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-Illustration by Abro.
-Illustration by Abro.

Through 12 pages of closely printed text, historian Romila Thapar has provided what has to be the simplest, most incisive and lasting definition of a much-maligned word and concept in India – secularism.

Arguing that Indian thought had a “kind of proto-secular thinking” for many centuries, she recognises that batting for a secular state in India is not an easy task:

Its implications are misinterpreted or misrepresented, often deliberately so. It is equated with Westernisation and described as a Western imposition on what is projected as the Indian tradition. Not surprisingly the more material modes of Westernisation, such as increasing personal wealth through neo-liberalism are not objected to...with all of us now entangled in an international market economy, any charge of Westernisation is pathetic.

Writing in the new Himal Southasian, Thapar marks a key distinction:

The history of religion in India is...different from that of Europe. If a secular response is to be sought it will have to be in the context of this difference. Hence the need for a new understanding of the role of religion in the history of Indian society, as well as a redefinition of secularism to mean more than just a co-existence of monolithic religions.  

She provides an easy description of the core elements of what must constitute a secular society. Though she confines herself to the Indian context, her arguments are by no means restricted to Indian boundaries:

I would argue that secularism in its broadest meaning is a system of thinking that seeks to define the functioning of the universe and of human society without involving divine intervention. Most importantly, it does not deny religion but at the same time does not give it a role in social concerns.

Taking the concept beyond the hurly-burly of political football in India, Thapar brings the secular project in line with citizen entitlement:

Policies relating to the entitlements of the citizen – social welfare, education, health, distributive and social justice and the rule of law can be, and should be, the constituents and primary concerns of a secular society. However, these have to be integrated as a process of governance, since they can also be abused by those in power. Ensuring the just practice of law becomes a necessity. These are aspects of the secularising of society.     

The secular project, Thapar argues, treats divine sanction and immortality of the soul as irrelevant to the functioning of society:

When religious laws restrict social action, a secular policy could be a form of release from these. What it does imply is the primacy of civil laws governing the entire society. Identities of religion, race, caste, language and so on would be subordinated to the identity of citizenship defined as the equal rights and obligations of all citizens on the state.

She recognises the damage colonial policy did to overlapping religious identities in India by redefining religion:

It cut across the pluralism, the blurred edges and the overlapping forms of the many religious identities, and instead created sharply demarcated community identities with a sense of religious uniformity within each community...the Muslim Sayyad, Momin and bhishti did not see themselves as a single community; nor did the Sikh khatri mix with the Mazhabi Sikhs such as the Ramgarhias, let alone the brahmanas with the candalas...

According to Thapar, the need to introduce the secular mode into governance in India is urgent for two reasons:

One is that religions in India are being reformulated as monolithic structures with little flexibility. This disallows even the freedom of religious expression and reiterates religion as the central feature of social functioning. Belief is becoming hide-bound. Social ethics have to conform to the supposedly immutable and divinely sanctioned laws. These are often inventions of our times to overcome the problems we face, and have little to do with earlier social codes.

According to Thapar, the process of Hinduisation, Islamisation and related processes are not altogether unconnected to the fears and insecurities generated by contemporary economic and social changes. These could be seen as defence mechanisms although they aim at political provocation:

The presence of religious fundamentalism is not always directly confrontational. More often it is subtle, and subtle in a variety of ways – in news reports on riots, in advertisements in the media, and in many programmes presented on TV. Subtlety has a lulling effect and the idea of the secular finds decreasing resonance in Indian society.

Thapar also recognises the threat that a secular society faces from organised religion:

When religion becomes an organising agency and intervenes in controlling social relationships, it diminishes the possibility of a secular society. The secularising of society means that governance has to focus on what is essential: social welfare ensuring basic needs such as water, food, healthcare, access to quality education, income distribution and employment, and a guarantee of human rights not just in law but in practice. These are not to be treated as isolated items, as they often are, but as an integrated pattern of the polity.     

A final suggestion from my side: don’t just satisfy yourself with these nuggets, read the whole of Romila Thapar’s piece entitled “Redefining The Secular Mode for India” in Himal Southasian.

She’s proved once again that you can be erudite and simple at the same time.

Amit Baruah is an independent, Delhi-based journalist. He is the author of Dateline Islamabad and reported for The Hindu newspaper from Pakistan.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

DAWN_VIDEO - /1029551/DAWN-RM-1x1

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Amit Baruah is an independent, Delhi-based journalist. He is the author of Dateline Islamabad and reported for The Hindu newspaper from Pakistan. He tweets @abaruah64.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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Comments (28) Closed

hitesh Apr 01, 2013 10:14am
Simple definition of Secularism in present Indian Votebank Politics model is praising the terrorist like Sanjay Dutt and abusing the patriots like Narendra Modi. Where do Ms. Baruah and Mr. Thapar belong (gender changes are intentional) ?
K G Surendran Apr 01, 2013 11:11am
Organised religion has failed as we see events across the world. Secularism suited India because the majority community does not follow the one God concept and also flourished because the large majority accepted that religion could not sort out social issues.
sonali Apr 01, 2013 12:22pm
Lets read the text first before praising Modi or branding Sanjay Dutt.From the excerpts I see no reason to conclude that Ms Thapar has any special leaning towards Dutt or hates Modi.A reader of Dawn should at least understand that giving religion more importance than human beings can only lead to the creation of a monster that will kill all. Modi needs to be evaluated against this thought.Its incredible shortsightedness if Hindu fundamentalism is all right while Islamic fundamentalism should be condemned.
Khalid Anwar Apr 01, 2013 02:01pm
sorry....... i don't see organised religion failed or failing..... on the contrary its been on the rise since the fall of USSR. there are many population reports on the net. do the math yourselves
Shakoor Alam Apr 01, 2013 03:12pm
Narendra Modi, a hero? Isn't pathetic? For Sanjay Dutt, you have a point.
A.Vetta Apr 01, 2013 03:17pm
It is not possible to comment on
Cyrus Howell Apr 01, 2013 03:21pm
The premise of the famous French existentialists was the same, that Christianity had failed in Europe.
Cyrus Howell Apr 01, 2013 03:29pm
Religion exists for three reasons: (1) because we cannot bear the thought that we will never see those we love again after death. (2) to seek favor with the Higher Power. (3) so that the poor can maintain their dignity.
Nero Apr 01, 2013 03:33pm
Since when has abdicating your constitutional responsibility to "govern without favour" has become the mark of a patriot? Narendra Modi practices the same vote bank politics which congress does, but lot more visiously.
Cyrus Howell Apr 01, 2013 03:45pm
Hindu ceremonies seem to add happiness to people's lives in India. Similarly Bollywood films are about celebrating life. In Sunni Islam and puritanical Christianity singing and dancing are verboten. There the God we cannot see should be celebrated rather than that God inspired humanity within ourselves.
pathanoo Apr 01, 2013 03:53pm
hitesh, How did you connect the dots?
pathanoo Apr 01, 2013 03:54pm
An excellent defintion of secularism.
observer Apr 01, 2013 06:02pm
What a rubbish article. Irrelevant. Unnecessary.
abbastoronto Apr 01, 2013 07:05pm
Secularism is one of those fancy words that can mean everything to everyone. Confucius says that beginning of wisdom is calling things by their proper names. Religions are socio-economic systems that optimally answer to the Primal Question of Existence
Parvez Apr 01, 2013 07:47pm
A rather interesting article. My understanding is that India is a religious country with a secular constitution .......and this is a basic fact. People like Modi can and most probably will use religious sentiment to sway voters his way this may even result in unpleasant situations arising but this should not alter the basic fact as stated above.
Zeeshan Qazi Apr 01, 2013 08:45pm
Organized religion is simply not worth the blood and the money it consumes.
thegreenmenace Apr 02, 2013 12:05am
clear definitions are desperately needed in Pakistan, also. 'Liberal' is another often misused word in Pakistan.
kuhak Apr 02, 2013 03:06am
Your final sentence is somewhat reductive... Islamic conceptions of the divine are remarkable similar to the conception of the ineffable Absolute Being found in Hindu religio-philosophical texts like the Upanishads. Dara Shikoh realized this, and was immediately condemned as a heretic by Aurangzeb and his Ulema, who introduced a societal rift into subcontinental society that indirectly brought about the end of the Mughal empire. It weakened us to the point that the British could make significant inroads into the region, leading to three centuries of colonization and eventually the tragedy of Partition. As a people, we still haven't quite recovered from Dara Shikoh's defeat at the hands of Aurangzeb. If only he instead of Alamgir had become Emperor...
Kajamohideen Apr 02, 2013 04:08am
Secularism is the religion that has evolved beyond the other three and hence best suited for mankind in his present environment (habitat). Regards
Kajamohideen Apr 02, 2013 04:20am
Religion has failed and is failing everywhere. Violence everywhere in the Muslim world and falling Church attendance everywhere else. Regards
Siyalkotia Apr 02, 2013 05:31am
If Modi's style of governance could be imitated in Islamic countries, Pakistan in particular, face of the Islamic world will be much brighter today. Yes, Modi is a hero, even the Muslim Population of Gujrat believes so.
Leo Apr 02, 2013 08:49am
Yeah you are right, unfortunately though!
amit Apr 02, 2013 12:30pm
atleast pakistan has no no no right to comment or condemn or to show sympathy in this matter
crayoz Apr 02, 2013 01:33pm
Its a pity that the hyperlink is not taking you to the original article
Zimbo_Indian Apr 02, 2013 03:57pm
Secularism is not a religion. It is an attitude which enables people to see other people as human beings. It is a difficult concept for Muslims to comprehend.
Zimbo_Indian Apr 02, 2013 04:00pm
Hinduism is a truly secular religion. It accepts many forms of worship and does not demand rigid observance to any particular set of rules. It even accepts atheists as Hindus.
Zimbo_Indian Apr 02, 2013 04:03pm
There is only one reason for which religion exists as well observed by Marx - to opiate the masses.
khatun Apr 03, 2013 06:10am
Pakistanis ,when in the west,loves to live in secular countries. But in theirown countries they deny that facility to others. And then they complain why other people despise them? Abbas is one of the example.