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Whither Indian Secularism?

Author(s): T. N. Madan
Source: Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 27, No. 3 (Jul., 1993), pp. 667-697
Published by: Cambridge University Press
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Modern Asian Studies 27, 3 (1993), pp. 667-697. Printed in Great Britain.

Whither Indian Secularism?

Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi

... One does not ask plain questions.

There aren't such things.
E. M. Forster, Howards End

'When I use a word', Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a sco

means just what I choose it to mean-neither more nor less.'
'The question is', said Alice, 'whether you can make words m
different things.'

'The question is', said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be m

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

The present paper seeks 'to explore the nature of Indian secularism,
the difficulties it has run into, and the ways in which it may be
revised'. This is a large undertaking for a short text, originally written

as a public lecture, particularly because the issues posed do not readily translate into plain questions. The most that I can hope to do is
to raise some doubts and make a few suggestions for rethinking the

issues involved.

Let me begin by suggesting that implicit in the apprehensions

about Indian secularism having run into difficulties, widely prevalent

among concerned intellectuals and politicians, are three basic

assumptions. There is, first, the assumption that secularism as an
anti-religious or, at any rate, non-religious ideology has universal
This paper is an extended version of the Fourth Caparo Annual Lecture which I
was privileged to give at the University of Hull, England, on 24 October 1991. It is
being published simultaneously by the University.
I am grateful to Bhikhu Parekh, Asghar Ali Engineer, James Bjorkman, Gopal
Krishna, T. P. McNeil, and Noel O'Sullivan for their comments and criticisms. In
the preparation of the present text I have been helped by the encouragement of
several colleagues in Delhi, particularly Upendra Baxi, Dharma Kumar, Ashis
Nandy, Ramashray Roy, Satish Saberwal and Jit Uberoi.

oo26-749X/93/$5.oo + .oo ? 1993 Cambridge University Press

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applicability, but that it has culturally specific expressions. This is

how they consider it permissible to speak of Indian secularism. In
other words, secularism is not an Indian ideology, but there is an
Indian ideology of secularism. The general ideology of secularism, it
is asserted, has been historically validated by the experience and
achievements of the so-called modern societies of the West in the last

four hundred years and it should have succeeded in India too. Sec
ondly, it is assumed that secularism will be welcomed by all righ

thinking persons, for it shows the way to the making of rational plan

for social reconstruction and state action, placing ultimate faith in

the adequacy of human agency. Finally, there is the assumption that,

with appropriate corrective measures, secularism can still be mad

to succeed in India, notwithstanding all the faltering of the last four

Personally, I believe that all three assumptions should be subjecte

to critical scrutiny. I do not think that the virtues claimed for secular

ism are unquestionable or that it provides answers to all question

about life and living. Surely it has not been a complete success any
where nor do we know of any wholly secularized societies. Our tim
are witness to the phenomena of desecularization and fundamental
ism. There are obvious limits to what the theoretical and experimental sciences can enable human beings to know; and there ar
even more obvious limits to what technology and the bureaucrat
organization of work can enable us to do. These limits are the limit
of the historic process of 'rationalization' valorized in the ideology
secularism, even in the West, which is said to bring to the non-

Western countries intimations of their future as modernizing societies

Let me, then, take a quick look at the experience of Western societ
with secularism and secularization in order briefly to provide a com
parative perspective for a discussion of the contemporary Indian


II. Secularization and Secularism in the West

Any discussion of these issues is, I am afraid, bedevilled by terminolo-

gical confusion, ethnographic diversity and ideological dissension. A

generation ago, David Martin, a British sociologist, exasperated by
the lack of fit between the varied empirical materials from Wester
societies and a general notion of secularization, with its roots in th
counter-religious impulse, proposed erasure of the wretched word

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from the sociological vocabulary.' But the word is, of cour

with us and Martin has, since his original proposal, given us
outlining, even if prematurely, 'a general theory of secular
and presenting a fairly wide range of empirical possibilities
the narrow confines of the West (including Russia and the
In fact, the word 'secularization' has been with us since the seventeenth century from the years of negotiations leading up to the Treaty
of Westphalia in 1648. It was then but a convenient term, describing
the transfer of church properties to the exclusive control of the
princes. It was only in the following century that this became a political programme, having its momentous expression in the French
Revolution a century and a half later.
In our own time, secularization has acquired the status of a 'social
myth', which contains elements of truth, namely the empirical processes that constitute it, as well as distortions of that truth, all in the
service of diverse-even contradictory-ideological positions. While

the so-called conservatives see secularization as a threat to their con-

ceptions of the good, moral, life, robbing it of its ideas of sacredness

and ultimate value, the secularists look upon it as an anti-religious

emancipatory process. The latter consider urbanization, industrialization and modernization as the causes and the symptoms of the
'secularizing fever' that grips our societies today.3
Personally, I would have thought that the word 'secularization'
was reasonably precise in its connotation and, therefore, useful in
describing certain processes that are as old as human culture: the
processes by which, step by step, human beings have reduced their
dependence upon supra-human agency and narrowed down the areas

of life in which religious ideas, symbols and institutions hold

sway. The point I want to stress here is not that these processes are
value-neutral, which they are not, or good or bad, but that they
have more or less happened everywhere. They have been described
in respect of contemporary India by many social scientists, including
M. N. Srinivas and Milton Singer.4 These accounts are by no means
David Martin, 'Towards Eliminating the Concept of Secularization' in J. Gould
(ed.), Penguin Survey of the Social Sciences (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1965).
2 David Martin, A General Theory of Secularization (Oxford, Blackwell, I978).

3 See, e.g., Peter Glasner, The Sociology of Secularization (London, Routledge and
Kegan Paul, 1977).
4 M. N. Srinivas, Social Change in Modem India (Berkeley, University of California
Press, 1966); Milton Singer, When a Great Tradition Modernizes (New York, Praeger,

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non-ideological though: their authors are genera

they see happening, but they do not exactly

Actually, and as is well-known, the passag

description to evaluation in social science-wri

treacherously slippery, and one cannot be too
To avoid the conflation of the processes of
secularization thesis-a thesis about concomitan
even inevitability-we do need, I think, the w
well-known, it was first used only in the mi
century by George Jacob Holyoake. He inheri
and Utilitarian movements of England a natu
social utopian rationalism. From the French
republicanism, anticlericalism and an aversion
ral Secular Society that he founded had for
goals, the endeavour 'to encourage men to tru
and to trust nothing that Reason does not es

Society was to claim 'the fullest liberty of thou

'worship of supposed superior beings'.5

It is obvious that the inspiration behind the id

was derived partly from the Enlightenment. N
where believes any longer that Enlightenmen
religion completely: they only sought to bind
reason. It has been said that the philosophers
'demolished the Heavenly City of St Augustine o
more up-to-date materials.'6 Peter Gay, too,
authoritative account that the age of the Enl

religious age, and that what secularization

subtle shift of attention: religious institution

tions of events were slowly being displaced from
its periphery'.7

Even so, this shift was, in Ernst Cassirer's w

intellectual centre of gravity', bringing about an

Western conceptions of ontology and epistem

'Enlightenment is man's exodus from his sel
5 See Colin Campbell, Towards a Sociology of Irreligion
PP. 46-57.

6 Carl Becker, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Centu

Yale University Press, I932), p. 31.

7 Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation. The Ri

York, Vintage Books, 1966).

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"Dare to know" (sapere aude): Have the courage to use your

understanding; this is the motto of the Enlightenment'.8 It was a c

for self-emancipation. Nature had been shorn of its mysterie

Friedrich Schiller's phrase, it had been 'disenchanted' --and re
ceptualized as 'self-supporting and self-explanatory'. The questi
transcendence had been-or so the philosophers thought-set as
The emphasis was no longer on things beyond, but on saeculari
lasting worldly things judged as value, and on saeculum, or se
time, that is 'our age', here and now.
If secularism is placed within the setting of the Enlightenment,

I think it should be, it is obvious that it is better defined posit

as a reasonable theory about human agency, rather than negati
as an anti-religious ideology. Actually, there is more to it than

that: scholars from Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch to Louis Dumont

and Peter Berger have in their different ways pointed to the essential

linkages among Protestantism, individualism, and secularization. In

Berger's succinct summing up, 'Protestantism cut the umbilical cord
between heaven and earth',9 and presented secularization as a gift to
humankind. David Martin, too, proclaims 'that secularization initially occurs within the ambit of Christian societies.'"0

The limitation of space precludes details, but let me point out

broadly that the idea of the privatization of religion, which is the

recommendation of compassionate secularists to their less enlightened

fellow human beings, owes its birth to, inter alia, the Protestant notion

of the individual's assumption of responsibility for his or her own

salvation without the aid of the Church. The general secularization
of life in the West after the Reformation is significantly, though only

partly, an unintended consequence of a religious idea. More directly,

Martin Luther strengthened the forces of secularization by maintaining that the Christian community exists solely by faith, trusting
in God's saving grace, and that the Church possesses no jurisdictional
powers. He asserted that it is a duty laid upon all true Christians in
the New Testament that they submit to secular authorities, the range
of whose powers he actually extended in ways that ruled out resist-

ance. Similarly, Calvin recommended political dutifulness to the

faithful without regard for the character, conduct, or religion of the
8 Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (Princeton, N.J., Princeton Uni-

versity Press, 1968), p. I63.

9 Peter Berger, The Social Reality of Religion (London, Allen Lane, 1973), p. 118.
10 Martin, A General Theory, p. 2.

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ruler. Luther and Calvin thus helped usher in a m

that they would themselves hardly approve of."
The situation abounds in paradoxes. Seculariza

sense of transfer of Church properties, given to it

anti-Church and anti-God. But in more recent ti

theologians have made attempts to establish pe

processes of secularization. The World Council o
in I950 the concept of secularized society as t
affirmations and activities. Some radical theolog
ization as the will of God for humankind, but
error. Friedrich Gogarten puts it thus:

So long as faith and secularization remain what they

nature, the relationship between them cannot be on

each other for the sphere belonging to them. If faith k

tion what is seized by it, faith ceases to be faith. If s

claim for itself that which belongs to faith, seculariz

with secularity, but becomes secularism.'2

More stridently, Harvey Cox maintains that, wh

an 'irreversible' historical process has 'its roots
itself, secularism is an 'ism' and a 'closed world-v

aces the openness and freedom secularization h

The implication of such views obviously is that th

the ideology of secularism is its holistic, non-dualis

that the separation of the domains of the 'sacr

must be acknowledged everywhere and in the s
problem with its acceptance is that non-Christian

either do not make this distinction or make it hier

ing the secular under the sacred. If this dichoto

contemporary Christian theologians to protect Chr

larism-in fact, from the erosive effects of sec

occurs in sociological writings in just the opposi
'sacred' in its place, which is a private place or n
postures are, it seems to me, characterized by
confidence, though this is rarely acknowledged.
Let me elucidate the sociological attitude by br

l Harro Hopfl (ed. and trans.), Luther and Calvin on Secular

Cambridge University Press, I99I).
12 See, Harry Smith, Secularization and the University (Ri
Press, 1968), pp. 25-44.

13 Harvey Cox, The Secular City: Secularization ahnd Urbanization

ive (New York, Macmillan, I965).

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judgements of three prominent founding fathers of sociology

decline of religion and on the progress of secularization in th
teenth-century West. I consider these judgements important

discussion because the social sciences are in a significant

running commentary on this process. Marx, Durkheim and
were, all three, convinced about the decline of institutional r
in Europe and beyond: this is for sure. Thus Durkheim mai
that, although the inroads of science into human affairs ha

deep, yet it was forbidden entry into 'the world of religious and

life'. He thought, however, that even this 'final barrier' wo

overcome, and science would 'establish herself as mistress in

reserved region' also. Was it then all over? Not quite. The uncert
and the ambiguity of the following words from the same classic
The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, is remarkable: 'there
thing eternal in religion which is destined to survive all the par
symbols in which religious thought has successively enveloped

And so, 'religion seems destined to transform itself rather t

disappear.'14 But we now know that this fairly accurate prognos

on the side of caution. The point I want to make is perha

illustrated by what has been happening in North America in the

since World War Two. In a richly documented recent study

Princeton sociologist, Robert Wuthnow, points out that a s
minded, linear notion of secularization is wholly inadequate
ture the restructuring in our time of American religion in
vibrancy and complexity.15

Weber, deeply influenced by Nietzsche as he was, was less c

ent, I think, about the future of a secularized world than Dur

But what he was sure of was the significance of secularization

the decline of religion: of

the fate of our times [being] characterized by rationalization and i

tualization and, above all, by the 'disenchantment of the world'. P

the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life e
into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness o

and personal human relations.

'Science is meaningless', he approvingly quoted Tolstoy as sa

'because it gives no answer to our question, the only question im

14 Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (New York, Ma

1915), PP. 462-96.

15 Robert Wuthnow, The Restructuring of American Religion (Princeton, NJ.,

ton University Press, I989).

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ant for us: "What shall we do and how shall we live?"''6 Weber

placed power at the very centre of a rationalized (secularized) world,

but saw no evidence at all of its exercise anywhere totally divorced
from religion. As he put it, 'the complete subordination of priestly to

secular power ... can nowhere be found in its pure type'.17

Maybe we can derive greater strength about the post-religious

world from Marx. He was not the one to shed tears over the demise

of religion, which he dismissed as 'the opium of the masses', but he

had his own doubts about the future course of secularization. He

wrote: 'the fact that the secular foundation [of life] lifts itself abo
itself, and establishes itself in the clouds as an independent real

only to be explained by the self-cleavage and self contradictoriness

the secular basis'.'8 In other words, secularism can itself preten

become a religion, not only in the sense that secular humanism

religion, but also and more pretentiously as the ideology of the sta

and that points to contemporary India. Secularism as the state

logy of India seeks to provide the moral basis of public life ju
Islam supposedly does in Pakistan; the state in India is expecte
protect and promote secularism in more or less the same mann

which the Sri Lankan state is expected to protect and promote Budd
ism; and secularism, it is hoped, will be the prevailing ethos of mod

India as Hinduism has been of traditional Nepal. If this be so,

the apprehension that it has run into difficulties merits careful st

III. A Gandhian Perspective

Secularism in India is a multivocal word: what it means dep

upon who uses the word and in what context. There is, therefor
single or straight answer to the question as to why secularism in In
has run into difficulties. Let me then attempt to present two possi
answers which are based on my understanding of Mahatma Gand

16 Max Weber, 'Science as a Vocation' in H. H. Gerth and C. W. Mills (eds

From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, I948
I55, I43-

17 Max Weber, Economy and Society, ed. by Guenther Roth and Claus Witt
(Berkeley, University of California Press, 1978), vol. 2, pp. 58-60.
18 See Karl Lowith, Meaning in History (Chicago, University of Chicago Pr
I949), p. 49. The phrase 'opium of the masses' is from Toward the Critique of Heg

Philosophy of Right and the reference to the dissolution of religion from The Ger
Ideology. See Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Basic Writings on Politics and Philosoph

ed. by Lewis S. Feur (New York, Doubleday, Anchor, I959), pp. 262-6, 246-6i

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and Jawaharlal Nehru's views on the relationship of religion,

and the state. Needless to emphasize, I do not pretend th

answers are what Gandhi and Nehru themselves would have s

they been alive today.

Obviously, we must begin with Mahatma Gandhi becau

often referred to as the spiritual father of Indian secularism

even been inaccurately and unjustly called a secularist. If the

of all varieties of secularism is the demarcation of boundaries between

the sacred and secular domains per se, then Gandhi would have had
no use for any such ideology. Its success would have been a moral
disaster. His vision, as has been noted so often, was holistic, with
religion as its constitutive principle-as the source of value for judging
the worth of all worldly goals and actions. Religion here means, above
all, altruism (sevadharma), moral reason (atmatushti), and the putting of

one's faith in the saving grace of God (Rama nama). 'For me', Gandhi
observed, 'every, the tiniest, activity is governed by what I consider
my religion'.19 This was a timeless principle for him and yet he was
very sensitive to the conditions and demands of particular times and
places, in conformity with the kala-desha sensitivity of Indian classical

tradition. 'Every age', Gandhi wrote, 'is known to have its

predominant mode of spiritual effort best suited for the attainment of

moksha.... In this age, only political sannyasis can fulfil and adorn the
ideal of sannyasa'. Consequently, 'No Indian who aspires to follow the
way of true religion can afford to remain aloof from politics'.20
Now, Bhikhu Parekh asserts in an insightful and thought-provoking

discussion of Gandhi's political philosophy that, 'there was hardly a

Hindu religious category and practice to which [Gandhi] did not give
a worldly and secular content'. In other words, 'Gandhi secularized
Hinduism as much as it was possible to do within a spiritual framework'.2' The emphasis upon the word 'within' is Parekh's and it is
of crucial importance. It signifies that the relationship of the sacred
and the secular-of dharma and artha, or religion and politics-is 'hierarchical' (in the Dumontian sense): the latter category is opposed to
the former but also encompassed by it. Did Gandhi, then, secularize
religion or did he sacralize politics? Both positions have strong adherents. I would rather side with Margaret Chatterji's judgement that
19 See Raghavan Iyer (ed.), The Moral and Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi: Vol.
I: Civilization, Politics, and Religion (Oxford Clarendon Press, I980), p. 39I.
20 Bhikhu Parekh, Gandhi's Political Philosophy (London, Macmillan, 1989), p. o00.
21 Ibid., p. 109.

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'Gandhi seems almost a secularist', but judg

concrete issues, notably the communal (Hind
'was not secularist, if by this we mean an at

religious considerations from political matters'

Gandhi was very careful with his use of wo

in attempting to construct an answer to our
first principles such as the above. Politics we
they became the dharma of the age (yugadha
not contradictorily-the state was devalorize
principle is power or coercion. In his conce
perfect society, Gandhi emphasized that its

be the moral calibre of the individuals who constitute it. He extended

the principle to the relationship of the citizen to the state. As Parekh

puts it, 'For Gandhi it was the citizen's sense of moral responsibility
for his actions that ultimately determined the character of the state'.23

In itself, the state, in Gandhian reckoning, is amoral, impersonal,

distant, coercive, and even violent. Although Gandhi's views on the
state became less negative over time, he never warmed up to this
institution. In Parekh's summing up, 'It took him a long time to
appreciate its moral, regenerative and redistributive role and even
then his acceptance of it remained half-hearted and unintegrated into
his general perspective'.24 Gandhi did not set much store by Western

liberal democracy either, considering it to be rooted in individual

selfishness and a materialist conception of the good life.25

A Gandhian would, it seems to me, have to say that secularism

has run into difficulties in India because the state is too much with

us, because it intrudes into areas of life where it has no business even

to peep. That state is best which governs the least. Talking with a
Christian missionary in September I946, Gandhi said: 'If I were a
dictator, religion and state would be separate. I swear by my religion,
I will die for it. But it is my personal affair. The state has nothing to

do with it. The state would look after your secular welfare, health,
communications, foreign relations, currency and so on, but not your
or my religion. That is everybody's personal concern!'26 A year later,
soon after independence and a few months before his death, he said:
22 Margaret Chatterji, Gandhi's Religious Thought (London, Macmillan, 1983), p. 85.
23 Parekh, Gandhi's Political Philosophy, p. 124.
24 Ibid., p. 204.
25 Bhikhu Parekh, Colonialism, Tradition and Reform: An Analysis of Gandhi's Political

Discourse (New Delhi, Sage, 1989), p. 74.

26 Iyer (ed.), The Moral and Political Writings, p. 395.

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'The state should undoubtedly be secular. Everyone in it sho

entitled to profess his religion without let or hindrance, so
the citizen obeys the common law of the land.'27 But he was
against the idea of a state religion or state support for any r
'A society or group', he said, 'which depends partly or who
state aid for the existence of its religion, does not deserve or

still, does not have any religion worth the name.'28

To the extent to which Indian secularism, even though it stand
equal respect for all religious faiths (sarvadharma sambhava), is a

ideology, enshrined in the Constitution in which it is linked

materialist ideology of socialism-to the extent to which it has

nothing to say about the individual except in terms of his or her

rights, it is from the Gandhian perspective a hedonistic ideology and

deserves to fail. In Judith Brown's excellent summing up, 'In

Gandhi's eyes men and women were human in virtue of their capacity

for religious vision. . . . [If] this was stifled by the individual or by

political and economic structures then people were degraded and
dehumanized. This was so strong and striking an attack on secular

materialism as could be made'.29

A Gandhian critique of secularism in terms of ultimate values and

individual responsibility is in some respects similar to Max Weber's
concern with the problem of value. What Gandhi and Weber are
saying is that a secularized world is inherently unstable because it
elevates to the realm of ultimate values the only values it knows and
these are instrumental values. 'Natural science', Weber said, 'gives
us an answer to the question of what we must do if we wish to master

life technically. It leaves quite aside, or assumes for its purposes,

whether we should and do wish to master life technically and whether
it ultimately makes sense to do so.'30

IV. Nehru on Religion, Politics and Secularism

Gandhian remedies are believed by modern Indians to be far-fetched
and impractical, if not obscurantist. The fact that he was not a systematic thinker, attaching greater importance to action (dcara) and
27 See N. K. Bose (ed.), Selections from Gandhi (Ahmedabad, Navjivan, I948), p.

256. 28 Ibid., p. 287.

29 Judith M. Brown, Gandhi-Prisoner of

I992), P. 392.
30 Weber, 'Science as a Vocation', p. 144.

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experience (anubhava) than to thought (vicdra), does not make the

task of examining the contemporary relevance of Gandhi's views any
easier.31 In any case, there was hardly anyone among the leaders of
independent India who could be said to want to build on the basis
of Gandhi's political and economic philosophy. In relation to the
character of the new state, Sardar Patel and Rajendra Prasad were
no closer to Gandhi than was Nehru, which does not mean that their
notions of a strong state were identical. It is perhaps ironic that
Gandhi's public designation of Nehru as his political heir added
strength to and bestowed legitimacy on Nehru's own independent
position as a national leader. Let us then turn to Jawaharlal Nehru
for a diagnosis of the malady that has afflicted Indian secularism.
Before we proceed let us look again at the words 'religion' and 'secularism' in the context of Nehru's views, abiding by the good advice
that we must pay a word extra when we make it do a lot of work!
By intellectual preference Nehru's concept of secularism was the
same that I talked about earlier in this paper in the context of the
Enlightenment. He was against institutional religion, ritual, and mys-

ticism and did not consider himself a religious person. He was not,
however, uninterested in spiritual matters. Any impressions of his
boyhood experiences of Brahmanical belief and ritual were erased by
his reading of the works of Karl Marx, Bertrand Russell and other
similar thinkers. His study of world history and his encounters with
the Indian masses in the I92os and I930S made him feel very negative
about the role of religion in human affairs and he looked forward to
a secularized society. He was an agnostic and subscribed to a rationalist, and even a historicist, worldview.

Gandhi's religiosity, to put it mildly, puzzled and annoyed him. It

caused him to write (in his autobiography) one of his clearest and
mature statements on the subject of religion. Referring to the anguish

that the news of Gandhi's fast (in September 1932) on the subject of

separate electorates (in Nehru's judgement 'a side political issue')

had caused him while he was in prison, Nehru wrote: 'I felt angry
with him at his religious and sentimental approach to a political
question, and his frequent references to God in connection with it'.32

He went on to observe:

31 I owe this framework for examining traditional Indian thought to Professor K.

J. Shah, who may not, however, approve of my use of it.
32 Jawaharlal Nehru, An Autobiography (New Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial

Fund/Delhi, Oxford University Press, i980).

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India is supposed to be a religious country above everything else

yet] I have frequently condemned [religion] and wished to make

sweep of it. Almost always it seemed to stand for blind belief and reac

dogma and bigotry, superstition and exploitation, and the preserv

vested interests. And yet I knew well that there was something els
something which supplied a deeper inner craving of human beings.33

Indian religiosity had been on Nehru's mind for quite some

though he refused to be unduly worried about it. It was

nuisance than a real problem. In 1928 he had declared: 'If re

or rather what is called religion, in India continues to interfere

everything, then it will not be a mere question of divorcing
politics, but of divorcing it from life itself.34 The Gandhian imp

of religion as the guide to all, even 'the tiniest', activities w

what Nehru believed in. As for the Gandhian notion of divine
Nehru considered the idea of 'a personal god' 'very odd'.35 L
modern intellectuals he had implicit confidence in the proce


Proclaiming this confidence in his presidential address to the

Lahore (I929) session of the Congress, he said: 'I have no love for
bigotry and dogmatism in religion, and I am glad that they are
weakening. Nor do I love communalism in any shape or form.... I
know that the time is coming soon when these labels and appellations

will have little meaning and when our struggle will be on the economic basis'.36 Two years later-in fact again and again during the
next two decades-he reaffirmed the primacy of the economic factor:
'the real thing to my mind is the economic factor. If we lay stress on
this and divert public attention to it we shall find automatically that
religious differences recede into the background and a common bond
unites different groups. The economic bond is stronger than even the national

one' (emphasis added).37 These concluding words underlined Nehru's

radical position and his socialist convictions.
Given this position, it is no wonder that Nehru was dismissive
about the Hindu-Muslim problem: 'the question does not exist at all
for us', he declared.38 Less dismissively, he said in his presidential
address at the Lucknow (1936) Congress: 'First of all the Congress
33 Ibid., p. 374.
34 S. Gopal (ed.), Selected Works ofJawaharlal Nehru (New Delhi, Orient Longman)
[hereafter SWJN], vol. 3, 1972, p. 233.
35 Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India (Bombay, Asia, I96I), p. 28.
36 SWJN, vol. 4, 1973, p. I88.

37 SWJN, vol. 5, 1973, p. 203. 38 Ibid., p. 282.

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always put independence first and other questions, including the communal one, second, and refused to allow any other of those questions
to take the pride of place'. He added: 'I am afraid I cannot get excited

over the communal issue, important as it is temporarily. It is after

all a side issue, and it can have no real importance in the larger
scheme of things'.39

The same train of thought was given considered expression in The

Discovery of India (written in prison during I944). He wrote: 'The
belief in a super-natural agency which ordains everything has led to
a certain irresponsibility on the social plane, and emotion and sentimentality have taken the place of reasoned thought and inquiry. Reli-

gion, though it has undoubtedly brought comfort to innumerable

human beings and stabilized society by its values, has checked the
tendency to change and progress inherent in human society.'40 He
confessed candidly in the same work, that religion did not 'attract'
him for 'behind it lay a method of approach to life's problems which
was certainly not that of science'.41 Just three years before he became

the Prime Minister of India, he looked forward to the future and

exhorted Indians that they face life 'with the temper and approach
of science allied to philosophy and with reverence for all that lies

Out of prison in i945, Nehru faced a rapidly changing political

situation and, much to his chagrin, the 'side issue' moved fast to
occupy the centre of the stage. He was disbelieving and appalled. 'To

think in terms of Pakistan when the modern trend is towards the

establishment of a world federation is like thinking in terms of bows

and arrows as weapons of war in the age of the atomic bomb'.43 The
viceroy, Lord Wavell, recorded in his journal on 14 July 1945: 'the

theme of [Nehru's] discourse was that [Pakistan represented] a

narrow medieval conception, and that the eventual cleavage when

India's freedom was secured would be between poor and rich,

between peasant and landlord, between labour and employer'.44
India's freedom was secured two years later, but the country was

partitioned on the basis of religion.

I have quoted fairly extensively from Nehru's writings, statements

and speeches to highlight the consistency of his thinking over two

decades and more. It is obvious that the decisive element in this

thinking was, at the broadest level, an Enlightenment view of religion,

39 SWJN, vol. 7, 1975, p. 190. 40 Nehru, The Discovery, p. 543.
41 Ibid., p. 26. 42 Ibid., p. 547.

43 SWJN, vol. 14, 1981, p. 87. 44 Ibid., p. 46.

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which was against revelation and dogmatism rather than re

such, if it did not offend against reason, and, more specific
Marxian position on religion, though considerably diluted. I
that we find Nehru attacks the bigotry and dogmatism of

but acknowledges that religion stands for higher things of life

wrote of the comfort that religion had brought to innumerabl

and did not dismiss the phenomenon as 'the opium of the p

Marx had done.

But the idea of economic issues having precedence over even th

question of independence from colonial rule is in accordance with the

Marxian position. As is well known, in their discussion of the role
ideologies, Marx and Engels observed in The German Ideology that any

attempt to understand an epoch of history in terms of political an

religious issues is to 'share the illusion of the epoch'.45 Similarly
Engels in his graveside summary of Marx's thought, had said tha
Marx had 'discovered the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an over

growth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat and drink, hav

shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, religion

art, etc.'46 Actually, Marx believed that religion had already been

dissolved by the circumstances prevailing in Europe in his own time.47

And Lenin had affirmed that even while the socialists must figh
against religion, doing so did 'not mean that the religious questio
must be pushed into the foreground where it does not belong'.48
Nehru acknowledged his indebtedness to the teachings of Marx an
Lenin in his autobiography, The Discovery of India and elsewhere; but

he was too much of a liberal to be called a copybook Marxist.

In short, Nehru's position on religion, religious conflict and th
significance of the processes of secularization was what would be
called rational and modern, whether one sees it derived from Marxian
or Lockean roots. It was also idealist in the sense that it reflected

more the ideals of the European Enlightenment than the hard facts
of society, culture and politics in India. The latter generated compul-

sions at variance with these ideals. It is remarkable that it was Nehru

who in the same year, 1931, in which he gave the hopeful message
of the recession of religious differences (quoted above) persuaded the
All-India Congress Committee (at its Karachi session) to insert in
45 Marx and Engels, Basic Writings, p. 259.
46 Quoted in H. B. Acton, The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophi-

cal Creed (London, Cohen and West, I955), p. I43.

47 Marx and Engels, Basic Writings, p. 260.
48 V. I. Lenin, Religion (Calcutta, Burmon Publishing House, n.d.), p. I6.

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the resolution on fundamental rights 'Freedom of conscience and of

the profession and practice of any religion'.49 Further, all citizens of
free India would be equal before the law, irrespective of religious
(and similar other) differences, and the state would observe neutrality
in regard to all religions (dahrma nirpekshata). 'This', Nehru's biographer S. Gopal tells us, 'was the first breakdown, in concrete terms,
of the concept of secularism in the Indian context and formed the
basis of the [relevant] articles in the constitution many years later'.50
The Constitution did not, however, contain the words 'secular' or
'secularism' anywhere. The addition of the words 'secular' and
'socialist' to the description of India as a 'sovereign republic' in the
Preamble of the Constitution came through the 42nd Amendment in
1976 (during Indira Gandhi's Emergency rule). Was such specific
reference to secularism considered unnecessary earlier, when the Constitution was being framed (1946-49)? Or was it too controversial?
Perhaps both; which exactly would depend upon whom one has in
mind. The transcript of the debate in the Constituent Assembly
reveals that there was considerable difference of opinion on the right
of propagation of one's religion, in addition to its profession and
practice, but it was ultimately approved. The following statement by
the well-known Congressman, H. V. Kamath, perhaps represented
the general feeling of the members of the house: 'the State represents
all the people who live in its territories, and, therefore it cannot afford

to identify itself with any particular section of the population..... We

have certainly declared that India should be a secular State. But ...
a secular state is neither a Godless State nor an irreligious, nor an
anti-religious, state'.51 Already, one can see, the notion of the secular
state, and of secularism, were being enveloped in ambiguity, meaning

what one wished the terms to mean.

More about the Constitution below. Let me first recall how Nehru,

having seen his confidence in the primacy of the economic over the
religious factor proven premature, if not wholly misplaced, looked to
the future after partition and independence. A few months after these
events he posed the question: 'Do we believe in a national state which
includes people of all religions and shades of opinion and is essentially
a secular state, or do we believe in the religious, theocratic conception

of the state?' His answer was unequivocal: 'we shall proceed on secu49 SWJN, vol. 4, I973, p- 512.

50 S. Gopal, 'Nehru and Secularism', Occasional Papers, No. 42 (Mimeo), New

Delhi, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, 1987, p. 12.
51 Constituent Assembly of India Debates, 6 December I948, p. 825.

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lar and national lines'.52 This then became the guiding princ
animated the Constitution (then on the anvil) and became th
of state policy in all relevant areas of action. The great Indian e
ment of nation building, or national integration, had thus ente
most crucial phase.
It, however, suffered from a critical moral flaw. Given
lifelong aversion to religion as practised by common people-

called popular religion--he could not have suddenly begu

virtues in it. Moreover, within the western liberal traditio
modern state had emerged as secular in the specific sense t
maintenance of the 'true faith', or any faith, was none of

cerns.'53 Nehru's definition of the secular state in terms of

pluralism (quoted above) was, it seems obvious to me, a comp
a strategy to deal with an awkward problem, viz. the all-p
influence of religion in society, that would not go away. Ne
made such compromises more than once in his political car
one historic occasion (the 1936 presidential address to the Co
he had called them 'temporary expedients of a transition rat
as solutions of our vital problems'.54 Like his attitude to khadi
thus on this occasion, religious pluralism was, it seems to
arrangement ad interim.

The infirmity of the experiment of nation-building lay not o

that religious pluralism was meaningless in the absence of a

attitude to religion, but equally significantly in the idiom of it

lation which was modern. Nehru had written that ideas like 'social-

ism' and (I should think) 'secularism' must be communicated to the

people in 'the language of the mind and the heart, . . . the languag
which grows from a complex of associations of past history and cu
ture and present environment'.55 Needless to add, this could not have

been the language of India's westernized educated elite, whom

Gandhi had called 'hard hearted'.

Eleven years after independence, and eight years after the adoption

of the Constitution, Nehru was visited by Andre Malraux in Delh

and asked what his greatest problem had been during his years o
power. Nehru replied: 'Creating a just state by just means', and, aft
a pause, 'Perhaps, too, creating a secular state in a religious society.'56

52 S. Gopal (ed.), Selected Works ofJawaharlal Nehru, Second Series (New Delhi, Jawa-

harlal Nehru Memorial Fund) [hereafter SWJN-2], vol. 5, 1987, p. 26.

53 Quentin Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought: The Age of Reformatio

(Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1978), p. 352.

54 SWJN, vol. 7, 1975, p. I82. 55 Ibid., p. 562.

56 Andre Malraux, Antimemoirs (London, Hamish Hamilton, i968), p. 145

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I detect a sense of defeat in Nehru's observations on the subject in

his later years. Sorrowfully he wrote in I96I, just three years before
his death: 'We talk about a secular state in India. It is perhaps not
very easy even to find a good word in Hindi for "secular". Some
people think it means something opposed to religion. That obviously
is not correct. ... It is a state which honours all faiths equally and
gives them equal opportunities.' Having written this, he proceeded
more in line with his earlier thinking on the subject:
Our constitution lays down that we are a secular state, but it must be
admitted that this is not wholly reflected in our mass living and thinking.
In a country like England, the state is ... allied to one particular religion
. . . Nevertheless, the state and the people there function in a largely secular
way. Society, therefore, in England is more advanced in this respect than in India, even

though our constitution may be in this matter more advanced.57 (emphasis


It is clear from this that Nehru had not given up his trust of the
processes of secularization and of the secularization thesis. The chasm
between him and Gandhi was deep. For Gandhi secularism in the
sense of religious pluralism entailed interreligious understanding and
mutual respect: it was the strength of Indian society while communal
politics tied to statism could be its bane. For Nehru, however, religiosity and the attendant conflicts were the badge of social backwardness.
Secularism in the sense of neutrality as state policy was a strategy to
cope with a difficult situation. And the state was potentially a very
important instrument of public welfare and social advancement, very
much on the lines J. S. Mill and other liberals had advocated.58 I am
puzzled by those intellectuals who speak of a hyphenated GandhiNehru view of secularism or, for that matter, of development. It is
high time we accepted the authoritative verdict of B. R. Nanda: 'The
working partnership of Nehru and Gandhi lasted till the end, but
their philosophies of life never really converged'.59
A Nehruvian answer to the question why Indian secularism has
57 See S. Gopal (ed.), Jawaharlal Nehru: An Anthology (Delhi, Oxford University
Press, I980), pp. 33of.
58 'In many parts of the world, the people can do nothing for themselves which
requires large means and combined actions; all such things are left undone, unless
done by the state': John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy, II, pp. 602-3,
quoted in Karl de Schweinitz, Jr., The Rise and Fall of British India: Imperialism as
Inequality (London, Methuen, I983), p. I25. (I am grateful to Dr Ramashray Roy for
drawing my attention to the passage from which I have quoted the above sentence.)
59 B. R. Nanda, Gokhale, Gandhi and the Nehrus: Studies in Indian Nationalism (London,

Allen and Unwin, 1974), p. 103.

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run into difficulties would, then, be that the peop

yet ready for it. It requires a level of general educ
beyond them, and a liberal outlook on life and scienti
unfortunately they lack. Religious intolerance has, in
in recent years and fundamentalisms of various name
the land today. The question that strikes one is that,
stood what India's problem in this regard was, why
harder than he did to remove the obstacles that sto
a modern, secular, society? One can never be sure, bu
a reasonable guess.
In the early years after independence Nehru rem
wedded to the belief that state-sponsored economi
key to social development. Hence, in his eyes, dam

were India's new temples. In believing so in the

excellent company. Confessional statements by ec
'sins' of a narrow concept of the contents of the g

of the quantitative approach to development were not

another decade would pass. By the time this approach
ran into a crisis Nehru was a sick man and he died soon afterwards

in I964. He had bet on what had seemed a sure winner, but it turned
out to be a lame horse. The most serious failure of the I950S from
the point of view of the present discussion was the shocking neglect of

radical educational reform. Gunnar Myrdal delivered his magisterial

verdict to this effect in i968, four years after Nehru's passing, in his

Asian Drama.60

V. Secularism and the Constitution

Nehru also put his faith in the Constitution and in the legislative
process, and this turned out to be the sin of 'excess' rather than
'neglect'. I am not a jurist any more than I am an economist, but I
find certain contradictions in the Constitution. An examination of

Articles 13 to 17, 19, 23, 25 to 30 (all from Part III dealing with
'Fundamental Rights'), and of Articles 44, 48 and 51 (from Part IV
on Directive Principles) brings these out clearly. Thus, Articles 25 to
30, which are the most crucial in this regard, guarantee 'freedom of
conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion'
(25), 'freedom to manage religious affairs' (26), 'freedom as to pay60 Gunnar Myrdal, Asian Drama, 3 vols (New York, Pantheon, i968), vol. 3, ch.

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ment of taxes for promotion of any particular religion' (27), and 'free-

dom as to attendance at religious instruction or religious worship in

certain educational institutions' (28). They protect the 'interests of
minorities' (29), including their 'right ... to establish and administer
educational institutions' (30). Article 44 directs that 'the State shall
endeavour to secure for the citizens a uniform civil code throughout
... India'. The way things have proceeded reveals the contradiction
between Articles 25 to 30 and Article 44. The jurists may well argue
that Directive Principles do not have the same force as Fundamental
Rights and, therefore, the question of contradiction does not arise.
The point I want to make is that the former have contributed enormously to the strengthening of inward-looking communal feelings and

attitudes and obstructed the spread of modern, secular, education

and attitudes among the minorities.
It is not at all surprising that the state has so far failed to implement

the constitutional directive of evolving a uniform civil code. The

greatest resistance has come from Muslims, some of whose leaders
claim that their social life cannot be governed by any laws other than

the sharia. This in spite of the fact that the Constituent Assembly
had, by a resolution in I948, rejected the contention that Muslim
personal law was inseparable from Islam and, therefore, protected
against legislative interference. The British rulers of India had had
greater success in this regard as the Criminal Procedure Code that
they enacted-it is still largely in force in India, but has been modified
in Pakistan--overrode traditional laws and conventions. The framers

of the Constitution, it seems to me, failed to realize that in a democratic polity the state will reflect the character of the society, and
that a communally divided society and a secular state are mutually
contradictory. One is reminded of Karl Marx's perceptive observation, in his tract on 'The Jewish Question', that 'the emancipation of
the state from religion is not the emancipation of the real man from
religion';61 needless to add that the real man he spoke of is the socially
situated person.

There are other contradictions in the Constitution that bear upon

the present discussion. I mentioned Articles 17 and 48. Now, the
former was a triumph for what Gandhi would have called moral
reason: it abolished the practice of untouchability 'in any form'. This
was aimed to promote the cause of the so-called low caste Hindus,
who had been exploited and humiliated by upper caste Hindus for
61 Karl Marx, 'On the Jewish Question' in K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works,

vol. 3 (Moscow, Progress Publishers, i975), pp. 146-74.

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as long as anyone could remember, actually for centuries. But Art

48 represented a concession to high caste Hindu sentiment, 'pro

ing the slaughter of cows and calves and other milch and dra

cattle', though the reason given is a secular one, namely the organ
tion of'agriculture and animal husbandry on modern scientific

The record of the debate on this issue in the Constituent Asse

reveals that Nehru had to threaten resignation in order to hav

ban given a secular character. The Hindu lobby, which had

informal patronage of the President, Dr Rajendra Prasad, had w

a general ban, and Nehru none of it. As early as I923, when he
the Mayor of Allahabad, he had persuaded the municipal Boar
reject a proposal to prohibit cow slaughter.62 It may be argued
the ban on cow slaughter is no more Brahmanical than Articl
which includes a directive about prohibition on the consumpti
intoxicants, is Islamic. This would be legal quibbling, for we
the strong sentiment against cow slaughter, generated among Hind
generally during the last one hundred years, to be a politically exp
ive issue.

It is noteworthy that, in the furtherance of the objectives of a secularized society and the establishment of a secular state, Nehru showed
a much greater willingness to oppose what he considered reactionary
elements among the Hindus than among the other communities. This

was best illustrated by his stand on the Hindu Code Bill. The Hindu
Marriage Act, I955, the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, and the Hindu
Adoption and Maintenance Act, 1956, were enacted by the Parliament, despite opposition by conservative Hindu leaders, including
President Prasad, mainly because of Nehru's insistence. I agree with
Bhikhu Parekh's insightful observation that 'Nehru's state acted as,
and claimed all the rights of a Hindu state in its relation to the Hindus

... because he and his colleagues were and thought of themselves as

Hindus ... they [thus] both dared take liberties with the Hindus and
dared not take them with respect to the Muslims and even Sikhs'.63

VI. The Majority-Minority Conundrum

Nehru's firm stand apparently contrasts with the vacillating attitude

of the Rajiv Gandhi government, which rushed through Parliament

62 See Gopal, 'Nehru and Secularism', p. 24.
63 Bhikhu Parekh, 'Nehru and the National Philosophy of India', Economic and

Political Weekly, 5-12, Jan. I991, p. 42.

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the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights) Ac

Supreme Court's verdict in the famous Shah
legal liability of a Muslim male to provide m

the wife he divorces. The new law was a concession to the conserva-

tive Muslim lobby according to which Muslim society is subject to

sharia everywhere and for all time.64 But there is a sense in which Rajiv

Gandhi was simply continuing with the Congress legacy of providing

special treatment and protection to religious minorities in accordance

with their own wishes. This had been endorsed by both Gandhi and
Nehru, and represented 'the benign elder brother' mentality. In any
case, the 1986 happenings could hardly be cited as the best way of
using the legislative process as an instrument of secularization. This is
particularly regrettable in view of the directive incorporated in Article

51 (by Amendment in I976) 'to promote scientific temper' (5i-A[a])

and to 'preserve the rich heritage of our composite culture' (5 -A[f]).
One could, however, well argue that these two additions to Article 51
are so vague and trite that those responsible for their inclusion in the

Constitution could have hardly been serious about them.

Why did Nehru treat Hindus and Muslims differently? Why have
successive governments at the Centre since Nehru's death in I964 and
up to date done so? Should not non-discrimination between different
religious communities be one of the first principles of the policies of a
secular state? The answer, it seems to me, lies largely in the majority-

minority conundrum which has acquired near-pathological proportions in India today. This calls for some elucidation.
In a democratic polity being in a majority betokens public approval
and signifies legitimate success for the group concerned. Such majorit-

ies represent interest groups and ideological positions. In Thomas

Jefferson's celebrated phrase, 'the will of the majority' is 'the Natural
law of every society', 'the only sure guardian of the rights of man'.65
Nobody is in a majority, so conceived, or out of it, because of ascribed,

or near-ascribed, attributes of race, gender, language or religion.

Majorities based on such attrributes are rightly judged to be unfair
winners in political games. A questionable assumption, however,
underlies the existence of majorities of this kind, namely that they
64 See Upendra Baxi, 'Secularism: Real and Pseudo', in M. M. Sankhder (ed.),
Secularism in India (New Delhi, Deep and Deep, 1992), p. 95. Also see S. P. Sathe,
'Secularism, Law and the Constitution of India', in M. S. Gore (ed.), Secularism in
India (Allahabad, Vidhya Prakashan, ir99), pp. 39-59.
65 Noble E. Cunningham, Jr., In Pursuit of Reason: The Life of Thomas Jefferson (New

Delhi, Affiliated East-West Press, I991), p. I33.

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are internally undifferentiated in terms of social customs, ec

interests and political loyalties, and are, therefore, able to appea
even act as monoliths, as it were. No religious community o
is, however, internally so undifferentiated, the Hindus least of
much so, indeed that, as a sociologist, I find little warrant fo
the word 'community' in referring to the Hindus. But poli

motivated Hindus have learnt its immense usefulness and non-

Hindus never let go of it, whether in reference to themselves or

Hindus. The majority-minority differentiation has thus become
integral part of the Indian political calculus.
We need to go back a little in time to appreciate how things h
come to such a pass. It is perhaps ironic that primordially def
majorities and minorities entered the Indian political idiom in
context of granting representation to people in local self-governanc

The best known critics of the introduction of western liberal notions of

elective representation in the I88os, when the viceroy, Lord Ripon,

brought forward his Local Self-Government Bill (1883), were Sayyid
Ahmad Khan and Amir Ali, who maintained that such a measure
would be unsuitable to a heterogenous society such as the Indian,
characterized as it was by not only differences of race and religion,
caste and creed, but also of numbers. Arguments were backed by
action: for instance, the influential ulama of the newly founded semin-

ary at Deoband (in north India) issuedfatwas discouraging social and

economic contacts between Muslims and Hindus. The notion of a

Muslim minority, threatened by a socially mobile and political

assertive Hindu majority was thus born. It accorded well with

official British perception of India as a country of discordant religi

communities, castes and tribes.

Moreover, several historians have argued that, at the core of
Muslim opposition to western-style political representation lay
eral religious and political convictions. Thus, Muslims are said to

ever conscious of belonging to a divinely constituted religious broth

hood, entitled to wield political power over non-Muslims by vir

of their moral superiority. In India, in the late nineteenth centu
they also considered themselves-at least the immigrants and t
aristocrats among them did so-the legatees of the Mughal emp
Finally, the political arena is seen by Muslims as the arena par ex

lence of the expression of religious values, and not a domain apart.6

66 See Farzana Shaikh, Community and Consensus in Islam: Muslim Representatio

Colonial India, I86o-I947 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, I989).

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Unable to stop the idea of representative gov

most limited form, in its tracks, Sayyid Ahmad

of 'separate electorates', based on religiou

the end of the nineteenth century. The idea

mooted to overcome the disadvantage of num
that came to dominate the thinking of cert
political leadership in the twentieth century wa
notion was finally embraced by M. A. Jinnah in
leading to partition and independence in I94
parity at the federal level been conceded, tre
with Hindus, and providing safeguards for the o
think, partition might have been avoided.67 I

upon the character of Muslims as a 'minor

'nation', depending upon the context, was Jin

Addressing the All-India Muslim League

the Lahore session, which later adopted the

resolution, Jinnah ridiculed Gandhi's protestatio

ings towards non-Hindus and MrJinnah himself

is this, that brother Gandhi has three votes

vote'.68 This was, of course, a reference to th
and Muslim populations in the 1941 census.
A decade later, the Constitution of India ack
of minorities, but did not define it precisely
be inferred. Thus, Articles 29 and 30 specifica
(in fact, Fundamental Rights) of 'minorities' t
serve their languages, scripts and cultures, ha
aided educational institutions, and to establish
own educational institutions. Although it see

place an interpretation on these constitutional p

that only minorities have such rights, mischiev

been reluctant to cite them as evidence of'mi

right views of Dr B. R. Ambedkar, hailed as 'the

Constitution', do not exactly help in remo

minorities, he said in the Constituent Ass
accepted the rule of the majority which is

majority and not a political majority. It is for

its duty not to discriminate against minorities.
67 Ayesha Jalal, The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim

Pakistan (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1985

68 Stanley Wolpert, Jinnah of Pakistan (Delhi, Oxford

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will continue or will vanish must depend upon this habit of the
ity. The moment the majority loses the habit of discrimination

the minority, the minorities can have no ground to exist.'6

majority and the minorities thus stood defined, though in a som

Humpty Dumpty fashion.

Without any regard for the social reality of the multiplicity o

nomic interests and political opinion among Hindus, among M
and among Sikhs, imagined majorities and minorities were
these political leaders to be pitted against each other in a li
death struggle, in which the majority was stigmatized as the
not the villain. For Jinnah, who claimed to be 'the sole spok
on behalf of the Muslims, the Congress was a Hindu organi
and Maulana Azad its 'show-boy' President; Gandhi was mer
leader of the Hindu 'community', an opinion which he reiter

his condolence message on Gandhi's death, ignoring the c

stances of the assassination. And for Ambedkar, Gandhi was a

usurper who unjustly claimed to speak on behalf of low caste Hindus.

Not everybody, however, agreed, then or later, with such views of

dominant and dominated majorities and minorities. Frank Anthony,

at that time the acknowledged leader of the Anglo-Indians, repudiated, on the floor of the Constituent Assembly itself, the allegation
that the minorities were being deprived of their rights and otherwise

oppressed. On the contrary, he said, the minorities had made

demands that were not tenable.70 But he did not abandon the con-

cepts of majority and minority. Professor V. V. John, a distinguished

Indian intellectual who happened to be a Christian, and many others

like him, have done precisely this, and asked for the protection of
human rights rather than minority rights. He complains that the leaders

of the so-called minority communities practice 'selective secularism'

and demand from Hindus what they do not themselves practice.71
One ingenious argument in this regard is that minority communalism
is the half-way house to secularism.72
It will be recalled that, after the Partition, the Muslim fundament-

alist organization, Jama'at-i-Islami (Hind), through a series of pronouncements, accepted 'in the present circumstances', which meant
conditionally, 'the secular form of government', but rejected secular-

ism as an ideology. It described its decision quite explicitly as one

69 Constituent Assembly Debates, vol. 7, I, p. 39.
70 Constituent Assembly Debates, vol. 8, pp. 333-8, 346-9.

71 Auditor's notes at a lecture given in New Delhi, 28 Nov. 1979.

72 M. R. A. Baig, In Different Saddles (New Delhi, Vikas, 1967), pp. I64-80.

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dictated by 'utilitarian expediency'. Many ot

tions and leaders took up the same position.73 Si

ist Sikh leadership used to say that the Sikh r

not permit the separation of religion and politic

right is recognized, the state in India is not t

Hindu domination. They have of course now o

for an autonomous theocratic Sikh state.74

The notion of minority status as privilege is not slander in today's

India, but a social and political fact. How far people will go in the
abuse of this idea was well illustrated by the successful effort of the

Ramakrishna Mission people in Calcutta to get themselves recognized

as a non-Hindu minority. Meanwhile the Hindu-Muslim problem
which had eased, more than somewhat, in the years following independence has become salient again. While the aggressive elements
among the leaders of the so-called minorities raise cries of alarm that

India is fast degenerating into a Hindu country, their counterparts

among the Hindus cry 'foul' and accuse the government of 'minorityism'. Addressing the 1923 session of the Congress at Delhi, its
President, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, had observed about the then
prevailing political differences and slogans: '"Save the Hindu from

Muslims", says one group, "Save Islam from Hinduism", says

another. When the order of the day is, "Protect Hindus" and "Protect Muslims", who cares about protecting the nation?'75 That was
said seventy years ago, but could have been said today.
Within this overall framework of majority-minority politics, there

are variations and ramifications. Thus the violent student agitation

of I990 against reservations (vide Articles 330 and 332 of the

Constitution) being sought to be raised to the level of nearly 50 per

cent was the protest of a minority-those classified neither as scheduled caste or scheduled tribe nor as 'other backward classes' -against
a majority of allegedly uniformly non-privileged people, although
many among them are by no means economically deprived. Limitations of space do not, however, allow me to speak about the thorny
issue of reservations, which deserves detailed discussion. But I should
73 See Mushir-ul-Haq, Islam in Secular India (Simla, Institute of Advanced Study,
1972), pp. 6-21.
74 See T. N. Madan, 'The Double-edged Sword: Fundamentalism and the Sikh
Religious Tradition' in M. Marty and R. Scott Appleby (eds), Fundamentalisms
Observed (Chicago, University of Chicago Press).
75 Syeda Saiyidain Hameed (ed.), India's Maulana (New Delhi, Indian Council of
Cultural Relations/Vikas, 1990), vol. 2, p. I45.

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point out that, although the exploitation of certain castes and co

nities at the hands of others over the centuries down to th

cannot be denied, the idea of reservation quotas-notwithsta
the fact that it was intended to be a temporary protective m
for thirty years only (Article 334)does not fit well with the

secularism, particularly if it threatens to become a permanent v


Ironically, Nehru anticipated the danger. Speaking on the subject

in the Constituent Assembly, he warned:
I would like you to consider this business, whether it is reservation or any
other kind of safeguard for the minorities objectively. There is some point
in having a safeguard of this type ... when there is autocratic or foreign
rule. As soon as you get ... political democracy, then this kind of reservation, instead of helping the party to be safeguarded or aided, is likely to turn
against it. .. [In] a democracy ... it is the will of the majority that will
prevail ... Frankly, I would like ... [to] put an end to such reservations

as there still remain.76

Nehru was obviously thinking of the 'majority' in the Jeffersonian


Another critical issue for Indian secularism that I

tion, but not discuss, is the problem of the Kashmir
Article 370, the Constitution gave to Jammu and K
status, making it impossible for the Parliament to ma
state without the concurrence of its legislature in resp

other than those mentioned in the Instrument of Accession or corres-

ponding to them. This too was intended as a temporary measure, as

the future of the state had become an international dispute by India's
appeal for UN intervention to end Pakistani aggression. This specific

context was soon overgrown by other considerations: the Kashmir

Valley with its Muslim majority was vital to secular India's interests
as a token of the repudiation of the two-nation theory which was the

basis of Pakistan. But a special status was needed for retaining the
state within the union. Article 370 is said to protect 'Kashmiriat' or
Kashmiri identity. Why Kashmiri identity needs special protection
any more than, say, Bengali or Tamil identity is difficult to understand unless it is taken to mean Kashmiri Muslim identity and brought
under the rubric of minority rights and privileges.
The way to hell, it has been well said, is paved with good intentions;

and so it has been in Kashmir. Although the state has been ruled
76 SWJN, vol. I , 199I, p. 54.

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since 1947 by a succession of governments,

ministers, and the representation of Muslim
the professions has very considerably impr

movement has erupted there which has turned

three years. Well-trained and heavily arm

fought by the security forces and there is bloo

Innocent people of all communities are caugh

ally and figuratively, and suffer. What the

asking for is, in effect, another partition, a
Hindu reaction elsewhere in the country, resul
bizarre happenings as the 'unity march' (ektd
Janata Party president, Dr Murli Manohar J
In the Valley itself, the Hindus were a thr

about I8o,ooo people, a couple of thousan

reportedly killed or critically injured, and man

have been plundered or burnt. Most of them

and live in refugee camps, or with relatives,
are another example of a non-privileged min
but those Muslims too, who do not seem to b
the targets of fundamentalists and secession
times as many Muslims as Hindus are report
The silence of Muslim political leadership i
penings in Kashmir underscores the tragic
with Indian secularism. For Jawaharlal Neh
India's answer to communalism, the shining
he had been encouraged in this belief by th
masses of Kashmir, including the tallest of the
Today Abdullah's is a hated name in the Va
to be guarded by police to prevent its desecr
whom he had led in a liberation struggle tha
socialist and secular in its ideological stance
and which had been actively supported by N

VII. Concluding Remarks

To conclude. I began by saying that secularism

lated ideology was born of the dialectic of

77 These estimates are based on newspaper reports

available now.

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Christianity and the Enlightenment, and was not simpl

religious, though many intellectuals have desired and even b

it to be so. There is much rethinking these days about the s
accounts of the Enlightenment, about their distorting preoc

with its 'sunny side', to the neglect of its dogmatism and of th

rowing of rational debate by seventeenth-century scientists.78
tion has also been drawn to the fact that the notion of the self-

emancipation of man implied the sacralization of the secular.79 Su

reconsiderations are bound to affect our appreciation of secularism
also, for it was, as already pointed out, partly an expression of th

It is also important to recognize that one of the major reasons fo

the rise of religious fundamentalism all over the world today is th

excesses of secularism, its emergence as dogma, even as a religio
even as Karl Marx, Max Weber, and some other social theorists
anticipated. By subverting religion as generally understood, secula

ism sets off the reaction of fundamentalism, which usually is a perve

sion of religion, and has less to do with the purity of faith and more

with the acquisition of political power. The temple and the mosqu
lovers of today's India are, first and foremost, power hungry polit
cians. In their hands religion is reduced to being its own 'shadow',
'sign of distinction' between political groups, and no longer is con
cerned with value but only with instrumentalism.80
If secularism is not essentially anti-religious, but only against rev-

elation and unreason, Indian secularism would be much less so; the
why did Nehru complain to Malraux that it was difficult to establi

a secular state in a religious country such as India? In an earli

paper entitled 'Secularism in its Place' I had attempted an answer
to this question, which could hardly have been Nehru's own answe
though it did perhaps come within recognizable distance of a Gand
ian position. My main argument was that neither India's indigeno
religious traditions nor Islam recognize the sacred-secular dichotom
in the manner in which Christianity does so and, therefore, the
modern processes of secularization (in the sense of expanding huma
control over human lives) proceed in India without the support of

78 See, e.g., Stephen Toulmin, Cosmopolis, The Hidden Agenda of Modernity (New

York, The Free Press, I990).

79 See, e.g., Stephen A. Mcknight, Sacralizing the Secular, The Renaissance Origins

Modernity (Baton Rouge and London, Louisiana State University Press, I989).
80 See, Louis Dumont, 'Nationalism and Communalism' in Homo Hierarchicus: Th

Caste System and its Implications (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, I980; Ist edn

I970), pp. 315-16.

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ideology that people in general may warm to. What exists empirically,

but not also ideologically, I had then said, exists but weakly.8'
Not that India is entirely lacking in its own resources to cope with

the processes of secularization in the midst of much religiosity and

to find support for its own notion of secularism as interreligious
understanding.82 What I have in mind is not so much the medieval
religious syncretism about the significance of which there are sharp
differences of opinion,83 as the more important fact that none of
India's indigenous religions has been considered by its traditional
thinkers as a revealed religion in the strict sense in which the Abrah-

amic religions are so. All the Indian religions are more or less open
to questioning from within and reformulation through interpretation.

The strength of India's hermeneutic traditions is, I believe, widely

acknowledged. Also, Indian religions have been subject to considerable pressure from outside, producing a flexibility of attitudes if not

always religious liberality.84 In our own time, Gandhi showed that

reinterpretation through questioning and receptiveness to outside
influences was still possible.
But for these resources to be turned into strength we will have to
abandon a narrow, crippling, view of secularism as anti-religion and
we will have to overcome our distrust of India's indigenous religious
traditions, which are, whether some people like it or not, members
of one family. They share crucial metaphysical presuppositions about

'being' 'knowing' and 'value', contribute significantly to the

encompassing cultural ambiance of the country, and provide the founda-

tion for India's regional composite cultures. Their followers share

many attitudes and have many social practices in common.
At the same time, we have to recognize the real dangers of Hindu
communalism, of the insensitivity of many Hindus to the feelings of

those who consider themselves non-Hindus. It has been complained

that these non-Hindus are treated as permanent outsiders if they
81 T. N. Madan, 'Secularism in its place', The Journal of Asian Studies 46, 4 (1987),

pp. 747-59. also see, T. N. Madan, 'Religion in India', Daedalus 18, 4 (1989), pp.
I 15-46.

82 See Ashis Nandy, 'The Politics of Secularism and the Recovery of Religious
Tolerance', Alternatives 13, 2 (1988), pp. 177-94.
83 For a richly documented account, see Asim Roy, The Islamic Syncretistic Tradition

in Bengal (Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, I983). A sceptical assessment

will be found in Aziz Ahmad, Studies in Islamic Culture in the Indian Environment (Oxford,

Clarendon Press, I964).

84 See, e.g., H. Von Stietencron, 'Hinduism: On the Proper Use of a Deceptive

Term', in G. D. Sontheimer and H. Kulke (eds), Hinduism Reconsidered (Delhi, Mano-

har, I99I), pp. 1--28.

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happen to be Christians or Muslims, or are denied a sense o

identity if they are 'tribals' or Sikhs.85 Hindus do not hav
to appear in sack-cloth and ashes as penitents before the othe
do not have to disfigure their faces with war-paint either, as
them are doing now in newly found fundamentalist fervo
no less than Nehru was conscious of the greater harm that

communalism will do in India though they could not b

approve of minority communalism. As Ashis Nandy has in

argued, Gandhi was the sterner foe of Hindu communalism

for it with his life.86 But things have come to such a pass to

the Congress Party at its 1992 session at Tirupati has cons

necessary to warn against all brands of communalism.
If India is to be saved from religious discord and the r

political divisiveness-we really do not have a choice-w

rethinking and action. What is at stake is the very surviv

Indian state. Apart from the profound ideological implicat

acknowledgement of the limited instrumental character of sc

technology, and of the reconsideration of the place of religio
source of value, meaning and legitimacy in social life, we nee

critical re-examination of the character and role of the state in the

culturally and historically specific Indian setting; second, careful

review of the relevant provisions of the Constitution, with particular

reference to minority-versus-majority rights, for these have caused

much confusion; and third, radical educational reform. A decentralized polity, a positive attitude towards cultural pluralism, and a genu-

ine concern and respect for human rights would be, perhaps, the
best guarantors of Indian secularism, understood as interreligious
understanding in society and the state policy of non-discrimination
and of equal distance (not equal proximity) from the religious concerns of the people. Precious time-the span of two generations-has
been lost, but one can learn from one's mistakes. Minerva's owl, the
Greeks told us, flies out only at dusk, and so it does; but, then, there

is always the next day-and the next.

85 See, e.g., T. K. Oommen, State and Society in India: Studies in Nation-Building (New

Delhi, Sage, i990), p. i .

86 Ashis Nandy, 'Final Encounter: The Politics of the Assassination of Gandhi',

in At the Edge of Psychology (Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1980), pp. 70-98.

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