Indic Secularism: Why Religious Dissenters are not Political Dissenters

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We have overcome the logocentrism that afflicts our perspective of secularism.  We think that there is only one form of secularism and it has its roots in the west.  Secularism is contested territory today in our country.  But within these contestations, we can also see how logocentrism is afflicting both sides of the debate. Two sides of the divide appear to assume that secularism arose in a dialectical relation with the excesses of Christianity in Europe. This means it has no Indian origin.  Such a singularization of secularism does injustice to the various social-political imaginaries that gave birth to a secular age that contained several secularisms both in Europe and elsewhere.   Another thing that seems to afflict this debate is the moral imperative that governs both sides where each side takes for granted that they are defending justice and truth. 

 One can see how both sides exhibit a deep desire to invisibilize the other from the public square.   The secularists wish to render religions to the private realm and the anti-secularists brigade strives to drive secularism out of the public realm.  The fault lines on both sides seem to lay with the tendency to homogenize both religion and secularism and forget the multiple social imaginaries that are responsible for the several ways of being humans alongside religions and secularisms. This means there are and there were several secularisms and we are haunted by a tendency to forget its plurality. Within these many secularisms, Indian secularism shines like a star. 

Deconfessionalization of the State or the severing of the ties of the Church and the State in the West was related to a movement that sought  to establish the equality and dignity of the individual person. This is why the emergence of secularisms was at the service of this emancipatory agenda in the West.  It emerges against the unequal society where members of one form of Christianity were dominating the members of  their own faith. It has intra-religious origins.  This is why secularism among the Catholics and Protestants arose differently although one can trace common links between them. 

 In India, we have deep diversities that existed from time immemorial. Alongside, these deep diversities, there was a basic sense of security among all these groups. None of them imagined that their existence will ever be questioned. This means in some profoundly fundamental way, these diverse groups trusted one another.  Therefore, there was no deep anxiety about the other. No one felt an existential treat about the other. At some very basic level, there was a comfort with otherness and diversity.  This did not mean that there were no conflicts.  But the past of our land seems to teach that our societies found ways of reinvigorating themselves and restoring the harmonious way of living. 

Scholars  teach us that there  were  three major disruptive waves that unsettled past societies.   Scholars like Rajiv Bhargava name these as the rise of Buddhism, the coming of Islam as a major political force, and the event of colonial modernity.  When collective identities were emphasised based on religions one can notice that the basic trust and confidence underwent losses.  But this unsettlement was not accepted as a fate but was challenged and contested and trust and harmony were restored.  Peace among religions was sought as the most important value. 

Gandhi and other leaders that fought for the freedom popularised the term communal harmony.  This was also inscribed into the mission of the Indian state with our constitution. It meant that the State has to maintain and preserve this communal harmony.  Thus, secularism in India with all its shades become a political stance to maintain and foster the communal harmony that this land and its peoples lived from the ancient days.  This is totally different from secularism in the West where the state had to protect an individual’s rights, work to preserve equality, and defend the individuals from intrusion from powerful social institutions like the Church. Indian secularism became the name for the duty of the state and its citizens to protect the harmony and plural heritage that belongs to India and its peoples.  This is beautifully articulated by the belief in sarva dharma sadbhava.  It is also narrowly interpreted as neutrality to religions, dharma nirpekshta. This means Indian secularisms arose in response to inter-religious harmony and was naturally inscribed into the mission of the State that was given the duty to preserve this ethos of peace and harmony. 

 This is why while a form of nationalism has blurred the boundaries of majoritarianism, we have the ethical imperative to remember these foundations of our secularism as there are very real dangers of destructions of the ancient civilizational ethos in the garb of the love of our nation practised as the love of singularized religion and homogenized culture.  Unfortunately, even the state and the kind of polity that we see today have lost sight of the noble goal of our society that has been cherished by our ancestors.  When secularism is ridiculed as sickular, it is important to assess how we are putting the ethos of our civilization in danger and doing so by masquerading as nationalists. Perhaps, the loss of this heritage of our civilization is hastened because of the reining form of nationalism that we practice with so much zeal and fervour.  Such nationalism is a great disservice to the nation if not a form of gross anti-nationalism.   We have to find ways of overcoming the wall of separation thesis that has been injected in the reigning nationalism. It is important that we overcome our fetish of nationalism that intoxicates us for now. 

Besides this, while we remind ourselves that there are varieties of secularisms, we have to also contest the idea that there is only one notion of secularism and it is a gift of the West. The reining nationalism is operative on this mono-formic notion. India did nurture a spirit of secularism completely different from the one that developed in the West from ancient times. People of different faith flourished without being considered political dissenters.  The fact that this spirit is dying, we have the obligation to stand up for this ethos of our civilization.  We have to revive the best practices that preserve the peace and harmony and protect the diversity of our country.  Religious dissenters are not political dissenters. Unfortunately, majoritarian nationalism exhibits demographic anxiety aroused by a fear of loss of power on account of democracy and construes religious dissent as political dissent. This is why to save India and its plural civilization, we need to save Indian secularism. 

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao