By Faisal Devji
19 December 2014
Since Independence, secularism is increasingly opposed to communalism, with the nation no longer central to its definition. Does this indicate the failure of the nation to demonstrate its plurality, and therefore secularism?
One of the peculiarities of Indian political debate is that everyone claims to be secular while accusing others of not being so. Secularism’s hegemony as an idea was made clear by L.K. Advani, when he coined the now famous term “pseudo-secular” to describe his political enemies. But if secularism is so dominant an idea, this is because it is and has always been deployed as a polemical category as much as a constitutional principle, and indeed its insertion into the Constitution by Indira Gandhi was itself a partisan act. In colonial times, for example, Congressmen identified secularism with nationalism, which was in turn held to be the real antonym of communalism. In other words it was the pluralism and popularity of the Congress, compared with the supposedly sectarian appeal of Hindu and Muslim parties that was seen as defining its secular credentials and this in a demographic rather than constitutional way.
Since Independence, however, secularism is increasingly opposed to communalism, with the nation no longer central to its definition. Is it therefore being separated from a strictly populist logic to assume a purely juridical character — and does this indicate the failure of the nation to demonstrate its plurality and therefore secularism, which must instead be sought in the pre-modern past? Even in the days of its alleged dominance under Nehru, secularism could hardly be said to possess its own history or even existential reality, given that its membership included both the religious and irreligious. Indeed, secularists had to lay claim to explicitly religious precedents, such as Bhakti or Sufi forms of devotion, and the pluralistic festivals with which these were often associated. In other words, the condescending reference was invariably to the “folk” devotions that had never, in fact, been part of the “culture” of self-professed secularists.
And so both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) continue to invoke a populist and indeed majoritarian logic to define the secular, but the changing nature of the Indian polity has given this rhetoric a quite different meaning. For the folk elements of its demographic logic have been replaced by varieties of ostensibly high-culture religiosity that no longer needs to display any pluralism, as long as it is assumed to be “tolerant”, a term that in the nationalist past had been used for another kind of high culture, that of royalty and aristocrats like Asoka or Akbar. Nehru himself preferred this form of the secular, which also served as a historical mask for the Congress’s quasi-colonial vision of itself. Before Independence, after all, its claims to hold the demographic middle ground between religious extremes had mirrored British attempts to constitute the colonial state as a neutral third party between Hindus and Muslims, itself a classically liberal position, despite the fact that it was deployed in an illiberal political system.
“The absence of a distinctive theory of state repeatedly casts Hindu nationalism back into a social movement, one that can only make claims on cultural and demographic rather than constitutional grounds.”
By making such a claim while not yet in control of the state, the Congress signalled its intention of taking it over, and in the meantime creating an alternative structure of governance in Indian society. But like the colonial state and its inappropriately liberal model of rule, the Congress also sought to delimit the political arena by circumscribing it within certain linguistic and institutional conventions, thus depoliticising everything outside these as “irrational,” “superstitious” and the like. And yet it was this very Congress, especially under Gandhi’s influence, that had always subjected both the “neutrality” of British rule and even that of the state as such to criticism, of which the theory of “divide and rule” was perhaps the most common manifestation. What did it mean, then, to claim a neutrality that was at the same time denied, one that in addition was made outside the state whose capture was simultaneously being anticipated?
State Of Politics
We might argue that secularism remains a polemical category because it is deployed in order to capture the state while never fully inhabiting it. For as in colonial times, during which its exclusion from state power made for a nationalism grounded in society and its cultural and religious languages, Indian politics today continues to be divided between state and society. This is nowhere more evident than in the way in which even the most powerful of India’s governments have never been able or indeed willing to monopolise the use of violence in the classical form, as defined by Max Weber, that is meant to characterise nation states. On the contrary, they tolerate and even rely upon what we might describe as “social” violence, whether or not it is encouraged and even organised by agents of the state.
This inability or unwillingness to monopolise the use of violence in its own name, I want to argue, illustrates neither the weakness nor backwardness of the Indian state, but instead constitutes its dynamic structural logic, one that has again come into its own after India’s liberalisation in the 1990s, when society, in the form of the private sector and informal economy, re-emerged as an important site of political contestation. In this sense the non-Weberian character of the Indian state is as linked to neoliberalism today as it had been in the colonial past to the anticipatory politics of a nationalism based in society. And it is the BJP that is now in the position of traversing the path from social to state power, and wrestling, as the Congress once did, with the problem of striking a balance between the two, if one can indeed be found.
Hindu nationalism, which in the form of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has repeatedly been banned, and thus deprived of a political life in public institutions, has for a long time now represented the quintessential form that social power takes in India. For by the time Indira Gandhi’s premiership came to an end, the once formidable social base of the Congress had been whittled away, as the party chose to concentrate its power in the institutions of the state. Of course it continued to rely upon non-state actors, most violently during the anti-Sikh pogroms of 1984, but these did not represent the kind of mass base that the Congress had possessed in colonial times. Hindu nationalism, on the other hand, augmented its social power while keeping it separate from the fortunes of the BJP as a political party, though this relationship has been placed under strain whenever the latter has been in government.
More interesting than the shifting balance of power between the BJP and its “family” of non-state Hindu organisations, however, might be the fact that Hindu nationalism has never possessed a theory of state. Unlike the vision of an Islamic state, for instance, with its distinctive if non-egalitarian constitutional structure, Hindu nationalism has no alternative political model, apart from an insistence on the dominance of majoritarian culture and concerns. And this is its triumph as much as tragedy, since the absence of a distinctive theory of state repeatedly casts Hindu nationalism back into a social movement, one that can only make claims on cultural and demographic rather than constitutional grounds. And in this sense it is the most appropriate heir of a concept of secularism that had always been populist in its argumentation. If anyone has recognised this, it is, unsurprisingly, the Muslim “fundamentalists” who support secularism in India, but want an Islamic state where they are in a majority. They deny the hypocrisy of this position by arguing that since Hindu nationalism has no theory of state, and so no critique of secularism, it might be oppressive but is still capable of being secular.
But the fact that Hindu nationalism possesses no theory of state also means that it carries the non-Weberian logic of Indian politics to its conclusion, by refusing to depoliticise social life or condemn its concerns as “irrational” and “superstitious”. In doing so, it is not only heir to the whole history of nationalism in colonial India, but at the same time is also best placed to capitalise on the importance of “civil society” activism in our own neoliberal times. Commentary on both secularism and communalism in India has tended to focus too readily on plots and conspiracies that are meant to illustrate the coming together of sinister caste, class and other interests with popular prejudice and fear. But while accurate in some ways, these modes of understanding may be too superficial in others. We should attend instead to the structural and historical factors that define Indian politics, which appear to show a much greater continuity between parties and politics than is usually recognised to be the case.
Dr. Faisal Devji is Reader in Modern South Asian History and Fellow of St. Antony’s College at the University of Oxford, where he is also Director of the Asian Studies Centre.