Secularism is a word unlikely to be heard very much in upcoming election campaigns. Vaguely understood at the dawn of India’s freedom, the principle came in later years to be decried as the denial of India’s unique cultural identity. All through its career in the political discourse, secularism was accused of being a thin cover for the coddling of alien cultural implants.

Two recent rulings from the Supreme Court (SC) have infused new life into thinking through the limits of religious freedom in a constitutional order. In particular, these have reaffirmed specific constitutional provisions that empower the State to legislate on secular aspects of religious practice.

In August 2017, the SC held the summary divorce process under Muslim custom — the instant triple talaq — to be violative of fundamental rights. And just over a year after, it threw open the Sabarimala temple in Kerala to women of all ages, chasing out from its last redoubt the taboo against menstrual blood in places of worship.

The reaction to the two decisions speaks eloquently about the state of secular politics in India. The government hurried to draft a Bill that stipulates stringent penalties for the practice of the triple talaq, seeking to criminalise a civil offence, or at best adding a layer of jeopardy to an offence for which legal remedies already exist. In the case of Sabarimala, the government remained silent for most part, avoiding even a vicarious claim of credit for struggles waged by others. Spokespersons for the ruling party though rushed into agitational mode, aggravating an inflamed reaction from religious orthodoxy.

Here is an effort to fuse the power of the State with the authority wielded by religious tradition. This opens up a path towards the religious determination of State policy, and creates an asymmetry between communities.

The word “communal”, often used as antithesis of “secular”, carries a burden in the Indian context that is at sharp variance with the common sense, where it connotes a healthy sense of shared identity. “Communalism” and “casteism” are in political rhetoric that was common till recently, twin evils that threaten India.

Those rhetorical devices have now been cast aside, since bonds of community have forced themselves into the political calculation as necessary ingredients of electoral strategy. This is a world removed from how the first generation of free India’s leadership saw things, yet inherent in the situation they inherited.

In his encounter with the French writer Andre Malraux in 1958, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru spoke of two main challenges he faced as Prime Minister: “creating a just State by just means” and “creating a secular State in a religious country”.

Nehru knew he was battling formidable odds. In a letter to provincial Congress presidents in 1954, he affirmed his belief in “secularism” as the essence of a democratic order. It was admittedly a word that adapted rather poorly in India, yet conveyed for Nehru a meaning little less profound than absolute “social and political equality”.

A “caste-ridden society”, he went on, “is not properly secular”. Though averse to intervening in personal beliefs, Nehru was concerned that “petrified” caste divisions could have a debilitating impact upon the “social structure of the State”.

Hopes awakened of a transformation of caste — not its effacement though — as the “Congress system” churned through one election victory after another. Rajni Kothari was among the early theorists of the “politicisation of caste” as a salutary outcome of India’s adoption of an electoral system based on universal adult franchise.

Kothari’s 1970s thesis gained fresh traction in the ’90s as ritually lower orders entered political competition as active players. “Mandal”, or the call to redress inherited social disabilities of the caste order, had seemingly overwhelmed “Mandir”, or the effort to assert a primordial Hindu identity against the Islamic presence.

As the political theorist-turned-activist Yogendra Yadav observed in a 1999 paper published in Economic and Political Weekly , the “market” was the third of the players that gained decisive influence through the ’90s. The market had its own demands. It may have been reassured in the early years of this century, when both “Mandal” and “Mandir” receded from the forefront of political mobilisation. But as the economic boom turned sour, the market began finding the patterns of patronage that emerged in the ’90s, at variance with its own efficiency demands.

State versus market has long been a staple of debates on developing economies. The argument that only a “strong State” could safeguard India against its inbuilt fissures, has periodically surfaced through the years of independence.

Curiously, the “strong State” is today recognised as an indispensable condition of market-driven economies. It is a condition potentially undermined by popular struggles which seek to achieve basic human dignity for the poor. One way of reasserting the authority of the State then would be through denying diversity, through imposing a forced homogeneity, most conveniently under the rubric of cultural nationalism, or Hindutva.


Sukumar Muralidharan teaches at the school of journalism, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat