Attack on secularism

There is a growing tendency these days among intellectuals to attack secularism. In the past such attacks were indirect and covert somewhat similar to the attack on equality; they hesitated to attack it openly. They maintained since we can not define secularism in a strict sense, like equality, it will be good if we stop using the term altogether, at least to avoid the intellectual confusion. More adventurous among them argued that it does not exists therefore anything which is labeled as secular can only be pseudo-secular. The also pointed out that those who speak in the name of the secularism are not strictly secular. Indeed, secularism in India has suffered a really bad advocacy. One can easily show that many practice in private just opposite to what they preach in public. But can we take inconsistencies in the practices and preaching of self-professed secularists against the idea of secularism itself? It yes, then it is easy to show that those who maintain that religion is a great thing for harmony and peace in a society often use it for altogether different ends. Is it pseudo-religion which exists and therefore we must stop using the term altogether? We can drive a term to a logical nihilism but it will be a counsel of despair. Besides a meaning has to be given to secularism, even if a meaning does not exists in Indian context, for it has made its way into our constitution.

When we look at the definitions of secularism, we can raise many serious doubts about it. In an engaging book, Amartya Sen lists out six major criticism of secularism and he goes on to defend secularism. Amartya Sen’s ability to make distinctions is amazing and he moves from one distinction to another at the breathtaking speed. I can not possibly give an overview of all of these distinctions in this post. One can read his essay ‘Secularism and its discontents’ in the book ‘The argumentative Indian‘. What I wish to do in this post, however, is to give a sociological perspective to the idea of secularism.

Common perception of secularism is that it is an anti-religion ideology. All ideologies try to change the world and they pursue power to do so. They promise utopias to people and demands great sacrifices from them. Many definitions of secularism are dependent on religion and it generates a feeling as if the spread of secularism will ultimately displace the religion from the public life. Therefore who are for religion must be anti-secular and vice versa. This view is not satisfactory. In sociology, many of us maintain that secularism does not necessarily work against religion and its spread does not eliminate religion from society or even reduce its influence on individuals. It only brings out some places out of the grips of the religion such as universities, hospitals, banks, offices etc. With the spread of secularization, there will be more places in society where religion cease to play any [significant] part. To give an example, a modern hospital and a modern university are such places where religion does not play any visible role. On these institutions, religion becomes a private matter. And it is very hard to see how these institutes can work efficiently, if they can work at all, if they were to be governed by religious rather than secular rules.

Is religious pluralism is a form of secularism or perhaps its most exalted form as it is increasingly maintained in India? India has a unparalleled record in pluralism and religious tolerance. But it must not be forgotten that it has some dark spots too. On the whole, minorities have a peaceful existence compared to many nations outside Europe. Many governments has given special benefits to minorities: a secular government is not suppose to give extra benefit to any religious group. Indeed, some of the most unreasonable demands made my minorities are not only tolerated, they are often encouraged. One such demand made by Muslims recently was for reservation on the ground that they are left behind. A few centuries ago, their proud forefathers were the rulers of  most of these lands. It does not follow that they are left behind simply because majority has denied something them in a way high-castes Hindus had denied certain rights to many low castes Hindus among themselves. It has to be said in all fairness that it was also high caste Hindus above everyone else who attacked the foundation of caste system most vigorously. It is worthwhile to note in passing what Dr. Ambedkar said on this, ‘It is wrong for the majority to deny the existence of minorities. It is equally wrong for minorities to perpetuate themselves.’ One of the criticism of secularism today is based on the feeling that secularism makes minorities to perpetuate themselves:  ‘appeasement of minorities’ as it is often called. Nonetheless, from a certain point of view their demands were not all unreasonable. They argued if reservations can be granted to OBC (and now to women) in the name of social justice then why not to them? It is a valid point for OBCs have not suffered a kind of repression which many SC/STs have suffered. Some of the worst tormentors of SC/STs today are member of OBCs in rural area.

‘Dharam nirpekhshta’ or ‘religious pluralism’ can do some of the work assigned to secularism, but it can not do all of it. We only have to consider a country in medieval Europe with a single religion. In this country admission to university was granted to those men who subscribed to a certain church and it was denied to all women. It was secular forces and not ‘religious pluralism’ which opened the gate of universities to women. Hindu or Muslim religion are not reputed to be particularly kind to the members of low castes and women. If people from lower castes and women are allowed to vote or go to universities and seek employment in those professions which were not assigned to them at birth; and women are allowed to go to temples during their monthly periods, it is due to secularization of society and not due to religious tolerance or religious plurality. Secularism is a modern value; and it a new value even in those countries where it found its first adherents.

What is surprising that the most elaborate attack on secularism is coming from a very unexpected quarter. In the past, it were men of religion, leaders of caste-communities, traditionalists and revivalists who expressed themselves openly against it. A increasing number of university men, businessmen, doctors and lawyers, Westernized intellectuals and even politicians are now too willing to attack secularism. Those who have been supporting secularism so far seemed to have developed weak knees and they are finding it hard to support secularism in open. Those who try to do so are quickly labeled as pseudo-secularist – we do not know what do they mean by this term. I strongly feel that attack on secularism is emanating from the fear of modernity. They may not part with all the luxuries, benefits and convenience modernity has brought to their life, nonetheless, they don’t want others to taste the same thing. The growth of modernity is bound to replace traditional values and believes, including the good one. And this is perhaps why the most of our anti-secularists tends to be anti-modernist. They might say that they are not against modernity as such but only against the western encroachment on Indian values. This perhaps may be the case but it is extremely hard to draw a line which separates attack on westernization and attack on modernization given the fact the most of the modern values originated in Western world.

I am an university man and wish to be on an university for rest of my life. My whole existence depends on the fact that my university is governed by secular rules. How can I ever ask secularism to leave even when I find that a great many things are being done in its name are against its spirit. And those who ask secularism to leave must also ask themselves how their life would have been if the institutions through which they have made their lives were to be governed by religious rules. They must carefully consider what they are abandoning and what they are asking others to abandon by abandoning secularism. If secularism has to go, a great many things which are essential to life of mind must also go. The opponents of secularism would feel less anxious if they see secularism as a ‘habit of heart’ rather than a anti-religious ideology. It only asks people what Jesus is believed to ask his followers, ‘Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s’. Religion (and family) is a very important thing in its own sphere, but it poisons the well of public life when it seeps into those institutions —  universities, offices, courts and politics — which must be insulated from it.


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