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Secularism re-examined

By Andre Beteille

THE PUBLIC debate on secularism is acquiring some curious features. It is obvious that many persons have misgivings about it, but, with the exception of a few mavericks, they are generally not prepared to attack it openly. While this is true by and large of the intelligentsia, it is invariably the case with politicians. It would be unthinkable for any political leader, whether of the Left or the right, to speak openly against secularism, just as it would be unthinkable for him to speak openly against equality.

The most common way to throw doubt on secularism is for a person to say that he is not against secularism as such, what he is against is pseudo-secularism. He will then go on to say that there are far too many pseudo-secularist busybodies around, and that they are the ones who are responsible for the discord between communities and, ultimately, for communal violence. I have known professed adherents of Hindutva say that they are for secularism, that Hindutva itself is a form of secularism, indeed its most exalted form, only they prefer to call it religious pluralism rather than secularism which is of western provenance. Religious pluralism, in their view, is not only a part of the Indian tradition, it is tolerant and undogmatic unlike secularism which has a whiff of dogmatic atheism about it and, besides, lacks moral depth.

The misgiving about secularism, vague and ill-formed by itself, is fed by misgivings about many other things: about atheism, about marxism, about socialism, and about the modern world. I am convinced that some of the more humane among the adherents of Hindutva would be reconciled with secularism if only it could be rescued from modernity. But it cannot: secularism is a modern and not a traditional value. The religious pluralism - or, if one prefers, the religious tolerance - of the past was rooted in a hierarchical social order in which some communities, together with their beliefs and practices, were regarded as unquestionably superior to others.

Western observers of this country often say that secularism in India is something quite different from what it is in the west. When pressed to explain what they mean, they invariably point to the wide gap between profession and practice. Many Indians do just the same, and some conclude from this that secularism, particularly of the western kind, no matter how desirable in itself, cannot work in India. The gap between profession and practice is indeed very large, but I doubt that it exists only in India. Even the French, the great paragons of secularism in the west, have been caught on the wrong foot over the use of the veil and the cross in their public schools. Granting that the gap is larger in this country than elsewhere, it does not follow that secularism means one thing outside India and an altogether different thing in India.

Indians who are mistrustful of modernity say that they should be free to develop their own conception of the secular and not be burdened by the western conception of it. Is there a distinctively Indian conception of the secular, and is it radically different from the western one? In seeking answers to these questions it is important to avoid being pushed into extreme positions. Obviously the idea of the secular acquires some of the colour of the social environment in which it operates, but that does not mean that it cannot be fruitfully compared - or contrasted - with its counterparts elsewhere. Nor can we say that there is a single, uniform conception of the secular throughout the west. It is true that there is no exact equivalent of the English word `secular' in any Indian language. But then, as more than one French sociologist has told me, the French word `laique,' which is used to describe the republic in the Constitution of France, cannot be exactly translated into English. If the idea of the secular varies between India and the west, it also varies between Britain, France and Germany.

I prefer to speak of secularisation which is a widespread tendency in the modern world. In India, as elsewhere, it is driven by a variety of forces among which secularism as an ideology is only one. Here I would like to dwell briefly on two distinct forces that contribute to secularisation. The first is the compulsion of fairness - or equality - between religious communities in a country where diverse religious faiths co-exist. The second is a process of specialisation and differentiation whereby institutions and practices earlier regulated by religious authority and religious doctrine cease to be so regulated. The issue of religious pluralism is directly relevant to only the first and not the second. Specialisation and differentiation may lead to secularisation even in a society where there is only one single religion.

Shortly after Independence, India adopted a new Constitution providing a charter for a secular state and a secular concept of citizenship. This was dictated above all by the compulsions of history and of demography. A Constitution that was the end- product of a nationalist movement that had resolutely opposed the two-nation theory could hardly prescribe a Hindu state or any kind of religious state. For Nehru and his generation, having a secular state was not just a matter of convenience, it was also a matter of honour. And nobody understood the value of a secular conception of citizenship better than Dr. Ambedkar.

A secular legal and constitutional order is dictated also by the compulsions of demography. India is a land of many religions, and, within each religion, of many sects and denominations. There are more Muslims in India than in any country in the world save Indonesia, and India's Muslim population is larger than the total population of Britain, France or Germany. There are also populous minorities of Christians and Sikhs. It will be impossible to govern such a country without secular public institutions that treat citizens without fear or favour, irrespective of their religion.

In additions to the compulsions of fairness, secularisation is driven also by the requirements of development and modernisation. If we wish to have a modern educational system and a modern economic system, we must build secular institutions: secular schools, colleges and universities; secular offices and factories; and secular print and electronic media. M. N. Srinivas had famously defined secularisation as follows: ``the term `secularisation' implies that what was previously regarded as religious is ceasing to be such, and it also implies a process of differentiation which results in the various aspects of society, economic, political, legal and moral, becoming increasingly discrete in relation to each other''. It cannot be too strongly emphasised that differentiation does not mean disconnection.

The differentiation of society is a long-term evolutionary tendency, and India can attempt to reverse that tendency only at its own peril. Secularisation does not mean that religious institutions will cease to exist; it only means that they will cease to encompass or regulate all the other institutions of society. These other institutions will then act relatively autonomously in their respective specialised domains, such as those of education, science, finance, administration, communication, and so on.

Some believe that secularism in India is a matter of the equal treatment of all religions whereas in the west it is a matter of differentiation and autonomy from religious regulation and control, and therefore the two are radically different. This is a mistake. Both considerations enter into the conception of the secular in India as well as in the West, though perhaps not in the same proportions. The problem of parity between Protestants and Catholics is a serious one in countries such as Germany, Holland and Belgium, not to speak of Northern Ireland; and the urge to develop education, science and scholarship independently of religious regulation and control has been an important social force in India for well over a hundred years. It is necessary and desirable to remain aware of the distinctive constellation of forces that operate in India; but to continuously play the tune of Indian exceptionalism is tedious and unproductive.

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