Beyond Secular vs. Communal: Quest for an Egalitarian Society


Co-Written by Badre Alam Khan & Sanjay Kumar

The historians of modern India have been consistently arguing for many decades about India’s colonial legacy, like elsewhere, of communal consciousness evoked by colonial census. While doing so, historians and social anthropologists have emphasized as to how colonial state had become ‘ethnographic state’. Communalism versus secularism has been fiercely debated and discussed among different strands of thoughts and perspectives. Broadly speaking, the left-leaning historians have argued that religion has a component of ‘political ideology’ present in communal consciousness, which had been often used by the right-wing forces for political mobilization in India. The left-oriented academics always considered the development of progressive political ideology, based on the principles of secularism and democracy, as key to fight against the menace of communalism.

However, for subaltern historians and anti-secularist camps, secularism is a western concept, and hence alien to Indian soil.  For them, colonial modernity and project of western secularism are unfit for the religiously grounded society like India. Concepts like tolerance, pluralism, religious-coexistence, public morality etc. are important theoretical tools to contain Hindu communalism in India. However, the understanding of left-secularists and anti-modernists about communalism vs. secularism debates requires serious examination in today’s socio-political context.

In the light of two books edited by Mujibur Rahman, Communalism in post-colonial India: Changing Contour ( Routledge 2016) and “Rise of the Saffron Power: Reflection on Indian Politics” (Routledge 2018), try to understand the complexity of communalism and its larger implications on Indian politics and society. The two edited volumes by Rahman covered the communal vs. secular debates, subsequent rise of saffron power, and communalization of Indian politics and society. First volume dealt with communalism in Independent India and its changing contours with constant interactions between politics and religion, in both colonial and post-colonial India. This volume also discusses communalism and violence against religious minorities. It also critically evaluates the role of state, civil society, different political parties and the concepts like secularism, nationalism and democracy in the prevailing political scenario.  The second edited volume analyses the “rise of the saffron power” since 2014 and the ideological shift towards the Right. Contrary to the claims of RSS ideologues, the present volume underlined that the right-wing forces led by RSS-VHP combine have had directly supported the BJP in electoral politics. Besides, they also communalized issues like ‘Gau Raksha’, ‘Love-Jihad’, ‘Ghar-Wapsi’ and more recently the concept of citizenship through amending the NRC (National Register of Citizenship) in the northern states Assam.

While commenting on the occasion of the release of second book at JMI ( 27 September 2018), scholars like Ashish Nandy, and others have noted that the upsurge of political right and conservative parties are currently witnessing across countries like the USA, France, Norway, Brazil, Turkey etc. These trends have also been noticed in the 2014 General Elections, when the RSS backed BJP to capture power in the state. In response to this, an eminent social scientist professor Zoya Hasan said that the Indian version of right-wing politics, which is widely supported by the RSS and his several sisters organizations, could not be equated with the right-wing and conservatives forces elsewhere because the Indian version of right-wing politics is directly controlled and influenced by the BJP government in the formulation of public policies.

As scholars and professional historians have often noted that the roots of communalism could be traced in the colonial state policy of ‘divide and rule’ which was reflected in the “colonial historiography”. However, it is sad to note that the secular and democratic state of India continues to follow the communal tactics of colonial legacy. Both volumes have not conceptualized the methods to fight the menace of current Hindu majoritarianism in India.

In this light, we argue that there is a need to revisit the writings of Dr. Ambedkar and Bhaght Singh on ‘Communal question’ and other related issues. To put it briefly, without confronting twin enemies- the Brahminical order at the societal level and along with the ‘crony capitalism’, we cannot defeat the majoritarianism in India as visualized by Dr. Ambedkar long ago. One cannot deny the fact that capitalism and Hindu communalism both are intimately connected to each other. Bhagat Singh (‘Communal riots and their Solution’ in Kirti, 1927), writing on communalism expressed his deep concern about the prevalent practice of Communalism in the Indian society. To fight from the menace of communalism, Singh stressed that there is need to politicize and build up ‘class consciousnesses’ among the subaltern masses.  As he writes, ‘to prevent people from fighting each other, “class consciousness” is the need of the day. The poor labourers and the farmers must be clearly taught that their real enemies are the capitalists’. In similar way but different context, While writing on ‘communal problem’ in India, Dr. Ambedkar said that, ‘if the principles of unanimity is accepted by the Hindus as the rule of decision in the legislative and in the executive there would be no such thing as Communal Problem in India’ (Communal Dead lock and way to solve it, 6 May 1945). In short, to overcome from the resultant chaos, our fight should not only confine to the electoral front, but it should go beyond this and push the agenda for democratizing the various public institutions and to ensure equal representation for subaltern masses irrespective of caste, class, gender etc. in long run. Having made these initial points, let us critically review both the volumes in subsequent sections.

Beyond communal vs. Secular Binary.

To be more precise, the first volume helps us to understand various dimensions of binary opposition of communalism versus secularism discourses in post-colonial India. For instance, Communalism in post-colonial India (2016) is the collection of essays, edited by Rehman, which vividly examinees the changing contours of communalism in colonial to post-colonial India. While doing so, this volume gives fresh theoretical perspective and interesting academic insights to capture and analyze the complex nature of communal politics in contemporary times. On the one hand, some scholars have noted that complexities of communalism in India could not be understood in terms of binaries of secular nationalism vs. Hindutva ideological conception of ‘Hindu nation’ on the other.

With the help of interdisciplinary perspectives, this volume has successfully captured the varied dimensions of communalism in post-colonial society like India. In this regard, Rehman in his introductory section briefly noted the central claims of volume in these words, ‘this book makes two fold claims: first, owing to changed roles of political parties, state, media and civil societies in postcolonial India, the forms of communalism have undergone a change compared to what it used to be during the 1930s and 1940s. Second, new conceptual tools and resources emanating from inter-disciplinary traditions are needed to advance our understanding of this puzzle’. (p-1)

In addition to this, it has to be noted that several essays in this volume have thoroughly discussed and debated on various aspect of communalism, secularism, minority rights and the role of the so-called secular and liberal political parties on communal versus secular politics. It is unfortunate to note that even the so-called secular party often masquerading as champions of minority communities, have utterly failed to contain violence against religious minorities. For instance, Muzaffarnagar riots (2013) and Kandhamal riots (2008), earlier infamous incident Hashimpura massacre (1987) etc. took place in the so-called secular regime. To elaborate the point further, editor of this volume, Rehman writes,’ a political party claiming to be secular but fail to contain violence against minorities and Muslim during its reign or a political party that does not claim to be secular but its regime is violence free?’(p-7)

A noted  scholar, Pritam Singh in his chapter-2 , ‘Institutional communalism’ discussed the role of  India media, state, public institutions, civil society, political parties in promoting communal politics. He compared India’s ‘institutional communalism with British practices of ‘institutional racisms’. Singh argues that only electoral defeat of the communal forces is not a sufficient condition to overcome Hindu communalism in India. While agreeing with views of Singh, one cannot deny the fact that it is high time to fight against the Brahminical hegemony in academics, judiciary, bureaucracy, civil society organizations, media, etc. In addition to this, other important essays critically discuss the concept of secularism, nationalism, minority rights and majoritarian politics and its role in sharpening communal divide.  In this connection, Prateep Lahiri explores the trajectory of communalism and communal violence in India and its implications on secularism and democracy in India.  Shibani Kinkar Chaube underlined the debates around secularism and communalism in the Constituent Assembly deliberations. Fact must be noted that members like Maulana Hasrat Mohani and K.T. Shah had put-forward the idea that the secularism as concept must be inserted in the Constitution; but it had not been finally approved by the Constituent Assembly. During the deliberations, most of the members agreed that strict separation between religion and politics is not practically feasible. That was the crucial reason, why the role of state in reforming the conservative elements within the Hindu religion for instances; the prevalent practice of untouchability was not sidelined completely.

A prominent historian Dilip Simeon in his article “Philosophy of number” has shown the manner in which the term like minority and majority were earlier constructed by the colonial state and later sharpen by post-colonial Indian state and society too. In short, Simeon is not comfortable with idea of majority and minority dichotomy based on religion; instead he argues that the individual rights must be protected by the government and rule of law.

And finally very important section is based on case study done by Sanjoy Hazarika in the context of northeast and Harsh Mander in the case of Gujarat riots (2002). Both have explicitly stated that violence gets perpetrated by both ‘State apparatus’ and along with communal outfits like RSS-VHP and Bajarang Dal during riots. Mander in his chapter explains the various communal incidents in the case of Gujarat and the role of secular civil society in promoting communal harmony and upholding the rich legacy of composite culture.

In addition to this, other important scholar like Martha Nussbaum’s essay, the ‘Diaspora Community’ outlines the detailed analyses of ‘Hindu fundamentalism’ funded and supported by Indian diaspora in United States and elsewhere.

In short, the first volume has successfully highlighted the manner in which the Hindutva forces have carved out space in the Indian politics and its larger implications on the Indian society, polity, economy, culture and religious and Communal harmony. And importantly the volume has also underlined that even Secular parties including the Congress and the Samajvadi party (SP), have heavily compromised with communal forces for their own political gain. However, one cannot deny the fact that resistance against the current political dispensation led by communal forces also continues unabated.  The present volume has not touched these issues.

Saffron Power and its Implications on Indian politics

In the second volume, the most important article, in our view, is contributed by the Prof. Charu Gupta on ‘Allegories of ‘love jihad’ and ‘ghar wapsi’ interlocking the socio- religious with political’. The communal campaigns around these issues are driven by the feeling of anti- Muslims and Christians. Moreover, she underlined that how communal forces have created communal hatred by playing with those issues, for promotion of communal ideology at the cost of India’s multicultural society. Academics like Prof. Sudha & Avinash Kumar in chapter-4 have discussed about the rise of communal politics in Uttar Pradesh.  In this chapter, they argue that in 2014, it was not victory of BJP but Modi in UP, due to two pronged and well organized campaign by him and party President Amit Shah, using both Hindutva and development interchangeably. Modi stressed the lack of development under UPA-II and ruling SP in UP and promised its rapid development based on the Gujarat model. (P- 111)

The renounced social activist Harsh Mander in his chapter -5,  “ Elections 2014 and the battle for India’s soul” discusses about the Modi and his political background with reference to 2002 Gujarat communal violence and argued that after the victory of 2014 election, the gravity of Indian politics shifted towards more  Right and thereby this ideological shift has posed the great danger to the India’s legacy of secular democracy in general and religious minorities like Muslims and Christians in particular.

Another important chapter-6 is contributed by Prof. Zoya Hasan, titled as ‘Collapse of the Congress party’. Hasan explores the different dimension of decline of Congress party and crisis of the leadership. And during the 2014 general elections, Congress party and their leaders utterly failed to response the Modi’s communal agenda.

In chapter -7 is contributed by the editor himself on issues of, ‘Hindutva, Modi and Muslims voters in 2014’. In his chapter, Rehman’s note that the recent rise of Hindu right could be better understood if one could unfold the history around Hindu Muslim relations during 1930s.  However, despite the rise of more offensive Hindutva forces, Muslim politics remains confine to the secular, democratic frame- work of the Indian Constitution.

In chapter -8 an eminent scholar Rudolf C. Heredia ‘The dance of democracy: election 2014 and the marginalized and the minorities’, underlined that rise of the ‘Saffron power’ and Modi led BPP have posed serious challenge before the survival of religious minority especially to the Indian Christians. To elucidate the point further, Heredia observes, ‘BJP can best be described as a pursuing a neoliberal capitalist development with Hindu characteristics’ (P-198).

And Chapter-12 title as ’Big national parties in west Bengal: an exceptional outcaste?’ is discussed by the young scholar Maidul Islam. After 2014 general elections and 2016 State election in West Bengal, the Congress party has very limited presence in terms of electoral strength. It is to be noted that Left front government who has ruled more than 30 years in State politics, is now witnessing continuous decline in terms of electoral and ideological force as well. And state based Trinamool Congress party has captured State power twice. However, for the first time, the BJP has also curved out political space as main opposition party with aggressive agenda of Hindutva politics in the State.

While introducing the theme at the outset, the editor has postulated that the BJP will weaken through the internal contradictions rather than external challenges posed by the opposition parties in 2019 General Election. To explain the points further, the editor of second volume, Mujibur Rahman  writes, ‘the weakening the saffron power higher in the destabilization the Modi-Shah leadership through internal implosion rather than from any challenge or offensive that India’s opposition parties could orchestrate either in the 2019 elections or later’.(p-60)

However, Rehman’s arguments are not persuading that the BJP in upcoming elections confront internal contradictions because of Modi-Shah authoritarian character of leadership.  In contrast to this, for defeating the Hindutva politics in our view, there is a need for an alternative politics based on the egalitarian agenda in all walks of life, social, economic, cultural and political too. The point must be emphasized here, since the rise of Saffron power in 2014 with the promises of Sabka Sath Sabka Vikas, development of all, appeasement of none. However, in contrast to these hollow promises, the caste atrocities, communal attacks in the forms of  mob lynching, and rape cases, corruptions, poverty and attack on public intuitions etc. have not been addressed and tremendously increased, as pointed out by the governments and civil society bodies as well. As result, the student Movements, Dalit uprising, peasant movements have also emerged, to counter the communal agenda of BJP-RSS, the points which are not properly addressed and underlined in the both volumes, which are critically reviewed here.

The Quest for Egalitarian Society

Both volumes have delineated the rise and growth of communalism from colonial to post-colonial India. Different essays of both volumes have underlined the rise of ‘Saffron Power’ as a threat to almost all democratic institutions in India, from the Indian Constitution to public institutions and public intellectuals. Violence against religious minorities have increased manifold and in many forms, in the name of “gau raksha” to “Love-Jihad”.

To note that the BJP-RSS combine have always blamed the Left and especially secular parties like the Congress, for promoting the ‘politics of appeasement’. And therefore, for the BJP-RSS these parties are not considered as a ‘genuine secular’ but promoting a kind of pseudo-secular brand of politics since independence. In this respect, the Hindu Right often cites the Shah Bano case. However, fact remains that the government reports and academics in their research have pointed out that most of the riots and communal killings happened during the so-called secular Congress regime. Besides, the Sachar Committee report (SCR; 2006), Mishra committee (2007), and Prof. Kundu Committee (2014) shown that the socio-economic and educational status of Indian Muslims are deteriorated. In the light of empirical evidence, it is argued that due to the failure of the so-called secular Congress party to address the material and non- material issues and problems faced by marginalized sections, the BJP-RSS have exploited the situations and captured political power at the centre in 2014 under the leadership of PM Modi.

To conclude our discussions now, we would like to say that both volumes have not given any concrete ideas as how to respond to the rise of Hindutva fascism. In this respect, prominent political scientists like Monoranjan Mohanty(1989) and Saroj Giri (2010) have rightly shown that without addressing the structures of socio-economic inequality in terms of caste, class, gender and destroying communal Hindu social order, we cannot achieve a truly secular and egalitarian society. For them, it is high time to move beyond the dominant communalism versus hegemonic secularism discourse as launched by the mainstream so-called secular forces and search for a genuine democratic and egalitarian social order, which are found in the writings of Ambedkar, Bhagat Singh and others. While highlighting the progressive agenda of secularism, Prof. Mohanty writes, “It (Secularism) is democratic struggle against class, caste, ethnic domination” (See Monoranjan Mohanty, “Secularism: Hegemonic and Democratic”, Economic and Political weekly, Vol.23, Jan, 1989, p-1220).

To understand how communalism as a phenomena still deeply embedded in our social order, a noted young Marxist Scholar Saroj Giri writes,

  ‘Communalism is the very form of the social order in India, including both the modern and the non-modern, the ‘‘constructed community’’ and the heterogeneous Community, capital and community, abstract secularism and particular faith based ‘‘ways of life.’’ Communalism is the very structural logic that holds all these elements together’. (See Saroj Giri, ‘Hegemonic Secularism, Dominant Communalism: Imagining Social Transformation in India’ Rethinking Marxism, Vol. 22, Jan2010, p-131)

In the light of above discussions, we suggest that there is a need to move beyond communalism versus secularism discourse and search for other possibilities. In the given political context, it would be worthwhile to explore Dr. Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh understanding on several issues including communal question, material inequality, nationalism, equal representation, gender rights, etc as noted above. In doing so, we believe that ‘communal question’, what Indian society is currently grappling with, could be addressed in due course in future.

Yet, both volumes in our view are timely intervention on range of issues spanning communalism, secularism, minority rights, etc. And we hope that it will generate further discussions on this theme. Despite many limitations and lack of empirical studies to supports the theoretical points made by the editor and some essays in both volumes, however, we consider both volumes are important for the students of social sciences and public at large to understand the current dynamics of Indian society and changing dimensions of Indian politics.

(Badre Alam Khan is a Research Scholar at University of Delhi, Department of Political Science, and Sanjay Kumar is a Post Doctoral Fellow at JNU).


Mujibur Rehman (Ed) ‘Communalism in post-colonial India: Changing Contours’ Routledge: Oxford, New York and New Delhi, 2016.  (Hard Back, Rs. 895).

Mujibur Rehman (Ed), ‘Rise of Saffron Power: Reflection on Indian Politics’ (Routledge, 2018).

(Hard Back, Rs.1200.50, pp. 398)

Monoranjan Mohanty, “Secularism: Hegemonic and Democratic”, Economic and Political weekly, Vol.23, January 1989.

Saroj Giri, ‘Hegemonic Secularism, Dominant Communalism: Imagining Social Transformation in India’ Rethinking Marxism, Vol. 22, January 2010.


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