Predicaments of Secularism: Muslim Identities and Politics in Mumbai

By Hansen, Thomas Blom | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, June 2000 | Go to article overview

Predicaments of Secularism: Muslim Identities and Politics in Mumbai


Hansen, Thomas Blom, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


Most of the debate about secularism and the secular state in India has remained at a general level, leaving a great many gaps in our knowledge of the actual meanings and practices associated with secularism in India. This article argues that secularism in India is premised on an unstable separation of a realm of politics from a supposedly unpolitical realm of culture, where communities have been represented in rather static and undifferentiated terms. Discussing ethnographic material from Muslim neighbourhoods in Mumbai the author shows how the separation between 'pure' culture and 'dirty' politics is breaking down in the face of a new political assertiveness among ordinary, low-status Muslims. This challenges the position of religious leaders and it also questions widely held assumptions of the relative coherence of the Muslim community.

In most debates on secularism and its problems in various parts of the world there is an unfortunate tendency to understand the secular state in rather undifferentiated terms: modern, homogenizing and driven by objectifying scientific modes of governance. But this view tends to ignore how the history rid the practices of the state, as well as the connotations of secularism, differ substantially from, say, Algeria to India. Nowhere is the need for a historically specific understanding of secularism and the secular state more evident than in India. Protracted and intense public debates on secularism have taken place in India since the Hindu nationalist movement in the 1980s successfully mobilized political support by promising to recover what it claimed to be India's inherent Hindu character, questioning the loyalty of the Muslim minority. These debates revolved around whether secularism was a Western import, how could coexist with democratic governance, and how it could sustain the protection of the rights of India's minorities.

Madan provoked many intellectuals by arguing that in so far as religious cosmology was constitutive of society in India, the very idea of secularism -- never a fully worked out cosmology, but 'only a stratagem' (Madan 1987:750) was bound to remain an 'alien cultural ideology' (1987: 754). Following Dumont, Madan argued that secularism was 'impotent' because South Asian religions were 'totalizing' and subordinated political power to religious authority (1987: 753).

In a series of articles Nandy argued that both secularism and communal violence (its double, according to Nandy) are built on imported Enlightenment ideas espoused by the urban middle classes who live in secularized worlds marked by 'distorted or perverted versions of religion' (Nandy 1998: 284). Communal violence is an urban phenomenon, resisted in rural areas where 'communities have not splintered into atomised individuals' and where true tolerance derived from religious cosmologies of the ordinary rural dweller in India persists (1998:285-6).Within the 'culture of the modern Indian state', Nandy argues, the discourse of secularism signifies the right to full citizenship, rationalism, modernity and cosmopolitanism of those who command it. Secularism also justifies excessive intervention of the state into the lives of communities, often in the name of national unity. The belief in secularism is at the heart of the dominant statist ideology in India and is defended with the utmost passion by the westernized middle classes because it upholds their privileged position and affords them 'management of the fear of religion and the religious' (1998: 292).

The debate on secularism has inevitably been structured by the historical preponderance in Indian academia of the kind of critiques of 'the West', modernity and science that are so evident in Nandy's work. These positions also inform more recent Foucauldian critiques of secularism as a metonym of a scientistic project of the Indian state (e.g. Chatterjee 1993: 200-19; Inden 1995). It is, however, also indicative of the debate that neither in these contributions nor in other works by Nandy (1988; Nandy et al. …

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