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Transgressive Secularism

Akeel Bilgrami's article (EPW, 28 January 2012) generates a lot of enchantment. But he also transgresses its signifi cance by a discussion of Gandhi's project as non-secular, by his binary projection of religious fundamentalism and by his un-dialectical scrutiny of Charl es Taylor's redefi nition of secularism.


Another important precondition of (S)

Transgressive Secularism

is that the State does not drive away religion, while seeking interventions to reform religions. I entirely agree with Arun Kumar Patnaik his contention. Moreover, what is heart-

Akeel Bilgrami’s article (EPW, 28 January 2012) generates a lot of enchantment. But he also transgresses its signifi cance by a discussion of Gandhi’s project as non-secular, by his binary projection of religious fundamentalism and by his un-dialectical scrutiny of Charles Taylor’s redefi nition of secularism.

Arun Kumar Patnaik ( teaches political science at the University of Hyderabad.

Economic & Political Weekly

march 24, 2012

read Akeel Bilgrami’s paper (“Secularism: Its Content and Context”, EPW, 28 January 2012) on secularism with a lot of excitement and got fi nally disenchanted with his discussion of Gandhi’s project as non-secular and his binary projection of religious fundamentalism, among other things.

Let me first capture the areas of agreement with his thesis. First, I agree with him that any redefinition of secularism must not be arbitrary and must not assume a prior understanding valid for all contexts. Second, I also agree with him that Charles Taylor’s redefi nition of secularism as a doctrine of equidistance between religion and the State (my understanding of Taylor is entirely based on Bilgrami’s reflections) is problematic, even though Bilgrami discards its relevance for secularism. For Taylor’s thesis ignores that the State may intervene in religious reforms as in Turkey or India rather than remain neutral and equidistant towards many religions.

Third, he is correct in saying that secularism may not be always liberal democratic as in the contemporary West. It could be articulated in an authoritarian context in modern Turkey. Also, there are many variants of non-liberal, nonmodern, non-secular articulations of toleration, inter-religious peace as in India’s diverse syncretic religious cults which are anathema to modern religious fundamentalism today. By using blasphemy laws and gender inequality, B ilgrami a rgues for the lexical ordering of (S) (the principles and practices of making secularism) such that (S) could be arrived at by respecting religious and non-religious domains, while at the same time seeking intervention in domains of religion, press for reforms through dialogue by the State (dialogue assumed by him here but mentioned in EPW, 4 October 1997) by relying on “religion’s internal reasons”.

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ening for me is to know that he proposes an expansive political society for setting up the lexical order of (S): the State must undertake the project of involving (implying dialogue and participation) religious and non-religious communities in arriving at a secular social compact. There are still a few finer points where his thesis could be appreciated.

Lexical Ordering: Conjectural?

But I have the following diffi culties with his thesis. First, his lexical ordering is conjectural rather than process-oriented. His blind opposition to the redefi nition of secularism offered by Taylor leads him into a trap of opposition to any redefinition. However, the lexical ordering of (S), desirable as it may be, cannot be conceived as a one-time event. It needs to be seen as part of historical process, continuously reordering the lexical of (S) by learning from what Gramsci calls “religious common sense/religion of people/intellectual” or what Charles Taylor calls “social imaginary” and also, from the strength of (s)’s enemies in religious fundamentalism. I have written on this subject in EPW (“Theological Marxism”, 22 October 2011). I would not belabour the point here. Therefore, his opposition to any redefinition of secularism including the one offered by Taylor makes his exercise vulnerable. His lexical ordering of (S) needs a dynamic conception of reordering as well.

Un-dialectical Understanding

Let us get back to what I call his blind, rather than dialectical, refl ection on Taylor’s redefinition and his neutrality thesis of secularism. I call his opposition blind as he fails to see any merit in Taylor’s redefinition, even though he appreciates Taylor’s moral and political concerns in articulating a neutralist p osition. It is possible for us to think through Taylor’ redefinition of secularism as a doctrine of equidistance and neutrality of the State


in plural religious context and yet agree with Bilgrami’s position on the State intervention to reform religions without leading to any suppression of religion, per se. These positions are not necessarily antagonistic.

If Bilgrami has reflected on Rajeev Bhargava’s works on this subject over the last 25 years, he would have been able to articulate such a synthesising position on (S). In a long footnote (n 7), Bilgrami correctly states that Indian secularism is not the same as a “state neutralist ideal” presupposes (S) to be. However, he simply rejects such an ideal as relevant for India. But this is where he creates problems in his lexical ordering of (S). It may be argued al la Bhargava that the State neutralist ideal is at least partly valid in the Indian story of (S).

Bhargava’s Political Secularism

Rajeev Bhargava’s (2010) idea of political secularism maintaining “principled distance” from religion presupposes such a dialectical play between (secular) politics and faith-based communities. Bhargava argues for a framework of “autonomy” and “intervention” mediating between politics and religion following a value perspective. Expanding on his ideas further, it may be argued that secular politics (not to be confused with atheistic politics) must recognise the autonomy of “ intrinsic faith” of a religion or “internal beliefs” of the irreligious, while seeking intervention in their “extrinsic faith”, that is in domains of intra-religious and interreligious domination or even domination of reason/law over faith.

Political secularism must restrain all forms of domination, while it must facilitate dialogues across faiths including the non-religious, without choosing sides. First, it cannot side with a form of domination associated with a majority or minority religion. Second, as the State is a principle agent of political secularism, the State cannot be a dialogue agent on behalf of this or that religious or nonreligious group. The job of the State is to facilitate such dialogues and to ensure that no body dominates the secular show.

There are two kinds of dialogue possible between the State and religion/nonreligion: critic and facilitator. There fore, the doctrine of equidistance from many forms of religious domination and facilitating dialogues as neutral facili tator of religious and non-religious groups is doubly relevant for the State to construct (S) in a multi-religious context. As Bilgrami misses a notion of process in the making of (S), he does not realise the signifi cance of Taylor’s doctrine of equidistance for his own (S). For political secularism must confront the processes of domination and must be prepared to r edefine or reorder its house from time to time. Otherwise, it would be in a perpetual crisis as in India today. By offering a normative and static conception of (S), he misses out that secularism needs politics to make itself as (S). He misses the point that it is a ceaseless process.

Gandhi’s Synthesis

Let us now see how Bilgrami fails to examine such a position (as stated above) in Gandhi’s secularism. He promises to develop a paper on Gandhi’s intervention later. But in the present paper, he offers a rudimentary conception of Gandhi. I have serious diffi culties with his position. I agree with him that the State secularism may adopt something from syncretic religious cultures in west Asia or Africa or south Asia. I also agree with him that there are principles of toleration, inter-religious peace, coexistence, mutual learning and non-interference in non-western world of syncretic cultures, anathema to religious fundamentalism. A lexical ordering of (S) must recognise such non-modern, non-secular worlds.

Having said that he goes one step further to claim that Gandhi rejected the idea of secular state. He belongs to the non-modern non-secular world of the syncretic cultures. I beg to differ with this. Like Bilgrami, Gandhi also recognises the relevance of synthesising

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non-secular world with the secular state. Gandhi’s attempt can be seen as one synthesising religion of the popular, religion of the intellectual and the secular state. The idea of secular State is not blindly placed by Gandhi against religion of the people or religion of the intellectual.

He refuses to dominate and condemn idol worshipping Hindu religion in which he never believed: religion of people is recognised with empathy, so typical of him. He does not believe in Ram temple and thinks that his Ram is locked up in mind and heart. Yet, he refuses to condemn rationalistically any popular belief in Ram temple. He does not intend to dominate the intellectual’s Ram over the common Hindu’s belief in the Ram of the idol. May be it is still an integral part of the non-modern nonsecular world. I cannot pass judgment at this stage.

However, in 1947, immediately after India’s independence, he clearly recognised that the new nation state was a secular state and issued warnings that if the secular state also behaved like the missionary British state, there would be a danger to secularism. He refers here to certain forms of inter-religious domination that might arise due to missionary activities. But he condemns the church’s conversion, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s Suddhi (reconversion) and the Muslim’s Tabligh, and argues that all forms of inter-religious domination needs to be curbed by India’s secular state after Independence. That is how the secular state would survive.

There is a warning that secularists must learn in Gandhi’s warning: the secular state must maintain equidistance from forms of inter-religious domination, remain neutral in umpiring religions and discourage them equally in declaring some of their activities (the tendency to dominate) unacceptable for a secular state. The survival of a secular state is a very modern concern. Gandhi never gave up modern secular concerns. Unlike, a typical liberal modernist, he looks at its lexical ordering differently. Probably, he would have agreed with Bilgrami’s lexical ordering of (S) but would have instructed him to be more vigilant of inter-religious domination so

Economic & Political Weekly

march 24, 2012

that his lexical ordering might need a redefi nition.

Learning from the Enemy

This brings me to my last but not the least reservation about Bilgrami. He constructs (more accurately hints at) r eligious fundamentalism as the other of secularism. He thereby falls into the trap of a typical secular ideology which fails to recognise the strength of its enemies and ends up addressing the weakness of the religious fundamentalism. Readers would notice that I am making a Gramscian distinction between ideological criticism and political criticism. The former explores the strength of enemy whereas the latter addresses its limits.

In the making of (S), Bilgrami does not tell us if the lexical ordering of (S) is possible without dialoguing with fundamentalism. Faced with fundamentalism, how would he like to reorder the lexical of (S)? No lexical ordering of free speech for blasphemers? Are blasphemers for free speech or freeriding speech? When free speech and secularism become instruments for the blasphemer, the lexical ordering of (S) may have been breached. What does the secular state do in such a case? I am afraid, Bilgrami does not say anything on the responsibility of (S) in such cases. In his lexical ordering, the burden of responsibility shifts to religion rather than the secular state.

Taylor in his personal letter to him tries to draw his attention that an irresponsible


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blasphemer feeds into religious fundamentalism. Yet, Bilgrami proposes the State intervention in religion but does not propose intervention in blasphemer’s life. When the secular state is thus seen synonymous with blasphemer’s freeriding speech, the State would let religion behave irresponsibly. No one-sided intervention would work. Eventually the secular state would fail to mediate between irresponsible religion and irresponsible blasphemer. So, the State intervention needs to be an equidistance intervention in multi-religious societies. No lexical reordering for blasphemer’s tendency to dominate religion in the name of her fundamental rights?

Bilgrami has not felt that his lexical ordering of (S) has collapsed under the weight of his silence. For he too thinks that secularism is an instrumental rather than intrinsic value just as the blasphemer thinks free speech is a licence for her to say anything against religion. That calls for some sorts of the lexical reordering of (S) by an expansive political society in which, as stated before, B ilgrami himself believes.


Bhargava, R (2010): The Promise of India’s Secular Democracy (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), pp 63-108.

Gandhi, M K (1999): The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (e-book), Vols 24, 38, 96 (New D elhi: Publication Division, Government of I ndia), pp 374-75, 16-17, 238-39, respectively.

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