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Secularism and Secularisation: A Bibliographical Essay



By Mohita Bhatia

Vol - XLVIII No. 50, December 14, 2013 

Tracing the trajectory of "secularism" studies, this essay brings out a critique of the evolutionary perspective that pronounced a waning of the "religious" in a predominantly "secular" "modern" world. In the face of global and local realities that negate any strict boundaries between the "secular", "religious" and "political", many western and non-western debates on secularism have creatively re-envisaged the concept and highlighted its variegated meanings. Yet, these have been unable to locate secularism in lived phenomenological realities. This bibliographical essay discusses works that may not be categorised as "secularism" studies and yet offer insights into the interaction between religious, cultural, political and secular aspects of society, while attempting to un-entangle the different, but related, processes of "secularism" and "secularisation". It is the secularisation process that needs academic attention to understand the complex interaction between the "secular" and the "religious".

The post-enlightenment understanding of “secular” as a specific set of behaviours marked by a neat demarcation between “secular” and “religious” prevailed for a large part of the 20th century. Many academics (Berger 1969; Luckmann 1967; Wilson 1966) analysed the relationship between secularism and secularisation, assuming that both are engendering a “modern” world by replacing religion. This thesis received a setback when evidence pointed to not just prevalent religiosity among people in Western and non-Western landscapes, but also to the dialogic and entwined nature of interaction between the “secular” and the “religious”. The inadequacy of previous theories highlighted the failure of “secularisation” studies that were operating in isolation from studies on religion or culture. Studies focusing on the significance of everyday religious practices did not concern proponents of the secularisation thesis, as long as such practices did not assume any politically conspicuous form. The master narrative of progress continued to inform their theorisation until finally negated by events such as 9/11 in the US, the emergence of the religious right in the West, and conflicts with religious dimensions in south Asia. Resistance by the non-Western world towards cultural-evolutionary understandings of secularism also invigorated a debate that not only pointed to the localised and variegated meanings of secularisms, but also diminished the premise of a reason/faith divide. The canonical understanding of secularism as a default natural condition was challenged and a new space defined where “secular” and “religious” could coexist, overlap, converge or diverge, thus providing new perspectives on the processes of secularisation.

Studies on secularism and secularisation from south Asia have contributed greatly to recent re-contemplation. They have emphasised the south Asian specificities and contradictions. Yet, these studies have not problematised the relation between “secularism” and “secularisation”. How do secularism and secularisation engage/disengage with each other? How can the lived realities, religious pluralities, and intercommunity interactions or conflicts contribute to the theorisation of secularism? How do the religious, political and cultural processes in everyday life blur the secular/religious or rational/irrational boundaries? Do secularism and secularisation always move in the same direction? To draw attention to these intricacies, this bibliographic essay will describe a range of works – dealing with varied religious and cultural practices – that may not have dealt directly with “secularism”, but may provide significant pointers about the diverse processes of secularisation and its complex relation to secularism. However, it will do so after illustrating the global and south Asian debates on secularism and secularisation.

Rethinking Secularism and Secularisation: An Overview

Strong contestation of the traditional secularisation theory initially came from scholars such as Hadden (1987), Stark (1999), Stark and Bainbridge (1985), and Warner (1993), who asserted that religion will continue to retain an influential position in society. Peter Berger shifted his position from advocating the secularisation thesis to criticising it. He argued that the thesis represented the attitudes of the educated elite and ignored the wider social realities that point to the continued relevance of religion. Evidence of an upsurge of religion in society led many scholars, such as Stark and Berger, to abandon the theory of secularisation. Yet there were others who did not relegate it to a sphere of irrelevance, but believed that it required critical rethinking and de-standardisation. Critiquing the classical theories of secularisation, Casanova (1994) argued that a decline and privatisation of religious beliefs has not occurred in many societies. However, the part of secularisation theory advocating institutional differentiation of secular spheres from religious institutions still holds true at many places. He emphasised the varied and competing ways of experiencing secularism/secularisation around the globe, as there cannot be any uniformly fixed boundaries between the religious and the secular.

Similarly, attacking the “one-size-fits-all” theory, Gorski and Altinordu (2008) have insisted that the terrain of secularisation debates should be broadened to include variable outcomes. French sociologist Hervieu-Lèger (1990) laid emphasis on understanding religious modernity to overcome the simplistic binaries produced by old theories. Habermas (2008), earlier a proponent of the secularisation thesis, revised his position and argued that in contemporary “post-secular” societies, there is a coexistence of religious and secular sensibilities, although he stressed on the need for translating religious arguments into secular language. In their edited volume, Gorski et al (2012) have reflected on the profound shift in the secularisation debate and analysed what it means to live in the contemporary “post-secular” age. Basing his analysis on European societies and North America, Taylor (2007) terms the classical understanding of secularisation a misconceived “subtraction theory”, in which secularism is postulated as a natural condition revealed after faith dissolves. He holds that in a secular age, secularisation is not the result of a decline of religion (nor of translation of religious reasons into secular vocabulary), but rather of a recognition of a range of self-understandings and human potentialities “in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is just one human possibility among others” (Taylor 2007: 3). Calhoun and Juergensmeyer (2011) underscored the complex interface between secular, religious, political and national identities.

Asad (2003) demonstrates that far from being a neutral category, complex notions of “secular” have been shaped through European history, representing specific power technologies; thus authoritatively describing certain modes of living as “acceptable”, while prohibiting others. The most significant aspect of Asad’s work is his argument that the “secular” cannot be viewed separately from the “religious”, as both share a dialectic relationship. Connolly (1999) similarly unpacks the authoritative and anti-pluralist assumptions of the supposedly “natural” category of the “secular”. He stands neither for merely refashioning secularism nor eliminating it, but converting “it into one perspective among several in a pluralistic culture” (p 11). He asserts that secularism should be inclusive to be able to “pursue an ethos of engagement in public life among a plurality of controversial metaphysical perspectives...secular thought and a secular, non-theistic perspectives” (p 39).

Nuancing the debate further, Roy (2007) addresses an oft-repeated question: Is Islam compatible with secularism? He points to the prejudiced understanding of Islam as a religion deeply immersed in a homogeneous traditional culture. Separating religion and culture, Roy demonstrates that the rise of radical religious movements is rather a consequence of globalisation that de-culturalises individuals and enables them to articulate their views in transnational settings. According to Roy, Islamism also acts as an unintentional agent of secularisation as it “individualises and de-socialises religious practices” (2007: 76). Mahmood (2006: 344) states that the political project undertaken by the US to reform Islam reflects the normative force of secularism, which seeks to produce “a particular kind of religious subject who is compatible with the rationality...of liberal political rule”. She advocates thinking outside the bounds of the prescribed secular-liberal imagery. In her study of Egyptian women’s participation in the Islamic revivalist movement, she locates their agency in the willingness of women to inhabit religious norms and pious morality. These modes of flourishing are not captured in the restricted secular-feminist discourses of individual autonomy and freedom. Joan Wallach Scott (2007) and Sherine Hafez (2011) have also contested the disciplinary vocabulary of secularisation, which pronounces certain ways of being human as “progressive” while denouncing others.

Rather than debating the intricacies that define the relationship between the “secular-liberal” and the “religious”, Judith Butler (2011: 70) claimed that “depending on which religion we have in mind, the relation to the public will be different”. Based on her study of the Israel-Palestine situation, she suggests a process of secularisation based not on tolerance but cohabitation – the idea of plurality or polyvalence rooted in the diasporic traditions within Judaism – that enables a criticism of Israeli state violence coming from within the Jewish frameworks of social justice. Butler thus retrieves the potential of religion to invigorate political criticism.

The South Asian Context

Although the postcolonial south Asian societies have added many new and competing dimensions to the meaning of secularism, and manifest distinct ways of secularisation, this process has not been without contradictions or dilemmas. Their colonial histories, consequent fetishisation of religious identities, and lately, the surfacing of religious and ethnic conflicts, have led scholars to rethink the process of secularisation in south Asia. In India, particularly in the context of the political resurgence of the Hindu right, liberal academics such as Asghar Ali Engineer (1989) claimed that communalism has impaired secularism. Others, such as Madan (1998), Chatterjee (1994) and Nandy (1998), alleged that secularism – enforcing a decoupling of religion and politics – is a derivative discourse from the West, and is thus inapplicable to the Indian situation. Chatterjee argues that the secular vocabulary is inadequate to combat Hindu majoritarianism, and instead proposes “religious tolerance”. He recommends incorporating a politics of representative democracy among religious groups, so that they generate internal reforms free from reformist interventions by the state and create conditions for mutual tolerance. Rajeev Bhargava (2011) negates the “inapplicability of secularism” thesis and states that the Indian version of secularism is not simply an “imitation”, as it digresses significantly from the formulaic Western ideal. He moots the term “contextual secularism” to describe the Indian version, wherein the state adopts the stance of “principled distance”. This implies that the state either intervene or refrain from interference, subject to which of the two positions is compatible with the values of religious liberty, freedom and equality of citizenship. While acknowledging the limits of secularism, he argues that the best way forward is to rehabilitate it by thinking beyond the liberal framework.

Bilgrami (2012) also emphasises the continued relevance of secularism, but suggests reimagining the concept. Criticising Nandy for his simplistic anti-modernist stand and romanticism for past traditions, Bilgrami posits that the crisis of secularism is not because it was a modern imposition into an essentially traditionalist population, but rather because it was an imposition from the top that resisted negotiations between communities. He proposes secularisation from below to facilitate dialogue between the state and various communities. Without dismissing the indispensability and empowering potential of universal categories such as secularism, modernity, public and private spheres, Chakrabarty (2000) acknowledges their inadequacies and exclusionary tendencies. He suggests renewing, questioning and transforming these categories by and from the margins. Chakrabarty recognises the inability of the scientific secular language to comprehend the religious world view and argues that “‘disenchantment of the world’ is not the only principle by which we world the earth...The supernatural can inhabit the world...and not always as a problem” (1998: 27). Peter Van der Veer also affirms the continuities and links between the secular and the religious. He states that secular conceptions, although derived from the West, have been distinctively engaged by Indian political and cultural traditions.

Tejani (2008) also affirms that secularism is not simply a static idea borrowed from the West. She demonstrates that “rather than being distinct from community and caste, nationalism and communalism, liberalism and democracy, Indian secularism was a relational category that emerged at the nexus of all of these” (p 15). Pandey (1999), without dispensing with the ideas of “modern” or “secular”, situates secularism within the “totalising” and “homogenising” drive of the nation state. He maintains that the principle of secularism is integrated with the nationalist discourse that seeks to subsume diversities and differences within the dominant majoritarian culture. Pandey suggests unyoking the pair of “state” and “nation”, so that the state does not represent the interests of the majoritarian community that presents itself as the “nation” (2007). Kumar (2008) argues that secularism has come to “connote an ideal of tolerance” and peaceful coexistence among various communities. However, the underlying essence of the notion of tolerance is not “so much to arrive at equality”, but rather how to tolerate or put up with minorities or non-hegemonic groups. She suggests moving beyond the secular-liberal framework of tolerance or recognition of minorities to “more substantial questions about equality, democratic participation, and power sharing” (Kumar 2008: 36). Prakash (2007), along with Gyanendra Pandey, also argues for moving away from the minority/majority discourse of Indian secularism towards a society of “multiple minorities”, where there is no place for a permanent majority. In the context of Sri Lanka, a similar critique of secular discourse as privileging the majoritarian religious community comes from David Scott (1999). Scott demonstrates how colonial modernity intervened to produce a “rational”, “secular” and “codified” form of Buddhism, and crystallised the Sinhala-Buddhist identity. Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism not only challenged Christianity and colonial rule, but also proclaimed superiority over other socio-religious groups in postcolonial Sri Lanka. Instead of renewing the secular democratic apparatus, Scott calls for replacing it with a politics based on a recognition of communities and differences – a suggestion that is highly controversial as majoritarian and homogenising tendencies may emerge within and between communities themselves.

Secularisation debates concerning Pakistan have tended to focus on the Islamisation process that is claimed to have deeply divided the country and superseded Jinnah’s vision of a secular nation, exemplified in the work of Ian Talbot (2005). This view, however, has been challenged by many scholars who contend that it overlooks the nuances within Pakistan’s society and politics, and simplistically equates Pakistan with “Fundamentalism” and “Islamism”, thus proclaiming its utmost incompatibility with secularism. Humeira Iqtidar (2011) questions such readings that assume an inextricable connection between Pakistan, Islam and fundamentalism. Not only does her work separate Islamists from other Muslim fundamentalists, but it also explores the complex relationship between Islamism, secularism and secularisation. Similarly, Magnus Marsden (2005) has brought to the fore the dialogic tradition present within Pakistan’s society. The works of Iqtidar and Marsden are discussed in detail later in this article.

Moving beyond the Theoretical Frame

Despite the divergent positions reflected in the debates above, there is unanimity among scholars that the narrative of progressive rationalisation needs to be shunned. Rather than the straightforward thesis of “decline of religion”, a more complicated and entwined relationship is envisioned among religious, secular, public and private spaces. Yet, the terms “secularism” and “secularisation” are employed interchangeably, without any attempt to separate the two and explore their interrelation. Scholars refashioning the secularisation debate have remained largely in the theoretical realm, and have not located their conceptual propositions within the phenomenological realm of everyday reality.

As a result, despite venturing beyond the conventional Western-liberal framework and challenging the absolute religious-secular divide, the current theories fail to capture the vivid, fluid and multifunctional essence of religion as it is practised in society. Examining lived experiences would have helped explain more effectively the complex interactions between secularisation, religion and politics, as well as the relationship between secularisation and the state policy of secularism. Nevertheless, one can gain a better understanding of these mechanisms and linkages by going through the vast array of ethnographic, anthropological, historical, theological, and other studies that have implicitly or explicitly dealt with issues related to “secularisation”.

Although most of these works do not directly engage with “secularism” or “secularisation” per se, I have referred to these studies in this article to draw out certain arguments that may be used to further enhance the debate on secularisation. Discussing a range of studies, I argue that though secularism and secularisation are linked categories as they influence each other, secularisation is more elaborate and dynamic a process than the state policy of secularism. Secularisation involves diverse sociocultural and religious interactions, conflicts, dialogue and compromises, as well as political struggles – with variable outcomes – that take place within the realm of everyday life. Rather than ascribing religion to a “private” and “individual” sphere, as generally suggested by present theories of secularisation, this article calls for a more nuanced understanding of secularisation, which explores how boundaries between religion, culture, politics, caste and community are constantly drawn, challenged, redrawn or negotiated. The following works can thus be helpful in extending the south Asian debate on secularisation, and comprehending religion as a more fluid and internally contested category than is usually acknowledged by secularisation theory.

Religion, Caste and Politics

The work of Mines (2002), based in a predominantly Hindu village in south India, illustrates the significant place of local gods and goddesses in village life, and the ways in which “gods, self and village” are mutually constituted. She demonstrates how various struggles for reinforcement or subversion of dominant relations take place through religious spaces such as temples, gods/goddesses, rituals and festivals. Mines argues that “gods may indeed be understood as ‘real’ historical agents” since they make actors “act in one way versus another” (2002: 18). The non-dominant castes in the village engage with their “fierce Gods” and religious festivals, while drawing on the regional and national political discourse, to challenge the dominant caste Hindus in the village. It is through interweaving religious, political, cultural, national and local realms that struggles are played out and caste hierarchies in the village continuously challenged. In Mines’ work, religion is as much a secularising factor as the political discourses based on caste, equality and justice.

Religion surfaces as both an oppressive and an empowering factor in Schmalz’s (2005) work on dalit Catholics in Uttar Pradesh. Schmalz explains that Camars (or Chamars) who have converted to Catholicism are situated on the margins of both religious dominations. Yet, conversion to Catholicism has provided them with a unique “subversive marginal” position from which to resist religious hegemonies. Schmalz argues that these dalit Catholics remain in constant motion as they triangulate between Christianity, Hinduism and untouchability, and thus attempt to make the most of their marginality. They use their Catholic identity to distance themselves from “Untouchables”. The boundary between Catholic and Untouchable, however, wears away in their opposition to the caste structure and brahmin superiority within Hinduism. At the same time, the boundary between Camar and Catholic is always shifting and contested, as the dalit Catholics contest the prejudices and discriminatory practices of Catholicism. Through a constant movement, dalit Catholics struggle for equality by simultaneously challenging and inhabiting the religious spaces. The religious realm here does not operate in isolation, but is suffused with political meanings. An interweaving of religion, caste, sect and politics is also explicit in Saurabh Dube’s (1998) work, which traces the history of Satnamis, an ex-untouchable caste grouping. This subaltern Hindu sect reworked anti-caste sectarian traditions as well as appropriated some of the conservative caste principles such as purity-pollution to innovate a site of resistance for the low-caste Chamars of Chhattisgarh. Rather than a linear process of rejection of religious or caste values, the process of secularisation here follows a complex trajectory imbued with moments of appropriation, reinforcement, as well as subversion of these values.

Without disregarding the liberating potential of dalit movements, Sekhar Bandyopadhyay’s (1997) work on colonial Bengal focuses on the regenerative power of the hegemonic caste system within Hinduism. He demonstrates how caste elites appropriated modern discourses of science and technology to reinforce the fundamental principle of hierarchy, albeit allowing space for fluidities, contestations and modifications. Bandyopadhyay contends that the radical protest movements were unable to overthrow the caste system in Bengal, as the latter provided sufficient space to non-dominant groups to deviate from the strict caste practices and express protest. Moulding their practices in response to the protests, the elite Hindu groups could dilute the vigour and eventually assimilate the oppositional groups. That is how, during the 1940s, the hegemonic “mainstream” Hinduism that was inextricably linked with nationalist politics successfully induced the subordinate Hindu groups to prioritise “religion” over “caste” and call off their traditional affinity with Muslim politics. His work demonstrates the inseparable connection between “modernity” and “tradition”, “religion” and “politics”, and “nationalism” and “communalism”.

Lived Religious Practices

Instead of overemphasising the potency of dominant religious practices and their assimilating thrust, many scholars underscore the fuzzy, diverse and overlapping socio-religious realities that remain resilient to categorisation and political homogenisation. Peter Gottschalk, in his study of a village in Bihar (2000), demonstrates how people in the village use past narratives and memories to exhibit multiple and shifting group identities that coexist with – and frequently cut across – religious and communal identity markers. Gottschalk refutes the idea of conceptualising south Asia through the bifurcated lens of “Hindus” and “Muslims”, and argues that it is difficult to define many religious and cultural practices as “Hindu” or “Islamic” due to their internal perplexities, shifting dynamics and shared nature. He alleges that not only do Western scholars, informed by the ideas of “secularism” and “rationality”, simplistically label south Asian societies as essentially religious, but secular writers within south Asia also assume homogeneity and mutual exclusivity of religious categories, overlooking diversities, multiplicities and interdependencies.

Similarly, referring to regional cultural practices in the Sundarbans (a mangrove forest in the southern region of Bangladesh and West Bengal), Sufia Uddin (2011) points to the female deity of forests, Bonbibi, who is believed to be the daughter of Ibrahim, a faqir (saint) from Mecca. Both Hindus and Muslims residing in close proximity to this forest and depending on it for their livelihoods worship Bonbibi, looking to her to protect them from tigers and other dangers. Uddin explains that typically, “at a Muslim shrine one would find a tomb of the saint where offerings are made. Here, instead, we have an image of a female holy personage that is by all appearances a Hindu goddess being venerated by both Muslims and Hindus” (ibid: 61). Although Hindus and Muslims venerate Bonbibi differently and accord divergent meanings to her, Bonbibi provides a common regional and cultural identity to them. The local practices, Uddin argues, are not merely “syncretic” or mutual borrowing. Syncretism, she holds, implies “improper mixing of two things of different origins”. Rather, the local practices of people in the Sundarbans form a more complex and dynamic process that cannot be simply defined as either “Hindu” or “Islamic”.

A similar argument is put forward by Dominique-Sila Khan (2004), who notes that the notion of “Hindus” and “Muslims” as two monoliths and binary opposites is misleading. It overlooks the socio-historical complexities of their evolution, as well as the convergence of their lived practices, cultures and experiences. She further explains that convergence does not imply a linear relationship between two well-defined traditions, but is in fact the merger of a number of sectarian, ritual and cultural practices that may ambivalently be defined as belonging to a broader spectrum of “Hindu” and “Muslim” modes of practices. Khan points out the limitations of the labels “syncretism” or “hybridisation”, which suggest a “temporary”, “improper” or “exceptional” interaction between the religious communities. She instead introduces the term “threshold”, or an open door or middle ground, where various traditions meet and intermix. Rather than a “temporary” space, it is a permanent opening for intermixing, where groups can retain their respective religious identities, or identities can blur without having to choose one side or another.

The role of religion in public life as it facilitates not just competition but also dialogue, sharedness and accommodation is illustrated in Anna Bigelow’s (2010) work on three sacred spaces in the Punjab region. One of the sites, a “dargah” or tomb shrine of Haider Shaykh (a 15th century Sufi saint), is in Malerkota region that has a largely Sikh and Hindu population and a minuscule number of Muslims. Two categories of ritual specialists take care of the shrine – “khalifas”, the descendants of the saint, and “chelas”, who are mainly Sikhs and Hindus and are said to be possessed by the saint’s spirit. Bigelow argues that the fact that the saint is revered differently by “khalifas” and “chelas” – as well as by pilgrims of the different religions – could be a potential source of conflict. However, the very essence of the shrine, symbolised by “diversity of human kind and plurality of perspectives”, wanes the possibilities of conflict, and in fact enables complex forms of convergences and sharedness. The other two sites described by Bigelow similarly facilitate a process of secularisation through a series of struggles and negotiations. As she explains, the secularisation did not “occur through an uncontested, spontaneous or unconscious acknowledgement of the site’s identity. Rather this came about through dialogue and a series of compromises” (Bigelow 2012: 39). Bigelow, Uddin and Gottschalk point to the resilience of local religious and cultural practices that refuse to be assimilated into the hegemonic “Hindu” or “Muslim” political categories.

The works discussed above also bring out the contrast between the processes of secularism and secularisation. Secularism, as a state policy, carries an assumption of Hinduism and Islam as two mutually exclusive and fixed categories. It often does not make provision for the ambiguities and intricacies that mark lived religious, cultural and local practices. Thus, in some ways, secularism reifies religious categories and contravenes the secularisation of society. Secularisation processes, on the other hand, are far more complex and dynamic. Far from the romanticised notion of “secularism”, “peace” and “tolerance”, they entail competition, negotiation and dialogue. Yet, secularism and secularisation do not always move in different directions, as they often converge and influence each other. State and societal processes often respond to each other, agreeing on common goals of accommodation, plurality and coexistence.

Gurus, Deras and Secularisation

Guru organisations, offering alternative religious traditions, have an extensive urban as well as rural reach, attracting many lower and middle-caste, as well as middle-class devotees. Juergensmeyer (1995) describes the Radhasoami tradition as a modern phenomenon that has attracted people of various castes among the middle classes. Seeking to distinguish itself from Hinduism and Sikhism, it has rejected ritualistic forms of religious practices. It lays emphasis on rationality, “scientific language and progressive social organization”. However, it also retains conservative elements of tradition, lays emphasis on “karma”, and also bolsters a premodern kind of hierarchy in the form of the complete personal authority of a spiritual leader. These alternative traditions entail a synthesis of seemingly contradictory realities that make use of “modern” as well as “conservative” elements. Such a synthesis offers an alternative form of religion, one that is more appealing to people. Blending so-called “scientific”, “rational” and “traditional” elements, these alternative religious practices are perfectly compatible with “modern secular” ways of life.

Existing studies have linked the participation of the Hindu middle class in popular “guru organisations” to the ascendance of Hindu nationalist politics, loss of traditional ties, and alienation caused by modernity (Kakkar 1984; Varma 1998). Drawing on her ethnographic study among devotees of Mata Amritanandamayi (belonging to the Bhakti tradition), Maya Warrier (2003) states that none of these assumptions hold true as many devotees were neither interested in divisive Hindu politics, nor did they feel alienated from modern ways of living. In fact, they questioned the traditional community-oriented and taken-for-granted religious observances, and looked for a more “informed, meaningful and reflective approach to religion” (2003: 230). Warrier maintains that in choosing from an array of gurus, individuals make an active personal choice in which individualisation of faith, inner spiritual striving, and self-fulfilment become central features, thereby making religion more meaningful and negotiable for them. The increasing religiosity associated with guru organisations, argues Warrier, contains within it a tendency towards secularisation, as individuals “define their religious lives not as a given” (2003: 237), but as something they can choose, reject, or even shift loyalties at any point of time.

Many deras and guru traditions have particular significance for lower-caste Hindus. Prescribing caste/class equality, these traditions provide them an alternative location to challenge conventional caste and ritualistic practices, without completely discarding their Hindu sense of belonging. S S Jodhka, in his study “Of Babas and Deras” in the Punjab region (2008), explains the emancipatory potential of deras for lower-caste Hindus and Sikhs. He argues that apart from spiritual values, such alternative spaces “also offer a sense of security to their followers, a personal touch, something completely missing in the mainstream gurudwaras and temples where one feels anonymous, a part of the crowd” (p 56). This feeling of belonging and personal touch is quite significant for the lower castes who, more than anonymous, feel insignificant and rejected. Again, in the context of Punjab, similar work has been done by Ronki Ram (2007) that depicts “deras” as sites of resistance against caste oppression. These traditions might not radically challenge the caste system, yet they temporarily destabilise and subvert hierarchies, thus facilitating the everyday struggles towards creating egalitarian, dignified and secular spaces for the non-dominant castes.

Religious Myths, Alternative Interpretations

Religion interacts with politics, social hierarchies, and cultural histories in countless ways – often to fortify, rework, or contest dominant structures. One of the ways in which it mediates power structures is through ongoing processes of construction and reconstruction of myths, as well as an infusion of multiple meanings into them, in accord with the sociopolitical interests of particular groups. One such example is the retelling of myths based on the Ramayana story, illustrated in the edited volume by Paula Richman (1991). Academic debates have largely focused on Tulsidas’ Ramcharitramanas or Valmiki’s Ramayana and its televised version on Doordarshan, which was believed to favour certain powerful social groups and fan Hindu nationalist politics. Richman, however, highlights the various other prevalent Hindu and non-Hindu tellings of Ramayana to attenuate academic anxiety over the dominant televised version. She emphasises the several creations of the story – ones that narrate the story from the position of the marginalised; ones that highlight the experiences of Sita; ones that subvert the Ram-Ravana relationship; ones that rethink the character of rakshasas or demons; or ones that, told from Jain or Buddhist perspectives, contest the dominant Hindu Ramayanas. Ramanujan (1991) explores endless retellings of the Ramayana story – Ramayanas that are connected to one another; yet, rooted in specific literary and ideological structures, they signify something unique and new. Narayana Rao (1991) narrates Telugu women’s Ramayana folksongs, which contest the male-dominated focus of the story by underlining the sufferings of Sita, and recasting the relationship between Sita and Rama. Ramdas Lamb demonstrates the selective usage of Ramayana by Ramnamis, an untouchable sect in Chhattisgarh, as they abridge and remould the Ramcharitramanas text according to their own interests and caste-based struggles.

An interesting and recent depiction of Ramayana came about in the form of an animated film: Sita Sings the Blues, by an American woman, Nina Paley. Depicting events from Ramayana, the film empathises with the agony of Sita as she was abandoned by Rama. These events are juxtaposed with those in the life of a modern American woman (based on Nina’s personal experiences), who is dumped by her husband after he gets a job in India. The film uses ancient religious saga – the hearsay urban version of Ramayana – to foreground the patriarchal structures ingrained in “modern” “rational” societies.

These multiple – oral, televised, as well as literary – myths, interspersed with political meanings, are used by several groups to engage in local, regional, and national power struggles. At times, the myths patronised by the state may reaffirm the authority of already privileged groups and thus impede the process of secularisation, while many community-oriented subversions of the hegemonic myths may serve to challenge the dominant power structures and intensify the struggle for equality and justice.

Islam and the Secularisation Debate

Academic notions about Islam’s incompatibility with “secular” or “democratic” values have been refuted by ethnographic works focusing on the secularisation processes within various Muslim societies. Marsden’s ethnographic study of the Chitral area (2005) questions the assumption that Pakistani society has come under the conformist grip of a homogeneous, fanatic form of Islam. He alleges:

[I]t is often assumed that because Islam is a religion of submission ... there is little place for the expression of individual creativity in the living of a Muslim life, and that morality in Muslim societies is a ready-made and uncontested category simply deriving from a single set of scriptural codes (2005: 54).

Contrary to this, he illustrates that despite pressure from various radical groups seeking to present a singular version of Islam, different groups among Muslims do not unthinkingly accept or reject any religious norm or political ideology. Chitral Muslims engage in critical and thoughtful debates about a number of issues, including music, poetry, dance, and a variety of ways to be good Muslims. Upholding a conversational tradition, these Muslims “do not think that it is only formally educated Islamic purists or ‘modern’ secular people who have the capacity to live rational, discerning, intellectually acute and morally sophisticated lives” (ibid: 10). Facile notions about the relationship between Islam and secularisation have also been contradicted by Iqtidar (2011). She not only points out fragmentations and heterogeneity within Islamist groupings, but also challenges the assumption of a sharp divide between “religious right” and “secular left”. Through her ethnographic research focusing on Pakistan, she has problematised the taken-for-granted linear relationship between secularism and secularisation. She proposes disentangling the two terms and exploring the nature of the relationship they share. Iqtidar demonstrates that secularisation and secularism may at times move in very different directions. Certain state-initiated strategies of secularism may in fact stall the secularisation process, “just as secularisation may be supported by the very elements that oppose the ideology of secularism” (ibid: 35). Conducting an in-depth study of two Islamist parties in Pakistan – Jama’at-e-Islami and Jama’at-ud-da’wa – she illustrates that Islamists, though opposed to secularism, are in fact facilitating the secularisation of society. By engaging in political competition with each other and claiming to offer a better model of piety, the Islamist groups are unintentionally bringing Islam into the forum of public and political debate. This increasing critical awareness about the various meanings of Islam is turning religion into a matter of objective, conscious choice of the individual, thus leading to secularisation within Muslim societies.

These insightful studies clearly indicate that secularisation processes are complicated, fluid and multidirectional, thus obviating the clear demarcation emphasised by theories of secularism between religion, politics, culture, modernity and tradition. One may therefore conclude that theories of secularism need to be nuanced further by focusing on various societal processes. There is a need to comprehend religion not as a “given” “static” category, but as a lived reality that interweaves with many other socio-cultural factors to shape the socio-political responses of people. However, a point of caution may also be made. While religion needs to be understood as a broader, internally heterogeneous, and flexible category than usually acknowledged by theories of secularism, its role should not be “romanticised” or “naturalised”. On the contrary, it may be viewed as an interactional category that merges with politics, ethnicity and culture to generate diverse trajectories of secularisation. Blending theory with ethnography will facilitate an understanding of these trajectories, and also bring out the complex relationship between secularism and secularisation.


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Mohita Bhatia is at the Centre for the Study of Discrimination and Exclusion, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. The author is grateful to the editors for comments to an earlier draft.