Secularism, Colonialism and Indian Intellectuals

In the last few decades, “secularism” has become the subject of caustic debate in the Indian media. The dispute about the value of this idea to contemporary India is no longer confined to the academic circles. Politicians, journalists and others have strong views on the topic. Secularism regularly surfaces in newspaper articles, speeches and public meetings. The critics of the idea, however, are not often taken seriously at the theoretical level. The proponents of secularism dismiss all objections against their pet idea as misguided. Critics are either considered to be naive obscurantists, who dream of a return to a romantic image of Indian traditional society; or they are condemned as Hindu fundamentalists, who resist modern secular values and strive for a Hindu religious state.

Though the secularists are genuinely concerned about the tensions currently disrupting Indian society, their fight for secularism has not been very effective when it comes to putting an end to “the Hindu-Muslim strife.” In fact, the Nehruvian secularism of the first few decades of the independent Indian state appears to have had as its long-term result an upsurge – rather than a decline – of intercommunity conflict. The problem I will address is to account for the stubborn adherence to the value of secularism among the Indian intellectuals, in spite of this spectacular failure. This adherence seems based in dogmatism, rather than in rational, critical or scientific argument. To account for this state of affairs, I will first turn to the history of the idea of secularism and show the deep roots it has in the religious doctrine of the Christian West. Next, I will analyze the role it has played in the colonial domination over the subcontinent and its intellectuals. The idea of secularism has been one of the backbones of the colonial educational project, which approached India as a backward society in need of conversion to modern western values. 

These two steps bring me to the conclusion that the Indian secularists are today sustaining the colonial stance towards their own culture and society. They presuppose that the modern value of secularism or toleration is the superior way of organizing a plural society. Given this assumption, they easily come to the conclusion that India should adopt this value like all other modern nation-states. This is not an exhibition of human scientific rationality, but rather an instance of the fallacy of petitio principii. That is, the secularists take as a presupposition what they actually have to prove: the superiority of the modern value of secularism. The consequences are dramatic. Alternatives to secularism – e.g., the “traditional” ways of living together as they have developed on the subcontinent – are not even taken seriously as solutions to the predicament of pluralism in twenty-first-century India. Anyone who dares challenge this supreme value is classified as a naive conservative, a Hindu communalist, or worse. Thus, secularism limits the options of the Indian intellectuals to two equally flawed positions: either one continues the colonialism of the last three centuries through a dogmatic adherence to “modern secular values;” or one fights this stance on its own terms by becoming an “anti-modern”, “anti-western” or even “anti-scientific” fanatic.

Fortunately, there is a way out of this dilemma. It is to be found in the old human pursuit of knowledge. At a time when societies all around the world are becoming more diverse, we have to be ready to re-examine our long-standing ideas about pluralism and tolerance. More than ever, the search for scientific solutions to the problems of humankind should direct itself at the knowledge developed in the non-western world. The ways of living together of several Asian cultures have proven successful at creating a relative stability and harmony in extremely plural societies. Therefore, I argue, we should set up a massive enterprise to examine the nature and the success of these alternative ways of living together.

1. A Modern Christian Value?

A recent exchange in the Indian weekly Outlook revealed some of the damage done by colonialism to the Indian intellectuals and their understanding of secularism. It started with an opinion piece by Kuldip Nayar, who criticised Ashis Nandy’s views on secularism (Outlook, May 31, 2004). Nandy’s reply, “a Billion Gandhis” (June 21, 2004), restated his critique of secularism as “a dry import” from the West unable to find roots in the Indian soil. This in its turn lead to a vitriolic reaction by the historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam (July 5, 2004). The latter accused Nandy of being ignorant of European history. The word “secularism,” Subrahmanyam suggested, has never been all that important in western politics. It has acquired “a deep meaning and significance” in India, which it never had in Europe. Therefore, it is ridiculous to call secularism an imported idea. Nandy, he concluded, keeps on repeating his views only because he is “profoundly ill informed” about the history of concepts. Neither the derogatory language used by Subrahmanyam nor his impressive career in the European academia should blind us to his own lack of understanding of the western history of ideas. Unlike what he thinks, the main problem in the Indian secularism debate does not lie in the fact that a thinker like Nandy has not studied European history. Rather, it is rooted in the way Indian scholars have blindly adopted the self image of the Europeans.

To deny that secularism is an export from the West to India, one cannot simply repeat the old story about the British thinkers who coined the term in the nineteenth century, and the way its meaning changed in India. Secularism is not just a word; it is an idea. As an idea it has a long history going back to medieval times, but it is as alive as ever in the nation-states of the contemporary West. European intellectuals and politicians may prefer to use terms such as “toleration,” “state neutrality”,“laïcit锓de lekenstaat”, or “Toleranz.” However, like “secularism,” these terms refer to a number of norms and values regarding the way a plural society and its state should be organised. The basic idea is that the state and its laws ought not to mingle with the realm of religion. The state should be secular, that is, its laws cannot be based in one or another religion. Today, this idea is presented as the one rational and democratic ideal for all human societies. Like liberal democracy, the secular humanists believe, this political salvation for the humankind should be exported to India and other plural countries.

Fortunately, we have independent thinkers like Ashis Nandy, who challenge the universal value of this idea. He suggests we would better look into the traditional ways of living together on the subcontinent, before we impose the barren idea of secularism on the cities and villages of India. And a barren idea it is. How and why it is so will not become clear by studying European history through the standard framework developed by the western intellectuals. This might make for Indian academics who share the assumptions, the vocabulary, and the pretences of their colleagues at Oxford or Harvard. But it does not produce significant insights into the encounter between India and the West. 

The idea of secularism or toleration has become as barren as it is today, because it has been detached from the religious background that made it significant and fruitful. In order to get a grasp on its history, we first have to understand the Christian theological framework from which it emerged. Early in the history of Christianity, the belief became dominant that the human world is split into two different realms. On the one hand, there is the spiritual realm. Each human individual has a soul, Christian doctrine claimed, and this soul should become as spiritual as possible. That is, it should turn away from “the carnal world” in which we live and towards “the spiritual world” of God. In this eternal spiritual realm, the Holy Spirit operated and it regenerated the human soul so as to convert it to Christ. This realm was opposed to the temporal carnal realm. Each individual also consisted of a body – “the sinful flesh,” as Christian thinkers liked to call it. This sinful body lives here on earth in the temporal carnal realm, which is ruled by Satan – “the lord of this world.” From Augustine to Aquinas, all of the dominant political thought in Christian Europe took this two-fold division of human society as its starting-point.

Then happened the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century – a cultural revolution that shaped the modern western culture. Its reform was also based in the opposition between the spiritual (or religious) world and the temporal (or secular) world. But it changed the relationship between the two worlds dramatically. Whereas the spiritual and the temporal had been equated with the clergy and the laity in the medieval Church, the Protestants claimed there was no such hierarchical division of humanity. There could not be a spiritual estate of priests as opposed to a temporal estate of laymen. All human beings lived in these two worlds at the same time. And all human souls should be left free to be regenerated by the Spirit of God. This gave rise to the entrenched normative belief that the state and its laws ought not to intrude upon religion. The Protestant thinkers asserted that one human being could not compel others as to what to believe and how to worship God, since “God alone was the Lord of our souls.” In theological terms, they said the following: (a) all human beings live in two spheres, the spiritual (or religious) and the temporal (or secular); (b) in the religious sphere, they strive for the salvation of their souls, and this is a purely individual affair over which God alone has authority; (c) in the secular sphere, they are bodies who pursue the preservation of their earthly interests, and here they should always obey the laws of the secular authorities. This was the Protestant theological framework within which thinkers like John Locke and Pierre Bayle elaborated their theories of toleration and liberty of conscience. The same religious motivation brought Thomas Jefferson to the famous claim that there should be “a wall of separation” between church and state. As he wrote in his letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, dated January 1, 1802:

“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”

This Protestant doctrine remains the implicit background of the contemporary political theories of liberal toleration in the West. The idea of secularism or toleration is dependent on a number of deep-seated Christian assumptions concerning the nature and the aim of the human life. It takes the conceptual schemes of Christian theology – more specifically, its division of the world into a spiritual religious sphere and a temporal political sphere – as though these correspond to the universal structure of human societies. Moreover, secularism suggests that plural societies will fall apart, if they fail to adopt the Protestant norm of separation of the religious and the political.

Naturally, this does not fit in with the story mainstream scholars like to tell about European history. This is the case, because they have accepted the West’s self-understanding – in which it is supposed to have released itself from Christian religious dogma at the time of the Enlightenment. This story is part of the mythology built by the western culture to claim for itself a grandiose place in human history. Earlier, it was the religion of Christianity that was to grant spiritual salvation to all peoples crowding the earth. Nowadays, it is the “secular” modernity of the West, which should bring political salvation to all cultures and societies. In between, the main change has been the shift from an explicitly religious language to a new “secular” vocabulary, which also claims to be “universal” and “rational” (this point is argued extensively by S.N. Balagangadhara in his “The Heathen in His Blindness …”: Asia, the West, and the Dynamic of Religion (E.J. Brill, 1994); a new edition by Manohar Publishers).

2. Secularism and the Colonial Project

If the history of ideas proves that secularism is a Christian idea, why then have so many Indian intellectuals appropriated it as the norm to be attained by the Indian state and its citizens? This question becomes all the more pertinent once we are aware of the many theoretical shortcomings of the concept of secularism. For instance, as I have argued elsewhere, we do not possess a scientific framework today that allows us to distinguish the religious from the secular or the political. We do not even have a clue as to what makes the Hindu traditions into religion. All we have is vague and useless definitions of the word “religion,” which do not offer us any understanding of the phenomenon of religion. Still, we keep on saying that “the religious” should be separated from “the political” or that the state ought to be “secular” and not “religious” as though it were eminently clear what distinguished these spheres. Without providing any convincing argument, the secularists never cease to preach that “secularism should be revived in India” (see my “The Vacuity of Secularism,” in the Economic and Political Weekly, September 28, 2002, pp. 4047-4053).

The danger is that this critique of secularism is mistaken for a justification of “the Hindu religious state” in India. But this is not at all implied by my argument. Rather, the suggestion is that the conceptual distinction between “the religious” and “the secular” does not help us to understand Indian society and that the norm of secularism does not help us to alleviate the inter-community tensions of this society. Still, a bizarre but often-heard reply suggests that this is equivalent to rooting for a Hindu state. In other words, the secularists assume that any deviation from – or opposition to – secularism amounts to “religious fundamentalism.” To understand where this comes from, we have to reveal the role played by the idea of secularism in the colonial educational project.

During its “golden age” in the nineteenth century, western colonialism presented itself as an educational project, which claimed to bring native societies to the developmental stage of the modern West and its “scientific values.” Colonial education intended to reveal to the colonized how backward they actually were. It either assumed implicitly or claimed explicitly that the practices, stories and traditions of the indigenous cultures had to be replaced by the law and order of western civilization. As S.N. Balagangadhara shows in a forthcoming article (“Colonialism, Colonial Consciousness, and Political Theory”), this stance makes colonialism into an immoral phenomenon. This is the case because of the following reasons: (a) Like all educational projects, colonialism tries to transform the experience of the colonized. It does so by replacing the cultural experience of the colonized with western colonial descriptions of his or her own culture and of the West. (b) But, the latter accounts have never been proven to be cognitively superior to the indigenous accounts. Instead, the colonial descriptions presuppose the superiority of the western culture and from this they conclude that the colonized culture must be inferior to that of the West. (c) The consequence is that fallacious colonial accounts, which beg the question as to the superiority of the West, are imposed on the colonized. As these accounts are not cognitively superior to those of the colonized, the use of violence becomes inevitable in this process of indoctrination. The colonizer does not have cogent arguments, so he is forced to take recourse to other means. Therefore, colonialism cannot be an educational project, though it claims to be that. In reality, it consists of a vicious circle that takes the “modern western values” as the beginning and end of human civilization.

Balagangadhara’s account of the immorality of colonialism is well illustrated by the imposition of secularism on the Indian people. When the British missionaries, travelers and colonial administrators described Indian society, it was self-evident to them that this society was suffused by religion, albeit a false one. The “Hindoo religion” and, to a lesser extent, its “Mahometan” rival were said to determine every sphere of life and action. In India, no distinction was made between the political and the religious, so the colonials asserted: in fact, religion was consistently abused for political ends and the state took the form of a pernicious theocracy. Naturally, this description was implicitly opposed to the modern West. In the European self-image, the Reformation and the Enlightenment had demonstrated that toleration and the separation of church and state were the necessary conditions of civilized coexistence among religious groups. This self-image also shaped the image of India: if the political was not separated from the religious here, destructive conflict would inevitably erupt between the Hindus and the Muslims. Obviously, the Europeans thought, the Indians could not attain this insight by themselves. Colonial schooling had to educate them in the virtues of modern secularism. The Indian elite – created by this educational system – adopted the view of India as a caste-ridden society living under the tyranny of religion. It embraced the colonial description, which was founded on the presupposition of the superiority of the western civilization. The results were a Raja Rammohan Roy in the nineteenth century and a Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in the twentieth.

A few steps can be discerned in the process of intellectual colonization that shaped these “makers of modern India.” Firstly, the Indian elite accepted the terms of description of the western colonials as though these were scientific. This could happen because the colonial educational system put these fallacious descriptions of caste and religion in India at par with the accounts of Newtonian physics and other scientific theories. Thus, the elite began to conceptualize Indian society in terms of the division between “the religious” and “the secular” (or “the political”), even though this conceptual distinction was rooted in Christian dogma. Secondly, the conception of the subcontinent as an inferior civilization brought about the conviction that India should become like Europe. In the present case, this meant that the state ought to steer clear from “the Hindu religion,” just as church and state had been separated in Europe. Politics ought to be based in “modern secular values,” that is, in the norms of nineteenth- and twentieth-century western Christendom. The third step made this normative order into the one viable alternative to inter-community conflict. Without these values, the story went, India would eventually be reduced to chaos and violence. The language of secularism became the only vocabulary in which a stable and harmonious plural society could be imagined. In other words, peace and order in society were conflated with a particular normative description of the way in which “India ought to be secular.” The final step caused a similar change in the identification of the problems and tensions of Indian society. The colonial descriptions of the inferiority of India became the standard textbook stories on this “backward, caste-ridden and fossilized civilization, permeated by irrational religion and blind ritual.” Again, this specific description was equated with the very structure of Indian society and its problems. 

The outcome of this process is the dead end we have reached today. The current tensions in the fabric of Indian society can be conceptualized in one way alone, it seems: these are “the predicaments of caste, communalism, and religious conflict.” Thus, a particular description of certain phenomena continues to be conflated with these phenomena themselves (viz., the tensions among different communities in India). The distinction is ignored between a description and the phenomena it describes. When such constraints are put on the identification of a problem, these will also operate on the solutions that are developed. As a consequence, according to this view, the one supreme virtue India needs today is secularism. As Salman Rushdie once put it: “Secularism, for India, is not simply a point of view, it is a question of survival.” This value is seen as the safeguard of peace, order and sanity in society. In the absence of secularism, India is bound to fall apart, so our colonial intuition tells us. Therefore, this point of view transforms any critic of the idea of secularism into a proponent of communalism, fundamentalism, theocracy, caste, inequality, and other evils.

3. Ways of Living Together

The time has come to move beyond the constraints of this colonial stance. India does not need secularism for its survival. Hindus, Muslims, Christians and several other groups were quite successful at living together in relative peace for a long period of time in India. This plural society did not fall apart. Yet, it had never even heard of “secularism” or “toleration.” Therefore, the task ahead is to examine the ways of living together as they have emerged in various regions of India. In what remains, I will briefly consider two strategies that have been dominant in the search for alternatives to the modern western value of secularism. These strategies, I think, have had a harmful impact on this quest.

The first is the anti-modern and anti-scientific stance we find among some Gandhians, including Nandy. Considering what has happened to the world after the rise of industrialism, capitalism and modern technology in the West, this negative attitude towards science and technology is understandable. The problem, however, is that it takes a particular conception of science, its role in society and its value to humanity as though this is the only way to think about science. It confuses science with the western story on “modern scientific values.” However, one does not have to accept the latter story in order to appreciate and adopt the cognitive criteria developed by the natural sciences in the last few centuries. Science has given us the heuristics to attain reliable theoretical knowledge about the world. These heuristics and criteria of scientific knowledge cannot be thrown overboard in the search for alternatives to secularism. Rather, our hypotheses and theories on the traditional ways of living together in Indian society will be most fruitful when they share the characteristic features of any scientific hypothesis: refutable, refinable, coherent, and internally consistent. In the same way as the richest natural-scientific theories we possess today, they should have empirical consequences, strive for clarity of terms and identify the structures and mechanisms behind the phenomena. In this manner, our alternative theories of pluralism and co-existence among various religious and cultural groups will be able to outshine the normative dogmas of secularism.

The second strategy takes recourse to the widespread belief that the Indian traditions have their own doctrine of “Hindu secularism” or “Hindu tolerance,” which surpasses that of western secularism. Both the proponents of Hindutva and many Gandhians claim that the innate belief in the equality of all religions has allowed all kinds of religious traditions to co-exist peacefully in the past, and that it will continue to do so in the future. This claim is easily refuted. The belief that all religions are equal cannot possibly be accepted by Muslim and Christian believers. The very foundation of Islam and Christianity suggests that these religions are the unique revelation of God – the Creator and Sovereign of the universe. Therefore, they have to distinguish between themselves as the true religion and all others as false religions. All religions cannot be equal, according to the religions of Muslims and Christians. Nevertheless, in past centuries, various communities of these two religions were part of the relatively peaceful and harmonious co-existence of Indian society. They lived side by side with Vaishnava, Jaina, Virashaiva, Buddhist and other groups, while they ceased to take part in systematic persecution, religious violence and aggressive proselytization. This cannot be explained in terms of a shared belief in the equality of all religions. Therefore, this story on the doctrine of “Hindu tolerance” does not help us to understand the Indian mode of pluralism.

How, then, could we go about examining the ways of living together of the Indian culture? Let us have a closer look at these phenomenona. On the one hand, we have the “internal” pluralism of the Hindu traditions. Although there were clashes among these traditions, these never developed into the systematic persecution of some particular tradition or the other. Alongside these clashes, there was a tendency in each of these traditions to absorb or adopt elements from the other traditions. On the other hand, we have the interaction among these Hindu traditions and the religions of Islam and Christianity, which reveals the same kind of pattern. Again there were violent clashes, but Muslims and Christians were not assaulted or persecuted because of their religious beliefs or their worship of Allah/God. On the contrary, the Hindu traditions had no qualms about the adoption of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, or the prophet Mohammed as avatars. They would even include these new characters in their puja’s. Hindus joined Muslims in showing reverence at the dargahs of the Sufi pirs, or in the celebration of Muharram. Moreover, the initial intolerance of the Muslim invaders and Christian converts towards the “idolatry” of the Hindus soon disappeared from local Islamic and Christian traditions. Indian Muslims and Christians participated in Hindu festivals and revered some of the Hindu gods. They made contributions to traditions of Hindu literature, music, and painting – often adding Islamic or Christian elements. Importantly, the proselytizing drive of both Islam and Christianity was tempered to a large extent in their local manifestations on the Indian subcontinent.

The current explanations of these phenomena share a basic assumption: there must be a common framework – a shared set of values – which allowed these diverse groups to live together. To grant plausibility to this background assumption, one would have to identify this constitutive set of values shared by the different communities. The single candidate today is the account of Hindu tolerance, which says that these communities were able to live together because they all accepted the equality of religions. We have already confronted one flaw in this account. Another flaw concerns the Hindu traditions themselves: it is often pointed out that one cannot identify any one belief, doctrine, or principle on which they all agree. Still, if one explains the fact that these traditions did not persecute each other or Islam and Christianity in terms of a common principle of Hindu tolerance, one will have to show that they all shared this principle. But there is no proof for the claim that all of these traditions endorsed some orthodox Hindu belief that “all religions are equal” or that “the truth is one but can have plural manifestations,” besides the fact that they did not engage in systematic persecution. It seems that this explanation presupposes that there must be a common principle of tolerance, which has enabled the different traditions to live together. Consequently, one looks for such a principle in the “sacred texts of Hinduism,” and one finds it in the Sanskrit aphorism “Ekam Satya, Viprah Bahudah Vadanti” from the Rig-Veda, which is presented as the basic doctrine of Hindu tolerance. 

Could there have been another framework of values that was shared by the various communities – which we are yet to discover? This is unlikely. It would have to be an extremely complex system of values not only to allow co-existence, but also to cause the different communities to absorb elements and attitudes from each other’s traditions, and to participate in each other’s practices. The question then is what has enabled the various Hindu traditions to co-exist with each other, and with others? What explains the peculiar interplay of vigorous clashes and mutual exchanges among these traditions? How come the local Islamic and Christian traditions interacted with the Hindu traditions in a similar way? At the Research Centre Vergelijkende Cultuurwetenschap at Ghent University, we are currently examining an alternate route to answer these fascinating questions. The route suggests that different communities were able to build a reasonably stable and harmonious society, not because they agreed on a common framework, but because they developed a specific way of going about with each other. This plural Indian society did and does not revolve around a shared belief in some set of values or in the norm of secularism – rather it hinges on a set of practices and attitudes that has allowed the various communities to live together. Our future work will analyse the mechanisms of these ways of going about. 

Let me end by paying tribute to the main partisan of anti-secularism in India, Ashis Nandy. As he once pointed out in a pithy metaphor, secularism limits the options of humankind dramatically: it is either Coca-Cola or Ayathollah Khomeini. Though this may be a hyperbole, the image illustrates the constraints the story of “modern secularism” has imposed on our thinking about the problems of pluralism in India. Either secularism or violence. We should heed the insight of Nandy’s anti-secularist manifestos: chaos and violence will not erupt when we leave behind the barren idea of secularism. It is a pity this proposition can still lead to bitter retorts like that of Subrahmanyam. Naturally, as the historian points out, one should practice what one preaches in this matter and truly examine the nature and the history of Indian pluralism. To do so, however, a climate needs to be created that stimulates and sustains such research projects. Rather than singing the mantras of secularism, the academic world should provide a fertile soil for innovative research into the co-existence of communities in India. In more general terms, we are confronting a fundamental question: What direction should the Indian social sciences take today? Should they continue to gather empirical details that merely serve to sustain the intellectual colonialism of the West? Or should they move into exciting new fields where our current understanding of human beings and societies may be turned upside down?

Leave a Reply

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