Bankruptcy of postcolonial intellectuals and their defense of secularism

We have developed partial explanations of why the secularism debate in India takes such peculiar forms and why otherwise intelligent people talk nonsense here. But we don’t do so by pegging our use of the word secularism “onto Balu’s theory about the nature of religion and how that entity religion behaves in the world” and then expecting that other people do the same.

1. Let me quickly repeat our argument: Concepts like religion and secularism and principles of the secular state developed in Europe against the background of larger conceptual frameworks. Broadly speaking, one knew what `religion’ and ‘the secular state’ referred to or what the separation of `the religious’ and `the political’ amounted to, because these terms were embedded in such a common background framework. Naturally, there were many different positions and discontinuities in the debates. But disagreements about the precise meaning of terms or clashes between conflicting normative positions made sense to the participants, precisely because they occurred against the background of this type of framework. The framework put semantic limits on the potential interpretation of terms and principles, as it related concepts to each other in particular systematic ways. This background framework reflects not only generic Christian theology and political theory, but also the common cultural and historical experience of Europeans.

2. When the relevant terms, concepts and principles migrate from one cultural setting to another, they are detached from this background framework. In that case, the concepts and principles in question will inevitably begin to lose their basic intelligibility and accessibility. This is what happens in the Indian secularism debate: there is no shared background framework that puts semantic limitations on the interpretations of terms and principles and that allows one to make sense of conflicting positions. Consequently, even where participants in this debate adopt the exact formulae of western political thought, these are interpreted in seemingly random ways. This leads to semantic distortion and obscurity.

3. In the kind of work our research group is doing these days, we are taking the argument a step further. The semantic and conceptual distortions (in Indian debates like the secularism debate) do not occur at random, but reveal a particular kind of systematicity. Their systematic nature, we propose, provides a unique access point to the conceptual schemes that lie behind the Indian claims and interpretations of English-language terms. Furthermore, these conceptual schemes derive from the background theories of the Indian traditions that have shaped the reasoning of these people. Tracking such underlying conceptual schemes, then, allows one to characterize certain basic structures of these traditions.

Metaphorically, it helps to think in terms of two layers: at the surface, we have the layer of confusing claims on ‘secularism’ and ‘religion’; underneath this lies a more fundamental conceptual layer that we need to dig up. This second layer reflects Indian modes of reasoning about the nature of traditions, the role of reason, the stances and heuristics that allow peaceful co-existence of traditions… To a large extent, the Indian use of English-language terms is mapped onto the semantic schemes of this deeper layer. Simultaneously, Indians adopt typical formulae from Christian theology and western thought. In the surface layer, then, we face a confounding conceptual blend. Nevertheless, it provides our only access to the deeper layer: we identify the structures of this deeper layer by theorizing how they are revealed in the semantic distortions of the surface layer.

4. This approach will allow us to make sense of what Indians are doing when they discuss ‘secularism’ and ‘religion’ in peculiar ways. However, this is very different from the ‘multiple meanings’ story. That story does something altogether different. It tries to provide a kind of theoretical justification for the situation of conceptual distortion, confusion and obscurity, which has emerged after Indians and other colonized peoples started adopting fragments of western political and social thought. It says: “basically it is all right to use words like ‘secularism’ in all kinds of random ways and talk without knowing what one is talking about, because this is how things should be.” That is, this is the ultimate step of postcolonial bankruptcy (which people like Talal Asad and Homi Bhabha are advising us to take): it tells one that the production of conceptual humbug is the norm that we should all follow. This is the best way to assure that the non-western world will not contribute anything to social and political theory. It is to ask of the colonized that they celebrate their state of being colonized