India's Embattled Secularism. (Holy Wars)

By Kesavan, Mukul | The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

India's Embattled Secularism. (Holy Wars)

Kesavan, Mukul, The Wilson Quarterly

Indians are sometimes scolded for misunderstanding secularism. They're reminded that secularism in its original, Western sense means commitment to a public life fenced off from religion, not an equal pandering to all religions. This chiding is unreasonable.

It's unreasonable because secularism in India grew out of the peculiar circumstances of anticolonial nationalism. India isn't a Christian country trying to disentangle its state from the tentacles of a smothering, interfering church. Nor is it Ataturk's Turkey or contemporary Algeria trying to erase monarchy and mullahs in the name of a secular modernity. India is an unlikely subcontinental state, first made by the English from the rubble of the Mughal Raj, then remade by their English-speaking subjects--a twice-made state, if you like. India was first fashioned out of a process of colonial expansion and conquest that dragged on for a hundred years, and the India the British made was a complicated jigsaw, an Austro-Hungarian Empire under more ruthless management. In the post-1947 makeover of India, the independent state consolidated the partitioned Raj into a secular republic.

Some part of this task of consolidation had been accomplished by Mahatma Gandhi's huge campaigns of civil disobedience in the decades before independence. In the name of the nation, the discontents of a poor country were harnessec against the colonial state that had, ironically, consolidated the territory the would-be nation wished to occupy. Gandhi's campaigns of mass defiance and solidarity were important not only because they helped throw out the British but because they demonstrated that India's bewilderingly plural population was capable of purposeful collective action.

As established in 1885, the Indian National Congress--the party of Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and every Indian prime minister of independent India until 1977--was a self-consciously representative assembly of people from different parts of India. Because colonial nationalism had to prove to the Raj that the variety of India could be gathered under the umbrella of a single movement, there was a Noah's ark quality to the Congress's nationalism: It did its best to keep every species of Indian on board. The Congress never lost this sense that the nation was the sum of the subcontinent's species, and that the more Parsees, Muslims, Dalits, Sikhs, and Christians it could count in its Hindu ranks, the better was its claim to represent the nation. Even before the birth of Pakistan in the partition of 1947, Hindus were an overwhelming 75 percent of the population; today more than 85 percent of all Indians are Hindus. For the Congress, being secular meant making different types of Indians equally welcome. In that conte xt, secularism became a way of being comprehensively nationalist.

The emotional charge of the Congress's nationalism came from anti-imperialism, not from some romantic myth of a suppressed identity struggling to be born. The Congress emptied nationalism of its usual content: language, culture, religion, history. In the place of these components it put an anti-imperialism based on a sophisticated critique of the economic effects of colonial rule. If Indian nationalism was to be fueled by the grievances of victimhood, the Congress made sure that all Indians were made to feel equally victims of economic exploitation. The leeching of India's wealth, the destruction of livelihood through colonial de-industrialization, and the crippling of agriculture by an extortionate taxation were hardy staples of Congress nationalist rhetoric-- and for good reason. Taken together, the charges showed how colonialism had ravaged all Indians, whether they were peasants or workers, craftsmen or traders, landlords or indigenous capitalists. Theoretically, then, Muslim weavers, Jat peasants, Bohr a traders, and Parsi industrialists were knit together by anticolonial grievances of one sort or another. In economic nationalism, the Congress found a nondenominational--a secular--way of being patriotic. …

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