Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

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India's unique model of secularism is coming under great strain in recent times

Secularism and its discontents in New India


Secularism is the pillar of any democratic polity. It is the sin qua non of the modern nation-state. In India, it is more relevant than ever. However in the last eight years secularism has undergone a paradigmatic shift in its connotations. Secularism is perceived as a cuss word now at best and at worse a tool of appeasement of certain minorities. Ever since the Hindu nationalist government of Bharatiya Janta Party has come to power secularism has emerged as a contentious issue with numerous debates on the nature, interpretation and the historicity of the nature of secularism. This paper focuses on the changing nature of secularism and its different interpretations in new India.

The paper also delves how secularism in its pristine form has metamorphosed itself radically under the rule of the current regime and the discontents emanating out of this new secular India.


“Religion and government will both exist in greater purity the less they are mixed together” said James Madison. Secularism is one of the foundational pillars of the Indian constitution and nation. It is one of the very principles for which scores of freedom fighters laid down their lives in order to establish a nation of their hopes and dreams. However in the last eight years the very idea of secularism has undergone paradigmatic changes such that it is markedly different from the very vision that it traditionally stood for.

Secularism as a religious-political concept is not very new. There are different variants of secularism. The European particularly the French notion of secularism1 following the French Revolution of 1789 articulated that the state and religion should be strictly separated with the possibility of the state becoming anti-religion in order to maintain its power.

However in the case of India, it is quite different. Being one of the most diverse countries in the world in terms of ethnicity, cultures, religions, customs and traditions secularism in India denotes that the state will neither patronise any particular religion or sect nor be completely anti-religious. The state is supposed to maintain equidistance from all religions and at the same time respecting all religions.

The word secularism was present in the Indian constitution or constituent parts in its inception; but there is no doubt that the founding fathers had visualised India as a secular, multicultural republic which will be the fountain of tolerance and inclusivity. Their emphasis on a secular republic was enforced through Articles 25-282 under the right to the freedom of religion in Part III of the Indian constitution.  Further the word secular was added explicitly to the constitution by the 42nd amendment act of 1976 also known as the ‘mini-constitution’.

Secularism in New India

For a multicultural and multiethnic country like India where harmonious existence of different sects, religions etc can often be frictional with sporadic outbreak of communal tensions, riots and potentially other hazardous events; secularism is a cornerstone. However a change came in 2014, a change which has since then changed the very fabric of India’s body-politic.

The victory of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party resulted in a momentous moment in independent India’s political and cultural history. For the first time in India’s political history a party whose backbone of support is cultural nationalism and appeal to a particular section of society won by a landslide victory.

While election pundits and psephologists gave various reasons for the unprecedented victory of the party, it is very clear that India must brace for a wave of polarisation in the coming years. The notion of secularism in India was broadly articulated by India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the broad contours were- discrediting of religiously motivated parties, focus on development, centralised planning and a scientific enquiry in every aspect of life.

However since 2014 secularism has undergone a sea change. Everything should be new in a New India, so why not secularism. Secularism in New India is marked by the absolute and unquestioned preponderance of Hindus in the Indian polity. A new term called Pax-Hinduca can be given in this context.

This notion of secularism states that undoubtedly Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrianism, Judaism etc are foreign religions which came to India particularly in the case of Christianity and Islam with the aim of plundering, proselytizing and changing the very demography of Indian society. Among the foreign religions- Islam is at the receiving end of this new secularism. Islam is derided as the religion of invaders- Mahmud of Ghazni, Muhammed Ghori, and Aurangzeb who tried to indiscriminately murder Hindus with the only aim of turning India into an Islamic country3.

The new secularism demands that the Christians and Muslims of India acknowledge that their forefathers were Hindus and they must not antagonise their Hindu brethren. They instead must show respect and accept their subservience without protesting or questioning the majority.

Cultural nationalism is the defining feature of this new secularism. Secularism in our current Prime Minister’s vision is a tool for achieving what the Sangh Parivar’s vision of Hindi, Hindu and Hindustan. Jai Shree Ram has become a war cry among the Hindutva warriors just like Allah-Hu-Akbar and Lal-Illah-Il-Allah is a war cry among the jihadists of fundamental Islam.

A sense of romanticism with the past is a strong feature. Ancient India is glorified with the Vedic age, Mauryas, Guptas, being the epitome of India’s glorious past. Medieval rulers like Maharana Pratap, Chhatrapati Shivaji Bhonsle are regarded as emperors who bravely stood their ground and fought the Islamic invaders in order to save the ‘ashmita’ of Hinduism.

This new form of secularism is a manifestation of cultural revivalism which emanated in different parts of the world, parallels can drawn with the strong religious revivalism which characterised the politics in the Middle East and Western Europe in the 1980s.

Another crucial feature of this new secularism is the constant promotion of Hindi with the intention of making it the ‘national language’ of India with a strong emphasis on demeaning or belittling other regional languages. There is nothing wrong in the promotion and endorsement with the use of Hindi; however when attempts at homogenisation sets in which threatens to undermine the cosmopolitan fabric of the country takes place, which is where the problem lies.

Union ministers have time and again reiterated the need to promote Hindi, the introduction of medical books in Hindi4 and the incorporation of the teachings of Charaka and Sushruta in the medical courses is a sign that homogenisation drive which is the programme of the dominant party in India is not even leaving a single section of society untouched.

Secularism in New India has shunned its image of being the abode of persecuted people; this applies best in the context of Rohingya refugees. While there is no question that a few elements among the persecuted people do pose a serious security threat the Rohingyas in general must be not be demonised. It must be remembered that they have been persecuted because of their religious and linguistic identity. Rohingya women have raped, killed and children massacred.

The fact that New India uses its non signatory status to the UN convention to the Refoulment of Refugees, 19515 as a pretext to deport these suffering mass of humanity to Myanmar is simply abhorrent to say the least. It clearly tarnishes India’s reputation as a refugee welcoming country and gives secularism in India and its reputation a bad name. This does show that India is changing and that is for the worst.

Secularism coloured by politics

A nation-state should always keep religion separate, when this becomes impossible, the country is doomed. In case of Islam, politics and religion were ingrained right since the days of the caliphate times in the 8th century.  The claim of modern day terror organisations like Al-Qaeda and ISIS is the same. However this fusion of religion and politics is appearing to be new in India. While Hindutva is a political ideology based on the works and principles enunciated by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, M.S Golwalkar and other Hindu nationalist intellectuals, it was at best a marginal force in Indian politics.

However the advent of Narendra Modi in 2014 followed by a spectacular return in 2019 general election has made this a mainstream phenomenon. Pratap Bhanu Mehta6, Lawrence S Rockfeller Professor of Distinguished Teaching at Princeton University and one of India’s foremost public intellectuals argues that this new consolidation of the Hindu right is the result of India’s majority community’s feeling of insecurity that the minorities have historically been given preference by the Congress party while the majority community continues to feel neglected despite constituting the overwhelming majority in the world’s largest democracy.

This new version of Secularism employs technology to harness the communitarian power of the community. This consolidation which has morphed itself into the new secularism involves the extensive use of social media platforms like Facebook, Quora, Whatsapp, Twitter, Youtube etc to spread the message that for far too long Hinduism has been a meek and docile religion which had fatalism as its bedrock, but no more. Religion must enter politics. Religion must become more militant and assertive. Cultural nationalism imbued with Hindutva will be the new normal.

Secularism in this new India is about reclaiming India’s past through academia. This involves a complete revision of history from our school and college textbooks in order to portray the real history. According to professor Rakesh Sinha, who is also a ideologue attached to the RSS, what has been taught in Indian school textbooks disproportionately glorifies the invaders who were not just anti-Hindu but were anti-Indian by their very orientation7. The dynasties who are at the receiving end of this opprobrium are the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughals.

Therefore deletion of key chapters aimed at depicting the Nehruvian notion of secularism is the beginning. Deletion of chapters related to tribal agitations, caste, and B.R Ambedkar’s criticism of the casteism ingrained in Hinduism is like defining the new normal of what constitutes secularism in India.

Secularism- tinged with otherization

Amartya Sen in his classic The Argumentative Indian8 had argued that Hindu nationalists will look to appropriate the idea of secularism to develop their own vision of India. This he argues lies in the ‘Muslim Sectarianism’ critique argues that Muslims in India are disloyal to India. It states that a great many Muslims spy for Pakistan; and to their tendency even cheer for the Pakistani cricket team during matches.

The cultural critique state that India is culturally is essentially a Hindu country with Hinduism its very spirit and soul. This despite, India having the second largest Muslim population with two indigenous Islamic sects- Ahmediya and Sufi.

This new secularism is based on the principle of far right nationalism and otherization. The former is concerned with the intense love for one’s own country and institutions manifested in the beautiful and hypnotic portrait of Bharat Mata-painted for the first time by the renowned painter and a member of the famous Tagore family Abanindranath Tagore, while there is nothing wrong in the love for one’s country, this extreme nationalism paints which has definitely conditioned this new secularism is based on the conception of India as a homogenous country dominated by Hindus. It regards India in the ideas of Veer Savarkar and as a distinct geographical entity with India being the pitribhu9 and punyabhu of Hindus and other races. But while India is a pitribhu of Muslims, Christians etc it is not their punybhu owing to the foreign roots of their professed faith. Therefore they remain outsiders.

This new secularism is offensive to meat eating, and paints India as a predominantly as a vegetarian country, while ground realities and facts point otherwise. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mr Mohan Bhagwat has given a measured soft criticism of the consumers of meat in India arguing it is anti-ethical to the very Indian spirit of tolerance and that eating meat is tinged with violence and flies in the face of what Mahatma Gandhi stood for.

According Dr Pratap Bhanu Mehta, one of India’s most influential public intellectuals, this new secularism is based primarily on reactionary modernism with moral cretinism as its core. This new secularism is based on developing a majoritarian democracy which will enjoy popular legitimacy but its credibility will be low because of a party in power backed overwhelming by the strength of the majority community. At the level of government there will be a strict secular image with the government looking after the interests of every section of society, but this is merely a facade, designed to legitimise the majoritarian agenda of the ruling regime. Deep down it this new secularism is laced with cultural homogeneity, social and political oneness.

Can India’s traditional social cleavages of caste and region provide an antidote to the concentration of power? The answer is that there is potential. But it depends on a very delicate balance10. It is true that there is a lot of social disquiet amongst Dalits, whom the BJP had incorporated into its agenda and have used as a tool for the broader consolidation of the Hindu race into a solid electoral machine.

As India celebrated a significant milestone in its independent political history- the 75th year of Indian independence, secularism too saw a dramatic metamorphosis. The legitimation of polarising figures like Veer Savarkar, MS Golwalkar in the 75th year of India’s independence is the new norm. Regime questioning is akin to blasphemy. The government and the party are right, the old notion of secularism was a farce, and this secularism is what India deserves.

Secularism in the past eight years has acquired another bizarre dimension- the use of technology and surveillance. The Pegasus scandal is a testimony to this. George Orwell’s masterpiece novel 198411 stands vindicated more than ever. Everything is being monitored. Big Brother is watching us from the giant telescreen, no one is safe. This new secularism demands every individual to toe the party line that India is still a liberal democracy albeit with a Hindutva twist.

If you question the state’s crackdown on minorities, you are anti-national, if you do not like the ideology of the party, you are anti-state. Secularism is what we the people of India (read Hindus who are votaries of Hindutva) say it is.

This will be the future of India, the India of tomorrow, the nation-state aspiring to be a superpower among the comity of nations.


This new secularism is one of the defining traits of the post modernist republic of India. This is not just a symptom but a manifestation of the deep fault lines and cleavages that highlight the condition of the new state. The very notion of secularism in India has been articulated exclusively from a nationalistic, jingoistic point of view which suites not just the agenda of the party in power but the social groups and institutions it represents. While no party remains in power continuously it is clear that this new ‘secular’ image will outlast the party’s reign.

Secularism will shape the future of the Indian society, polity and its institutions in potentially unimaginable ways with global ramifications. While there is no doubt India will be a superpower in the future yet the broader issue that arises is- what example will this new secular image of India which has been shaped in the past eight years set for other nations, states and communities?

India is changing, so it’s social relations among the different communities. Secularism is too changing; no political party can shape the nature of a state’s polity. It is only the people that can make or break a country. At this moment, India is standing at the cusp of making history. A country which is aspiring to be a superpower and it’s already a knowledge power can hardly afford to have a fractious social fabric. Development requires stability and a multi religious country like India cannot afford a clash of civilisations like scenario. Samuel P Huntington talked of fault line conflict conflicts at the macro and micro level the latter being called fault line conflicts. However India cannot afford such a risk, it is too big and too important a nation-state to experience such a horrific outcome.

The remedy lies in the people of India collectively coming forward to resoundingly rejecting the new form of cultural assertiveness that characterises the Indian social scene. Civil society must assert its presence and must challenge this devious project of the present regime which is threatening to turn India into a Hindu rashtra with open contempt for the minorities at its core. India should live up to its reputation as the world’s largest democracy committed to the values of pluralism, scientific inquiry and a spirit of cosmopolitanism.

The old India which is committed to secularism in its original form must win the battle of ideas.

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