Indian conceptions of secularism: Trans-Cultural Ideals ?

Vendredi 17 mai, 11h30, 2e session : Récits et globalisation

Rajeev Bhargava, directeur du Centre for the study of Developing Societies (Delhi)

Photo par McKay Savage

The current conjuncture in the world is witness to a dramatic, almost irreversible break down of the hegemony of mainstream intellectual traditions of the West. Ideas and practices associated with the modern West have been subjected to critique for long, both within the West and outside it. They have been viewed with suspicion and rejected, rightly or wrongly in the past. But never before in modern times has the impact of this critique been so profound as to lead to a real possibility in the transformation of the social and political imaginary of large numbers of people throughout the world. A new historical dynamics has been set in motion in recent times that has fundamentally altered the relationship between what formerly were the centres and its peripheries. The centre has been pluralized.  We now live, as Eisenstadt says, in a world of continuously shifting hegemonies. Modern western traditions are just one among many, with certain strengths and several weaknesses, as much – as Gandhi once put it – in need of cure as all others. It has clearly fallen of its high pedestal. With this, we see the beginning of the end of what might be called the colonization of mind and intellectual cultures and a space has emerged of real intellectual and civilizational equality between a much weakened hegemon and a previously hegemonised world.

The last few decades have thus witnessed the emergence of new conceptions that show an influence of western ideas but have a stronger imprint of concepts that have historically developed within specific regions, shaped by the cultures and social imaginaries of their own.  In my own paper I shall speak of the development of two conceptions of secularisms in India, both of which are different from and challenge mainstream western conceptions.

Secularism in India began to be contested in the mid-1980s. But intriguingly, both those who defend and those who oppose it, shared the same conception of it.  Perhaps, common assumptions underlay this conception.  These were (a) that there is just one secularism (b) that it develop in the West and was a gift of Christianity to other societies (c) that it means strict separation of church and state and possible separation of religions from public life altogether. Religion is a private, internal matter. The difference between contestants lay in their respective evaluation. Defenders thought of it as a worthy ideal, opponents believed that it was undesirable, at any rate it had no chance of survival in a different social, cultural context that permeates India. It is an argument of this paper that this debate focused on particular western conceptions even though Indian conceptions of secularism are very different. The force of the hegemon was very strong then. Over time it began to unravel. With this emerged the realization that India has given rise to its own two very different conceptions. The first, I shall call the communal harmony model and the second, the principled distance model.

To understand the first model, it is crucial to grasp that, in India, deep diversity is a part of its landscape. Different faiths, modes of worship, rituals and philosophical outlooks are all at home in India or at least have been so till the 19th century. People belonging to the different faiths and outlooks have moved about in society with basic self-confidence, trusting one another, with a degree of comfort typical of people who do not see others as an existential threat. This is not to say that disagreements, conflicts and skirmishes do not occur but no one questions the other’s presence in society.

The first of the two conceptions of secularism emerged when the taken for granted character of such a society is unsettled. When this happens, this background condition begins to be spoken about and is articulated. There is an explicit invocation and defense of the ideal of religions at peace with one another. The term used for such a model, especially by Gandhi is Communal harmony. The political translation of this idea is that the state must be equally well disposed to all paths and religions. Secularism then begins to be used for a certain stance of the state, one which is not anti-religious, not even necessarily non-religious but that maintains or fosters a certain kind of relation between religious groups. It is important that this view is not confused with the idea of multiple establishment of religion. When multiple religions are established, the state gives recognition to all religious organizations, and commits itself to helping each of them. It does not intervene in how they relates to one another. However, in this Indian conception, the state must encourage a morally desirable form of sociability between religious groups.

The second Indian conception is to be found in the Constitution of India and goes beyond communal harmony. It is committed to the notion of principled distance. Principled distance is a political stance according to which the state may engage with religion or disengage from it, engage positively with religions (give subsidies to schools run by religious communities) or negatively in relation to them (ban or regulate some of their religious practices) and may do so more in the case of one religion than in others. This flexibility in strategy is permitted for the sole purpose of reducing inter and intra-religious domination. On this conception, political secularism is a critical perspective for which the state must use its power to reduce institutionalized religious domination in a society marked by deep religious diversity. Here the state deals with religions with in a freedom-sensitive, egalitarian framework to facilitate morally desirable relations between as well as within groups. Moreover, it is also responsive to individual needs and aspirations.

The paper elaborates on these points, providing examples from not only India but from other western and non-western societies. In doing so  it shows that many novel conceptions are available outside the west, ones that can be viewed as trans-cultural ideals which, though providing no blueprint for others, are worth examining and learning from.


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