(Excepts from historian Romila Thapar’s Ali Asghar Engineer Memorial Lecture at Jamia Millia Islamia in August)
In speaking about Indian society and the secular, let me say at the outset, that secularism goes beyond just politics, although our political parties have attempted to reduce it to a political slogan. So one party endorses it in theory but hesitates to apply it properly in practice, the other makes fun of it since the party’s foundational ideology is anti-secular.
Supporting secularism or dismissing it, is not just a political slogan. It is deeply tied to the question of the kind of society that we want. This is perhaps why it was widely discussed in the early years of independence whereas now attempts are being made to scuttle it. Questioning the secular would mean seriously changing the direction that we have intended to give to Indian society. If secularism is removed from the constitution then democracy becomes a victim, with an unthinkable future.
If however we want a secular society, then we would have to stop identifying ourselves primarily by religion, caste or language, and start thinking of ourselves primarily as equal citizens of one nation, both in theory and in practice. This involves mutual obligations between the state and the citizens and between citizens, not just in theory as of now but in actuality.
The relationship of other identities such as religion, caste, language and region will inevitably become secondary. These latter have to be adjusted so as to ensure that rights of citizenship together with what they entail remain primary. Eventually the state will not be expected to support any religious organization, even those it is currently supporting.
I would like to begin by trying to explain what I mean by the terms secular, secularism and secularizing. Secular is that which relates to the world and is distinct from the religious.
Secularism involves questioning the control that religious organizations have over social institutions. This is sought to be justified by arguing that it ensures morality. But the morality fundamental to secularism goes beyond any single religion and extends to the functioning of the entire society.
Secularism does not deny the presence of religion in society, but demarcates the social institutions over which religion can or cannot exercise control. This distinction is fundamental. And finally, secularizing is the process by which society changes and recognizes the distinction.
When the term was first used in 1851, secular had only one basic meaning. It described laws relating to morals and social values as having been created by human society in order to ensure the well-being and harmonious functioning of the society. These laws were neither the creation of divine authority nor did they require the sanction of divine authority.
Authority lay in working out – through reasoning and sensitivity – what was best for society in keeping with generally accepted values of tolerance and social responsibility, by those who constituted that society.
Authority was exercised through laws. Social values therefore grew out of rational thinking, debate and discussion. This was needed to establish a moral code agreed to by the entire society and was not linked to any particular religion, caste or class.
Secularism therefore is not what it is sometimes said to be – a denial of religion – but a curtailment of the control that religious organizations have over social functioning.
Social laws are the spine of a society. They should protect the right to live and they should ensure that there should be no discrimination that affects life and work. This is crucial to protecting the points of change in the human lifecycle for which laws are necessary, such as registering birth, marriage, or even divorce, processes of education by which a child is socialized into society, occupation and employment, and inheritance, generally of property. Actions linked to these come under the jurisdiction of civil law. To make this link effective the absolute minimum of which are equal access to education and to health care for all members of society, and to employment, and this is to be irrespective of religion and caste. If civil laws are to be universal and uniform as they would be ultimately in a secular society, then we must guarantee this endorsement by the state. Discrimination on any count would be completely unacceptable.
So religious authority continues in a secular system but is limited. It extends only to governing religious belief and practice. It has been argued that there should be no rigid barrier between religion and the state, but there can be a negotiated, principled distance between them.
This can allow for new alignments within the religion or between religions or between religion and the state. The overall relationship would disallow the dominance of any single religion since each would have equal rights on the state and the state on them and equal status before the law. Nevertheless, there is a degree of stipulated separation in this arrangement in as much as religious authority would no longer be controlling social laws…
In the history of India, medieval history, which colonial historians called the Muslim period, is located in the last thousand years. This history has had a raw deal from religious extremists and politicians in being described as the age when, to quote the slogan, “We were slaves” – the assumption being that Islamic rule tyrannised an oppressed Hindu population. This is a continuation of the British interpretation of Indian history eagerly taken up by religious nationalism. Viewed historically, the scene differs at many levels.
The interaction between what we call Hinduism and Islam had its moments of confrontations and conflicts in the face offs between competing politics and were manifested in various ways, and often through religious organisations. What was a largely political act at that time is often interpreted today as an entirely religious act, with the politics left out. Some confrontation was to be expected.
Such confrontations were not new to the Indian scene if in earlier times the brahmanasand the shramans had a relationship comparable to the snake and the mongoose – and this was probably a correct assessment as we know that in some regions Buddhist monks were killed and in others Jaina monks were impaled. In the subsequent millennium, that is the last thousand years, things may not have changed strikingly. It was neither a culture given over to religious aggression as colonial scholars maintained, but nor was it entirely free of such aggression. It was, in fact, a normal culture similar to many others in the world at the time.
But as was so in earlier times, the medieval period continued to be a time when striking creativity enriched facets of Indian culture and we still live with these. The intellectual liveliness of the time expressed in Sanskrit and Persian and in the regional languages matched that of earlier times, although in different genres. It was precisely this period that gave shape and form in various ways to much, although not all, that we now identify as Hindu in the landscape of present times.
To eventually disengage religious institutions from controlling the functions of civil society would help us in bringing about a more equitable society. The process of secularising society will have to address both religion and caste, and to that extent it requires a different kind of analysis from that of religions elsewhere. We have internalised the colonial version of the relationship between our religions and our society, and are experiencing its aftermath in the stridency of dominant religious organisations. We have also allowed some of these to become mechanisms for political mobilisation. Secularisation therefore will have to be thought through with sensitivity, care and thoroughness.
Although it cannot be a rapid change, nevertheless a serious beginning has to be made to introduce secular values through establishing confidence in a secular society and explaining its necessary link to democracy. The resort to assassination to silence secularists can never succeed – it merely leads to the suffusion of terror that will one day rebound on those terrorising others. If there is one lesson that history teaches us it is this.
A secular society and polity does not mean abandoning religion. It does mean that the religious identity of the Indian, whatever it may be, has to give way to the primary secular identity of an Indian citizen. And the state has to guarantee the rights that come with this identity, as the rights of citizenship. This demands that the state provides and protects human rights, a requirement that at the moment cannot be taken for granted. Such an identity, while adhering to human rights and social justice, would also be governed by a secular code of laws applicable to all.
A beginning could be made in two possible ways. One would be to ensure the secular in education, and the other, the secular in civil laws. Education means the availability of all branches of knowledge to all citizens without discrimination. Knowledge means updated information and training young people to endorse the method of critical enquiry. I would like to add to this the need for young people to know what is meant by a shared history. Given that we are a democracy, we can perhaps work out how best this could be done.
Our civil laws were drawn up in colonial times although we have made some changes after independence. In a turn to the secular, we shall have to comb through the existing civil laws to ensure that they conform to equal rights for all citizens with no exceptions. Resolving the differences between the civil laws and the laws of each religion and caste, will have to be discussed with the communities concerned and not only with those currently controlling religious and caste codes.
A uniform civil code does not mean merely doing away with the laws of one religious code. It means reconsidering jointly the social laws of all religious codes and arriving at a common secular civil code. In this process, injustice and discrimination against minorities and against the underprivileged – whether because of religion, gender or caste – will need to be annulled. Law does not remain law if it can be manipulated to allow discrepancies.
This is likely to be the most problematic in our turn toward secularizing society. Is it not time now to start work on this?
The overwhelming projection of religiosity – not religion but the excessive display of religiosity – in the world that surrounds us sometimes appears to be a surrogate for not coming to terms with real life problems; or perhaps it is due to our having become a competitive society with all its unexpected insecurities.
Can we instead consider how we can make the reality of citizenship a guarantee of our social welfare, our well-being, our understanding of our world, and our wish to bring quality into our lives? The secularising of society is not an overnight revolution. It is a historical process and will need time.
But hopefully it will be assisted by the recognition that the state and society need to function in a new way. Implicit in democracy is the upholding of the ethic of human action. Secularising society is an advancing of that very ethic.