While discussing the rise of the Hindu nationalism, a noted French scholar Christophe Jaffrelot has reminded in his recent study that the sole purpose of the RSS-BJP combine is to capture state power and transform the Indian democracy into the ‘Hindu Rashtra’ ( the Hindu Nation). After 2014 and more importantly in 2019 general elections, the dreams of building the Hindu Rashtra at least in the de facto sense has now been realized as pointed by Jaffrelot ( See, “Hindu Rsshtra, de facto”, The Indian Express, August 12, 2018). A noted anthropologist like Hansan Balan underlined that the Hindu nationalist forces under the pretext of democratic governance, have sharpened the agenda of Hindutva politics and suppressed the voices of subaltern masses. (See, “The Saffron Wave: Democracy and Hindu Nationalism in Modern India”, 1999). For him, contrary to the democratic revolution, the saffron party had put-forward the agenda of the ‘conservative revolution’ by privileging the upper caste brahminical values in the public sphere.

While discussing caste and Communalism, a renowned historian Prof. Dilip. M. Menon has said that by demolishing the Babri Masjid, the Hindu nationalists had created an external enemy to deny and convert the caste-based violence into communal violence. For Menon, the internal violence within Hindu society which is based on caste has been replaced by the so-called communalism in Indian politics. For instance, Mandir and Mandal politics could be seen in this context as an example. As he says, ‘Communalism in India may well be the return of repressed histories of caste’. (Dilip M. Menon, “The Blindness of Insight: Essay on Caste in Modern India”, 2006).

Besides, several scholars have pointed out that the trends of the ‘hyper nationalism’ (mainly fighting against the external enemy like Pakistan under the pretext of national security) have increased since this government came into power. Those who criticize the present regime and its failure on the economic and social fronts would be considered as an anti- national. In short, under the garb of the ‘hyper nationalism’ and not ‘inclusive nationalism’ (the idea of inclusive nationalism had been emerged during anti-colonial struggle and enshrined in our secular constitution), the ruling political dispensations is suppressing the dissenting voices raised by the civil society activists and public intellectuals.

Having discussed the recent discourse on the rise of the Hindu nationalist forces in the Indian politics; now let me discuss the main theme of the book. Recently scholars have lamented that Indian secularism as a concept is passing through a severe crisis due to the rise of the Hindu majoritarian masquerading as a true nationalist/patriotic and even democratic.

Ever since, the Hindu nationalist forces have captured the power at the Centre and most of the states, the concept like secularism (unlike the claim of the Hindu Right, secularism is the core value of the Indian democratic Constitution which had emerged during the course of anti-colonial struggle, and the freedom movement led by Mahatma Gandhi) is widely misunderstood and seems to disappear from the public discourse. For the Hindu Right, it (secularism) is a ‘political ploy’ of the so-called secular parties to appease the religious minorities especially Indian Muslims. To substantiate the points, communal forces often give an example and highlight the Shah Bano case which took place around the late 1980s. To be precise, in the Shah Bano case, the Supreme Court had given a verdict to provide maintenance after the divorce. However, Muslim religious Ulama and orthodox Mullahs had taken stand against the verdict of the apex Court and started mobilizations of the Muslim masses under the pretext of safeguarding ‘Islamic Sharia’ (religious laws as written in the Quran and several Hadis). As a consequence of this, the Hindutva forces had taken the initiative to mobilize the Hindu masses and as a result, then the Prime Minister Rajeev Gandhi had to succumb the pressure of Hindu communal forces and got the lock of the Babri Masjid opened.

Consequently, for the first time since independence, the notion of ‘competing communalism’ had taken roots in the Indian polity and society which culminated in form of eventual demolition of the Babri Masjid by the goons of the Hindu zealots which is followed by communal tension at the nation-wide. Aftermath, the concept of secularism came under severe threat and fresh debates around the concept of secularism took place in the Indian academic circles. Besides the Hindu Right, certain quarters of the well-known academics like Ashis Nandy and T. N. Madan had also questioned the applicability and feasibility of western secularism in the religiously grounded society like India. Instead of implementing the western/modern concept of secularism, both Nandy and Madan both have foregrounded the principle of religious tolerance and pluralism to fight against the communal forces based on Gandhian values rather than modern/western Nehruvian principles.
However, academics like Achin Vanaik, Rajeev Bhargava, Akeel Bilgrami and including the author of the present book, Prof. Neera Chandhoke is not in favor of completely abandoning the concept like secularism itself rather they put-forward the alternative conception of Indian secularism (the dominant concept of western secularism is often used to discourages the practices of religion in the public sphere) which is rooted in our history of freedom movement and aptly enshrined in our secular Constitution. In short, the defenders of secularism have argued that unlike Western secularism, the Indian version of secularism is based on the ‘principle distance’ (this point has been mainly puts-forward by well-known political theorist, Prof. Rajeev Bhargava) which equally respect all religion in the public sphere and committed to defend the minority rights for sake of promoting liberal and egalitarian values such as equality, freedom, and justice. However, an alternative conception of Indian Secularism also opposed the inter-religious and the intra-religious domination as well, pointed out by Prof. Bhargava.

In what follows, I am not going to enter into the acrimonious debates, took place around the concept of secularism per se and whether it is suitable in the context of India or not; it is beyond the purview of the volume which is under review. Here, my concern will be limited to discuss and critically assess the recent mood of Indian academics on the core values of the Indian constitution and its principles of secularism, pluralism, tolerance and minority rights in the light of recent book authored by Prof. Neera Chandhoke ‘Rethinking pluralism, Secularism and tolerance: Anxiety of Coexistence’, 2019. Before coming to the main theme of the book, it would be appropriate for the readers to be familiar with Prof. Chandhok earlier contributions and academic works which broadly move around the themes and concepts like secularism, democracy, minority rights, Civil society, tolerance, and pluralism.

To be very precise, Prof. Neera Chandhoke is a former Professor and the Head of the Department of Political science, University of Delhi. She has earlier worked as a visiting fellow at the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, JNU and at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Teen Murti Bhawan, New Delhi. She has authored several books on the relevant themes like Democracy and Revolutionary Politics (2015); Conceit of Civil Society (2003); Contested Secessions: Self-Determination, Democracy and Kashmir (2011); Beyond Secularism: The Rights of Religious Minorities (1999) etc. Besides, she is a regular contributor to academic journals and the newspapers like The Hindu.

Put briefly, Prof. Chandhoke is known for her uncompromising stand against the communal forces and she is amongst the rare public intellectual of our times who is continuously defending the core values of secular Constitutions and concepts like minority rights secularism and pluralism as said earlier too. In her understanding, these concepts are an integral part of democracy, justice, freedom, and rights which is also an inherent part of the freedom movement, led by our founding fathers like Nehru, Gandhi, Ambedkar and Maulana Azad.

It is a sad and depressing situation to note that, with the collusion of Hindu nationalist forces, the Indian media (which are currently dominated by the upper-caste/class) are busy in manufacturing the false propaganda in the public sphere about these concepts. It is not wrong to say that since the current ruling dispensation came into power at the Centre, the concepts like mainly minority rights and secularism have been widely attacked and seem to be the ‘near-disappearance’ from the wider public discourse. However, Chandhoke, in her recent book, has strongly advocated the idea that Indian democracy is incomplete without the companion and attendant concepts like secularism and minority rights. Ever since, the RSS-BJP combined captured political space, the tension between ‘majoritarian democracy’ and ‘inclusive democracy’ seems to be widening and deepening in the larger public domain. As a result, marginalized social groups like Dalits, religious minorities, Adivasis, etc., continue to face the socio-economic and political exclusions due to the rise of the Hindutva Juggernaut-2.0, under the leadership of both Modi-Shah duo in Indian politics. While citing the case of Ahmadabad (Gujarat, the home state of our Prime Minister, Narendra Modi), the book has also vividly described the manner in which Muslims have became the victim of communal riots and pushed towards the ghettoization.

The findings of main arguments of book are based on two case studies. First field work was based on Ahmadabad, (Gujarat) part of the comparative programme on “Conflict and Institutional Change” assisted by James, Putzel of LSE (London School of Economy and Political science). The second project is on Malekotla (Located in Punjab). This one is part of “Dialogue on Democracy and pluralism in South Asia” assisted and helped by Prof. Niraja Gopal Jayal, Centre for Study of Law and Governance, JNU. Both case studies came out different conclusion. In Ahmadabad, communal fissures amongst religious communities have increased over a period of time mainly after, 2002 Gujrat Riots. However, in the case of Malekotela, the sense of civility and religious tolerance is prevailed.

The forward of this book has been written by the former bureaucrat and Vice-president of India, M. Hamid Ansari. While appreciating the commitment of Chandhoke’s works, in his forward, Ansari writes, “She is a powerful advocate of civil society initiatives and draws upon a life-long experience of academic and public debates on terms that have been used and abused in these discussions. Above all, her perceptions are backed up by some diligent fieldwork in situations that tested them in practice” (P- ix).

As mentioned earlier, Prof. Chandhoke unlike the ideologue of the Hindu Right has strongly advocated that the Indian democracy is an integral part of other attendant concepts like secularism, minority rights, equality and freedoms. To demonstrate these points, Ansari further underlined, “Chandhoke had argued that the debate should be shifted from secularism per se to the antecedent moral principles from which secularism derives its specific meaning; she accordingly asserted that it has to be relocated in its constitutive context of equality, democracy, rights, and freedom”. (P- ix)
It is not wrong to say that ever since the current ruling party came into power, the levels of intolerance and disrespect to dissenting voices have as a matter of fact increased enormously in the public sphere. To explain the point further, Prof Chandhoke in her Preface rightly says, “tolerance has disappeared from the political scene as lynch mobs, self-appointed censors, repression of dissent, vigilantism and murderous crowds try to hammer a plural nation into conformity with slogans of one language, one religion, one people and one cuisine”.( P-xi)

In the present political context, the concept like secularism and minority rights have been abused a lot by the Sangh Parivar and considered as tools of pampering the Indian Muslims. For the Hindu Right, these words are considered as western and hence not suitable to the context of India. It is ironical to note that that recently as reported in the Indian media, the RSS Chief Mr. Mohan Bhagwat has said that ‘Lynching’ is an alien word and should not be used in our country to defame the India’s civilization and culture.

It is unfortunate that secularism as the concept has been greatly misrepresented by the Sangh Parivar as an anti-Hindu and pro-Muslims. While after the passing the Bill which has now become an Act on instant triple talaq, the present Home Minister Amit Shah has said that this is a ‘historic Bill’ which has genuinely empowered the Muslim women who were a victim of appeasement politics as done by the so-called secular party like Congress. Hence, for him this step which is taken under the leadership of PM Narendra Modi is against appeasement politics and taken a historic step to empower the Muslim women. In doing so, the Right-wing often said that we are committed to the ‘genuine secularism’ instead of doing politics of appeasement based on pseudo-secularism for the politics of vote banks as done by the Congress Party.

To prove their point, the Right-wing often cites the case of Shah Bano, a divorced old Muslim Woman as mentioned above ( the point must be noted that on the issues of Shah Bana, feminists, Left-liberals and The Hindu Right broadly had shared the similar views). However, the claim made by the present government with respect to Muslim women is widely criticized by the progressive section of society and secular political parties by saying that intention of the government is not to empower and push the agenda of genuine social reform within the Muslim community but to criminalize the entire Muslim community on the pretext of the so-called gender justice. Contrary to the politics of appeasement, Prof. Chandhoke says, “the language of secularism has practically vanished from the political horizon of Indian politics. Whatever remains of secularism is subjected to contemptuous remarks, some ribaldry and offensive dismissal by cadres and supporters of the religious right. The concept is, in their depressingly vulgar and crude language, no longer ‘pseudo-secularism’, but ‘sickluralism’”. (P- Xii).

Let me comeback to the concept of Indian secularism and minority rights which has been misunderstood and negatively presented by the media and the Hindu Right in our public discourse. It is hugely misunderstood that Indian secularism like western concept which includes secularization as a social process, privatizes religion and hence, antithetical to the context of religiously grounded society like India. This point has been also brought out by noted Indian academics like Ashis Nandy and T.N. Madan who has made the point that the concept like secularism is not worthy to celebrate because, it is unfit to the context of south Asian society as hinted above. However, against Nandy and Madan anti-secular thesis, Prof. Chandhoke writes,
“We need to distinguish secularisation as a social process, which involves the relegation of religious belief and practices to the private sphere, and secularism as a principle of state policy. In most discussions, the two meanings are conflated. This has given rise to the expectation that the secularisation of society is a necessary a precondition for secularism as a political norm”. (P-14)
Historically speaking, for the first time, the term secularism was coined by George Jacob Holyoake in 1851. Secularism for him stands for reason, rationality, and scientific temper and hence against superstitions which were associated with the idea of the European Enlightenment (P-15). It is a fact that the concept of secularism had originated in Europe, however, it has got new dimensions in the context of India. In this respect, Prof. Chandhoke writes,

“The home of this concept is Europe, but secularism acquired new dimensions in the historical context of India, particularly because the principle was adopted not in the context of the secularisation of society but in the context of the politicisation of religion in the public sphere, of this more anon. The politicisation of religion led to the construction of a unified identity, the harnessing of this identity to nationalism and later competitive nationalism, and the Partition of India in 1947”. (P-16).

Having introduced briefly, the basic theme and concepts as mentioned in this book, however, some issues like the recent rise of ‘secular sectarianism’ as pointed by Dr. Ajay Gudavarthy in his recent (edited) book on ‘Secular Sectarianism; Limits of Subaltern politics’ 2019, is also need to discussed. The recent rise of secular sectarianism amongst the subaltern class/caste also needs to be discussed and must be reflect why the intra- subaltern caste conflict remain unresolved. For instance, within subaltern groups the intra-caste conflicts (between the OBCs and Dalits or within Dalits and religious minorities) and tendencies like ‘Secular sectarianism’ needs to be seriously taken into account. In this respect, Indian Muslims must also not develop the secular sectarian approach and concern about merely Muslim problems. It is a high time for Indian Muslims to talk about other subaltern groups and their problems like Adivasis and Dalits. For G. Ajay, and others, to counter the Hindu Right, it is a crucial to democratize the subaltern masses and to forge the social and cultural solidarities rather than only concentrating on electoral chemistry.

It needs to remind that this book has not talked about the complexity within the Muslim community. For instance, while discussing the problems of Indian Muslim scholars often understood Muslims as a homogeneous lot. However, recent literature on Pasamanda Muslims have vividly reminded us that like other communities the Indian Muslims are also divided on the lines of caste, gender, class, sects, and region. While discussing minority problems, internal contestations (mainly caste divides like Ashraf, Ajlaf and Arzal) must be taken into considerations. However, it is a fact that after the rise of Hindutva forces in the social and political sphere, the religious identity of the Muslim community has been over-politicized and other secular identities such as caste/class etc. have taken to the backseat. Hence, only religious identity is given primacy and incidents like lynching, mob-violence, against minorities which recently took place primarily because of religious identity rather than on the basis of caste/ class identity. However, most of victim of the lynching and mob-violence happened to be the lower case Muslims.

No doubt secularism and minority rights, pluralism, tolerance which has been nicely discussed in the book is an indeed important contribution which needs to be defended in the present political scenario. This book has done a wonderful task as far as conceptualizing the concepts in light of empirical realities. For examining and testing the exiting concepts, the author has studied two cases, one in Ahmadabad (Gujarat) and other in the Malerkotla (located in Panjab). The Ahmadabad case study demonstrated that due to communal riots, community civic life got disturbed and Muslims are forced to live into Ghetto. However, in the case of Malerkotla, ( Panjab) study pointed out the community life and the civic life is still relatively peaceful and communal harmony is not disturbed as happened in case of Ahmadabad.

It is relevant to cite here what Dr. Baba saheb Ambedkar had said long ago about the attitude of majoritarian group towards minority community particularly when minority groups demand its due share in the power structure; then the minority community is treated with suspicion. However, when whole power was monopolized by the majority community is considered as nationalism not communalism. To explain the hypocrisy of majoritatrian bias towards minority community, Dr. Ambedkar rightly demonstrated his views in following words,

“Unfortunately for the minorities in India, Indian nationalism has developed a new doctrine which may be called the divine right of the majority to rule the minorities according to the wishes of the majority. Any claim for sharing the power by the minority is called communalism while monopolising of the whole power by the majority is called nationalism. Guided by such a philosophy the majority is not prepared to allow the minorities to share political power” (Christophe Jaffrelot and Narender Kumar, “Dr Ambedkar and Democracy”, OUP, New Delhi, 2018, p. 172).

In short, the present book is relevant because, it still generate some hope to live together as demonstrated in case of Malerkotla. However, since the rise of the Sangh Privar at centre stage of Indian politics, the civic life and level of intolerance have increased amongst religious communities as said earlier.

Despite some limitations, in my view, those who are interested in understanding the concepts like secularism, minority rights, tolerance, pluralism, co-existence, and sense of civility afresh must have looked this book. The book, through two case studies and field works have successfully dealt with themes as mentioned above by combining creatively normative as well as empirical approach. Therefore, I strongly recommend the scholars belonging to the subjects like history, political science, sociology, and the general reader must read it carefully to understand these concepts which are relevant in the present political and social context.

The author is a Research scholar the University of Delhi.


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