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Debating Islam ( 22 Sept 2009, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Religion in the public sphere

By K.N. Panikkar


Unless the secular character of the public sphere is retrieved, the religious character that it has come to have could impinge on the functions of the state.


On March 15, 2007, Jurgen Habermas delivered a lecture at the University of Tilberg in the Netherlands, on ‘Religion in Public Sphere,’ an expanded version of which has appeared as a chapter in his latest work, Between Naturalism and Religion. In the debate that followed the lecture, the most important issue that was raised related to the relationship between modernisation and secularisation.


For a long time it was held that a close link existed between the modernisation of society and the secularisation of the population. Consequently, it was argued that the influence of religion declined in post-enlightenment society. This assumption, Professor Habermas suggests, was based on three considerations. First, the progress in science and technology made causal explanation possible and more importantly, for a scientifically enlightened mind it was difficult to reconcile with theocentric and metaphysical worldviews. Secondly, the churches and other religious organisations lost their control over law, politics, public welfare, education and science. Finally, the economic transformation led to higher levels of welfare and greater social security. The impact of these developments, it is argued, has led to the decline of the relevance and influence of religion.


Opposed to the modernisation-secularisation paradigm is the view that the influence of religion in the public sphere has not only not declined, but in fact, has increased. It is held by many scholars that the modernisation thesis has lost its validity in the contemporary world, as there are tendencies which suggest that there is a worldwide resurgence of religion. Such an impression is based on three factors: missionary expansion, fundamentalist radicalisation and the political instrumentalisation of the potential for violence. On the whole, although “data collected globally still provides surprisingly robust support for the defenders of secularisation thesis,” Professor Habermas terms secular societies as ‘post-secular’ in which “religion maintains a public influence and relevance.” At the same time, he held the view that “the secularist certainty that religion will disappear worldwide in the course of modernisation is losing ground.” It is not only that this expectation has not been realised, religion has emerged as a powerful influence in the public sphere all over the world. This is particularly so in India.


A national survey conducted by the Centre for Developing Societies, New Delhi, testifies to the growing influence of religion in Indian society. According to this survey, four out of 10 people are very religious and five out of 10 are religious. That is to say that 90 per cent of the respondents claimed to be religious — performing rituals, visiting places of worship and undertaking pilgrimages. Among them, 30 per cent claimed to have become more religious during the last five years. An increase in the number of religious institutions is also an indication of the greater hold of religion on society. Enlightenment and modernity in India have not led to the decline of the influence of religiosity. If anything, it has only increased.


The public sphere emerged in Europe in the 18th century within the bourgeoisie society as a discursive space in which private individuals came together to discuss matters of public interest. The separation of powers of the state and the church and the enlightenment virtues of reason and humanism, and the economic changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution, contributed to the formation of the public sphere and shaped the transactions within it. The existence of the public sphere was contingent upon the access of all citizens to, and protection of individual rights by, the rule of law. In essence, the character of the public sphere as it evolved in Europe in the 18th century was secular and democratic.


The formation and development of the public sphere in India during the 19th and 20th centuries had a different trajectory. This was primarily because India was under colonial domination and Indian society did not have the necessary independence to shape its destiny. The political, economic and intellectual conditions were qualitatively different from the one in which the public sphere in Europe took shape. The passage to an uninhibited state of enlightenment and modernity was not part of its experience. The constraints of colonialism warped the economic development, inhibited the efflorescence of renaissance and enlightenment, suppressed democratic aspirations and tried to undermine secular consciousness. Yet, within these constraints emerged what has come to be described as colonial modernity, which was at best a caricature of what was witnessed in Europe. The contradictions within this modernity, existing as an island in a traditional pool, induced the Indian intelligentsia to seek an alternative, the endeavours of which were articulated through the highly restrictive transactions in the public sphere.


For a variety of reasons, the ability of the agencies which contributed to the formation of the public sphere in India — such as the media, voluntary organisations and social and religious movements — to constitute a public sphere was restricted. Unlike in Europe the public sphere in India was not the product of a free bourgeois society; it took shape within the political, social and economic parameters set by the colonial government. Its social base was very weak, consisting of the nascent middle class emerging out of the structures of colonial governance. The media were constantly under the surveillance of colonial rule; the reach of the voluntary organisations was limited and the social and religious movements could not transgress their respective caste and religious boundaries. As a consequence, the public sphere was not vibrant, nor could it acquire a fully democratic and secular character. This in a way emerged out of the ambivalence of the colonial state: its liberal pretensions on the one hand and authoritarian compulsions on the other. As a result, it could not but monitor the transactions within the public sphere.


The legacy of colonial rule imparted to the public sphere in independent India an internally contradictory character. In terms of conception and constitution the public sphere was democratic and secular, but it was not so in practice. Several sections such as women and Dalits were excluded, and by and large it remained a preserve of the educated upper castes. Moreover, either created or controlled by the colonial bureaucracy, their democratic rights were considerably restricted. Yet, the public engagements within the public sphere indicated a continuous struggle for democratic ideals and practice.


As an institution mediating between civil society and the state, debating issues of public interest, the public sphere is secular in character. In India, however, the public sphere reflected the co-existence of the secular and the religious. The media were essentially secular, but an undercurrent of religious consciousness was reflected in their concerns. For instance, the contributors to the Letters to the Editor column of Bombay Gazette in the 19th century described themselves with their religious-denominational descriptions — Hindu, Muslim, Parsee and so on. They were all debating public and secular issues, but while doing so carried with them their religious baggage. The religious identity was true of voluntary associations also as was evident from their denominational names. Many of them were organised on religious terms.


If religion is a private matter, as considered by the Indian state, would it be proper to allow it to be active in the public sphere? The Indian state has not successfully resolved this contradiction. The official policy of equal recognition of all religions has only led to the reinforcement of this contradiction, because it has opened up more and more public space to all religions. As a result, what has become prominent in the public sphere is not secular reason but religious celebration. The public sphere has succumbed to the celebration of religiosity, based on rituals and superstitions.


Two conclusions are in order about the transactions in the public sphere in India. The universal experience of the modernisation-secularisation connection appears to be true of India. It is particularly so because the renaissance, enlightenment and scientific revolution being either borrowed or weak, the capacity of modernisation in India to impact on secularisation and marginalisation of religion is itself not pronounced. Instead, religion remains a powerful force in civil society. Secondly, the use of religion for political ends has substantially increased during the last few decades. Such a development has serious implications for a secular state and society. Retrieving the secular character of the public sphere is therefore imperative; otherwise its religious character is likely to impinge upon the functions of the state.

(These are excerpts from the valedictory address delivered at the Silver Jubilee celebration of the Department of Christian Studies, University of Madras, on September 4. Professor Panikkar can be e-mailed at