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Secularism and its nemesis

In Search of a New Vocabulary
Last Updated : 28 August 2020, 19:49 IST
Last Updated : 28 August 2020, 19:49 IST

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An interesting dialogue has ensued on the state of secular politics in contemporary India since an essay by Yogendra Yadav in The Print online news site on August 5 in which he argued that “secularism gave up language of religion: Ayodhya Bhoomi pujan is a result of that”. He wrote, “Secularism was defeated because the secular elite talked down to its critics in English. Secularism was defeated because it disavowed our languages, because it failed to connect with the language of traditions, because it refused to learn or speak the language of our religions (emphasis added). Many others have since added to the discussion; some with a ring of denial, smugness and a finality about their diagnosis of the problem.

The problem with these counter views is that they are “debating” in response to Yadav’s “reflecting”. The tradition of debate quintessentially is bound by binaries, and the dynamic is about winning the argument against the opponent. Reflection, on the other hand, demands introspection, silent rumination and looking for course correction in a deeply reflexive way, almost in a meditative mode. Reflection requires critical self-inflicted inner churning. Sadly, the debaters of secularism have been averse to the idea of such reflection.

Reflection can be unbearably painful as the actors, in this case, tend to take responsibility, undergo guilt pangs for not doing enough or doing it the wrong way. It has in it an in-built resolve to do better. Debaters, on the other hand, would be unrelenting, inflexible and would rather look for a scapegoat. Debate is bureaucratic and its nuances can be laboriously manufactured. Debates need an audience, captive or otherwise; but reflection is profoundly an ekla chalo re moment.

Yadav’s piece is deeply reflective and must be read as one. The debates in secularism in India need to go through that transformative reflection process. I saw in Yadav’s piece, the phrase “secular elite talked down to its critics in English” as a metaphor, as a signature of linguistic hegemony. Understandably, it would be read by many as ‘English versus Hindi’. But clearly, that distracts from the core question that Yadav raised. Let me focus on that question via an anecdote. What struck me in Yadav’s piece was his consistent, repeated assertion on the language of the secular discourse.

Some years ago, in my university, I had proposed a candle light march for Malala Yousafzai, then a school-age kid, who had been attacked by fundamentalists in Pakistan for nurturing a tiny dream -- a dream to go to school and study. The little girl was grievously injured and was airlifted to the UK where she was struggling for life in a hospital. I ended my mail requesting colleagues to join in with the words: ‘With Prayers!’ And trust me, that one word – prayer -- became ground for a little debate. An otherwise well-meaning colleague proposed that if I replaced “prayer” with “solidarity”, he would not mind joining the march. I was aghast. This was some moment. I never ever had imagined a word as gentle and innocuous and humbling as ‘prayer’ could be so vehemently protested against.

Yadav’s piece reminded me of that moment. As our syncretic socio-cultural world increasingly became less porous and more binarised, ‘prayer’ became ‘right’, ‘solidarity’ became ‘left’. Most arguments in counter to Yadav’s piece have been shaped by the book view of secularism, while Yadav represents what anthropologist MN Srinivas would call the ‘Field view’. Yadav invites us to engage, reflect and collaborate with the masses that we have been in the habit of infantilising for years, sitting in our cozy department rooms in the ivory towers of higher education in India.

That brings us to the next important question: How has the theme of religion been engaged with in our academic spaces? The answer is: largely as an “untouchable” category, a marginal theme that is supposed to have lost its potential and meaning with the grand arrival of modernity. At least, this is what the anticipation was. The theme, however, continued to survive, prosper and then kicked hard in a backlash. Millions of people all over the country, outside the ghettoised university spaces, lived and literally breathed religion and its symbols in a very eclectic way, not necessarily following any stated protocol that were dictated by any theological framework. A Muslim peasant weighing grains in Bihar counting “Ram-e-Ram bees (20), Ram-e-ram ekkees (21), Ram-e-ram bais 22”; a Kulwinder Kaur in Patiala never missed a Shiv Raatri fast that always ended with an offering of milk to the deity; Hindus on their way to the Brahma temple in Pushkar visited Khwaja’s dargah in Ajmer to pay obeisance at the sacred shrine.

This organic eclecticism defied the binaries that gradually got cast in stone in faraway “centres of higher learning”. The aversion to religion in a certain section of academia has been such that if someone even in ordinary conversation used words like compassion, forgiveness, virtue or prayer, he or she would be immediately looked upon with suspicion, as less secular.

Let’s not engage with these questions, initiated by Yadav, in the vocabulary of a school-debate. We need to search for a new vocabulary of reflection and deep thinking. But for that, we will have to first climb down from our high moral pedestal and stop looking at the vernaculars as patently adulterated and incorrigibly regressive. Let’s learn from Gandhi and Ambedkar who, despite their other differences, never discounted religion as a moral force. While Gandhi was overtly expressive, Ambedkar was rather nuanced and sober but profoundly engaging. His reflections on Dukkha or human misery, especially its vocabulary, need to be looked at afresh and with an open mind. Despite all his hard-hitting criticism of Hinduism, he neither abandoned the idea of religion nor underestimated its emancipatory potential. Learn from Ambedkar how not to throw the baby with the bath water. The language of religion teaches us precisely that. It would be culturally dangerous not to reflect on these questions.

(The writer is a Sociologist with the Global Studies Programme, School of Global Affairs, Ambedkar University, Delhi)

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Published 28 August 2020, 18:52 IST

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