Now Reading
India@77: Impoverished Understanding of Secularism and the Chronicle of a Failure Foretold

India@77: Impoverished Understanding of Secularism and the Chronicle of a Failure Foretold

  • The evisceration of India’s political democracy that we see today is a case of the chickens coming home to roost.

Whatever one’s reservations about the limitations of the Indian variant of secularism, it is still surprising that the forces of Hindutva have managed to paint it in such pejorative terms in such a decisive manner in recent decades. Barring a few political parties (mainly of leftist persuasion) and a shrinking section of the public sphere, there are few principled and articulate defenders of the secular ideal in India today. Yet, it was almost half a century ago, in 1975, that the word ‘secular’ was inscribed into the very self-description of the nation through the 42nd Amendment to the Constitution of India. More importantly, a commitment to a certain version of secularism had animated the politics of the nationalist movement from the early 20th century, and the decades of Nehruvian and Congress dominance that followed. This essay seeks to understand the reasons for the precipitous free-fall of an ideal that, in different ways, was central to the ethical and political thinking of a wide range of India’s political leadership, its political parties, popular media, and civic ethos for such a long time. And through that understanding, it seeks to imagine what it might take for the recovery of a more robust variety of secularism in the decades to come.

Caste, Secularism, Democracy

In an unpublished essay “Civilization or Felony?” written sometime in the mid-1940s, B.R. Ambedkar depicted the mainstream understanding of India, both within and outside the nation, in this manner:

“The population of India is generally classified on a linguistic or on religious basis. These are the only two ways of classifying the people of India which have been persistently in vogue for a long time. The effect is that outsiders get the impression that, what is of interest and importance to know about the peoples of India is the religions they profess or the languages they speak. Limited by this interest, they remain content with a knowledge they get about the religions and languages that are prevalent in India. All that the outsider cares to hold in his head is that, in India there are people who are either Hindus or Mahomedans, if he is interested in religion or that there are people in India some of whom speak Marathi, some speak Gujarathi, [sic] some Bengali and some Tamil, etc.”

Ambedkar’s contention was that this way of looking at India – as comprising Hindus and Muslims in a linguistically diverse milieu – occludes or disappears the Dalit. Despite being a fourth of the population of undivided India, the Untouchables did not figure in this ubiquitous “India picture” as it were. They were enfolded within the category of Hindu when it served the purpose of Congress (to inflate the number of Indians they claimed to represent, for instance) but kept outside of it through everyday practices of untouchability, caste discrimination, segregation, proscribing inter-caste marriage, and violence prevalent all over urban and rural India. Despite their significant numbers, to Ambedkar’s chagrin, Dalits were never accorded the possibility of nationhood in the way Muslims and even Sikhs had been at various points along the way to independence.

From his point of view, a secularism focused exclusively on the Hindu-Muslim issue and neglectful of caste oppression was superficial and unlikely to embed itself in society. His conception of democracy stressed fraternity and friendship (maitreyi) based on civic equality as its bedrock. In other words, for Ambedkar, secularism was the name for a journey that exceeded the Hindu-Muslim question and ideally culminated in the full equality and fraternity of all citizens in society: not in the state merely maintaining a neutral stance between various (unreformed, traditional, and often deeply hierarchical) religions, or in handing down rights for everyone to practice their faith undisturbed either by the state or by those of other persuasions.

Binary Fallacies

If a country is primarily analyzed through the lenses of language and religion, progressive and regressive categories in politics come to be assessed in terms of how they comport themselves to those two rubrics. So, a cosmopolitan or a progressive becomes someone who does not wish to impose Hindi and self-defines as a secularist purely in the sense that all religions are equal in the eyes of the state, while a regressive becomes someone who wishes to impose Hindi and believes in Hindutva, or in Urdu and the ummah. In this restricted framework, caste becomes a marginal or aberrant “social issue,” an anachronism rather than an anathema, as Ambedkar insisted it was. Caste, like gender inequality or other aspects of society, was excised from the domain of the contemporary political struggle and any resolution was deferred to a post-independence agenda.

Ambedkar was quite clear about the implications of this denial of full civic equality here and now to the Dalit: the victory of either the Congress or the Muslim League in attaining independence with or without Partition was likely of little consequence for those who were still “fighting to obtain the title deeds to respectable humanity.” Ambedkar’s acerbic comment on the relative unimportance of independence from the point of view of the Dalit would be confirmed soon enough.

During the tumult of August 1947, in a manner akin to maintaining class divisions and privileges between steerage and first-class passengers on the rapidly sinking HMS Titanic, Hindus often refused to allow Dalits admission into the refugee camps on grounds of caste purity and pollution. Given that nationality at the moment of Partition came to be defined solely by religion, Dalits found themselves in a limbo as they did not fit any of the available categories of Hindu, Sikh, or Muslim on the western frontier. (The fate of the Dalits on the eastern frontier, largely the Namasudras of Bengal, was not much better as their prolonged agony as refugees relocated to Dandakaranya would prove.)

Dalits fleeing Pakistan could not count on refugee status in India as their claims to Hinduness was itself contested by their alleged co-religionists. A large number of Dalits had worked as landless laborers in what came to be declared Pakistan, but they weren’t entitled to compensation once they moved to India as they had not “lost” any property or assets on the other side. Thus, while a Hindu or Sikh farmer, merchant, or homeowner could claim economic compensation from the government once settled in India; for Dalits, damned both by poverty and caste status, nationality was irrelevant. It was a searing illustration of something Ambedkar had said at his very first meeting with the Mahatma: “Gandhiji, I have no homeland.”

And the fact is that while untouchability and caste were inextricably associated with Hinduism, it was very much part of the way Islam, Sikhism, Christianity, or any religion was practiced in India. In her brilliant work on the unwritten histories and silences of the Partition, Urvashi Butalia details how both India and Pakistan, when they appeared solicitous of the welfare of the Dalits during the chaos of those times, were so for only one reason: they needed someone to maintain sanitation facilities in refugee camps on both sides of the border. In other words, to remove the refuse and garbage, to bury or cremate the dead, and do the age-old tasks that none but Dalits had done for centuries (and continue to do to this day).

An Exclusive Secularism

A secularism defined exclusively in the context of the communal, i.e., Hindu-Muslim equation, was never going to be capacious enough to acknowledge and accommodate the rights of Dalits. While Ambedkar was himself eloquent and acerbic on this limitation, it was also evident to someone like Jawaharlal Nehru who noted in 1954 that “a caste-ridden society is not properly secular.” This limitation of the Indian variety of secularism would prove to have fateful – and unforeseen – consequences in the decades after independence.

The Congress variety of secularism that began in the early 20th century during the movement for independence anchored its meaning to an inclusive anti-colonial nationalism. In practice, though, it defined itself mainly against what it described as the communal separatism of the Muslims and was relatively accommodating of the prejudices, casteism, and religious majoritarianism of the Hindu right. From its inception, this definition of secularism positioned itself more against the dangers of Muslim communalism while turning a blind eye to or even actively collaborating with the Hindu right, especially when it came to the matter of retaining upper-caste privilege and abjuring a frontal assault on issues such as untouchability, temple entry, inter-dining, and inter-caste marriage prior to independence.

The irony of today’s India is that the last and true believers in the promise of the secular equality enshrined in the Constitution are not only its most beleaguered minority but also the ones most consistently tainted with the brush of being anti-national: its Muslims.

The continued prominence of the likes of Purshottamdas Tandon, Jamnalal Bajaj, Madan Mohan Malaviya, K. M. Munshi, and Rajendra Prasad within Congress, and the revolving door between that party and the Hindu Mahasabha clearly indicated this. As did the fact that at the capillary level, namely in the smaller towns and villages, Congress party cadres and local caste Hindu organizations were woven seamlessly together. As Gyan Pandey argued many years ago, this intransigent hostility to Muslim demands descried as separatist communalism accompanied by a politics of coexistence with Hindu majoritarianism was reflected in the fact that while there existed a category called “nationalist Muslims” (typified by the likes of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad), there was no cognate category called “nationalist Hindus”: by default to be Hindu was seen as simultaneously Indian, while to be Muslim needed qualification as to whether one was of the ‘secular-national’ or of the ‘communal-separatist’ variety.

The proximity of Congress’ secularism to an upper-caste Hindu ethos was exemplified not merely in Gandhian politics and strategy which drew so heavily on Hindu symbology for its efficacy (cow-protection and invocations of Ram Rajya, for instance), it was also evident in the prolix writings of Nehru where the idea of India was often anchored within an upper-caste Hindu imagination repackaged as ancient culture, civilization, and tradition. Congress secularism drew upon a selective and magnanimous reading of Hinduism, one that talked of the putatively timeless traditions of tolerance, inclusiveness, syncretism and absorptive capacity of that religion in explaining and justifying the ‘paradox’ of Congress secularism, viz., a political party in a deeply religious society that was ostensibly committed not to the religious majority but to the idea that the nation was a plural space within which all religions were deserving of equal respect and treatment.

Othering the Critics

That this understanding of the tolerance and capaciousness of Hinduism was a savarna rendition of the religion, that it ignored its deeply hierarchical nature that was sanctioned by scripture, and the ubiquity of caste violence in the maintenance of that order, can be readily seen in the critiques of the likes of Periyar or Ambedkar or many others at this same time. But such critiques and critics of Hinduism, and of Congress’ secularism, were ruled out of bounds of the ‘legitimately’ political as they raised social and allegedly ‘divisive’ issues at a time when the primary contradiction was the fight against colonial rule.

In other words, the anti-caste politics of Ambedkar and Periyar, and their various counterparts in different parts of India, were seen as diversionary or anti-national or loyalist, and the high political domain reserved exclusively for the achievement of national independence. The imperiling of the so-called unity of the yet-to-be-achieved nation was used to silence and marginalize the alleged separatist, divisive casteist, noisy feminist, and rabid communalist. Against all these subnational categories stood the supposedly tolerant, pacific, spiritual and secular “Indian” who turned out, upon closer examination, to be an upper caste Hindu Congressite epitomized by someone like Nehru.

At its core, a principle like secularism is anchored on the idea of the fundamental equality of all citizens in the eyes of the state and the law. Whatever identitarian differences there may be in the domain of the private (religion, caste, gender, class, to mention the main ones in the context of mid-20th century India), when it came to equality before the law and public policy, the state could play no favorites. In this sense, there is no prima facie reason why the principle or ethic of secularism need be confined to the realm of religion. In fact, it is hard to see how secularism can be fully practiced in the domain of religion without its extension to matters such as caste, race, or gender given how integrated all these are with religion itself in the first place. For example, in nearly every society religion and patriarchy are deeply intertwined and co-constitute each other through practices of legitimation. In a society like India, where caste permeates every religion – especially in its practice even if not at the level of scriptural text – it is impossible to see how one can claim to be secular without enfolding the issue of caste equality within its ambit or concern. And yet, it is precisely this attenuated or impoverished understanding of secularism that has been the mainstay in the pre- and immediate post-independence decades.

Indian secularism was hobbled coming out of the gates at independence on account of its neglect of caste, its focus on the dangers of Muslim communalism, and a bowdlerized, savarna-abridged rendition of Hinduism. In the early years after independence, there was a tension between group or community rights (something the Raj had been happy to recognize and selectively subsidize or penalize as part of its strategy of ‘divide and rule,’ but also because in an anthropological sense the colonial government regarded India as a congeries of communities) and the rights of individuals. In an effort to redress millennia of caste-based oppression, Dalits (and tribals) gained access to reservations at the central level, and states were permitted to draw their own policies in this regard (with some, like the Madras Presidency, having done so well before independence). Despite caste and untouchability being prevalent in most of South Asia’s religious groupings, these reservations for the Scheduled Castes were only for those identifying as Hindu, and not for those of other “non-Indian” faiths. Indeed, a Dalit converting to Christianity stood to immediately lose access to reservations in education or employment.

Fuzzy Secularism and the Othering of Muslims

At the same time, upon independence Muslims were stripped of most group rights they had enjoyed under the colonial dispensation (such as separate electorates, or recruitment into the armed forces, or appointments to legislative or administrative bodies) on grounds that they were individuals in a secular nation. The sarcastic and frequent addendum to this was that with the creation of Pakistan, any Muslim unhappy with their declining status in secular India was welcome to leave.

However, this very same principle of individualism over group rights or identity was set aside when it came to the realm of Muslim personal law or sharia which was left intact on grounds that a Constituent Assembly dominated by upper caste Hindus ought not to be legislating about the religious and social practices of a defeated community, and that too so soon after Partition. Yet, a watered-down version of a Hindu Code Bill was successfully passed in Parliament within a decade of independence, over the objections of the orthodox forces from within that religion.

Although the empirics of political reality in a post-colonial order made such compromises between communitarian and individual rights inevitable, there is no question that the optics did no favors to the idea of secularism as the civic equality of all citizens irrespective of religion. The matter of a uniform civic code that would ideally govern these matters for all citizens was consigned to the future: it was placed in the (unenforceable) wish box that is the Directive Principles of the Constitution, and lay there waiting to be mobilized at the right moment by critics who saw this form of secularism as hypocritical or selectively targeting the majority community for reform while exempting minorities from the same.

Even by independence it was evident that Muslims as a group were falling behind others on most socio-economic indicators, in terms of political representation, share in the civil service, army, police forces, and other employment in both public and private sectors. The exodus of significant sections of their more educated and prosperous, or even middle class and professional sections to Pakistan further weakened them, as did the virtual dissolution of the Muslim League as a political party in the entirety of North India. While millennia of discrimination against Dalits (and other lower castes) were recognized in the reservation of positions for them in government employment and educational opportunities, Muslims were excluded (in nearly all states barring exceptions like Tamil Nadu and Kerala) on grounds that caste oppression was unique to Hinduism.

Clearly, what emerged was a checkered idea of civic citizenship, recognizing group or communitarian rights in certain contexts (reservations for Dalits and tribals for instance, and leaving Muslim personal law intact) yet privileging the individual over the community in others (refusing reservations for non-Hindu religious minorities but passing the Hindu Reform Code bill). Such slippage between the letter of civic or equal citizenship and its practice is hardly unique to postcolonial India, and is a characteristic of nearly all countries that have dealt with the legacy of colonial rule with its strategy of keeping different communities in a state of dynamic equilibrium through selective dispensation of carrots and sticks.

See Also

Preserving Privilege and the Othering Within Hinduism

Over time, one of the consequences of the tension between a theoretical commitment to uniform civic rights for every individual on the basis of citizenship versus a practical desire to redress historical injustices through selective and affirmative actions has been the concerted attacks on secularism as a form of hypocrisy, an appeasement of minorities, as an instance of vote-bank politics (as if there is any other kind!), but most importantly, as coming at the expense of the meritorious savarna or upper caste Hindu. By the 1980s, over three decades of electoral politics based on universal mass franchise and policies of reservations at both central and state levels had altered the political equation between upper castes, Other Backward Castes (OBCs), Dalits, and Muslims in significant ways. There has been a deepening of democracy in India as Dalits and OBCs have parlayed universal mass franchise and reservations in education and employment into certain modest advancements in socio-economic terms and significant advances in political representation at both the central and state levels.

To successfully transmute the politics of resentment against the rise of Dalits and OBCs and the issue of reservations into an attack on secularism, Congress, Muslims, Christians, and westernized elites was no mean feat. 

Yet, it is precisely these very modest increments in their status that have appeared as a threat to the very structure of upper caste privilege, and what the upper castes regard as their meritorious and legitimate inheritance. It has been the Hindu right’s political ‘achievement,’ ever since the announcement (on August 9, 1990) of the V.P. Singh regime to implement the Mandal Commission report (that would take the percentage of reserved seats and jobs in central institutions to 49.5 per cent), to unite the Hindu fold across caste divisions, and to channel the self-righteous anger of the upper caste Hindus at their loss of relative privilege to Dalits and OBCs into a politics of scapegoating the Muslim and attacking the Congress’ secularism. By September 25, less than two months after Singh’s announcement and amidst the fury and flames of the anti-Mandal agitations by (mainly) upper caste students, the BJP’s president L. K. Advani launched his “rath yatra” from Somnath towards Ayodhya (Faizabad) to “liberate” the birthplace of Lord Rama from the confines of the Babri Masjid. Since then, the BJP has successfully displaced the hostility and resentment of upper caste Hindus at the rise of the OBCs and Dalits onto to the figure of the “appeased” Muslim, the westernized and deracinated Anglophone elite, “rice-bag” Christians duped by missionaries, “urban Naxals” sympathetic to Maoists, and other non-national fragments.

To successfully transmute the politics of resentment against the rise of Dalits and OBCs and the issue of reservations into an attack on secularism, Congress, Muslims, Christians, and westernized elites was no mean feat. Suffice to say that Congress, befitting its tepid commitment to secularism as an ethic of civic equality in the first place, has not put up much of a political fight, let alone a fight on principle. Indeed, the overt Hinduization of the Congress itself had begun long before Mandal and Masjid, during Indira Gandhi’s second term as Prime Minister (from 1980 to her assassination in October of 1984), and was further intensified under Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure as PM (1984-1989), as was exemplified in Shah Bano and the banning Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses.” The Congress launched its 1990 parliamentary election campaign from Ayodhya on an explicitly anti-Mandal platform, and promised a Ram Rajya if the party were re-elected. By this point, even the poor facsimile of a secularism confined just to the Hindu-Muslim equation was politically orphaned.

Despite all the rhetoric about minority appeasement, the data could not be more revealing. In 2006, the Sachar Committee Report depicted the abysmal condition into which Indian Muslims had fallen on every count: per capita income, literacy levels, gender-related issues, representation in parliament, state legislatures, armed forces, civil service, government employment, police, you name it. The Report noted that on almost every yardstick, the Muslim had dropped below that of the OBCs and the Dalits. In a testament to how far we have moved in the direction of a Hindu majoritarian state and society, the Sachar Committee Report could in 2006 recommended a policy of affirmative reservations for Muslims to reverse their decline: something utterly inconceivable in the present dispensation. Nearly 20 years after that Committee’s Report, after the riots following Godhra, Shaheen Bagh, with the lynching of alleged beef smugglers, and the looting of Muslim properties and stores following riots in various parts of northern India, and after a decade of BJP rule at the center and many states, Thomas Blom Hansen’s depiction of the Indian Muslim today should expose the canard of appeasement:

“Muslims in India today are today more marginalized, and more vulnerable to violence and humiliation by the majority community and the state, than at any time since Partition. Violence and loss are ever-present possibilities and many families carry bitter memories of relatives injured or killed in riots and pogroms, property lost, and other forms of hardship.”

An Anaemic Secularism Foretold

Indian Muslims are a textbook example of scapegoating. Economically, politically, culturally, and socially they are marginalized and yet they are portrayed and perceived as an ontological threat to the unity and survival of the nation. Exaggerated projections of their population growth rates are believed in by wide sections of society, including—or especially—those in the middle classes. Their ghettoization (a fallout of communal riots, the partiality of security forces, and openly discriminatory rental and property markets) is portrayed as a choice when it is, in effect, an imposition. And amidst the orgy of violence outsourced to the cadres and fellow travelers of the Hindu right, even peaceful Muslim protests or the occasional act of self-defense come to be seen as not merely anti-national but as the local franchising of a global terrorist movement. The irony of today’s India is that the last and true believers in the promise of the secular equality enshrined in the Constitution are not only its most beleaguered minority but also the ones most consistently tainted with the brush of being anti-national: its Muslims.

The anaemic secularism of what Ambedkar called a felonious civilization has proven unable to resist the seductions of Hindutva. As the nationalist movement under Congress auspices prioritized liberty (freedom from Britain) over equality (social reform, especially of caste), many feared for the quality of Indian democracy. We cannot say we weren’t warned, for the architect of our Constitution issued this prescient missive on the eve of India’s emergence as a Republic:

“On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has so laboriously built up.” 

One might say that the evisceration of India’s political democracy that we see today is a case of the chickens coming home to roost. It is difficult to see a clear and progressive way forward from the impasse in which we find ourselves. Secularism as an ideal is a political orphan and any attempt to resuscitate its fortunes invites the charge of being anti-national and anti-Hindu, with the distinction between those two epithets steadily invisibilized. While it seems obvious that a commitment to an inclusive secularism that emphasizes the idea of full civic equality inspired by Ambedkar’s notion of fraternity or maitreyi is the way forward, none of the main political parties or forces within India are inclined to coalesce around such a vision. India’s contradictory life continues, and the journey towards a fully embodied sense of civic equality irrespective of caste, religion, gender or class for every Indian remains as fraught as ever.

This article was first published by The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy, Chennai, India ( on August 16, 2023.

Sankaran Krishna teaches politics at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in Honolulu. He works on Indian politics, International Relations, and Postcolonial Studies. He can be reached at and his various publications (books, articles, and essays published in magazines, newspapers, and websites) can be accessed at].

What's Your Reaction?
In Love
Not Sure
View Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

© 2020 American Kahani LLC. All rights reserved.

The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of American Kahani.
Scroll To Top