Our secularisms

New India needs a secularism embedded in institutional commitments

For those who care about secularism, the politics of who can be labelled secular is a puzzle. Secularism sometimes seems to be reduced to an ineffable quality of the heart. Secularism as a personal virtue is the idea that the individual does not harbour invidious prejudice against particular communities for being who they are. This is an important virtue. But in India this personal virtue has been such an unreliable guide to the institutional practice of secularism. This is what deepens the puzzle. How do people come to be marked as secular in political terms? If people make the transition from being allegedly non-secular to acceptably secular in political terms, like L.K. Advani apparently has but Narendra Modi has not, what are the markers of this transition?

This question is complicated. Religiosity has never been a marker of secularism in India. Some deeply religious people can be good political secularists; many non-religious characters have been perfect charlatans on secularism. Being secular used to be identified with a historical orientation: subscribe to one single Congress-Left narrative of Indian history. This was a paradoxical position. It recognised that avoiding religious strife was an important political task. But it went about this task by disavowing the idea that there could have been genuine religious difference and conflict in the past. It sanitised, almost as if to say that the truth of Indian secularism needed the lie of Indian history. Where secularism lost out was that both secularists and non-secularists were fighting on the terrain of the past. It was something of a liberation when some finally recognised that let history be history, and let it be argued out as such. Crafting a forward-looking community of fate, bound by common values, would be ill served by the narrow interpretations of the Left or the fanatical ones of the right. And so the irony that the Indian political system did not know what to do when figures like Advani and Jaswant Singh took a rather more complicated view of Jinnah. At first, it made them anti-national, then it seemed to have shored up their secular credentials.

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