The change began when Ashis Nandy first assaulted the old, orthodox, Nehruvian secularists with his critique of the European modernity in the mid-1980s. He promoted a return to tradition, wherein we might find the roots of a religious tolerance of a different kind, which might better resonate with the masses than the hegemonic language of Western secularism. A year later, T.N. Madan, the distinguished sociologist, wrote that secularism was having a problem in
because the realms of the sacred and secular continued to be deeply intertwined in Indian tradition. Secularism would only succeed in India if we understood it to mean inter-religious understanding and an equality of citizenship rights; he added that we should “take both religion and secularism seriously, and not reject the former as superstition and the latter as a mask for communalism and or more expediency.” India
This attack did not go well with the Nehruvian secularists, who roundly chastised Nandy and Madan for feeding into the hands of the Hindu nationalists. In the early nineties, Partha Chatterjeee, the eminent social scientist at
, questioned if secularism was, in fact, the right way to stop Hindu majoritarianism. The Hindu right, he argued was perfectly comfortable with the institutional processes of the modern state, and the main issue was not ideology, he felt, but to protect the cultural rights of the minorities, and this could best be done through toleration “premised on autonomy and respect for personsâ€¦but made sensitive to the varying political salience of the institutional contexts.” Columbia University
Neera Chandoke, the political scientist at JNU, responded by arguing that the concept of toleration was not enough and that minorities needed supportive structures in order to protect their cultural identity. The writer, Mukul Kesavan, and others rightly worry, however, that this sort of thinking will only delay the day when we might call ourselves equal and common citizens of one state. Rajeev Bhargava, the editor of an excellent volume of essays on Indian secularism, distinguishes between political and ethical secularism, and says that to exist in a more liveable polity, we as citizens need to agree to what is right rather than what is good. Let's just be content with living together, rather than living together well (which is, of course, another project, and a valid one too.)
So, how do we begin to privatise religion? The answer, I think, lies with the deeply religious but moderate voices in each religion's mainstream, who must come forward and proclaim once again that true religion has nothing to do with political life. The failure of our contemporary public life is that we do not hear these voices, but only hear the shrill voices of extremists at both ends. It was not always so. Earlier, we had sensible public figures who were also deeply religious. Mahatma Gandhi, Maulana Azad, Vivekananda used to speak with credibility on behalf of the vast majority of religiously minded Indians. Today, what we have is an unfortunate polarization between an influential and articulate minority of secularists and the vast majority of silent, religiously minded Indians. Neither takes the trouble to understand the other, and what we have as a result is a dialogue of the deaf. We need to hear the many reasonable voices of good sense within the Hindu and Muslim religious communities, surely, there must be a few courageous individuals who will speak up before their faith is totally hijacked by the terrorists!
Following Rajeev Bhargava, our secularists should learn from the American philosopher, John Rawls, and distinguish between public reason and secular reason. While public reason limits itself to political and civic principles, secular reason is broader and deals with a secular person's moral doctrines and first philosophy. Our secularists need to be aware of this distinction and refrain from introducing secular values and secular reason into political debate. This is not easy to do, I realise, because liberal political values are intrinsically moral values and closely intertwined with moral doctrines.
Above all, let's learn from our own Emperor Ashoka, who ruled when Hindus and Buddhists were fighting each other in mid-third century BCE, and who declared in his famous Edict XII, “The sects of other people deserve reverenceâ€¦By thus acting, a man exalts his own sect, and at the same time does service to the sects of other peopleâ€¦He who disparages the sects of othersâ€¦inflicts the severest injury on his own sect.” Here is a wonderful insight for our times: you damage your own religion when you malign another's and secularism is not only good for governance but also for religion. Those who call for a Hindu nation not only harm the nation, they also damage Hinduism.