“Secularism today is indeed a negotiated position”: Nalini Rajan

Written by Bharathy Singaravel and Kanika Katyal | Published on: May 21, 2019

In her book, The Story of Secularism 15th – 21st Century, Nalini Rajan, presents all the basic materials needed to comprehend the complexity of the concept of secularism and its peculiar nature in a multi-religious context, using engaging text and illustrations. She traces these arguments against the backdrop of the European (mainly French) and American modes of secularism. 

Image Courtesy: News4Masses

In our previous posts on the book, Part I and Part II, we published the three major arguments against secularism in India, that Nalini Rajan discussed in the chapter, "Secularism in India". Following up from the ideas in her book, Bharathy and Kanika Katyal of the Indian Writers Forum, spoke to Nalini Rajan on the caste question in secularism, where women rights stand in a secular state and more. 

Bharathy: The Argument III Against Secularism, says, "When the Indian State restricts religious freedom, by banning animal sacrifice, or child-marriage, or even polygamy, it has nothing to do with expanding state neutrality. Restricting religious freedom in India merely militates against the interests of the lower castes and poorer sections of society – the ‘underdogs’, so to speak – who are viewed by the state as being one step behind modernity, and on the margins of a modern, secular, democratic state, which appears to be the prerogative of the elite classes in society."

The fact that animal sacrifices was even in that company was something that I'd ask you and so perhaps the argument has some validity in saying that it may end up benefiting a certain caste narrative of what is secularism. Animal sacrifices as of now is something that is common to the lower caste rituals. So when you argue against as being irrational and say that actually those who think like that aren’t true secularists, the unfortunate side to that is that perhaps, it is people who are from those backgrounds who are more or less today deciding, what is secular and what is not?

Nalini Rajan: Argument III is Partha Chatterjee's rather sophisticated argument.  Partha Chatterjee is against secularism because he sees it as based on the views of a Brahmanical, upper-caste, Westernized kind of individualism. By Brahmanism or Brahmin, he means a certain Westernization and a certain elitism, as far as caste is concerned. He feels that secularism is a meaningless concept for the lower castes. In my response, when I say that in fact, it's beneficial for the lower castes, I'm not saying that animal sacrifices is bad because that can come under freedom of religion.  Animal sacrifice or all these other things that you quoted expand freedom of religion. I believe that secularism can be maintained and in fact, contrary to what he says it is more beneficial to the lower castes. For Partha Chatterjee to say that upper castes are secular is itself a little problematic, because it is the upper castes who endorse the discrimination within the caste system, in terms of who one should eat with, or who one should marry.  This militates against democratic equality, which is one of the basic values of secularism.

B: But if I may push the argument, you talk about "modernity" and "modern values" as something that decides what is secular…

NR: When we talk about inclusivity and modernity and about religious freedom then there is a negotiation that has to happen and perhaps right now, here is a power structure that may not really allow for inclusivity.

B: So maybe there is a point to what Partha Chatterji says. Not that secularism itself needs to be shut down, but perhaps we need to ask these questions of how to negotiate, and to define this "modern" that you mention and who is defining this modernity?

NR: When I talk about modernity, I don't really bring in modernity in the Western classical sense or in the Renaissance sense, of scientific rationality, individualism, and the nation-state, because these don't really apply to a complex country like ours. In our country, you can only talk about secularism as a negotiated position, but I also want to flag this idea that as France and the United States of America become more and more multicultural and multi-religious, they also find that it is very hard to defend that classical idea of secularism. So there too, it's very important to have a negotiated position. That’s the point I was making.

These four or five chapters that I have in the book are part of a 22-part lecture series that I teach my students. In the course, Identities in a Plural Society, we start with gender, with Tanika Sarkar’s Hindu Wife, Hindu Nation (2010). We look at Louis Dumont’s Homo Hierarchicus(1966), Nicholas Dirks’s Castes of Mind(2001) and several other texts. Secularism is the third in the series. There are also topics such as multiculturalism, nation-building and so on. There's continuity in terms of ideas, as far as the students are concerned. I fear that, in this book, there may be areas of darkness because several complex ideas have to be condensed.

So why do we say secularism is something modern? What I meant by modern is even in terms of the chronological time, with the establishment of the printing press in the 15th century.  Secularism can only be a feasible idea in a democracy. Even in a very complex democracy like ours, you need to have the principle of equality, before you talk of a non-establishment state or have neutrality or a negotiated position, with respect to religion and freedom of religion. So it's a tri-value system and that can only happen in a democracy. Usually, the failure of secularism and other problems happen when you don't have equality in a proper way, and another term for such a failure is communalism.

B: Because we spoke about the USA, I was speaking to someone who is not from this side of the globe. This was right after the results of the midterms. There are Ilhan Omar and all these wonderful women now in Congress and this person said that sure that's great, but in their view secular would mean that you would not wear any article of faith in such a space. Even if you did, it should not be allowed inside a classroom and that they would not want their children being taught by somebody wearing any article of faith whether it is a hijab or a cross or anything because they felt that perhaps this would not reflect poorly on them having a rational and scientific temper. I first countered saying your opinion is based on a Westernised version of secularism, but now I wonder if that is an argument that you can actually apply to anywhere in the world because that is just shutting the door on so many peoples’ faces.  

NR: I absolutely agree with you and that is the point I'm making. The reason why I look so closely at France is to say, look at the mess they are in because they can't even understand what multiculturalism or multi-religious society means, what pluralism means or what diversity means; which means that they have to be flexible on the issue of the hijab. Secularism today is indeed a negotiated position.

B: So in that sense, state neutrality would not really be the hallmark of secularism, would you say?

NR: Yes. For instance, somebody like Rajeev Bhargava argues that you can't have strict state neutrality in India. And Partha Chatterjee is right when he gives examples such as Article 17 against Untouchability, all of which involve the intervention of the state actively in religious affairs. That goes against the idea of strict neutrality, but so what? That's where you bring in jurisprudence. There are judgments, and there is the legislature, these have to be conducted on a case-by-case, principled basis. 

Kanika Katyal: Where do women rights interact with a secular state? The Sabarimala case, for instance, is an issue that touches us all but it seems to me that it is first viewed as an issue that involves a secular state and religious groups, then between the Constitution and protection of minority groups, and lastly as a woman issue.

NR: Sabarimala, for instance, is a classic case of what Eric Hobsbawm calls "the invention of tradition". With regard to Sabarimala, this banning of women from the shrine is a new tradition. It is not an old, ancient tradition. It was I think the early 1990s when the Supreme Court after listening to the petitioners passed a judgment saying that menstruating women should not be allowed to come here mainly because they had to pass through a forest where there could be all kinds of supposed dangers to a woman's chastity. That was the reason.

When Justice Y. Chandrachud and Deepak Mishra, in the recent judgment,  said that women should be allowed in the shrine because it's a question of gender equality, the dissenting judgment that came from Indira Banerjee claimed that we cannot go against tradition. That’s when you must ask, how old is that tradition? This is an invention of tradition, and this is the trap we fall into very often. We need to know the history of what happened in the early 90s, and what happened before that. We shouldn’t think of this as an ancient tradition of about a thousand years that didn’t allow women in. That isn't true at all. Menstruating women have gone and worshipped there before the 1990s.

KK: But because we are inhabiting multiple identities at any given point, does gender become the third concern in a secular state?

NR: It's much more complex. I make this point in the chapter on women, that there is a power structure in all religions and they tend to be patriarchal. Every religion works against the interests of women, but there have been struggles against those and you do find that women have managed to cross over. But there's also a very interesting notion, for instance, can you be a religious feminist?

There are Islamic feminists now who are reinterpreting the Quran, like Fatima Mernissi from Morocco, Shahla Sherkat from Iran, and many others. These women have been reinterpreting the Quran, saying that the Quran is not patriarchal, instead, it is the priests who come after the Prophet, who for their interests make it sound patriarchal. So there needs to be a reinterpretation of the Quran.

The Brahmo-Samaj is a similar case in point. The Brahmos were mainly men, who had anxieties about women's dress and all that, but you do have some attempt, on their part, to mitigate the influence of patriarchal values. In the case of something like Hinduism, since it cannot be codified into a text, you'll find that a lot of women who started out as being Hindus, when they say they are secular, may tend to be non-religious, or not necessarily religious. So, which is why in the second argument, when Ashis Nandy, looks at secularists, he thinks of them as being anti-religious, I find it problematic because after all secularism means also freedom of religion. Then it is a little skewed on the part of Nandy to say that secularists are necessarily always anti-religion. That is problematic, as a definition. I believe that you can be a secularist while being a good Hindu. Rajeev Bhargava wrote a very interesting article, where he argued that Gandhi, who was a (professed) Hindu and Nehru who was an agnostic were very similar in terms of being secularists.

If you read, Hindutva: Whos a Hindu? Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, says very clearly, that Hindutva is not Hinduism because the former is an ideology, while the latter is religion, and Savarkar was not religious. 

So here are people like Advani or Savarkar who say that they're not religious, but are Hindutva proponents. And you have Ashis Nandy pitting “religion as ideology" against "religion as faith”. My point is that you can be a religious person and still be a secularist. Secularism does not mean anti-religion (even though in India it is a little complicated, historically speaking).

B: Following up on that, women like Fatima Mernissi and Leila Ahmed — who identify as religious, but are still challenging what is considered dogma. You also bring up the Uniform Civil Code in your book. In most of these cases, it is necessary for the state to play a huge role and for it to play that role, and rationality and a certain scientific/clinical detachment from religion would be required of it. In that sense, secularism starts becoming about the least empowered and protecting them.

NR: Which is why you have the state as a non-establishment state, which means it does not establish any religion, and a state that does not establish any religion is willingly aiming to be a neutral state that is— it is should not favour any particular religion.

B: Unlike the US for example, where the Constitution evokes a particular god?

NR: You know, people say that but actually, the First Amendment of the American Constitution talks about non-establishment of religion by the state. But in the UK people say, the queen is the defender of the Anglican Church. This has been the tradition since Henry VIII to be the defender of the Anglican Church after the whole history of breaking away from the Catholic Church. Interestingly, Prince Charles did say that, if he were to become king, he would be the Defender of all faiths including Islam and Hinduism. It is a very interesting thing for a potential Monarch to say. It doesn't mean that the UK is not a secular state, it is. But as I said, there are varying degrees of secularism, there are challenges to secularism. Even in India, I'm not saying that just because we had the BJP government secularism is gone. No, but I believe we are still negotiating, it is important that institutions are there, especially an independent Judiciary, and so on. The institutions that safeguard the functioning of secularism, those are important.  

KK: How can secularism be defined and distinguished from religious tolerance? 

NR: Religious tolerance is somewhat of a weaker argument if you like. It's a weaker argument than secularism. Take the example of the Edict of Nantes(1598) in France. King Henry IV was a Protestant Prince and he signed the edict to say that the Protestants and Catholics should live in harmony in France. But that was reversed by another monarch, his descendant, Louis XIV. So what I'm trying to say here is that religious tolerance is weak because it depends on how benevolent a dictator is. 

Courtesy: Indian Cultural Forum