sultanate and the Mughal period, Sharia law was not the basis of statecraft in India – despite the Fatawa-i-Jehandari by Ziauddin Barani. The work of Muzaffar Alam and others shows that the Sultanate rulers kept the likes of Barani at an arms length and evolved their own arguments as to why Sharia law could not be the basis of their rule over India.
This history of political power in China is also a completely different ball game. In the context of Confucianism and Taoism, Jose Casanova observes that the category of secularization can hardly apply to such ‘religions’, which are neither characterized by ‘high tension’ with the world nor have a model of transcendence that can be called ‘religious’ in any strict sense, not to mention the absence therein of any ecclesiastical organization. “Religions that have always been ‘worldly’ or ‘lay’”, he argues, “do not need to undergo a process of secularization.” (Joe Casanova ‘Rethinking Secularization: A Comparative Global Perspective”, The Hedgehog Review, Spring and Summer 2006: 12, 2006)
In the 9th to 12th centuries, long before the Renaissance in Europe, Arab philosophers were debating issues of secular power. In this period of the golden age of Arab science, we also see the great line of philosophers like Al-Farabi, Ibn-Sina and Ibn Rushd posing the very questions that later animated Western societies. Thus, says Patricia Crone,
In the ninth century they began to enquire into their own presuppositions. Why do humans live social lives? Must their societies be based on religious law brought by a prophet or might man-made law and morality suffice? Could one manage without a monarch? Must government be monarchic, or indeed autocratic, or could alternative forms of political organization be envisaged? (Patricia Crone, Medieval Islamic Political Thought, Edinburgh University Press: 249, 2004)
Philosophers like Al-Farabi in the 9th century, were arguing that philosophy was prior to religion and it was philosophy alone that could help people choose between a genuine revelation and a false one. Theirs was a battle with an orthodoxy that was still in formation but which was to become powerful only over the next few centuries. And even after that Islam, neither in the Arab world nor in Persia, ever acquired the fusion of spiritual and political power that we see in European Christendom. It is well known the both Moorish Spain (Al-Andalus), and the Ottoman empire exhibited far greater levels of religious tolerance than any other European regime, and that Muslims, Christians and Jews co-existed in Al-Andalus for over seven centuries.
That is why a lot of revisionist historiography has begun looking afresh at the story of modernity that the West has told us so far. In that story, the world was all darkness till the light of Enlightenment fell on the godforsaken ones. The story it now appears, is much more complicated. Many of the European pioneers who drew from the wellsprings of knowledge in the Arab world, the innovators, referred to themselves as the moderni – which itself should raise for us the question of what ‘modern’ or ‘modernity’ might have meant to them. It was under the impact of these moderni that universities became the new centres of learning by the 13th century.
“At Oxford, Paris or Bologna, for example, it became as common to study Avicenna (Ibn Sina) or Averroes (Ibn Rushd) as it was to study Augustine. Indeed, entire schools of Latin Avicennism and Averroism took root at different universities during the 13th century and became an integral part of the incipient tendency of questioning Church authority.”(Peter O’Brien, ‘Islamic Civilization and (Western) Modernity’, Comparative Civilizations Review, Number 65, Fall 2011, pp. 18-32, 2011)
So the story about Western societies being more advanced because they are based on secular separation has to be questioned. The idea of separation itself, I have indicated through the instances above, derives from a specific historical context. Different societies conceptualize the relation between the ‘religious’ and the ‘political’ in different ways, and many have little sense of any idea of transcendence. ‘This-worldliness’ is part of their sense of religion/ spirituality/ sacredness.
Dharma-Nirpekshata or Indian ‘Secularism’
This brings me to the last question that I want to raise here. Ravi presents the opponent’s argument in this respect, thus: “in a multi-religious society only the maxim of ‘Sarva Dharma Samabhav’ can be the desirable policy of the state.” Now it is nobody’s argument that ‘sarva dharma samabhaava’ is an ideal suited to all multi-religious societies. What I have argued in my comment to Subhash’s post is that far from being a corruption of an ideal model (Western secularism), sarvadharma samabhaava was a creative development of the ideal of co-living in our times. It was an ideal that was worked out in the context of a multi-religious society such as ours but it would be ridiculous to claim that it can therefore be applicable to all multi-religious societies. Let us remember that there have been various ways in which the ideal of co-living has been practiced in India – the emperor Asoka’s reign being one instance; the attempt in Dara Shikoh’s Majma-ul-Bahrain and Akbar’s Din-e-Ilahi being another.
Dara Shikoh’s was a breath-taking initiative. It was an initiative that sought to read the Upanishads (Upanikhat in his Persian rendering) in synergy with the Quran. And for the benefit of our Islamophobes of the Hindu Right, I cannot avoid the temptation of citing Dara himself, paraphrased by his translator Mahfuz-ul-Haq. The author, say Haq, claimed
that he had examined the religious works of the Hindus, “who do not negate monotheism”, and found that the monotheistic verses contained in the four Vedas have been collected and elucidated in the Upanikhat, which is an ocean of monotheism. So he undertook a literal and correct translation of the work with the help of the Pandits and the Sanyasis of Benaras and accomplished the work in 1067 A.H. (1657 CE)
To believe therefore, that we had to wait for the Enlightenment in Europe to deliver us from the darkness of religious strife; and that our proper lives had not begun until we were handed the ideal of ‘secularism’ is to swallow the official story of the origin myth of modernity hook, line and sinker.
The ideal of sarvadharma samabhaava was not a simple translation of secularism. It was an attempt to draw from our own history (call it tradition if you will) an ideal that could be refashioned for modern times. I will, in fact, go much further and say that unlike ‘secularism’, which was predicated on the erasure of all markers of difference and on the institution of the unmarked universal citizen (which was always a violent process), the sarvadharma samabhaava ideal was an attempt, creative but by no means perfect, to spell out an idea of co-living where the state’s role was understood as one that may involve intervention in or abstention from the matters of religious communities, depending upon the need of the moment. It was because the value of difference was understood by the thinkers and political leaders who were shaping the modern in India, that in contra-distinction to secularism, they spelt out a vision of ‘unity-in-diversity’. To my mind, this phrase itself is a ‘secularized’ version of an ideal that is found in both Hinduism and Sufi Islam. The Advaita idea of the unity of brahman on the one hand and the idea of wahdat-ul-vajood on the other are both neatly re-presented as the ideal of ‘unity-in-diversity’. Yes, there were pressures upon thinkers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to stand up to the standards set by the West and to an extent, with the paraphernalia of the knowledge-apparatus that they inherited from colonialism. So they too began participating in the game of showing that they too ‘were modern’ in precisely the terms set by the West.
Thankfully, that moment has now passed.
1. This point has been made by Dishil Shrimankar on the basis of Election Commission data, in an unpublished article. Dishil is currently interning with Lokniti, CSDS