The Past, Present, and Future of Secularism

Ancient passive coexistence of religious communities is not the same as a modern conception of tolerance which is always connected to a rights discourse including minority rights, cultural and political.


This article is part of a special edition to mark three years since Gauri Lankesh’s martyrdom. 

Secularism emerged in the mid-19th century in a Western post-Enlightenment context denoting an ideology and movement concerned above all with morality and seeking to ground this no longer on transcendent principles associated with religious systems but on the good of humans in this life.

It sought to give a new answer to the eternal question ‘How am I/We to live?’ (since there is no ‘I’ separate from a ‘We’). The vital sub-set of that larger question was ‘How am I/we to politically live?’ Which automatically raises the question of what then should be the character of the state and its relationship to individuals, groups, to religions? Ever since then, the crucial referent of secularism has been the state just as the crucial referent for secularization and its processes has been civil society.

Secularism, the State, and the Individual in Modernity

Secularism as a set of values/ideals could not be disassociated from other emerging values, concepts, and changes arising in modernity. These included the emergence of a stronger and more self-reflexive sense of individual subjectivity i.e. liberal individualism; later of nationalist sentiments/doctrines/movements where rulers now had to, formally speaking, derive their ultimate legitimacy from claiming to serve the interests of their respective peoples constituted as separate legal and sovereign nationalities. These were no longer to be understood as passive subjects but were now deemed citizens with citizenship rights. In brief, understanding secularism as it exists, for better and worse, cannot be separated from understanding the values, beliefs, institutions associated with modernity such as liberal individualism, democratic politics, the nation-state, and nationalism. Variant paths to modernity have meant there are variant forms of secularism, nationalism, and democratic polities.

The Basic Principles of Secularism

These variant forms of secularism must share some basic principles however abstract and general these may be. One reasonable starting point for identifying key common features of secularism is the simple working definition that secularism is about the separation of the state from the control of religious institutions and personnel, and equality of citizenship rights irrespective of religious affiliation. It should be noted that those rights may not include various democratic liberties. So a state can be secular but not democratic. Also, there is no claim here that religion must be separated from all politics. As a starting point let us look at the three relationships of importance regarding the secular state- between the individual and religion, between the individual and the state, between the state and religion.

To better address, these relationships let us first recognize the modernist impact in developing for better or worse a more dynamic and self-reflexive subjectivity/individualism. This has meant that greater value than in the past is to be given to autonomy, self-development, privacy, dignity i.e. people equally are worthy and therefore deserving of respect. Furthermore, modernity has meant the emergence of a rights discourse (absent in the past) whereby these values must be enabled to flourish through the institutionalization of legally enforceable rights by the state to protect, preserve and promote these four value components.

But in seeking to do this, tensions and contradictions as well as the existence of large grey areas will unavoidably arise. It is partly this that gives rise to variant forms of secularism. The variant forms of secularism emerge when it comes to how best to interpret and therefore institutionalize these various value components of individualism. This is because a sense of personal self-worth cannot be separated from the historically constituted and different cultural communities (including religious communities) in which people actually live and derive meaning from.

The Individual and Religion

Actual laws and practices for protecting, preserving, and promoting these value components cannot but be contextually based and therefore some of these will vary from society to society, from cultural community to cultural community. One is not advocating a complete cultural relativism either within a society or between societies. Take the relationship between the individual and religion: two rock-bottom principles that must be institutionalized in law everywhere should be freedom to religiously convert (without force) and freedom of exit from any or all religious communities.

There can be no equality between the besieged and those besieging them, especially if the latter have the support and connivance of the powers that be!

The Individual and the State

Take the next relationship of the individual to the state. Here a rock-bottom principle laid down in law must be equal citizenship rights for all regardless of religious affiliation. A state which does not have this at least in law should not even in principle, let alone in reality, be considered or designated as a democracy, although it does not automatically follow that a state which provides by law equal citizenship rights regardless of religion is necessarily democratic.

An authoritarian state that is uniformly authoritarian over all its citizens without bias towards any particular religious community can qualify as secular but not democratic.

The State and Religion

As far as the relationship between state and religion is concerned, even if for historical reasons there exists a formal affiliation between a church and a state e.g., the Anglicanism of the British state, much more important for assessing its secular character is the legal enshrinement of the principle of equal citizenship i.e., not having structurally rooted and sanctified biases in favour of any particular religious community while respecting religious liberty.

Here it is a question of striking the right balance between respecting freedom of religious choice and behaviour yet opposing what many would see as denigrating practices rationalized in the name of religious affiliation and more importantly, the particular forms that opposition to such practices should take. For example, banning the wearing of hijab in public, as advocated by some European countries in the name of secularism, is absurd and a violation of the freedom to dress as one wishes. The proper measure would be to have a law that bans the forcible imposition of the hijab on those who do not wish it, i.e., protecting the principle of exit. So in this regard, India provides lessons to others in how to operate in a multi-religious society. But India in the past and today can learn a lot from the secular principles and practices in other countries where religious conversion does not arouse the same hostility let alone regular assaults from majoritarian communal forces.

History and Future of Indian Secularism

There is too little self-criticism of the failings of Indian secularism because too many people think it means tolerance which in turn is supposedly rooted in Hinduism’s uniqueness. But ancient passive coexistence of religious communities is not the same as a modern conception of tolerance which is always connected to a rights discourse including minority rights, cultural and political.

For too many Indians secularism is supposed to arise from tolerance when actually modern tolerance arises from first being secular, the stronger the better, and then becoming democratic, the stronger the better.

Yes, we must allow for state intervention in religious affairs, and in any secular society, faith cannot be above the law as the ultimate arbiter. But laws and the courts and governments must also be capable of changing in the face of newer cultural and social understandings. The Indian state has often intervened when it shouldn’t have and not intervened when it should have. Before the rise of the Sangh Parivar, Indian governments have tried to appease and to balance between different religiopolitical communalisms. The end result is that though all communalisms benefit, the greatest beneficiary has been majority communalism. A powerful State-Temple-Corporate nexus has emerged, greatly benefiting the forces of Hindutva.

Finally, in talking of the future of secularism, surely seeking to promote greater dialogue between different understandings of secularism, to try and create greater sensitivity to the fact of religious and cultural belongings, is necessary. But let us not fool ourselves.

Those who most strongly exercise political, judicial, governmental, cultural, and social power will very occasionally be moved by the power of the better argument or the more sensitive, graded, and nuanced moral position.

Far more important, however, will always be the power of practical political mass mobilizations in pursuit of the collective needs of ordinary Indians across religious faiths for democratic rights and freedoms; for jobs health, education, social security; against caste, gender, religious and regional discriminations – in short for another kind of transformative project opposed to that of Hindutva, one that those like Gauri Lankesh were committed to all their lives.

Achin Vanaik is a writer and social activist, a former professor at the University of Delhi, and a Delhi-based Fellow of the Transnational Institute, Amsterdam. He is the author of The Painful Transition: Bourgeois Democracy in India and The Rise of Hindu Authoritarianism.


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