Fallacy of Equivocation: Indian Secularism

While reading Shabnum Tejani’s Indian Secularism: A Social and Intellectual History (2008), I ran into the same weird point that Neera Chandhoke also tried to make at the RRI platform debate on secularism. This is a combination of the old claim that ‘secularism’ has acquired a different meaning in India and a general theoretical point: ‘secularism does not have any essence or universal meaning, but gets different meanings dependent on the historical and cultural contexts in which it has developed’. There are different variations on this formulation, but the general point is one that is becoming increasingly popular (especially among historians), because of the influence of Talal Asad and other postmodernators. Hence, I wanted to try and address the point by taking the example of Tejani’s work.

Tejani argues that the binary opposition between ‘secularism’ and ‘communalism’ in the Indian debate is problematic. According to her, each position in the debate “reifies these categories: they share the premise that ‘secular’ and ‘communal’ have a meaning in themselves, one that transcends historical context.” She goes on: “The circularity of much of the contemporary debate has to do with the way in which secularism and communalism have been treated as hermetically sealed, universal categories. It is this that has allowed them to be locked in binary opposition…I argue that a consideration of the historical dynamics that shaped the meaning of secularism allows us to approach this problem anew. Secularism is not a stable, predetermined, universal category, but one whose meaning is particular to its historical context” (Tejani 2008: 4-5).

Tejani continues to argue that historical research shows that different societies in Europe and North America negotiated the question of religion in various ways and that “people in South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa appropriated the categories of modernity—public and private, religion and politics, secularism and democracy—in ways that rendered these meanings particular.” Therefore, she concludes, “a universal meaning for secularism cannot be assumed” (Tejani 2008: 5-6). Also “the moves to reject secularism or infuse the category with new meaning are inadequate, for even in their critique of the normative category they still reinscribe an idea that there can (and should) be a stable, containable meaning for the term, however defined” (Tejani 2008: 10-11).

1. This type of argument abounds with confusion. Secularism is supposed to be a category that has been given a universal meaning, while its ‘meaning’ always depends on historical contexts and has been shaped by historical dynamics. Now, categories do not have meanings; words do. A category or concept is a word with a particular meaning attached to it. Take the word ‘pipe’ in the English language and its several meanings. According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, three of these meanings are ‘a tubular wind instrument’; ‘a long tube or hollow body for conducting a liquid, gas or finely divided solid’; and ‘a device for smoking usually consisting of a tube having a bowl at one end and a mouthpiece at the other’. These are not different meanings of the category pipe; rather, each of the meanings constitutes a separate category of objects with particular properties. In the same way, one cannot sensibly discuss the universal or multiple meanings of the category secularism, but only the different meanings of the word ‘secularism’. Like the different meanings of ‘pipe’, these also constitute different categories.

2. One of these categories or concepts of secularism comprises a specific way of organizing the relations between the state and religion or political organizations and religious institutions. When we say that France, the UK, Belgium and India are all secular states, then we are saying that these states come under this category of secularism. This means that we attribute certain basic and common properties to these states or, at least, that these states (try to) embody certain normative principles: they have a minimal separation of the state from religious institutions; they give equal rights to citizens irrespective of religious or ethnic affiliation; they respect the right to freedom of religion; etc. Here, we also see again why such a concept of secularism should always be embedded in a larger theory or conceptual framework. To explain these common properties or principles, we need a theory of secularism or the secular state that explains what it means to give equal rights or to separate politics from religion.

3. Historical research could never show, as Tejani claims, that secularism cannot have ‘a universal meaning’ because different countries and societies in Europe and America have negotiated the relationship between the state and religion in various ways. Maximally, such historical research could do two things: show that different forms of secularism have developed in these different countries or demonstrate that some of these are not really secular states. To show that France, the UK, the USA and Belgium have developed different forms of the secular state, one should first be able to recognize some political organization as a secular state or manifestation of secularism. That is, one has to presuppose certain common properties that these states possess and which make them instances of the category of secularism, before one could ever argue that they have solved the problems of religion and secularism in different ways. Without such a background concept, against which one compares these different forms of secularism, one could only make the trivial point that France, the UK, the USA and Belgium are very different as political organizations.

4. So let us accept this valid point: because of specific historical dynamics and cultural and societal circumstances, the secular state has taken different forms in these countries. This also allows us to reformulate another issue: since secularism and the secular state have taken different forms in these countries, the words they use to denote this concept of secularism (e.g., ‘laïcité’, ‘de lekenstaat’, ‘secular democracy’, ‘liberal toleration’) will most probably have different connotations in the language use of the respective societies. This does not entail that they have different categories of secularism or that “a universal meaning for secularism cannot be assumed.” Rather, the fact that we are able to describe these nation-states as instances of (the concept of) secularism – because they possess certain common properties and structures – also allows us to differentiate them as different forms of secularism, because they also have distinct properties related to their specific histories and socio-cultural background. Once we have characterized these distinct properties (always in contrast to their common properties), one could also try and explain the different connotations of the terms ‘secularism’ or ‘laïcité’ or ‘lekenstaat’ in the language use of these societies by showing the links to their historical dynamics (given the fact that we do not possess any theory about the connection between historical developments and language use, this would be very difficult, however).

5. Let us turn back to India now. If we say that ‘India is a secular state’ or ‘secularism is central to the modern Indian nation-state’, these statements are intelligible only because we have a concept of secularism in mind that attributes certain shared properties or principles to states that are secular. There are two possibilities here. On the one hand, this could be the same concept of secularism that allows us to recognize western nation-states as secular. Then the Indian secular state must have the same set of properties or at least (try and) embody the same set of principles. Naturally, one could argue that the specific historical and cultural dynamics of modern India have also given certain distinct properties to secularism here (as they have in modern France, UK, USA, Belgium), but this cannot deny the common set of properties and principles. In fact, the only way for us to talk intelligibly about the distinct form that secularism has taken in India would be by referring to the common structure that all secular states possess and then showing how India has certain specific properties that are dissimilar to those of certain other secular states.

On the other hand, however, one could argue that ‘India is secular’ but according to another meaning of ‘secularism’ or a distinct concept or category of secularism. Then we confront a different situation altogether. To return to the analogy of ‘pipe’, this is like saying that some object is a pipe, but not in the sense that it is a device for smoking of a particular shape, but rather in the sense of a tubular wind-instrument. In this case, the Indian state would be an instance of a completely different concept or category of secularism. One would then have to use the words ‘secular’ and ‘secularism’ in a systematic way that refers to the common properties or structure shared by all instances of this distinct concept. One would be compelled to distinguish between secularism1 and secularism2 at all times.

6. Here also, one could never conclude that secularism “is not a stable, predetermined, universal category, but one whose meaning is particular to its historical context.” Of course, the structure of the Indian state would still depend on the historical context in which it has emerged, as does the structure of various western secular states. But one could no longer say that India, like these western states, has developed a different form of secularism, because of its specific historical and cultural dynamics. This type of argument would lead us into the fallacy of equivocation, because ‘secularism’ would always be used in two different senses and we would continually confuse between secularism1 and secularism2. The Indian secular state would not instantiate a different form of secularism, like France, the UK and the USA have different forms of secularism, because of their historical specificities. Rather, the word ‘secularism’ in the case of India would mean something completely different; it could even mean ‘theocracy’.

Do you think this clarifies some of the confusion in the Indian debate on secularism?