Between Tradition and Modernity

thumb_dharma_wheelIntroducing Indian secularism and its uniqueness [1/3]

«We can respect minorities, understand their particularities, accept diversity without at the same time giving into division and fragmentation.»
Boutros Boutros-Ghali, former UN General Secretary. Introduction to The Book of the Year - 1994.

Can a State which interferes in religious affairs be called secular? Can a system in which the State financially supports religious institutions, or recognizes a particular status for certain religious groups, pretend to respect the institutional separation of the Churches and the State? The answer to both these questions is yes, and lies in the example of Indian secularism - although India is often mistakenly considered as a non-secular State.

1._indian_secularismThe single notion of « secularism », which refers to the existence of a legal system of regulations ruling the connections between religious and State institutions, is not widely known in France, and even less is the concept of « Indian secularism ». However, the complex Indian model of secularism could be used, as it is argued by Rajeev Bhargava (Bhargava, 2004), by Western countries such as France, to deal with their increasingly diverse society. Numerous discussions have taken place concerning French "laïcité", the current threats it faces and sometimes its failures, but few studies have been undertaken in order to consider a radical change in the French approach towards religion. This article intends to consider this issue, in the light of the teachings which might be drawn from Indian secularism.
Before considering this question, we should fully understand what Indian Secularism is. A set of three articles will be devoted to this subject. The first of them will enable us to take a look at the historical background which gave birth to this form of secularism: a crucial step in order to fully understand Indian secularism and some of the major criticisms it faces nowadays. We will then consider the nature of this unique experience, especially by confronting it with the concepts of tolerance and "laïcité". The final article will depict why secularism is so important in the Indian context and following this, what France might learn therefrom.


Historical Background

In order be able to really understand the particular nature of Indian secularism, we have to look at the context which shaped its implementation, its diverse influences and the reasons why it was implemented. Having considered this, we will be able to deconstruct some of the more important criticisms faced by Indian secularism.
Secularism, in the modern acceptation of the word, was born in Europe as a result of the long strengthening of secular political authority over the religious, from the Middle-Ages down to the 19th century. The heritages of the Reformation and of the Enlightenment are, in this view, both relevant to this development. However in 1947, when the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, supported the introduction of secularism into his country, he did not refer to this alien concept, but to a form of secularism "Made in India".
In order really be able to understand the particular nature of Indian secularism, we have to look at the context which shaped its implementation, its diverse influences and the reasons why it was implemented. Having considered this, we will be able to deconstruct some of the more important criticisms faced by Indian secularism.

The birth of Indian Secularism


Within Indian society, the State and religion have long been two competing sources of allegiance; indeed, Indian history has passed alternatively through periods of tolerance and intolerance. The idea of an Indian secularism, expressed by the "Founding Fathers" - such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar - in 1947, has been the result of a long development. It was originally designed to protect the unity of the nation and to gain recognition for a set of fundamental rights particularly needed in order to protect religious minorities from the vast majority of Hindus.


Although the modern notion of secularism appeared in Western Europe, religious pluralism and tolerance - which are key issues inseparable from secularism - are part of the historical inheritance of the Indian masses, shaped by centuries of invasions and immigrations. Therefore, history was to be a major resource in justifying the implementation of secularism in India; an example of this is the use of the Ashoka pillars.

The Roots of tolerance in Indian history

Ashoka's pillars

The very first example of institutional tolerance in Indian history can be dated back to the second millennium B.C. Indeed, the "Rig-Veda" - which belongs to a compendium of ancient texts referring to a form of knowledge orally passed on from Brahmin to Brahmin until being consigned in writing in the Veda - proclaimed that "all human beings are of one race". Similarly, in the Atharva-veda which dates from approximately the 10th century B.C., it is stated that "the Earth, which accommodates peoples of different persuasions and language, as in a peaceful home, may it benefit all of us". Setting aside Chârvâka - an Indian philosopher who lived during the 7th-6th century B.C.E. and who is considered by the historian Mysore Hiriyanna as the first promoter of the freedom of thought - better-known examples of tolerance in Indian history are those of Ashoka and Akbar.
Ashoka was the third emperor of the Maurya dynasty, the first important autochthonous dynasty in North India founded in 320 B.C. He converted to Buddhism, adopted ahimsa - the doctrine of non-violence - and became a protector of impartiality and tolerance. His 12th edict proclaimed "He who does reverence to his own sect while disparaging the sects of others, wholly from attachment to his own, with intent to enhance the glory of his own sect, in reality, by such conduct, inflicts the severest injury on his own sect. Concord, therefore, is meritorious, to wit, hearkening and hearkening willingly to the law of piety as accepted by other people". This attitude towards religions gave Ashoka a huge credit, which has lasted until today. Following the disappearance of the Maurya Empire in 184 B.C, and for five hundred years, no such a widely extended empire - until that of the Guptas - managed to rule over India. The Gupta Empire, from 319 to approximately 500 A.D., rediscovered the practice of religious pluralism with the State tolerating and fostering Visnuism, Shivaism, Jainism, Buddhism and a numerous other sects. 3._evolution_of_the_mughal_empireMore than a millennium later, the Mughal emperor Akbar set a new standard regarding religious tolerance. He was considered by Jawaharlal Nehru to be "the father of Indian nationalism" (Gupta, 1973: 24). Emperor from 1556 to 1605, his reign symbolized the peak of Mughal rule in India. Akbar extended his kingdom while pursuing a policy of unity and equality; he encouraged tolerance and, through the Decree of Infallibility in 1579, he established himself as the sole referee for all religious issues in his realm in order to challenge the proselyte policy of Islamic religious authorities (Marbaniang, 2009).

Modern India has built itself on "continuity and change" (Bhambhri, 1994: 53), incorporating elements contributed by each of its dynasts, and merging these contributions into a unique model. However, practices developed by Ashoka or Akbar fall into the category of tolerance and not primarily into that of a form of secularism. It is important to distinguish the acceptance of religious pluralism from the institutionalizing thereof into laws with recognized fundamental rights. Only British colonization, which implemented the codification of Indian law and introduced a Western influence, enabled the introduction of the concept of secularism to India.

The development of a secular consciousness in India

The Contribution of British rule

The rule of the British over India can be divided into two periods: the first period, from 1600 to 1857 saw the strengthening of the East India Company and its establishment in India; during the second period, from 1857 to the end of the Empire in 1947, the subcontinent was directly ruled by the Crown. Major advancements concerning the legal as well as the political system were made after 1857. However, codification of the existing Hindu and Muslim "laws" - or what colonists thought were the sources of Indian law -, better known as the Dharmasâstra and the Sh'aria, began in the middle of the 18th century, when the Company decided to become the civil administrator of all territories under its control. Codified religious laws were used until 1947 and did not disappear after Independence. This led to the establishment of the so-called "Personal laws" which politicized religious communities and allowed an unequal legal system to last.
The introduction of a powerful bureaucracy, the progressive codification of the law, implementation of newly adopted criminal and commercial legal frames under which all Indians were equal, and progressive introduction of democratic elements promoted the development of a secular consciousness, especially amongst the Westernized educated elite.

The Indian "Renaissance"

Nevertheless, the political consciousness of the elite in India was not solely built on the contribution of the British. Indeed, ancient reformist schools of thought contributed to what emerged in the late 18th century and which was called the "Indian Renaissance". This "Renaissance" especially relied on the movement of "Bhakti" (which ended in the 13th century) and on the "Bhakti-sufi movement" (which ended in the 16th century). In itself, the "Bhakti movement" was a Hindu attitude of devotion which invited believers to elaborate a more personal connection with their Gods. Besides its religious conception, the movement promoted equal respect towards all individuals - irrespective of their castes. It was deeply influenced by Islam - this is what we called the Bhakti-sufi movement - and later on by Buddhism and Jainism. Kumkum Sangari, in A narrative of Restauration: Gandhi's Last Years and Nehruvian Secularism places the roots of the specifically Indian conception of secularism in the bhakti-sufi movement (Sangari, 2002).
4._raja_ram_mohan_royBuilding on this, the "Indian Renaissance" was carried out by artists, thinkers and reformists of the 19th century who had had a Western education. These elites had a real political influence on the struggle against the British by highlighting crucial values that were to be protected. Referring to this period, Annie Montaut talks about the beginnings of "cultural nationalism" (Montaut, 2009: 313) which expanded thanks to the English language and the end of press censorship in 1818 . To consider but a few contributors to the "Renaissance", Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Sir Ahmed Syed or Rabindranath Tagore highlighted the importance of secular principles: they promoted humanism, the democratization of education principles, abolition of the caste system or the right for widows to remarry.

Intellectuals of the "Indian Renaissance" were however not representative of the aspirations of the Indian people. Numerous indeed, were those who refused to reform Hinduism in the sense proposed by Ram Mohan Roy or Rabindranath Tagore and, by the end of the 19th century, the separation between Hindus and Muslims became highly visible, especially in the writings of Tilak or Muhammad Iqbal. However, some ideas of the "Renaissance" were refloated by those who shaped the freedom struggle such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi or B.R Ambedkar.

The idea of secularism at the time of Independence

The Partition in 1947 gave birth to two ideologically divergent States: India and Pakistan. If Pakistan was established following the model of an Islamic State to welcome the Muslims and protect their faith; Indian Congress leaders placed in charge of elaborating the framework of Independent India refused to create a "Hindustan" based on Hinduism. India was to be built on the basis of a democratic and secular Republic.
The deliberate omission of the word "secular" in the constitutional framework of 1950 was due to several things. At this time, "secularism" generally referred to the first amendment of the American Constitution of 1791 which establishes a strict separation between the State and religions - a model that could not be implemented in India where religion directly shapes certain aspects of society. The decision of the Indian constituent assembly was thus to maintain implicit the existing reference to "secularism" although it defined a corpus of rights and duties that were to define the relations between the State and religions.

Challenging Indian secularism

5._threats_to_indian_secularismNumerous scholars have argued that Indian secularism was an alien concept imposed by the elite upon Indian society. This criticism - famously embodied by Ashis Nandy - highlights the existing gap between the secular spirit of the Indian Constitution and its acceptance in the population. Seval Yildirim, professor of law at New York University, explained this by insisting on the distinction between the idea of secularism in developing countries - that is to say the ideology that was introduced through the diffusion of ideas - and the system of secularism as imposed by the government in its efforts to strengthen secular laws and reforms (Yildirim, 2004: 906). Current criticisms against the imposition of a foreign concept are often coupled with condemnations of modernity and of the failures of the Nehruvian democracy to secure the right to equality and to prevent communalism. Amartya Sen in Secularism and Its Discontents (Sen, 2005) analyses these reproaches to Indian secularism.
Because these criticisms are having a real impact on Indian society and because they echo a questioning of the history of secularism in India, they have to be addressed. We will thus consider the opinion of two of the better known detractors of Indian secularism, Triloki Nath Madan and Ashis Nandy.


Secularism, the imposition of a foreign concept?

amritsar_22Professor T.N. Madan, during a well-known speech before the Association for Asian Studies questioned the nature of the secularism established by the Indian State following Independence; he more globally criticized the exporting of the Westernizing ideology of secularism into South Asia. His discourse, entitled Secularism in Its Place denounces that the Western-educated elite adopted a foreign system, produced by a specific Western evolution from the Reformation on to the rational philosophy of the Enlightenment, and hence inadequate to Indian society. According to him, the Congress party has implemented a policy of "privatization of religion" (Larson, 2001: 3) whose goal was to achieve the separation of individual belief from the religious community in a society where traditions and the group are central. He denounces "the dream of a minority which wants to shape the majority in its own image" (Madan, 1987: 749): in other words, the implementation of a hegemonic concept aiming at creating a publicly homogenous Indian society which would express its diversity in the private sphere only. T.N. Madan declares that "Indian secularism achieves the opposite of its stated intentions; it trivializes religious difference as well as the notion of the unity of religions" (Madan, 1987: 750). The failure of this intended strategy, T.N. Madan argues, maintains communal conflicts; moreover, by depriving religion of its central role in Indian society, the State encourages fundamentalists.

Ashis Nandy, sociologist at the Centre for Developing Societies, shares this criticism. According to him, secularism "is part of a larger, modern, Western package of scientific growth, nation-building, national security and development" (Pantham, 1997: 529) imposed by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1947. Diverging from T.N. Madan's position, Ashis Nandy rather tends to refuse a Western-oriented modernity. He points out that State secularism corresponds to Western modernity as well as rationality and science, but has failed to promote a peaceful coexistence of communities in India. In agreement with T.N. Madan, Ashis Nandy believes that secularism empowered the development of communal forces: in moving religion further apart from politics, secularism has favored the vision of fundamentalists on religious issues. Acts of violence among religious communities are thus deemed to be the products of a modernity imposed upon Indian society. Nandy considers that the Indian way of being secular resides in the tradition of tolerance that was to be found in ancient times in India. He promotes a pre-modern approach to religion which promoted tolerance as pursued by Ashoka, Akbar or Gandhi, who introduced the principle of Sarva Dharma Sambhava: equal respect for all.

The rhetoric used by Ashis Nandy refers back very much to the past, to a kind of golden age of tolerance. This is what Thomas Pantham has criticized as representing a utopian position. Indeed, despite periods of religious harmony, India, in the past, has not always been a model of tolerance. Besides, the Mahatma Gandhi, often referred to by Ashis Nandy, encouraged the "privatization of religion". He believed that religion should mark everyone's actions, but also that the public sphere should rest on civil rights and freedom guaranteed by democracy and protected by the State.
These two approaches refer to what Amartya Sen calls "antimodernist criticism" (Sen, 2005). They are highy significant in understanding the criticism which is opposed to secularism in India. Ashis Nandy carries out a re-appropriation of history; by so doing, he denies modern "tolerance", one which, by granting rights to everyone and even those who have for long being neglected as untouchables, is underpinned by true legal guarantees. This is why Thomas Pantham answers to Ashis Nandy that: "modernity has transformed the pre-modern, arbitrary way of exercising power (for instance, by the kings) into codified, disciplined ways of life and thought for the various sections of the society" (Pantham, 1997: 537).
Answering this widespread criticism, Rajeev Bhargava insists that, even though secularism has "unquestionably Western roots as an explicitly formulated doctrine" (Bhargava, 2007: 144), this is by no means contradictory with a further evolution of secularism outside the West. Secularism is a multivalue doctrine, which has roots in the West but also - with regard to the Indian experience - in Indian history and indeed modernity. As stated by T.N. Madan while considering his detractors' point of view, "in other words, secularism is not an Indian ideology, but there is an Indian ideology of secularism" (Madan, 1993: 668).


A word of conclusion

This article has intended to heighten the reader's awareness of the contradictory, indeed conflicting environment within which the specifically Indian model of secularism has emerged. Acquaintance with this basis appears unavoidable for anyone wishing to access a better understanding of the nature and the uniqueness of Indian secularism. The concept can only be defined in a contextual sense: its foreign origin has not prevented an autonomous Indian evolution from shaping its outlines, as inseparable from the principles of tolerance and religious pluralism.
What differentiates Indian secularism from tolerance? And from the specifically French concept of "laïcité"? Having considered its historical background, how is Indian secularism precisely to be defined today? What is its nature? These are issues which research must now address.

To read the second part of this article: The nature of Indian Secularism [2/3]



About the Author

bbBrunelle Battistella est étudiante en Master Affaires et Relations Internationales à l'Institut d'études politiques d'Aix-en-Provence. Elle a étudié une année au département de Science Politique de l'Université de Delhi et a travaillé dans un centre de recherche, le Centre de Sciences Humaines, à New Delhi. Brunelle Battistella a rédigé, en 2011, son mémoire de Master sous la direction de Pierre Langeron et Max Jean Zins sur le « secularism » indien.

Brunelle Battistella is studying International Affairs within the Institute of Political Studies in Aix-en-Provence. She spent one year working in the political science department of Delhi university and at the Social Science center in New Dehli.

Relecture : Patrick Hutchinson

Mise en page : Pierre-Olivier Cazenave, Patrick Hutchinson

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