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HAS INDIAN SECULARISM FAILED ?



Secularism is the supposition that people of different religious, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds can and must put their inherent contradictions aside in order to assimilate into a nation. The state wouldn’t be bound by any allegiance to a religion or to a people, but rather to a set of ideas and principles that emphasizes liberalism, equality before the law, and individualism. Consequently, the nation is characterized by its civic fortitude, jurisprudence, and its constitution- not by its people or history.


Secularism doesn’t necessarily have to reject everything that affirms identity and a shared history, but recognition of such ideas by the state would jeopardize the nation’s assimilative ideals. Ergo, history is often reduced to civic and economic talking points to avoid any one side from asserting control over the narrative and culture. But conflict of some sort always arises and is inescapable in a multicultural society. Critiques point to secularism as the cause of this problem, and there is truth to that.


India’s existence as a nation state in a Westphalian sense, has always been put into question. There is no common language, religion, race, or ethnicity binding the one billion people living here. In recent years, political division has only increased. It manifests itself as explicitly ideological but is implicitly religious. Religious discord has existed for centuries and it won’t cease to exist over a few abstract principles like secularism or individualism. Most people don’t see a set of laws, or the constitution as something that makes their nation. It is instead its people, its history, and its heritage. Communitarianism gives a sense of belonging to ordinary civilians which usually means people of similar religious backgrounds. That manifests itself into a natural segregation of society, where some villages are categorically of one ethnic or religious group. This formation of parallel societies not only impedes economic activity on a large scale, preventing the country from truly industrializing, but also hinders meaningful social cohesion. The state’s response to this isn’t to react in any one way, because any policy aimed at bridging those differences would be viewed as discriminatory. A coming together of people from opposing sides requires compromise, and whilst discussing religion, there can be none because those are foundational principles that give meaning to life.


Despite the fact that there are several laws that the government has implemented over the decades that have been labeled as “anti secular”, the nation has done a relatively good job at maintaining peace for its large swaths of diverse groups. Every religious, ethnic, and linguistic group is scrambling to acquire more representation in government, access to resources, and other welfare programs that the state has to offer. On the local level, there are parties that have been set up to accommodate those demands across the country, varying from region to region. All this stands in direct contravention with secularism, but in order to keep some basic level of cohesion, the government accepts it. However, the problem becomes more serious when it's on a national scale. If political parties start explicitly campaigning on representing specific subsections of the population for the entire nation, society crumbles into complete tribalism. Sectarianism triumphs over individualism. Identitarianism over secularism. Collectivism over freedom. People revert to their old tendencies of cultural warfare, and the state then merely becomes a weapon for whichever demographic comes out on top.


Proponents of secularism in India argue that it at least provides minorities with some representation, and that pluralism does positively contribute to Indian society. However, its critics argue that secularism is synonymous with cultural suicide and is just a mascaraed for overseeing the erasure of the nation’s history and culture. Either way, both sides recognize that identity plays a big role in how society will be shaped, and that in itself is anti secular. True assimilation entails a total abandonment of identity, with terms like minority and culture totally done away with. All that would matter in a truly secular state is being “Indian”. But in reality, that can never occur. Ergo, the religious divide. People unite themselves on what they are not. Exclusionary thinking binds people together more than any principles, as seen in history. When Hindus were the only substantial population inhabiting India, they were divided along casted lines. After the arrival of Muslims, the division turned to Hindu and Muslim because the contrast and differences were too stark. Historical injustices also contributed to that animosity and some still hold that rage to this day. But the important takeaway is that people still see themselves as Hindu or Muslim before they see themselves as Indian, and that is detrimental for a secular country.


The answer to the question of whether Indian secularism is too one sided, then becomes abundantly clear. Some administrations will favor one demographic and others will favor the opposite, but it doesn’t change the nature of the nation, which is identity politics. Tribal warfare in the form of electoral politics. This isn’t a problem that is unique to India because it is an illustration of human nature when given full agency and freedom. Therefore, secularism in all countries will have the same outcomes, especially whilst dealing with a heterogeneous population. At any given moment, there are certainly instances of how the state is acting unfairly but that is only natural.


This illustrates perfectly the notion that nations aren’t built on abstract ideas and concepts but instead by people. People with flaws. People with deep seated beliefs. People born into strong communities. Recognizing and acknowledging all this, and our limitations as a species is necessary to ensure that we don’t commit atrocities by forcing people of opposing worldviews together. Diversity for the sake of diversity will inevitably lead to conflict. On the other hand, ethnic and religious chauvinism will inevitably lead to fascism and violence. Striking that balance is what India as a country ought to be striving for, and it probably will never happen but that would be the only true secularism to exist.

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