Is Secularism the Solution to Communal Conflict in India?

Here is Dr. Jakob De Roover’s brilliant take on the issue:

Dr. Jakob De Roover, Ghent University, Belgium:

Our answer to the question “Is Secularism the Solution to Communal Conflict in India?” is no, secularism is not the answer to communal conflict in India. It is not a part of the solution and there are a number of reasons why we think this is the case. I will briefly introduce the most important reasons in the next 20 minutes.

First of all, as we know at the empirical level, the implementation of secularism since 1947 in India has not led to the diminishing, let alone disappearance, of conflict between different religious and cultural communities. If anything, the frequency and intensity of riots and tensions between these communities appears to have risen significantly. Naturally, one could argue that this has to do with the fact that real secularism has never been implemented. And some people have argued it. But I won’t go into that.

However, there is a deeper problem and a more general problem. See, the belief that the model of the secular state which was originally formulated in the post-Reformation Europe can help solve communal conflict in India is based on a specific assumption. The assumption is that conflicts occurring in India are of the same nature or at least have a similar structure as the so-called wars of religion or religious conflicts in Europe. Both are taken to be instances of religious conflict.

However, it is completely unclear which characteristics or properties make a conflict into a religious conflict as opposed to say an ethnic conflict or social conflict or a political conflict. We don’t know what the structure is which communal violence and communal conflicts in India are supposed to share with conflicts between Protestants and Catholics, Christians and Muslims seen in Europe. No one has ever demonstrated that the conflict between Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs and Christians in India are similar to those between Protestants and Catholics in Europe. And the prima facie evidence indicates that these conflicts are of a completely different nature.

The conflicts in India have little to do with rivalry between religions or conflict between truth claims of different doctrines while those in Europe between different Christian confessions were based on conflict in truth claims and conflict of religious doctrines.

The situation in Europe was one where different confessions and confessional churches were developing and all of them – whether Lutheran, Calvinist or Catholic – claimed to be the true Christian church. Now, if the state had a privileged relationship with any of these Christian confessions, it would choose a side in the conflict of truth claims and then the state would not be able to manage conflicts among its citizens belonging to different religions. In fact it would end up imposing the beliefs of one of those confessional churches on the others and it would prosecute and discriminate. And therefore it was said the state ought always to be secular, separated from religion and religiously neutral.

Now, what I think has happened in normative theories of secularism is that this internal problem of Christian Europe has been projected universally as though it is a general human predicament. It is said that different religious groups in society hold different beliefs to be true and therefore the state should be neutral or equidistant to truth claims of all these belief systems. In other words, the model of the secular state comes with its own in-built conception of what a plural society looks like. And that conception is not based on research into the actual situation in different plural societies. It precedes any such analysis.

Therefore in so far as secularism intends to provide a universal model to address the problem of religious diversity in society, it is bound to fail because it suffers from a profound ignorance of the structure of plural societies other than those of the modern West.

I think in India this problem becomes especially clear because the diversity in society here encompasses two very different kinds of cultural phenomenon – those that are generally called Semitic or Abrahamic religions like Christianity and Islam on the one hand and traditions like the variety of Hindu, Jain Buddhist and Sikh traditions on the other hand. These two classes or kinds have very different properties. Because of that fundamental difference it does not make sense to speak of religion, religious diversity or religious conflict in Indian society as thought its diversity merely concerns different manifestations of one and the same phenomenon of religion.

Let me briefly explain the fundamental difference between the two kinds. Christianity and Islam on the one hand view religion as a matter of truth and falsity. They claim that they are the unique revelations of the Biblical God to humanity and therefore they are true. They believe that there is one true God who is the creator and sovereign of the universe and everything that happens in the universe expresses his will or purpose. In other words, this God has a plan and the universe is the embodiment of this plan.

Now, according to these religions, their respective doctrine is the true-self disclosure in which the Biblical God reveals his will and plan to humanity. And only through genuine belief in this doctrine and a total surrender to this divine will can human beings hope for salvation. Now with this self-description also comes the description of the other. Other religions and traditions are seen as heresies and false religions or ideologies, even though that terminology is not always invoked today.

Islam and Christianity do share a constant point. Fundamentally, they view religions as doctrines and attribute truth predicates to these doctrines. Therefore they view different religions as rivals over truth.

On the other hand, the many Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Sikh traditions do not approach religion as an issue of truth and falsity. They do not view different traditions as competing doctrines but as the ancestral practices that characterize a community. And these practices are not justified in terms of particular set of doctrines or scriptural sanctions. Rather they are continued simply because they are transmitted by the ancestors of the community. As a consequence, Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Sikh traditions do no ascribe truth predicates to such traditions. And they also do not view different traditions including Islam and Christianity as rivals over religious truth. These various traditions are seen as parts in the ongoing human search for truth.

The difference between these two classes has also generated different basic values. The universal truth claim made by Christianity and Islam gives rise to a dynamic of proselytisation. When the Biblical God reveals His plan, it covers the whole of humankind. And those who receive these revelations should try to convert others into accepting the message in this divine revelation. So proselytisation is an intrinsic value of these religions. The view of Indian traditions on the contrary implies that such traditions are upheld not because they contain some exclusive truth binding the believer to God but because they make some community into a community. And any attempt at interfering with the tradition of a community from the outside will be seen as illegitimate since all traditions are a part of human quest for truth.

This leads to a very fundamental clash between two very basic values – on the one hand of proselytisation, on the other hand of non-interference.

What we want to argue is that because of these fundamental differences between Semitic traditions and what we may call pagan traditions, the idea of a secular neutral state becomes extremely problematic in situations of conflict between these two classes. This is because it is impossible to take a neutral position between the two.

This becomes clearer in a case like a debate over religious conversion. It is impossible for a secular state to take a neutral position in the debate over conversions. It either privileges Semitic religions like Islam and Christianity and allows proselytisation, or it privileges pagan traditions and it bans proselytisation. There is no neutral ground between the two.

There is a third problem in transplanting the model and principles of secularism from Western Europe to India. These principles were originally formulated within a particular conceptual framework. When one talked of religion, freedom of religion, neutrality toward religion, separating the state from religion in modern Europe, there was a common theoretical background that allowed one to identify what one was talking about. One knew what religion was – vaguely, but one knew – what its characteristic properties were, and what distinguished the political sphere from the sphere of religion.

Now this background, I want to argue, consisted of Christian theology. That is, the distinction between the religious and the secular is a conceptual distinction that is internal to Christianity, but which has been universalized as though it is a neutral and universal distinction  between two spheres that are supposed to exist in all societies.

I am not going into theology too deeply, but I will briefly state that if you analyze the debate on the toleration and secular state in early modern Europe, there is a common theoretical or conceptual background which is generic Protestant theology of Christian liberty and what is called the two kingdoms – the political kingdom and the spiritual kingdom.

That theology claimed that all humans lived in two spheres at the same time. On the one hand they live in the spiritual, religious or eternal sphere where they are souls and they have to look after their salvation and obey the God. On the other hand, they live in the temporal sphere which is also called this world or this life, where they are bodies and have to look after their material welfare and they should obey the state.

This point was made over and over again – before John Locke, after John Locke. And the basic structure there, the distinction between what is religious and what is secular corresponded to the distinction between the temporal and political world or kingdom of the secular ruler and the spiritual kingdom of Christ or God.

What happened from the 17th century onwards is the secularization of this theological model, but not in the sense that it became truly secular or neutral or non-religious. The steps from Locke through Jefferson to Rolls today are not those of rational enlightenment which extends its secular values to humanity but those of an internal religious dynamic of secularization which spreads Christian principles in a secular guise.

The basic problem is that if you want to have these principles and interpret them or make sense of them, you need a particular theological background. If you don’t have that background, you will end up in interminable disputes about what is religion, what is not religion, how to distinguish between the religious and the political. So consequently the principles of secularism do not make sense in India because no theoretical framework required to interpret such principles is available.

Here it is complete unclear which properties make, say Hinduism or Buddhism or Jainism, into a religion and how to distinguish between what is religious and what is secular or political. Apart from those conceptual issues, secularism also faces embarrassment in its actual implementation in India in the last few centuries. And we are going to argue throughout the debate that the secular state modeled after the liberal democracies in the West is the harbinger of religious conflict in India because of its conceptions of toleration, secularism and state neutrality. More of secularism in India will end up feeding what it fights – the so-called Hindu fundamentalism or Hindu communalism.

Let me very briefly give a historical argument. The first state or government to implement the principles of toleration and religious freedom which are very similar to those of secularism today was the British colonial government in Bengal. But what happened was that because such secularism came with an inbuilt conception of religion, it gave rise to peculiar policies. For instance, the British said they will tolerate native religious practices if you can prove or demonstrate that they were religious. How do you do so? For this, you have to demonstrate that they have scriptural sanction and doctrinal foundations.

There were practices like Sati, hook swinging, infancticide, etc. The British started asking the Indians, can you show that these have doctrinal foundations, then we will tolerate them. If not, then we will abolish the practice. Consequently, a new kind of attitude came up in these traditions in India where to defend the value of one’s tradition one turned to doctrines and truth claims to show that there is some principle underlying these traditions which is truly religious, which unites them and which one has to defend. This strategy had been non-existent before the late 18th century and early 19th century.

In short, the cognitive framework of the secular-liberal state here construed Hindu traditions as structurally equivalents of Christianity, in the sense that it viewed them as embodiments of a series of scriptural doctrines and injunctions. If Hinduism, Christianity and Islam embodied different religious doctrines, then a liberal state simply ought to take a neutral position regarding their conflicts and truth claims and tolerate the practices that embody these truth claims.

However, in the case of traditions that do not look at ancestral practices as embodiments of doctrines, the resulting policy generates a coercive mechanism that compels these traditions to refashion themselves according to this model of religion.

The Indian subjects of the Raj quickly learned that they needed to give evidence of scriptural and doctrinal foundations to continue practicing their traditions. And that introduced a new attitude of aggressive defense of one’s traditions as based on true religious principles. This kind of problem continues in the Indian secular state of today and it keeps reinforcing Hindu-Muslim conflict and other kinds of conflicts because it transforms the relations between these communities into a conflict of competing doctrines and then represents the secular state as a neutral power standing above the conflict of truth claims.

Because the secular state brings with itself the Semitic conception of what religion is, it begins to see all these communities and traditions in Indian society as expression of doctrines which have to have a rivalry over religious truths. And that becomes a kind of coercive straitjacket which compels communities to solve their problems as though they are religious rivals. And that generates more and more Hindu communalism and other forms of communalism. 



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5 responses to “Is Secularism the Solution to Communal Conflict in India?

  1. M Raghavan

    My compliments on Dr. De Koover’s excellent analysis. I would like to add to this discussion that the “ancestral traditionalism” viewpoint of Eastern Tradition created a natural tendency for an inherent secularism in the Eastern community. One worshiped a god of choice based on family values or adherences, and respected others for having their own sense of this. In this way, Hindus, Muslims, Christians or Jews are seen in the Indian mindset as having equal footing as followers of their own “traditions”. So, just as the British saw the culture of India as an “ism”, we have accepted these other religious traditions as “castes” within our own structure. It is ironic that our Occidental counterparts accept this when it comes to seeking a place in the “Reservation System”, but then speak of themselves as propagators of the “only truth” when it comes to proselytization.

  2. Shivakumar U Ganachari

    Indeed it is true Dr Jacob has understood the nature of religions! i agree for the his concept of communal act ivies in India the causes and solution for that

  3. som

    In case of Lutheran, Calvinist or Catholic – claimed to be the true Christian church i.e. the internal problem of Christian Europe; SHOULD NOT BE projected universally as SECULARISM .
    The dynamic of proselytisation by accepting the message in this SO CALLED divine revelation of Christianity and Islam who receive these revelations should try to convert others into accepting the message in this SO CALLED divine revelation,


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