While Indian society has been secular for centuries, the Indian state has adopted secular and democratic ideas only in the post-Independence phase—that is, since the 1950s. Sadly, both secularism and democracy have come under attack in India in recent times, according to one of the foremost historians of our age, Romila Thapar.
Although her canvas is vast, and her corpus extensive, Thapar remains self-consciously partial to a few themes—secular, secularism, secularizing—in the book under review. While secular is distinguishable from the religious, secularism—far from denoting a denial of religion—merely identifies social institutions that should be free of religious control in the modern epoch. And the secularizing process recognizes and upholds the distinction between secular and religious institutions.
The book is divided into three sections: ‘Secularism and Secularisation’, ‘Historical Perspectives’, ‘Religion and Contemporary Politics’. In the first section, Thapar informs us that secularism is not the prerogative of western Christianity, as some analysts seem to believe.
There are as many variants, degrees, and trajectories of the secular in the West, as there are within Christianity—Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Liberation Theology, Opus Dei, and so on. Indeed, in the Indian subcontinent, the secular has been with us for a long time, in the form of Shramana doctrines, comprising mainly Buddhist and Jaina texts.
Countering those who wish to recast Hinduism as a monolith, Thapar explains how foreign travellers from the Greek Megasthenes in the fourth century B.C.E., to Alberuni in the 11th century C.E., have referred to the two traditions in the subcontinent—the Brahmana and the Shramana, or the astika (religious believer) and the nastika (or agnostic non-believer). What is more, the so-called Hinduism of today is less influenced by Vedic Brahmanism than by the Puranic and Bhakti (or devotional) texts, which had earlier posed challenges to the caste system and subsequently been co-opted by the Hindu mainstream consciousness. In short, there may be nothing called ‘Hindu’, beyond the old Arabic word for the people who lived on the other side of the ‘Sindhu’ (Indus) river. Or again, if there is such a thing called ‘Hinduism’, it is not a uniform entity, but encapsulates a plethora of cults, sects, and texts that are often mutually contradictory.
There have been bloody conflicts between Hindus and Buddhists, Saivites and Vaishnavites, Shaivas and Jains over the centuries—but these have been few and far between. Social intolerance was not in Indian Islam or Christianity, as is commonly believed, but in the realm of caste. Indeed, the major site of dissension in the pre-colonial period was caste rather than religion. Barriers between castes have been far more rigid and formidable than religious strife in the past. Different Hindu castes and tribes, from the Brahmanas to the Chandalas or outcastes worshipped different gods, or did not worship at all. While caste consciousness was present, clear religious demarcation between groups was absent. By and large, there was no sense of ‘Hindu’ or ‘Muslim’ before the 18th century. After all, there was little to unify the Malabar Mapilla with the Meo in Rajasthan, the Awadhi ghazal singer, or the North Indian Bhishti.
As is well known, the British colonial government changed all these perceptions. The persistence by colonial officials to classify natives as either ‘Hindus’ or ‘Muslims’ rather than as Hinduized Muslims or Mohammedanized Hindus, to differentiate between ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ religions, to create Hindu and Muslim monoliths, to form historical periods as ‘Hindu’, ‘Muslim’, ‘British’—all these contributed to the communalization of the country. Curiously enough, all these categories have been quietly adopted by Hindu Right ideologues since the last quarter of the 19th century. As Thapar points out, the construction of history by British colonialism has been effectively challenged only by those Indian historians who have ‘done’ history as it ought to be—with intensive research, rigorous documentation, and peer reviewing.
In fact, the second section of the book is about how history should not be done. The Orientalists of the 19th century had adopted a Brahmanical view of Indian history, mainly because their informants were Brahmans. As a result, the Shramanic tradition in the country’s history was more or less ignored. There was also a parallel tendency to portray Hindus (especially upper caste) as part of a superior Aryan race, rather than as Aryan speakers. While Jyotiba Phule in Maharashtra suggested that the indigenous people of India were the lower castes, and that the Aryans were the invaders or migrants, Bal Gangadhar Tilak argued that the Aryans trekked from the Arctic to Europe and to India. On the whole, there is consensus among reputed historians that the terms ‘Aryan’ and ‘Dravidian’ are linguistic categories, and that the Aryan speaking tribes came to the Indian subcontinent around the second millennium B.C.E.
However, Hindu ideologues V.D. Savarkar and M.S. Golwalkar turned the theory upside down in order to claim that Aryan Hindus are the original inhabitants of India, unlike Muslims or Christians in the subcontinent. India is not only the land of Hindu ancestors—pitribhumi—but the land where the Hindu religion originated—punyabhumi. Both these aspects are denied to Indian Muslims and Christians, who are considered to be ‘aliens’, so to speak. Fundamentalist Hindus may well believe that Hinduism is the best and most tolerant religion in the subcontinent, but the truth is that the terms ‘Hindu-tolerance’ and ‘Muslim-baiting’ do not comfortably mesh.
Thapar is rightly insistent that a secular democratic order cannot sustain obsessive, bloodthirsty sentiments. The third and last part of the book is a sharp indictment of the Hindutva doctrine—as of other forms of religious extremism—that seem to have permeated and overshadowed the goodwill that existed between religious communities, at least till the second half of the 19th century. The Hindu Right has often criticized the so-called minority appeasement and pseudo-secularism of Left liberals, by claiming that Hindu majoritarianism is the only authentic secular way forward to realizing a just order in the Indian polity. The argument here hinges on the technical point that democratic politics favours those who get the majority of the votes in elections. The dubious corollary is that Hindus should rule in India, since they are in the majority. Surely one cannot resolve such a harrowing problem of achieving a just and secular democracy with a snappy, quick-fix formula such as this? To reduce all identities to a single religious one is to deny the intrinsic complexity and plurality of a country like India, as Thapar informs us. Justice cannot be achieved on the basis of slick calculation or divisive anger, but on that of forward-looking reasoning. Time and again, religious fundamentalism of all hues, and of diverse political parties, has shown how a good principle like democracy may be appropriated and hollowed out for a darker, more sinister purpose.
Thapar does not mince words in this section, and her hard-hitting diatribe against religious fundamentalism—Hindu, Muslim, Sikh—is perhaps necessary to arouse to action the middle and upper middle classes, who have been lulled into a complacent slumber by the allure of consumerism. Time and again, she indicates that anger or fear or helplessness cannot be the appropriate response to the state’s assault on democratic freedoms. In her writings, Thapar has demonstrated the importance of critical research, argument and reasoning to oppose evils like religious and caste intolerance and atrocities. What philosopher Hannah Arendt calls ‘the banality of evil’ really points to the fact that evil has no profundity or depth.
The narrow scope of this book is belied by the author’s wide sweep of ideas. Thapar is not just a Marxist or Left liberal writer. Such labels would not only constrain a universalist thinker like Thapar, it would render her parochial. Readers who are unfamiliar with Thapar’s books are likely to sense the free-fall of astonishment on encountering some of her brilliant insights. Those that know them a little better will experience the contented glow that accompanies the pleasure of the familiar—like listening to a favourite piece of music, or meeting a dear old friend. Either way, this book is bound to add tremendous value to the reader’s library.
Nalini Rajan is Professor and Dean of Studies at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai. Her edited works include Covering and Explaining Conflict in Civil Society, Orient BlackSwan, 2014, and (with V. Geetha): Religious Faith, Ideology, Citizenship: The View from Below, Routledge 2011. She is presently working on an illustrated volume, The Story of Secularism from the 15th Century to the 21st Century.