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

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Reassessing Secularism and Secularisation in South Asia

Secularisation, once a key concept in debates about modernisation and modernity, has received very little academic attention over the last half century. In fact, it is often seen as a subset of or engulfed within secularism, which has been central to academic and political debates about democracy, nationalism and contemporary politics. In this special issue, we focus on both in their mutual interaction. It provides a mix of theoretically informed pieces with detailed, contextualised research adding granularity to the discussions by asking: Can secularisation happen without secularism? Or vice versa? What kinds of secularisation have specific versions of secularism promoted? Have there been reversals in secularisation, or has it been a largely linear process in south Asia?

There is a particular urgency that this precise historical moment in south Asia brings to our special issue. Religious nationalism of a highly organised and violent kind seriously threatens minority lives and beliefs in this part of the world, thus, rendering nuanced and critical engagements with actually existing secularisms absolutely and immediately imperative. The task is made difficult by a rather empty and self-satisfied secularism that many parts of the West, as well as those with political power in this part of the world, profess in the course of their war against terror, which is but a thinly disguised undermining of the beliefs and conduct of particular religions.

There is, simultaneously, a steady erosion of space for articulations that may challenge or interrogate dominant religious interpretations or even religious belief, per se. Historically, they have come not so much from a blind adherence to western secularism – when was the West really secular in that sense? – but from the anger of marginalised communities like dalits impatient with hierarchies that divine authorities have traditionally sanctioned. Periyar E V Ramasamy has been the one serious philosopher of atheism in modern India, while Ambedkar’s neo-Buddhism, according to some scholars, came close to the vanishing point of religion. This compels us to reassess our stance towards secularisation of areas of life, which does not in itself negate belief, but which may stray away from an entirely religious explanation, or offer parallel and plural explanations, or lead to an objectification of belief.

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