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Secular by reason

April 01, 2013

-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.