Is secularism suitable for India?
Secularization or Secularism?
The pitfalls of uniqueness The critique of secularism confuses tradition with religion
by Kuldip Nayar
If I understand him correctly, I once explained to Ashis Nandy, then he is of the opinion that secularism is not a good solution for India. He replied to me: "That is more or less the case." And he is not alone in this opinion. There are now an increasing number of intellectuals who are coming to this conclusion. They believe that secularism has posed a lot of problems for the Indian state from the beginning. Among other things, it is said that secularism is unsuitable as a Western concept for India. For others, the anti-religious direction is questionable because it contradicts the foundations of Indian society.
Could it be that scholars like Nandy have lost faith in the country's pluralistic ethos? That would be understandable. But when they claim that tradition and religion are synonymous in India, they are making fun of the synthesis that the country has developed over the years and that enables mutual respect for the religious feelings of the individual groups. It is not wrong to equate religion and tradition as long as it is recognized that Indian tradition is not dominated by a particular religion. It becomes problematic when Hinduism is mistaken for this tradition. Our tradition, on the other hand, consists rather in giving space to different religions and different beliefs. Secularism is a product of this development. The prerequisites for this were tolerance and understanding. Secularism therefore essentially means not to mix religion with the state or politics.
During my brief tenure as Indian High Commissioner in London, I asked then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for her impression of Mikhail Gorbachev, whom she had just visited. Gorbachev told her, she said, that he was slowly losing control and that he could no longer hold the country together. She then advised him to go to India and learn from how people there have lived together for centuries despite different religions, castes, languages and living standards. Thatcher then asked me how I explained this Indian development to myself. My answer was that we in India did not believe that things were either black or white. Rather, we believed that there was a blurry zone where all things overlap, and that we kept trying to expand that zone. This is our secularism. And the feeling of tolerance, the spirit of mutual understanding that developed from it - that was the glue that held us together.
It is true that the representatives of Hindu nationalism want nothing more to do with it. In their view, secularism is directed against the Hindus and they equate it with excessive consideration for minority concerns. And that's exactly what intellectuals like Nandy fail to see. As Nehru once said, religions have created values on which human life can be built and principles on which it can be guided. But these values and principles should not be taken to be the inherited essential characteristics of a finally developed and self-contained culture.
The struggle between secularism and excessive nationalism is nothing new. All forms of religions and holy wars have been experimented with in Europe and the concept of the God state has been extensively discussed. But after centuries of waging war, it was concluded that religion and state should be separate.
Even what is put forward in support of Hindu nationalism is not new. After the partition of India in 1947, worse could be heard. The struggle for independence was tied to secular ideals, and these were dealt a violent blow when the country was divided on the basis of religion. At that time, Hindu nationalists took up arms to drive out Muslims. They were told to go to Pakistan, which is their place now.
People wrinkled their noses at the thoughts of Gandhi, who advocated pluralism and peace. It was seen as a cowardly response to "Islamic chauvinism". Many intellectuals declared at the time that the Indian culture and tradition was Hinduism and that this must therefore also be reflected in the new constitution to be created. However, Nehru, Abul Kalam Asad and Sardar Patel defended their position and rejected this outdated and unscientific thinking based on religion. That is why India finally passed one of the most liberal constitutions, which even gave minorities the right to proclaim and propagate their religion publicly.
Of course, there was and still is the influence of religion on politics. This is now being sold in the name of culture. How intellectuals like Nandy feel about it only shows that they no longer know which side to join.
A billion Gandhis
by Ashis Nandy
For many ages a natural tolerance closely related to faith has been the basis of our coexistence. Why are my friends now trying to graft an imported concept like secularism onto this root? Secularism is not synonymous with general agreement; it is only one way of achieving such an understanding. As an ideology, it is less than 300 years old. But although secularism has failed utterly in recent years to halt the rise of Hindu nationalism as well as Islamic, Jewish and Christian fundamentalism, in India as well as around the world, it appears that few have the courage to look beyond secularism.
My friend Kuldip Nayar, with whom I fought side by side in many debates, including debates he would call "secular", has now complained about my rejection of secularism. He says I've lost faith in the pluralistic traditions of South Asia. In doing so, he completely misunderstood me. My criticism of secularism aims to revive those traditions that existed before Gandhi. It is a search for post-secular forms of politics that better meet the needs of a democratic state in South Asia.
The concept of secularism arose in a Europe torn by religious struggles, wars and pogroms. In this context it was impossible to see tradition as a source of tolerance. This case has never occurred in India and much of South Asia. In India, most of the unrest has taken place in cities, and even those that reach the villages often begin in the cities. It is therefore not surprising that in the last 50 years less than four percent of all people who died in unrest died in villages, even though 75 percent of Indians live there. In contrast, in the cities, where 25 percent of Indians live, 96 percent of the victims died. It is therefore a form of obscene arrogance when you want to go through the Indian villages to preach tolerance through secularism - in any case, I am not participating.
These ideas of tolerance are associated with popular religious beliefs in ordinary people and in everyday life, however superstitious, irrational and primitive these may appear to progressive and secular India. Modern India has not produced a single hero of secularism to this day, apart from Nehru, whose aura is also slowly disappearing. But if Ashoka, Akbar, Kabir and Gandhi, the heroes of the secularists, got by without the concept of secularism, then the people of South Asia can do without it. They do not need leaders or the avant-garde, academics or journalists to teach them or sell them fashionable theories on how to be trained to be tolerant and respectful of other faiths. It is time we scientists deciphered the language and culture of these simple Indians. We regard their faith as inferior, but it was they who made living together in our society bearable.
It is simply the case that in a democracy people bring their values into politics, whether we like it or not. And instead of imposing an idea on these people that makes no sense to the non-English speaking majority - even the translation of "secularism" (dharmanirapekshata) is a makeshift construct that literally means amorality - we should finally take these people seriously, learn from them, and continue build their native concepts that have worked in real life for centuries. If secularism means nothing else than traditional tolerance in South Asia, why do we need an imported idea to talk about local tolerance? And why should we import an idea from countries that have no history of real religious, racial, cultural and ethnic tolerance? Why shouldn't we rather adopt the concept of convivencia from medieval Islamic Spain - which one can, with good reason, consider the only truly pluralistic political entity that Europe has produced in the last thousand years?
But I also know that asking these questions will do no good. Some things are simply not possible in the prevailing colonial culture shaped by the Indian opinion industry and the state-sponsoring dissidents. Had it been otherwise, at least the Indian left would have adopted a few lessons from the Sandinista ideology, which was aggressively non-secular and based on liberation theology. Instead, India's brain-dead colonial left, which was still alive in the period before the Second World War, has chosen another model: it is still mimicking the Leninist rawness of a murderous regime in the name of secularism, which, during its so-called revolutionary phase, served 62 million of its own citizens killed.
I am a child of modern India myself, an infidel. And it took me many years to betray my class - to the urban, western-educated, modern Indians - and to develop respect for the people who kept Indian democracy alive with its unspoken theories and practices of peaceful coexistence in the villages. This did not make me a believer, but for the last 20 years I have been forced to rediscover, research, and confirm these theories and principles in my work. In doing so, I followed Gandhi's maxim that those who believe religion has nothing to do with politics understand neither religion nor politics. Let us leave it to the next generation of people living in South Asia to decide whether this effort has been in vain.
Our Only Colonial Thinker What Ashis Nandy argues against secularism is based on false assumptions and not on expertise
by Sanjay Subrahmanyam
Once again, the famous Indian psychologist and intellectual lone fighter Ashis Nandy has shown that he can be just as impressively intelligent as he can be tiresome, repetitive and ill-informed. He knows as little about India and its history as he does about Europe and its past. Armed with this blissful uninformed innocence, he can brilliantly develop one paradox after another. The fact that the whole thing is hardly anchored in reality has rarely confused him. Let's start with his view of the history of concepts.
Nandy claims that the concept of secularism originated in a Europe "torn apart by religious struggles, wars and pogroms". But when and where did it happen? In the France of Charles IX. and Henry IV? During the Thirty Years War? Can Nandy give us some specific times and societies? No, because Nandy's Europe only exists in his imagination. It is a nonexistent place that exists only because it serves as a counterpart to India. He thinks he can ascribe all sorts of qualities to him just because his imagination so pleases.
In truth, the term secularism hardly plays a role in political vocabulary in most European, and indeed most Western, societies. Even today, nobody in the political sphere of Great Britain, Germany, Italy, France, Spain or Portugal speaks of secularism, and it is the same in the United States, Argentina or Brazil. Neither Tony Blair nor Margaret Thatcher have ever, as far as I can remember, used the word in a speech. The only Europeans who use a similar term are the French with their idea of “laïcité”. But for the French, this term is not meant to mediate between the different religions. Rather, it has to do with the fact that the state separated from a certain religion during the French Revolution, namely Catholicism, which was finally enshrined in law in 1905. But that is not the same as secularism. Europeans tend to speak of secularization, but by that they simply mean turning away from religion, which is represented by the fact that the churches are less and less visited. And the idea of secularism, as advocated in the 19th century in Britain by George Holyoake and Charles Bradlaugh, was primarily focused on promoting rationalist education rather than education in religious schools.
It is therefore a complete mistake to believe that secularism is a common political term in the West that has simply been carried over to India as an "imported idea". In reality, the term has gained a political weight in India that it never had in the West, and it has acquired a central meaning in India that most Europeans would not understand. Secularism has long since become an Indian term.
Having made this clear, there is one other point that one can only agree with with Nandy: he is right in calling for traditions and political concepts to be looked out for which have long produced tolerance in India. But at the same time one wishes he had practiced what he is preaching here himself. Nandy has never delved into Indian history in any depth. He just has no idea what life was like before colonial rule, how the people of India thought and wrote back then. When asked for details, he refers to the Ramayana and the Mahabharata as if these Indian national epics comprised the sum total of Indian history. Nandy's knowledge of colonial history is limited to the British themselves and to a few Bengali authors who lived under colonial rule. What kind of intellectual sources are these, if not those that reflect the "dominant colonial culture of the Indian opinion industry"? Nandy has not read a single work from the 16th or 17th centuries, he has not even read authors who write about such ancient texts.
In order to be a great thinker, one has to maintain a certain ignorance and innocence, in order to be able to say, like Nandy, happily that there were no historians in India before colonial rule. Apparently Abu'l Fasl then came from Mars. And Nandy is at his worst when he tries to give advice in pompous fashion. He wants others to learn from the concept of convivencia that seemingly existed in medieval Islamic Spain. But has anyone ever used that term in Islamic Spain? As far as I know - and unlike Nandy, I worked on Spanish history in that era - no one did that. Rather, this idea was brought up by modern, romantic historians who applied it to an earlier epoch of Spain, and it is therefore no more an indigenous term to Spain than secularism is to Mughal India.
The notion that Spain at that time was "the only truly pluralistic political entity" that Europe produced in the past thousand years is just another example of bad science. This is a case of longing for a golden age.
So maybe Nandy should think about reaching out to “obscene arrogance” and do his homework first before teaching others. If he does that, I am sure that he will find many examples of tolerance, not only in the villages, as his gradually tiresome populist rhetoric has led to believe, but also in other parts of Indian society. in the past as well as in the present. But that would require hard work first, and not the intellectual short-circuits that are so common in “indigenist” circles.
And it could also mean having to admit that Nandy - with his romantic celebration of India's Hindu past, with his longing for the "purity" of the natives, with his myth-making about an unhistorical Europe and with his closeness to the tearful romantic tradition of the so called Bengali Renaissance - the only colonial thinker we still have today. He may be a colonial romantic, but that doesn't make his thinking any less colonial.
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