From the streets of Jamia Millia Islamia to the tents of Shaheen Bagh; Jama Masjid to India Gate, Jantar Mantar to Daryaganj, anti-CAA protests have made the fault-lines in Indian secularism more vivid. Secularism was debated threadbare in the Constituent Assembly, but recent events beg the question: do Indians need to redraw the assumptions that shaped Indian secularism? Consider the events of 12 January, when Congress Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor visited Shaheen Bagh to express solidarity with the anti-CAA protesters, who had already been there for over than a month.
As Tharoor walked in, a handful of protesters raised slogans such as “tera-mera rishta kya: la ilaha illallah” and “Allah-hu-Akbar”. Presumably, these slogans were raised in response to Tharoor’s recent disapproval of the Islamic slogans raised at the site. For Tharoor—and many others—the assertion of Muslim identity at Shaheen Bagh or other sites of protest are against the spirit of inclusivity. In his own words: “Our fight against Hindutva extremism should give no comfort to Islamist extremism either. We who’re raising our voice in the #CAA_NRCProtests are fighting to defend an #InclusiveIndia. We will not allow pluralism & diversity to be supplanted by any kind of religious fundamentalism.”
Tharoor later wrote that he was “alarmed” by the slogans and that his tweet was a “cautionary message”. Many oppose the chanting of religious slogans at the sites of the NRC-CAA protests, fearing that it would isolate non-Muslims and those who subscribe to no religion. Yet, finding the Isalmic slogans “extreme” or “fundamentalist” also conceals the CAA’s inherit fundamentalist approach in isolating and targeting Muslims.
Surely it is equally “alarming” that the CAA and NRIC intend to relegate Muslim communities to second-class citizenry. Besides, the assertion of Muslim identity has to be seen as an effort to reclaim the spaces, public and religious, being denied to them. Hindu liberals, including Tharoor, are falling into the trap of Hindutva in this sense. Their unease with Islamic slogans would sit well with an unselfconscious Islamophobia. For the liberal Hindu, rejecting Islamic slogans also opens up the space to claim a secular image while characterising Muslim protesters (who raise such slogans) as communal. This is not to deny that few protesters have sought to remove those raising religious slogans in a bid to make theirs a struggle of all citizens not just Muslims.
As a resident of Jamia Nagar and a participant in the mobilisations in the neighbourhood, I have witnessed these complex developments unfold. While there are Muslims who are saying that Islamic slogans are antithetical to the spirit of collectivity, there is also a certain fear among them of being marked as “Muslim and communal”.
Take for instance the localities of Jamia Nagar and Jamia Millia Islamia. Both are spatially, culturally, religiously, politically and socially connected, and justifiably so. As I have said before, these students represented themselves in the ongoing anti-CAA/NRC movement with a multilayered identity—as Jamia students, residents of a mohalla, Indians, and Muslim. This is not to say that Hindu students were not there, but, to recall Hannah Ardent, “...if one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew.” It is the same for Muslims.
Therefore, there is a need to take note of the construction of fear among Muslims that also leads them to detach their religious identity from their body to save the claim of a “secular body-politic”.
Secularism in the Constituent Assembly
On 17 October 1949, when the Assembly discussed the Preamble to the Constitution, the most debated word was secularism. Initiated by HV Kamath, and followed by Govind Malviya and Shibban Lal Saxena, was an amendment proposing that the Preamble should begin with the words, ‘In the name of God’. It was defeated 68 against 41 for showing “narrow, sectarian spirit”. Yet, neither was the word secular included.
Shefali Jha, in her paper, Secularism in the Constituent Assembly Debates, 1946-1950, mentions that Brajeshwar Prasad was ridiculed for wanting “secular” specifically mentioned in the Preamble. He had also sought to make the Constitution “a socialist instead of a liberal democratic document and his amendment was negatived for that reason,” writes Jha.
Jha divides the discourse on secularism in the years before the Indian Republic was born into three positions: The first, the no-concern theory, was heavily influenced by modern European nation-states. It marked religion and the state as separate and distinct. While promoting this idea, S Radhakrishnan said in the Constituent Assembly: “Nationalism, not religion, is the basis of modern life...” A similar aspiration is to be found in the words of GB Pant, who said, “There is the unwholesome and to some extent degrading habit of thinking always in terms of communities and never in terms of citizens”.
In his desire to see religion consigned fully to the private space, Tajamul Hussain went to the extent of proposing in the Assembly that “no person shall have any visible sign, mark or name, and no person shall wear any dress whereby his religion may be recognised.”
In this historical context, it is worth recalling Akeel Bilgrami’s 15 January lecture in Delhi. In it, he explains how secularism was born in modern European nation-states as a “damage-control mechanism”. In their aspiration to create a nation, they ended up producing an internal enemy, whom they first ‘othered’, then “subjugated and despised”.
After the Partition, India was also on the verge of nationhood. A new state sought to gain legitimacy from people, whose participation it wanted to secure in the larger project of nation-building. Those members of the Constituent Assembly who conceptualised a modern nation-state in the European mould evoked secularism as a means to separate the state from religion. As Jha concludes, their idea of secularism sought to replace all individual sense of belonging except to the state. The aim was not, as she says, only to limit religious freedom but to establish the paramountcy of the state: “Religion was to be relegated to as narrow a sphere as possible so that the state could emerge as a modern Leviathan”.
The second position also wanted the state and religion to be separate and distinct, but in it the assumption was that religion, being a matter of faith, should not be left to the whims of the political majority. But not many subscribed to that idea.
Finally came the third, the “equal-respect” theory, wherein religion is viewed as a significant component of Indian life. This view draws on what Gyanendra Pandey has conceived as the “construction of communalism”, a product and legacy of British colonialism which saw religion as a non-negotiable component of Indian social life. The first law minister BR Ambedkar’s, Philosophy of Hinduism is significant in this context. “Those who deny the importance of religion... forget to realise how great is the potency and sanction that lies behind a religious ideal as compared with that of a purely secular ideal,” he says in the book.
On why the non-establishment clause similar to the US, that promises to not establish any State religion, did not work for India, KM Munshi made a significant statement: “We are a people with deeply religious moorings. At the same time, we have a living tradition of religious tolerance—the result of the broad outlook of Hinduism that all religions lead to the same god…our state could not possibly have a state religion, nor could a rigid line be drawn between the state and the church as in the United States.”
Munshi’s primary assumption, “Hinduism is tolerant”, makes secularism a bystander to Hindu culture. In this view, Hinduism is presumed to be a universal component of social and private life in India. Members such Kamath, Lakshmi Kant Maitra and JB Kripalani defined this idealised version of tolerance as “acceptance”. They argued that the no-concern theory was based on a doctrine of “intolerance” and that is why it “confined religion to the private realm”.
The equal-respect theory thus became the foundational assumption of Indian secularism, which, much later, was specifically included in the Preamble with the Constitution’s 42nd amendment.
Equal or Preferential?
The advocates of equal respect, nevertheless, denied some political demands raised by the religious minorities and other weaker sections. The right to practice or worship were secured, but separate electorates and proportional representation in legislatures or the cabinet were not accepted. While debating citizenship provisions, the Constituent Assembly added a draft article 5AA (later Article 7 of the Constitution) that promised citizenship to those who had migrated to Pakistan but decided to return within a certain time period. The proposed jus soli or “territorial belongingness to the Nation” was thus expanded to not only serve Hindu migrants, but people wilfully embracing and seeking Indian citizenship. However, opposing the amendment and evoking the Hindu-nationalist anxieties, PS Deshmukh [and SL Saxena] said: “[this] specious, oft-repeated and nauseating principle of secularity of the state,” would eventually annihilate the Hindus.
Kanika Gauba, in her paper, Forgetting Partition (EPW, 2016) refers to the anxieties of the Constituent Assembly’s members regarding secularism after Partition. When the erstwhile members of the Muslim League joined the Assembly after the partition [during its fourth session], the President of the Assembly Rajendra Prasad was asked “whether these representatives, who have been elected on the basis of the two-nation theory had assured him of their cooperation.”
No doubt, such queries shredded their avowed commitment to the equal-respect theory.
Jason Keith Fernandes, a post-doctoral fellow at Centre for Research in Anthropology, ISCTE–Lisbon University Institute, argues in a recent article, Probing into the Freedoms of Queer Liberation in India (EPW 2020), that the distinction between Hindu nationalism and secularism is “a mistaken appreciation of the Indian national project”. From the perspective of marginalised groups; the Dalits, the Muslims and non-Brahmin castes, this secularism is what Sanjay Srivastava calls “Hindu contextualism”. It is the culture and practices of North Indian elite-caste males that are perceived to be “eminently Indian”, and hence, secular.
This complex terrain of secularism needs re-evaluation. When liberals criticise Muslims for raising Islamic slogans, it exposes the subliminal fear and hatred of the ‘Other’. It shakes the equal-respect theory, the foundation on which Indian secularism stands. It is perhaps better to say that we need to reimagine the idea of secularism instead of attempting to reclaim it as it was, with all the old assumptions that underpin it. “Inclusivity” should not be mistaken for benevolence in the new ideal. The nation should belong to citizens, not groups or identities. When we read the Preamble and pledge as “We the people”, let us reimagine Indian secularism.
The author is a doctoral research fellow at the School of Liberal Studies, Ambedkar University, Delhi