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Indian Secularism and Its Critics: Some Reflections

Author(s): Thomas Pantham

Source: The Review of Politics, Vol. 59, No. 3, Non-Western Political Thought (Summer,
1997), pp. 523-540
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Indian Secularism and Its Critics:
Some Reflections
Thomas Pantham

Several critics of Indian secularism maintain that given the pervasive rol
religion in the lives of the Indian people, secularism, defined as the separatio
politics or the state from religion, is an intolerable, alien, modernist imposit
the Indian society. This, I argue, is a misreading of the Indian constitutional v
which enjoins the state to be equally tolerant of all religions and which there
requires the state to steer clear of both theocracy or fundamentalism and the
of separation" model of secularism. Regarding the dichotomy, which the c
draw between Nehruvian secularism and Gandhian religiosity, I sugges
what is distinctive to Indian secularism is the complementation or articu
between the democratic state and the politics of satya and ahimsa, whereb
relative autonomy of religion and politics from each other can be used fo
moral-political reconstruction of both the religious traditions and the modem

Secularism is one of the deeply problematic issues in contempo-

rary Indian political discourse.1 The participants in this discourse
include the Parliament, political parties, journalists, academics and,
in a special way, the judiciary. They espouse a variety of positions,
ranging from antisecularist manifestoes to campaigns for positive
secularism. This discourse does call for an ethico-political assess-
ment. Unfortunately such an assessment is not available in the
writings of Indian social and political theorists. Some of them in fact
are engaged in advocating models or conceptions of state-religion
relationships that are clouded in ethico-political incoherence. They
are a source of confusion or misguidance.

A previous version of this paper was presented to the seminar on "Fifty

Years of Independence," Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, 24-26
September 1996. An earlier version formed my presidential address to the 11th
conference of the Gujarat Rajyashastra Mandal at Smt. Gandhi Arts and Science
College, Bhavnagar, on 20 May 1996.
1. See Upendra Baxi, "The 'Struggle' for the Redefinition of Secularism in
India," Social Action 44 (January-March 1994); Amartya Sen, "The Threats to
Secular India," Social Scientist 21 (March-April 1993); and Rajni Kothari, "Pluralism
and Secularism: Lessons of Ayodhya," Economic and Political Weekly, 19-26
December 1992.

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What then are the ethically or, rather, ethico-politically in

ent or untenable models of state-religion relationship that ar
advocated in and for India today? How do they compare with
depart from, the constitutional vision? Is the latter alto
flawless or does it call for some contemporary revisions? If it
fact need to be amended and if the ethico-political incoherenc
the presently available reformulations are to be avoided, how
we proceed? This last question may be formulated some
differently as: What kind of relationship between the state a
religions of the citizens of India can claim ethico-political
fiability or soundness in its favor-some form of secular relati
or some form of antisecular or desecularized relationship?
I have used the expression "some form of" advisedly b
both secular and nonsecular states assume different forms in
different contexts.2 For instance, secularism in the West is us
ally taken to be emphasizing the separation of state and religio
whereas Indian secularism stresses the equal tolerance of a
religions (sarva dharma samabhava), even though it also uphold
certain differentiation or relative separation of the political an
religious spheres. I shall return to these specificities of Ind
secularism later on.
A satisfactory answer to the aforementioned set of questions
would require a large-scale study. As a step in that direction, I
shall, in the present exercise, try to indicate some of the ways in
which those questions are addressed, explicitly or implicitly, in
the contemporary discourse on secularism in India. But first, I
must turn to a brief consideration of the different meanings of
"secularism" as it is used in the West and in India.


Secularism (which is often translated as dharma-nirapeksata

has its origins in Europe. When it was first used at the end of th
Thirty Years' War in Europe in 1648, "secularization" referred to
the transfer of the properties of the church to the princes. Simila
transfer of church properties to the state also formed a part of th

2. For a convenient classification, see S. K. Mitra, "Desecularising the State

Religion and Politics in India after Independence," Comparative Studies in Societ
and History (1991).

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achievements of the French Revolution. Later, in England,

Holyoake used the term "secularism" to refer to the ra
movement of protest which he led in 1851.
In its pursuit of the project of Enlightenment and P
through the replacement of the mythical and religious
the world with the scientific and technological-indust
proach, Europe brought about a differentiation or separatio
political sphere from the religious sphere. This process by
"sectors of society and culture are removed from the dom
of religious institutions and symbols" came to be vario
ferred to as the "secularization" or desacralization of the world.3
In addition to this idea of (1) the separation of religion and politics,
"secularism-secularization" also means (2) the diminution of the
role of religion; (3) this-worldly orientation rather than orientation
towards the supernatural; (4) the replacement of the "sacred" or
"mysterious" conception of the world with the view that the
world or society is something that can be rationally manipulated or
socially engineered; and (5) a view of religious beliefs and institutions
as human constructions and responsibilities rather than as divinely
ordained mysteries.4
While these are the meanings of "secularism" in the West, its
use in India is accompanied by a significant variation. In fact,
because of the variant or sui generis nature of Indian secularism,
the Preamble of the Indian Constitution did not contain the word
secular as a signification of the state until it was done so by a 1976
amendment. It must, however, be noted that the original consti-
tution did contain several provisions, which left no one in doubt
about the secular (i.e., nontheocratic and noncommunal) charac-
ter of the Indian state and which, in 1973, made the full bench of
the Supreme Court to rule that "secularism" is a constitutive
feature of the basic structure of the constitution.
In the West, as I noted above, secularism usually refers to the
state's separation from, or indifference toward, religion. Hence,
the Western antonym of "secular" is "religious." In India, by
contrast, it is "communal" that is the antonym of "secular." This
is so because given the pervasive religiosity of the people and the

3. See P. L. Berger,The Social Reality of Religion (London: Allen Lane, 1973), p. 113.
4. See Baxi, "The 'Struggle' for the Redefinition of Secularism in India," p. 17.

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pluralism of religions, an ethico-politically appropriate p

of relationship between religion and state had to be one
stressed the equal respect of all religions, rather than the er
of any insurmountable "wall of separation" between the
and religion.


Instead of blindly copying Western secularism, the framers

of the Indian Constitution, as insightfully pointed out by P. K.
Tripathi, "contemplated a secularism which is the product of
India's social experience and genius."5 The main articles of the
Constitution providing for a "secular state" may be briefly sum-
marized as follows:
(1) All persons have equal freedom of conscience and religion;
(2) No discrimination by the state against any citizen on
grounds of religion;
(3) No communal electorates;
(4) The state has the power to regulate through law any
"economic, financial or other secular activity" which may
be associated with religious practice;
(5) The state has the power to provide for "social welfare and
reform or the throwing open of Hindu religious insti-
tutions of a public character to all classes and sections
of Hindus";
(6) Untouchability stands outlawed by Article 17;
(7) Subject to public order, morality and health, every reli-
gious denomination has the right to establish and operate
institutions for religious and charitable purposes;
(8) All religious minorities have the right to establish and
administer educational institutions of their choice and
they cannot be discriminated against by the state in i
granting of aid to educational institutions;

5. P. K. Tripathi, "Secularism: Constitutional Provisions and Judicial Review

in Secularism: Its Implicationsfor Law and Life in India, ed. G. S. Sharma (Bombay
M. Tripathi Pvt. Ltd., 1966), p. 193. For two different treatments of the sec
character of the Indian state, see D. E. Smith, India as a Secular State (Prince
Princeton University Press, 1963) and V. P. Luthera, The Concept of the Secular S
and India (Calcutta: Oxford University Press, 1965).

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(9) No citizen can be discriminated against on grou

religion for employment or office under the state a
as for admission into educational institutions maintained
or aided by state funds;
(10) Public revenues are not to be used to promote any reli-
gion. However, specified amounts of money from the
Consolidated Fund of the States of Kerala and Tamil
Nadu are to be paid annually to their Devasom Funds f
the maintenance of Hindu temples and shrines wh
have been transferred to them from the state of
(11) No religious instruction is to be provided in edu
institutions which are wholly maintained out of
funds, with the exception of those state-run educat
institutions, whose founding endowments or trusts r
such instruction to be provided in them. Moreov
person attending any educational institution "recogn
or "aided" by the state can be required to take part
religious instruction or worship that may be con
in it unless she/he or her/his guardian has give
sent to it.
(12) By a Constitutional amendment in 1976, all citiz
enjoined to consider it their fundamental duty to
serve the rich heritage of our composite culture."

This constitutional framework is premised on the

secular ideal of the freedom, equality and fraternity o
citizens. It is from the perspective of such a moral-politic
losophy that the constitution provides for certain state in
tions against such religiously sanctioned social evils as sati,
system, polygamy, child marriage, untouchability, etc. Th
fication for such a reformist intervention by the state re
differentiation or relative separation of the political and r
spheres. Such a relative separation of the religious and t
lar-political is clearly seen in articles 25 and 26 of the c
tion, which give to all persons equal "freedom of consci
the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religio
which, at the same time, empower the state to make any
the sake of "public order, morality and health" and for "re
or restricting any economic, financial, political or othe

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activity which may be associated with religious practi

secularism is indeed not blind to, or acquiescent in, t
evils and discriminations that are perpetrated in the
religion. At the same time, it is also not antireligious; it g
all its citizens justiciable equal freedom of conscience a
gion. The state, in other words, is required to give, subjec
requirements of public order, morality and health, equal
to the religious forms of individual or social life, which s
all of its citizens may pursue from time to time.


The most important contemporary challenge to Indi

larism has been mounted by the forces of Hindu nati
which, in its turn, has received strong criticism in the wr
some very influential academic writers, notably Ashis Na
N. Madan and Partha Chatterjee. Interestingly, they
severe critics of the theory and practice of the secular
India. How, then, is the relationship between politics and
addressed in their writings, which are critical of both sec
and communalism?
Since the mid-1980s, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and th
"Sangh Parivar" have been insisting on a distinction betwee
their own "positive secularism" and the "pseudo-secularism"
the Congress. According to them, "positive secularism," whi
would mean "justice for all and discriminations against none
should replace the prevailing "pseudo-secularism," whereby t
word secularism is misused to denigrate the Hindu categories an
symbols of the majority community and to justify the pamperi
of the minority communities.6
According to T. B. Hansen, the ideology of Hindutva and "po
tive" or "true" secularism amounts to the principle of rule by Hin
majoritarianism. He notes that it is a "peculiar co-articulation
brahminical ideologies of purity, romanticist notions of fullness a
authenticity, and quasi-fascist organicism and celebration of streng
and masculinity which characterizes the Rashtriya Swayamesv
Sangh (RSS) and its affiliated organizations."7

6. See Nana Deshmukh, Our Secularism Needs Rethinking (Delhi: Deenday

Research Institute, 1990).
7. T. B. Hansen, "Globalisation and Nationalist Imaginations: Hindutv
Promise of Equality Through Difference," Economic and Political weekly, 9 Mar

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The ideology of "positive secularism" is

serious criticism in the writings of Partha C
and Ashis Nandy, who, as I mentioned abo
secularism. I now turn to their writings.
According to Nandy, Nehruvian secul
rates state and religion, and which has b
Indian people, is part of a larger, modern
scientific growth, nation-building, nation
opment. These constitute a "modern demono
built-in code of violence." Whereas secularism demands of the
members of religious communities to dilute their faith so th
they can be truly integrated into the nation-state, it "guarante
no protection to them against the sufferings inflicted by the sta
itself" in the name of its "secular, scientific, amoral" ideology o
nation-building, security, development, etc.. As a handy adjunct
these "legitimating core concepts," secularism helps the state-el

to legitimize themselves as the sole arbiters among traditional comm

nities, to claim for themselves a monopoly on religious and ethnic
tolerance and on political rationality. To accept the ideology of secul
ism is to accept the ideologies of progress and modernity as the n
justifications of domination, and the use of violence to achieve an
sustain the ideologies as the new opiates of the masses.8

According to Nandy, this modern Western rational-scie

tific secularism, which Nehru sought to impose on the Ind
society, has failed either to eliminate religion from politics or
promote greater religious tolerance. Hence, it can "no long
pretend to guide moral or political action." Nandy therefore
no hesitation in calling himself an antisecularist.
By so criticizing secularism, Nandy does not mean to privile
the communalist ideology of either the majority or minority r
gious communities. To the contrary, these communalist ideologi
are, in his view, the pathological by-products of modernity; th
are the dialectical "other" or counter-players of modernity's sec

1996, p. 608. For a critical review of the literature on the ideology of Hi

nationalism, see Thomas Pantham, Political Theories and Social Reconstruction
Critical Survey of the Literature on India (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1995).
8. Ashis Nandy, "The Politics of Secularism and the Recovery of Religio
Tolerance," Alternatives (1988), p. 192.

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lar state. He notes that the khaki shorts of the RSS cadres are
modeled on the uniform of the colonial police. According to him,
the ideology of Hindu nationalist revivalism or fundamentalism,
with its borrowing of the models of semitic religions and of the
modem Western nation-state, is "another form of Westernization"
in the sense that it seeks

to decontaminate Hinduism of its folk elements, turn it into a classical

Vedantic faith, and then give it additional teeth with the help of
Western technology and secular statecraft, so that the Hindus can
take on, and ultimately defeat, all their external and internal en-
emies, if necessary, by liquidating all forms of ethnic plurality-
first within Hinduism and then within India, to equal Western Man
as a new iibemerschen.9

Crucial to Nandy's analysis is a distinction he makes between

two conceptions of religion, namely, (1) religions as tolerant and
accommodative faiths or folk ways of life and (2) religions as
politically constructed monolithic, communalist ideologies of
sectarianism and intolerance. The former, he says, character-
ized the premodern and preliberal way of life in India, whereas
the latter is a product of modernity's nationalism, statecraft,
and developmentalism.
The next move in Nandy's argument is to suggest that it is
the very package of modern nationalism and its statecraft and
scientific developmentalism which generate and nourish reli-
gious communalisms, which the state elites combat by resorting
to the use of the ideology of the secular or nonreligious nation-
state. This counterposing of the tyranny of the modern secular
state and the violence of modern communal organizations is, in
Nandy's view, nothing but the internal dialectics of modernity's
nation-state paradigm.
By this reasoning, both communalism, be it the majoritarian
or the minoritarian variety, and the secular state stand con-
demned as the perverse gifts or, rather, the inevitable products of
Western modernity. In Nandy's view, the ethico-politically ap-
propriate alternative to them lies in the nonmodern, presecular
conception of religions as accommodative, tolerant faiths or ways

9. Ibid., p. 187.

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of life as was practiced, in exemplary manner, by Asoka,

and Gandhi. They, he reminds us, derived their religious tol
not from secular politics but from Buddhism, Islam and Hin
respectively. "Gandhi's religious tolerance," he writes, "
from his antisecularism, which in turn came from his uncond
rejection of modernity."10 Accordingly, Nandy writes: "As
public morality goes, statecraft in India may have someth
learn from Hinduism, Islam or Sikhism; but Hinduism, I
and Sikhism have very little to learn from the Constitut
from state secular practices."1
Like Nandy, T. N. Madan maintains that religious ze
who contribute to fundamentalism or fanaticism by re
religion to mere political bickering, are provoked to do so b
secularists who deny the very legitimacy of religion in
life.12 According to him, because it denies the immense impo
of religion in the lives of the peoples of South Asia, secular
in this region an impossible credo, an impracticable bas
state action and an impotent remedy against fundamenta
fanaticism. Ruling out the establishment of a Hindu stat
utterly unworkable proposition, Madan concludes that "th
way secularism in South Asia, understood as interreligio
derstanding, may succeed would be for us to take both r
and secularism seriously and not reject the former as supers
and reduce the latter to a mask for communalism or mere e
ency."13 He commends Gandhi not only for emphasizin
inseparability of religion and politics but also for open
avenues of interreligious understanding and "of a spiri
justified limitation of the role of religious institutions and sy
in certain areas of contemporary life."14
Somewhat like Nandy and Madan, Partha Chatterj
finds that the ideology of secularism is not an adequate or a
priate political perspective for meeting the challenge of
majoritarianism. In his view, the official model of Indian se

10. Ibid., p. 192.

11. Ibid., pp. 185-86.
12. T. N. Madan, "Secularism in its Place," Journal of Asian Stu
(November 1987).
13. Ibid., p. 758.
14. Ibid., p. 757.

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THE 53

ism and the present campaign of the Hindu right for setti
"positively" secular state have brought India to a "pote
disastrous political impasse."15
According to Chatterjee, since its birth, the project
nation-state in India has been implicated "in a contrad
movement with regard to the modernist missio
secularization." One part of this nationalist-modernist
was the secularization of the public-political sphere by sepa
it from religion, while another part was reformist interven
the state in the socio-religious sphere mostly of the H
Describing the contradiction between these two parts of the
of modernist secularization, Chatterjee writes th
interventionist violation, by the state, of secularism's prin
the separation of state and religion "was justified by the d
secularize." Thus he notes that the temple-entry reform
reform of the personal laws of the Hindus, which ser
"public interest" only of the majority religious community
than of all citizens, cannot claim to be based on nonre
grounds of justification. Chatterjee also points out tha
enormous powers vested in the Tamil Nadu Govern
Commissioner for Hindu Religious Endowments is in
contradiction with the secular principle of the separation of state
and religion. As another such anomaly or contradiction he
mentions the fact that the principle of the equality of religions is
compromised by the exclusion of persons professing certain
religions from the benefits of positive discrimination given to the
scheduled castes.
Turning to the recent shift in the ideological articulation o
Hindu nationalism, Chatterjee points out that its pres
championing of "positive secularism" is meant not only to defl
accusations of its being antisecular but also to rationalize, i
sophisticated way, its campaign for intolerant interventions by
modern, positively secular state against the religious, cultural o
ethnic minorities in the name of "national culture" and a
homogenized notion of citizenship. "In this role," wr
Chatterjee, "the Hindu right in fact seeks to project itself
principled modernist critic of Islamic or Sikh fundamenta

15. Partha Chattejee, "Secularism and Toleration," Economic and Poli

Weekly,, 9 July 1994.

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and to accuse the 'pseudo-secularists' of preaching toleran

religious obscurantism and bigotry."'6
The quandaries generated by the career of the secular sta
India and the potentially disastrous nature of the new politi
"positive secularism" lead Chatterjee to the conclusion th
theory and practice of the secular state cannot bring about
according to him, is really needed in India, namely, the tole
of religious, ethnic and cultural differences.
In so denouncing secularism, Chatterjee is in agreement w
Nandy. They share the view that the politics of interven
secularization is part of the same practices of the modern
which promotes religious communalism or religious intol
They, however, differ from each other in what they take to
desirable and feasible alternative to the standard and po
versions of secularism. While Nandy's "antisecularist man
of religious tolerance is couched in terms of the nonm
preliberal philosophy, symbolism and theology of tolera
the everyday faiths of Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism and Si
Chatterjee's search is for a "political" conception of toler
part of a non-Western form of modernity in India. Finding
the liberal-democratic state can only recognize individual rig
and not the collective rights of cultural or religious gr
Chatterjee directs his intellectual efforts not to seculari
state in the name of any universalist framework of reason,
defend minority cultural rights and to underscore "the d
the democratic state to ensure policies of religious toleration
Chatterjee seems to me to be saying that for a pr
relationship between the state and the religious, ethnic
cultural groups, we need to go beyond the "state sovereignt
individual rights" discourse of liberalism. Following Fou
he maintains that the specifically modern form of power, w
cuts across "the liberal divide between state and civil soc
exercises itself through forms of representation and th
technologies of governmentality, that is, the self-disciplinin
its subjects. He notes that this modern form of po
characterized by "an immensely flexible braiding of coercio
consent." Hence, according to him, the secularization of the
cannot be taken as a noncoercive or power-free politics o

16. Ibid., p. 1768.

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(secular) rationality. Rather, under modernity, the relig

cultural and ethnic communities as well as the secular state are to
be seen as institutional sites or strategic locations of the politics of
identity and difference. This being so, according to him, arguments
for a universal framework of governance based on so-called
pure secular-rational grounds (e.g., the principle of the equal
rights of all regardless of their religion or caste) are just "pious
homilies," which ignore their context of cognitive-political
struggles over issues of identity and difference. In other words,
the conflict between the claims of secular-rational universalism
and the claims for the autonomy of, and respect for, religious or
ethnic minorities is not a simple conflict between reason an
faith; it is a cognitive-political conflict over issues of identity an
difference. Hence, he calls for a conception of tolerance whic
recognizes that

there will be political contexts where a group could insist on its righ
not to give reasons for doing things differently provided it explain
itself adequately in its own chosen forum. In other words, toleration
here would be premised on autonomy and respect for persons, but i
would be sensitive to the varying political salience of the institutiona
contexts in which reasons are debated.17

Deliberately pursuing the obverse of the implications of

Nandy's nonmodern, religious conception of tolerance, Chatterjee
directs his search to finding "a 'political' conception of tolerance
which will set out the practical conditions I must meet in order to
demand and expect tolerance from others."18 According to him,
if a religious community seeks to gain or preserve its autonomy
and respect from other groups or from the state, it must conduct
its own affairs through representative public institutions insofar
as those affairs are not confined to simple matters of innocent
beliefs or holy rituals. Those affairs or practices of any religious
group which have a regulative power over its members must rest
on the publicly secured consent of those members. "In other
words," writes Chatterjee, "even if a religious group declares
that the validity of its practices can only be discussed and judged

17. Ibid., p. 1775 (emphasis added).

18. Ibid., p. 1777, n34.

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in its own forums, those institutions must have the same

of publicity and representativeness that is demanded of
lic institutions having regulatory functions."19

Several critics of Indian secularism, especially Nandy and

Madan, maintain that given the pervasive role of religion in the
lives of the Indian people, secularism, defined as the separation
of politics or the state from religion, is an intolerable imposition,
by the modernist elite, of an alien ideology on the Indian society.
This seems to me to be a misreading of the Indian Constitutional
vision or framework of the relationship between religion and
politics. That framework or vision does not seem to me to be
envisaging any absolute or rigid separation of politics and state
from religion.
True, the atheists and agnostics, including Nehru at several
stages in the evolution of his thought, believed in the desirability
of a strict separation of religion from politics. But that was not the
view which the Constitution adopted. The Constitution did not
envisage the state institutions to be religious or antireligious;
rather they were to observe the principle ofsarva dharma samabhava.
Acknowledging this, Nehru wrote in 1961:

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.2

What this principle of the equal tolerance of all religions

presupposes is a nonabsolute or relative separation of politics and
religion. It is a model that is clearly different from both the
theocratic or fundamentalist models of the state and the principle
of a "wall of separation" between the state and religion, which is
followed in some Western countries. Enjoined by the constitu-
tion to be equally tolerant of all religions, the Indian state is
required to steer clear off antireligiosity and communalism.

19. Ibid., p. 1775.

20. S. Gopal, ed., Jawaharlal Nehru: An Anthology (Delhi: Oxford University
Press, 1980), p. 330.

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Partha Chatterjee is indeed right in pointing out the nu

ous operative departures of the Indian state and its gov
elites from this constitutional vision. However, the case he
out-very persuasively indeed-for the duty of the dem
state to ensure policies of religious tolerance seems to me t
keeping with the constitutional vision. So is the case w
principles of respect for persons and of the consent of t
erned, which he rightly takes to be the basis for the toler
religious differences.
The activity or policy of giving equal tolerance to all re
is not a strictly religious activity or policy. It is also not an
political activity in which the end is taken to justify an
adopted for its realization. It is rather a moral-political act
policy, which is predicated on the relative autonomy of th
cal and the religious from each other. It assumes not only
pluralism of religious and/or nonreligious beliefs is iner
under the conditions of modernity but also that political in
tions and political policies can be constructed and oper
different ways and for different purposes from those of r
institutions or religious doctrines.
Despite its variant or sui generis character, Indian secul
cannot be said to be situated entirely outside the problemat
thematic of the Western discourse on secularism. The prob
relationship between religion and politics in the West
analogies in India too. What I mean is that despite important
sophical or metaphysical differences between them, both E
Christianity and Indian Hinduism legitimized, in their own
analogous systems of social inequalities during the premode
riod. The latter was complicit in the "social construction
social evils mentioned above, namely, sati, untouchabilit
Hence, an ethico-political reform of the socio-religious
was taken to be an integral part of the Indian moveme
swaraj and sarvodaya.
That Indian citizens like Shah Bano do regularly seek
interventions by the state against injustices that are san
by religious practices undermines the validity of the pr
fashionable sweeping condemnations of Indian secularism

21. See Zakia Pathak and Rajeswari Sunderrajan, "Shahbano," Signs:

of Women in Culture and Society 14 (1989).

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rightly pointed out by Upendra Baxi, "we do not need to

antly enfeeble the state and law, in their meandering atta
of 'secularism,' in order to deactivate enmity, and acti
tual toleration, in civil society."22
Turning to Nandy's alternative to Nehruvian secul
find it somewhat flawed. In arguing for a return from
Indian secularism to the religious tolerance of premodern
he seems to me to be underemphasizing the implication
fact that religious life in India before the onslaught of
post-Enlightenment modernity was not free from ty
Brahminism and other forms of religious intolerance, on
which, he has indeed written insightfully. There can of c
no denying of the historicity of the premodern forms of
tolerance, which, as correctly pointed out by Nandy, w
ticed in exemplary manner by Asoka and Akbar. That the
been such periods or instances of exemplary religious t
in India's past is indeed a positive factor or strand in the "
history" of Indian society today. But that "effective h
constituted in a much more important way by the d
modern form in which power is exercised in the soci
simplify the matter, it can be said that modernity ha
formed the premodern, arbitrary way of exercising po
instance, by the kings) into codified, disciplined ways of
thought for the various sections of the society.
This Foucauldian reading of the pervasive nature of
power/knowledge is indeed in evidence in the writings of
and of such other critics of Indian secularism as Chatt
Bilgrami.23 However, the point I wish to stress is that
espousal of some traditional forms of religious toleran
alternative to the politics of the modern secular state
emancipatory or transformative relevance only if it is
that the people living under or with the modern form of
knowledge can simply exit from it and return to the past

22. Baxi, "The 'Struggle' to Redefine Secularism," p. 28. See als

Tharamangalam, "Indian Social Scientists and Critique of Secularism,
and Political Weekly, 4 March 1995; and Rajeev Bhargava, "Giving Sec
Due," Economic and Political Weekly, 9 July 1994.
23. Akeel Bilgrami, "Two Concepts of Secularism: Reason, Mode
Archimedean Ideal," Economic and Political Weekly, 9 July 1994.

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tunately, modernity cannot be cast off so easily. It h

wrestled with or resisted from within by those who are h
victimized by it and this has to be done through co
political resignifications and struggles.24 A wholesale rejec
modernity and a nostalgic yearning for the so-called nonp
religious tolerance of the past may inhibit us from fin
constructing emancipatory or transformative practic
within our effective, modern history.
Nandy claims that Gandhi showed us a way of re
modernity in favor of a nonmodern way of tolerant r
living. The latter's conception of religious tolerance, we ar
came from his antisecularism, which in its turn is said to
come from his "unconditional rejection of modernity." Th
not seem to me to be a valid interpretation of Gandhi's ap
to religious tolerance. In his satyagraha way of bringin
religious tolerance, Gandhi, far from making any wh
rejection of modernity, did rely on the civil liberties and de
rights components of moder liberal democracy as well a
institutions of the moder democratic state. This can be se
instance, in his Vykomsatyagraha campaign against untouch
anid, very poignantly, in his Calcutta satyagraha of 1947 for br
about harmony between the Hindus and the Muslims.26
say that Gandhi undertook this Calcutta satyagraha
opposition to or as an escape from, but as a necessary com
to, the then emerging modern democratic state or parliam
swaraj, for which he had led the nationalist movement
claim, in other words, that Nehru's so-called New Delhi

24. That for an emancipatory political agency we need to fashion countercodes

of criticism and resistance from out of what our "own history" offers us is
insightfully brought out by Akeel Bilgrami ("Two Concepts of Secularism," p.
1758). Similarly, Sudipta Kaviraj argues that "the logic of modernity pervades the
map of identities" in that it leaves no identity untouched. What this view implies
is that under modernity any notion of emancipatory or transformative agency has
necessarily to be political. See his "Crisis of the Nation-State in India," in
Contemporary Crisis of the Nation-State, ed. John Dunn (Oxford: Basil Blackwell,
1995), p. 118.
25. See Bhikhu Parekh, Colonialism, Tradition and Reform: An Analysis of
Gandhi's Political Discourse (New Delhi: Sage, 1989).
26. See Dennis Dalton,Mahatma Gandhi: Non-violent Power in Action (New
York: Columbia University Press, 1993).

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experiment in setting up modern democratic state structu

Gandhi's simultaneous Calcutta experiment of bringin
religious harmony through the politics of satya and ahims
necessarily complementary to each other. For a sp
substantiation of this claim, I can only mention the fact tha
Gandhi's Calcutta fast for communal harmony (2-4 Sep
1947), the policemen on duty in the city undertook a
sympathy fast with Gandhi. Some of them, it may be not
saved Gandhi a couple of days earlier when he was ser
wounded by a violent mob. Hence, if one has to speak
distinctively Indian approach to religious tolerance in ou
one has to refer to it as the Gandhi-Nehru complement
articulation of the democratic state withsatyagraha.27 It is i
I feel, to speak of Nehruvian secularism and Gandhian reli
in dichotomous terms. Such a reading denies us the adv
of the richer, more enabling moral-political legacy which
of continuing relevance to us today.
As insightfully acknowledged by Nandy, Gandhi mai
that interreligious harmony can be secured without requir
people to become irreligious or antireligious. In fact, du
1947 Calcutta satyagraha for communal harmony, Gand
regular prayer meetings in which passages from the texts
different religions were read and commented upon in
courses which followed the prayers. In these discours
practical, moral-political experiments, Gandhi tried to sho
all the religions have within them an inherent universal o
quest or yearning for an ethics of toleration, or in other w
ethics of satya (truth) and ahimsa (nonviolence). He sh
moreover, that such an ethics can be arrived at throu
satyagraha way of moral-political action, of which an im

27. It is instructive to compare my idea of the Gandhi-Nehru complem

in the Indian approach to religious harmony with Akeel Bilgrami's
notion of negotiated, substantive secularism. He contradistinguishes t
from the notion of the non-negotiated, Archimedean secularism, whi
was imposed on the society by Nehru. Bilgrami however does not rul
likelihood that Nehruvian secularism might perhaps have been bas
implicit or tacit negotiation among some of the religious commun
reading of the Gandhi-Nehru complementarity implies that som
genuine interreligious negotiation did take place. Cf. Bilgrami, "Two
of Secularism."

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component is the democratic-political engagements with

teachings and practices of the different religions. This democ
political engagement on the part of Gandhi is not given i
importance in Nandy's recent reading of the Gandhian ap
as a preliberal, nonmodern, religious approach.2
The critics of Indian secularism seem to me to be misdescri
ing the Gandhian perspective either as a premodern, prel
antisecular approach to religious tolerance (Nandy) or as a
tional peasant-communal moralism that has been re-done
for subserving the bourgeois-liberal project of modernity in
(Chatterjee29) or for promoting communalism among bot
dus and Muslims (Bilgrami). Against these interpretations
suggesting that Gandhi pioneered a way of moral-politic
perimentation in which the relative autonomy (or, in other
the nonabsolute separation) of religion and politics from
other is used for the reconstruction of both the religious tra
and the modern state.30
For Gandhi, as it seems to me, the reformist interventio
the modern democratic state in the socio-religious sphere ha
have as its complementary side some form of moral-po
intervention for transforming the modern state by integrati
institutions and practices with the principles of satya and ah
The significance of the former part of the Gandhian approa
missed out by the traditionalist critics of Indian secularism,
the latter part of the Gandhian approach is misperceived
modernist-political redefiners of Indian secularism.

28. In his earlier writings, however, Nandy did recognize, and rightly s
Gandhi was "willing to criticize some traditions violently" and "to includ
frame elements of modernity as critical vectors." See, for instance, Nandy, "
Frames for Transformative Politics," in Political Discourse, ed. B.Parekh
Pantham (New Delhi: Sage, 1987), pp. 240-41.
29. See Partha Chatterjee, Nationalist Thought and the Colonial W
Derivative Discourse? (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1986).
30. See Thomas Pantham, "Postrelativism in Emancipatory Thought: G
Swaraj and Satyagraha," in The Multiverse of Democracy, ed. D. L. Sheth an
Nandy (New Delhi: Sage, 1996).

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