ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Languages of Secularity

An intellectual history of ideas regarding secularity in India is a useful way to think through the relationship between secularisation and secularism. This article focuses on the latest period in the development of the idea of secularity in India, from the 1990s onwards, while providing some context from the previous ones. A key argument is that modernity and tradition are not doctrinal positions, but alphabetic "languages", through the elements of which quite dissimilar doctrinal positions can be fashioned.

This article is driven by two related concerns. The first and more obvious is to take stock of the relatively recent debates about secularity in Indian social science. It was started by a general concern about what most observers saw as a deep transformation of the mental landscape behind political institutions, which might, they thought at the time, shift the nature of these institutions themselves, which in turn required a new historical reckoning. It was, by all standards, an immensely interesting debate at many levels. The arguments were intrinsically interesting in themselves; the debate as a whole showed a vitally significant truth about the nature of social theory – that theoretical evolution depends as much on a purely intellectual elaboration of arguments as on concerns coming from the historical world; and finally, it showed how the elaboration of social thought about a historical context like India inevitably leads to forms of argumentation that in one sense extend, and in another move away from the established corpus of (western) social theory. A second concern, however, is more parochial. At the time when Indian thinking produced the most interesting original insights about the colonial end of modernity, it was characterised by the existence of a public sphere that was structured in a complex fashion – quite unlike the monolingual public sphere iconically captured in Habermas’ study.

During the debates of the national movement, Indian society gave rise to a vibrant “public sphere” with a more complex construction, quite different in its structural features from 19th century Europe. Unlike Europe, the Indian public sphere was marked by deep illiteracy; yet it involved relaying nationalist ideas to a highly mobilised uneducated peasantry. This gave it a different balance between speech and writing, and between the discursive and the visual. More importantly, it was a public sphere of great diversity – vernacular public spheres were in intense activity and agitation, and were more homogeneous, although truncated by the uneven spread of literacy. Floating above them, as a first floor (as opposed to the ground floor of the vernacular), was another, equally vibrant, uproariously contentious sphere of English discourse. My sense is that in recent decades, these two public spheres show signs of drifting apart – although in some ways this process began after independence. The Nehru government inherited the two-tier communicative structure from the nationalist movement, but allowed it to degenerate through lack of vigilance.1 This was linked to other fundamental structural shifts in Indian culture, which are ignored by our social science. Significant changes occurred in education – the process through which individual cultural agents are formed. Cultural changes produced a predominantly monolingual English-based elite who replaced their nationalist bilingual predecessors and saw “India” as their theatre of cultural action. Ranged against them were equally monolingual vernacular elites who carried on an increasingly intensive inward-looking discourse in their regional cultures, often intensely resentful of the English elite, and characterising them as unpatriotic successors of colonial rule. With economic growth and the opportunities offered by globalisation – of moving into the global middle-class economy – this bipolar structure has undergone some change. Oddly, however, the altered demand is not for a restitution of strong bilingual education, but for general entry into the monolingual English educational culture. Lower classes do not want to alter the structure of cultural production; they simply want to be like the elite. As a consequence of these sociological changes, the question of the public sphere – the way we talk to each other – has been reopened. I want to make a point about the relation between the modern and premodern conceptual languages of secularity, which is linked to the question of language.

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