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Politique et religions en Asie du Sud

Christophe Jaffrelot
Aminah Mohammad-Arif

Panorama post-1947

How has secularism fared in India?

L’évolution du sécularisme en Inde : état de la question

Rajeev Bhargava


L’Inde a réussi à instaurer une Constitution laïque dotée d’un dispositif de droits fondamentaux pour les minorités culturelles et religieuses, en dépit d’un énorme tumulte politique et des effusions de sang. Modelé conjointement par les hindous et les musulmans, le sécularisme indien est une tentative caractéristique pour répondre aux besoins de sociétés à la diversité religieuse et se conformer aux principes de liberté et d’égalité. L’existence légale du sécularisme en Inde ne doit pas être confondue avec sa réalité sur le terrain, cependant. Quelle que soit la position officielle, la réalité sur le terrain est plus ambivalente. En effet, les évolutions de la dernière décennie sont particulièrement troublantes avec les tentatives répétées de l’aile droite des nationalistes hindous d’installer un hindouisme politique réinventé comme la religion établie. Cette progression menace de limiter la liberté des minorités, de saper tant l’égalité interreligieuse que le caractère pluriel de l’hindouisme. L’article montre que dans l’Inde indépendante, le sécularisme a connu un destin variable et inégal. Périodiquement en crise dans beaucoup d’États, il est, au Gujarat, pratiquement inexistant. Néanmoins, l’article défend l’idée que la Constitution parvient à contenir les forces qui ébranlent le sécularisme et continue à offrir des opportunités aux groupes marginalisés de revendiquer leur inclusion sociale et économique.

Texte intégral

1At the time of independence, India inherited a perverted majority-minority syndrome — a diseased network of neurotic relations between at least some members of two communities that takes them to an ever deepening path of mutual estrangement, exaggerates communal differences and stalls internal religious reform. The syndrome partitioned the subcontinent and, by giving birth to an increasingly extremist and militant Hindu Nationalism, ultimately took Gandhi’s life. Yet, amidst huge political turmoil and bloodshed India managed to install a secular constitution with a set of fundamental rights, including religious and cultural rights for minorities. In what follows I outline the main features of Indian secularism and then examine the extent to which India is secular.

The Indian model of secularism

2The unamended Indian Constitution of 1950 did not use the word “secular” but all the features of a secular state are present in the formal structure of the state enunciated by the document. India has no state religion. No religious instruction is to be provided in any educational institution wholly maintained out of state funds. The Constitution does not formally give religion any right to oversee the law of the land. All criminal laws are secular. There is only one major anomaly: a part of the civil law dealing with family, marriage and inheritance falls within the domain of religion. Religious liberty is guaranteed and so is the freedom to exit from religion. No person is compelled to pay any taxes, the proceeds of which are specifically appropriated in payment of expenses for the promotion or maintenance of any particular religion or religious denomination. No person attending any educational institution is required to take part in any religious instruction or to attend any religious worship that may be conducted in such institution. The state is not supposed to discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them. In 1976, the term “secular” was formally introduced in the Constitution and India was declared a secular republic.

3Although theoretically less developed, the model of secularism in the Indian Constitution, shaped jointly by Hindus and Muslims in pre-independent India, attempts to meet the needs of deeply religiously diverse societies and to also comply with principles of freedom and equality.

4Seven features of the Indian model are noteworthy. First, Indian secularism is inextricably tied to deep religious diversity. Second, it has a commitment to multiple values — liberty or/and equality interpreted broadly to cover the relative autonomy of religious communities and equality of status in society, as well as other more basic values such as peace and toleration between communities. It has a place not only for rights of individuals to profess their religious beliefs but for the right of religious communities to establish and maintain educational institutions crucial for the survival and sustenance of their distinctive religious traditions and to secure state-funding.

5The acceptance of community-specific rights brings us to the third feature of Indian secularism. Because it was born in a deeply multi-religious society, it is concerned as much with inter-religious or external exclusion as it is with intra-religious or internal exclusion. It tries to ensure both that the dominant religious community does not dominate other communities and dominant groups within a community do not exclude other more vulnerable members of their own community. Furthermore, Indian secularism is meant to fight both exclusion from the domain of religion and exclusion on religious grounds from other non-religious, civic and political spheres.

6Fourth, it does not erect a wall of separation between state and religion. There are boundaries, but they are porous. This allows the state to intervene in religions, to help or hinder them. This can involve granting aid to educational institutions of religious communities on a non-preferential basis or interfering in socio-religious institutions that deny equal status to members of their own religion or to those of others (e.g., the ban on untouchability and the obligation to allow everyone, irrespective of their caste, to enter Hindu temples, and potentially to correct gender inequalities). In short, it interprets separation to mean not strict exclusion or strict neutrality but rather “principled distance”. The policy of principled distance entails a flexible approach on the question of inclusion/exclusion of religion and the engagement/disengagement of the state, which at the level of law and policy depends on the context, nature or current state of relevant religions. This engagement must be governed by principles undergirding a secular state, i.e. principles that flow from a commitment to values such as freedom, equality and justice. This means that the state may engage with religion or disengage from it, engage positively or negatively but it does so depending entirely on whether or not these values are promoted or undermined. Principle distance is different from strict neutrality, i.e. the state may help or hinder all religions to an equal degree and in the same manner, that if it intervenes in one religion, it must also do so in others. Rather, it rests upon a distinction explicitly drawn by the American philosopher, Ronald Dworkin between equal treatment and treating everyone as an equal. The principle of equal treatment, in the relevant political sense, requires that the state treat all its citizens equally in the relevant respect, for example in the distribution of a resource of opportunity. On the other hand, the principle of treating people as equals entails that every person or group is treated with equal concern and respect. This second principle may sometimes require equal treatment, say equal distribution of resources but it may also occasionally dictate unequal treatment. Treating people or groups as equals is entirely consistent with differential treatment. What kind of treatment do I have in mind? First, religious groups have sought exemptions from practices in which states intervene by promulgating a law to be applied neutrally to the rest of society. This demand for non-interference is made on the ground either that the law requires them to do things not permitted by their religion or prevents them from doing acts mandated by it. For example, Sikhs demand exemptions from mandatory helmet laws and from police dress codes to accommodate religiously required turbans. Principled distance allows then that a practice that is banned or regulated in one culture may be permitted in the minority culture because of the distinctive status and meaning it has for its members. Religious groups may demand that the state refrain from interference in their practices but they may equally demand that the state interfere in such a way as to give them special assistance so that these groups are also able to secure what other groups are able to routinely get by virtue of their social dominance in the political community. It may grant authority to religious officials to perform legally binding marriages, or to have their own rules or methods of obtaining a divorce.

7However, principled distance does not merely allow special exemptions. Considering the historical and social condition of all relevant religions, it may require state intervention in some religions more than in others. For example, if the aim of the state is to advance social equality, then this may require that the state interfere in caste-ridden Hinduism more than say Islam or Christianity. However, if a diversity-driven religious liberty is the value to be advanced by the state, then it may have to intervene in Christianity and Islam more than in Hinduism. If this is so, the state can neither strictly exclude considerations emanating from religion nor keep strict neutrality with respect to religion. It cannot antecedently decide that it will always refrain from interfering in religions or that it will interfere in each equally. Indeed, it may not relate to every religion in society in exactly the same way or intervene in each religion to the same degree or in the same manner. All it must ensure is that the relationship between the state and religions is guided by non-sectarian motives consistent with some values and principles. Fifth, it is not entirely averse to the public character of religions. Although the state is not identified with a particular religion or with religion more generally (there is no establishment of religion), there is official and therefore public recognition granted to religious communities.

8Sixth, this model tries to mediate between active hostility and passive indifference, and between disrespectful hostility and respectful indifference towards religion. Seventh, by not fixing its commitment from the start exclusively to individual or community values or marking rigid boundaries between the public and private, India’s constitutional secularism allows decisions on these matters to be taken either within the open dynamics of democratic politics or by contextual reasoning in the courts.

9Finally, this commitment to multiple values and principled distance means that the state tries to balance different values.

10The secular constitution facilitates the entry of all religious groups in a free and equal society. It lays the ground for the removable of obstacles that exclude religious minorities from the domain of freedom and equality. By giving vulnerable and marginable group the confidence that a just order is possible, it lays the foundation of a more inclusive society. The legal reality of secularism in India must not be confused with its reality on the ground, however. Whatever the formal position, evidence from the ground has always been mixed. Indeed, trends in the past decade or so are particularly disturbing, with a sustained attempt by right-wing Hindu forces to install in effect a homogenized newly-invented political Hinduism as the established religion. This threatens to limit the freedom of minorities and to undermine inter-religious equality as well as the plural character of Hinduism. In post independent India, the record of secularism is patchy. In several places, it is periodically in crisis and in Gujarat, it is virtually non-existent. Yet the Constitution manages to constrain the activities of forces undermining secularism and continues to throw up opportunities for marginalized groups to press for social and economic inclusion.

  • 1 The distinction is drawn in the background paper for the UNDP Report on Cultural Liberty, 2004.
  • 2 It is difficult, particularly in South Asia, to make a distinction between religion and culture. If (...)

11I have used the terms inclusion and exclusion. Some clarification is in order before I proceed further. Will Kymlicka has drawn attention to a distinction between cultural and political/economic exclusion.1 For him, cultural exclusion occurs when the culture of a group, including its language, religion or traditional customs, are denigrated or suppressed by the state. Conversely, cultural inclusion refers to the public recognition, accommodation and support to the culture, language, religion, customs and life styles of a group. Distinct from cultural exclusion is the phenomenon of political exclusion — the denial of access to citizenship rights and economic exclusion — the denial of access to certain kinds of employment or professions. I agree that cultural exclusion is irreducible to economic and political exclusions. However, I do not restrict my understanding of inclusion and exclusion to practices of the state. For me, cultural exclusion also occurs either when one group in society persistently mis-recognises, denigrates, humiliates or suppresses another cultural group or when some members of a cultural group suppress, denigrate or mis-recognise members of a sub-culture of their own group. In particular, my own concern, in much of my work, is with religion-related inclusion and exclusion.2 By religion-related exclusion I mean to broadly cover two forms of exclusions. First, the exclusion of people from the domain of religious liberty and equality. I shall call this exclusion from religion or more simply religious exclusion. Second, the exclusion of people from the wider, non-religious domain of liberty and equality (citizenship rights). I call this a religion-based exclusion and it occurs when a person’s religion or religious identity is seen to be sufficient ground for excluding him/her from the legal, economic and political benefits/rights available more generally.

12Religious exclusion can be of two kinds. First, when a religious group excludes its own members from the domain of religious liberty and equality. A religious group may exclude its own members from many of its important practices. In medieval Christendom, ordinary lay persons had access to God only via the Clergy. Even potentially, salvation was not, therefore, available to everyone by his own effort. For centuries in India a religious sanction has been granted to the horrendous practice of untouchability that excludes dalits from, say, entry into Hindu temples. I call these instances of internal religious exclusion. The suppression of internal religious differences or dissent is also a form of internal religious exclusion. This phenomenon is distinct from what I call external religious exclusion. Here the religion of a group is misrecognised, denigrated, deliberately falsified, marginalized or suppressed by the state or by the dominant group in society. Any denial of religious liberty and equality by members of one religious group to another religious group is external religious exclusion. So, the practice of external religious exclusion is rampant wherever there is persecution of religious minorities. Historically, Jews have been victims of religious external exclusion in most Christian societies. For my purposes, a non-religious state that persecutes people of religious faith practices external religious exclusion. So does a religious state that denigrates or suppresses people who profess no religion but live life by principles flowing from non-religious ethical frameworks.

Religious exclusion: The denial of religious liberty and equality

External exclusion: Hindu nationalism and India’s minorities

13External religious exclusion of Christians and Muslims has had a marked increase since the late 1980s. In 1984, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad engineered the revival of a movement to liberate “sacred” Hindu sites believed to have been usurped by Muslims — an issue that has persistently excited and invigorated Hindu nationalists. In 1992, a well-armed mob led by VHP activists reduced the mosque to rubble as senior BJP leaders looked on. The Ram Janma Bhoomi Movement was less about God Ram and more about Hindu consolidation, less about building a temple and more about the denigration and humiliation of Muslims, about showing Muslims their place in a Hindu country.

14Muslims are among the poorest of all Indians in much of the country, by all measures of development — income, wealth, education, employment, ownership, health. This is why ethno-majoritarian forces re-invent old, mostly imaginary Hindu grievances: the destruction of Hindu temples by Mughals, the temerity of supporters of partition to even ask for a framework respecting minority rights, the disloyalty induced by pan-Islamicism and the alleged role that polygamy and therefore Muslim personal law plays in their march to outpopulate Hindus. Hindu nationalists make instrumental use of memory, emotion, prejudice, religious difference, and generalized deprivation to advance their extremist agenda of external religious exclusion (Kesavan 2001: 94).

  • 3 Akbar, 1988; Varadarajan 2002; Dharkar; Vershney 2002; Nandy, Trivedy, Mayaram et al.1997.
  • 4 The final tally of casualty figures for December 1992 and January 1993 are: Dead-900 (575 Muslims, (...)
  • 5 Events in Gujarat could hardly qualify as a “riot”. For a detailed account, see Varadarajan 2002: 2 (...)

15Hindu-Muslim riots have an old pedigree. Despite independence and partition, communal riots have not abated. Indeed, their incidents have increased over the last four decades.3 While no one can deny the economic and political reasons underlying communal violence, a direct exclusionary motive is always present. For example, on August 13, 1980, the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) opened fire on several thousand Muslims at their Id prayers in Moradabad. In 1984, following the assassination of Mrs. Indira Gandhi by a Sikh, her personal bodyguard, several thousand Sikhs were killed in northern India. After the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992-93, about 600 Muslims were killed and over a thousand injured in the Bombay riots.4 But perhaps the worst has been the pogrom in Gujarat in which over 2,000 Muslims were brutally killed after a Muslim mob allegedly burnt down a train compartment containing 39 Hindus.5 There is little doubt that violence was carefully engineered. By now, the role of VHP, RSS, Bajrang Dal is widely dcoumented. State institutions including the police force and the judiciary have all been shown to be involved in both the violence and subsequent cover-up.

16In the 1990s a concerted campaign was carried out against Christians (Sarkar s.d.: 73-77). On July 8, 1998 the body of Samuel Christian was exhumed from a cemetery in Gujarat and thrown outside the Methodist Church. In Dangs district, between 25 December and 3 January, 1998, 24 churches, 3 schools and 6 houses or shops were burnt or damaged and 9 Christian tribals suffered serious injuries. Such incidents were not restricted to Gujarat. In January 1999 the Australian Missionary doctor, Graham Stains, and two of his children were burnt alive amidst slogans of Jai Shri Ram. Most such incidents are preceded by a systematic campaign of lies and distortions concerning Christians, disseminated through leaflets and brochures. Most of these attacks are justified by the claim that this is legitimate anger against conversion of Hindus to Christianity by anti-national Christian missionaries. The murderer of Stains, Dara Singh, was recently given life-imprisonment but the argument by the Court against death penalty was spurious. It claimed that the court did not consider the murder the most heinous of crimes because the murderer had acted amidst continuing proselytizing by Christians!

  • 6 Kanungo 2008: 16-19. Kanungo writes that Laxmananda had himself been a missionary of sorts, “conver (...)
  • 7

17On 23 August 2007, the controversial Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Laxmanananda Saraswati was killed. Maoists claimed responsibility, alleging that Laxmananda was a fascist with a divisive communal agenda. The Hindu nationalist counter-claim was that the sadhu’s murder was indicative of a Christian conspiracy which demanded revenge and suppression. The murders were also interpreted as reprisal for Laxmananda’s provocative opposition to missionary activities.6 Following the murder, Hindu mobs set fire to Christian settlements, razing many churches, thousands of houses and an orphanage, and killing at least 38 people. In total, 18,000 were said to have been injured, and 50,000 displaced.7 A raped nun’s appeal for a CBI probe into the incident was rejected by the court.

18Oppression also takes more subtle forms. The chief of the RSS persists in advising Catholics to reject the Pope, and severe their association with the Vatican. Christians are frequently stigmatized as aliens. Christians and Muslims are told that if they do not acknowledge their Hinduness, for instance, if they do not accept Ram as a national hero, then they must live in subordination to the Hindu majority. Even the Sikhs are not spared. Much to the consternation of a majority of Sikhs, the RSS insists that though distinct, Sikhs are not separate from Hindus. It even tried to have the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, read in the mandirs in Punjab. For these ethno-majoritarian forces, therefore, inclusion in Indian societies and politics can only be possible on terms set by them. If these terms are not accepted, then the lot of the minorities can only be severe exclusion. As one commentator put it, “The only way the Sangh Parivar can deal with Christians and Muslims is either as hostile aliens or converts of Hindu stock awaiting purification (Kesavan 2001: 94).”

  • 8 Reported in the Hindu, May 7, 2010.

19One of the most neglected forms of external religious exclusion occurs when one religious group (a minority nationally, but not so within a state) oppresses or uses violence against another religious group (also a minority nationally but not necessarily so within a particular state). Thus, in Kerala the principal of a Christian school issued a transfer certificate to a Muslim girl student for wearing the headscarf to the school.8 Likewise, a college teacher in Kerala, T.J. Joseph, had allegedly framed a question about prophet Muhammad that was seen to be insulting by some Muslim groups. A controversy erupted, Mr. Joseph was suspended, then arrested and released on bail. The management of the school apologized for the “aberration” but militant Islamic groups chopped his hands off in a shocking incident on July 4, 2010.

Internal exclusion: women, dalits and the subalterns

20Indian secularism, like secularisms elsewhere in the world, is also intended to respond to exclusions that occur within religious communities. There is no major religion in which women are given the same status as men. Women are generally excluded from several practices of their own religion. For example, there are only few known women archbishops, Imams or pujaris. For instance there are restrictions on their participation in religious rituals at the time of menstruation. The Ayyapa temple in Kerala forbids the entry of women between ages 15-65, entirely because their very capacity to menstruate makes their bodies impure for this entire period. But perhaps Dalits have suffered the severest from of internal religious exclusion in the subcontinent. The Indian Constitution tries to remove this disability. Article 17 has legally abolished untouchability. Under Article 25 (2)b, Hindu religious institutions of a public character are thrown open to all sections of Hindu society. The (Central) Untouchability (Offences) Act of 1955 provides penalties for enforcing any religious disability. Any person who on grounds of untouchability prevents any other person from worshipping, offering prayer, performing religious service, bathing, using the water of a sacred tank, well, spring or watercourse is punishable with imprisonment. Despite the Constitution and other legal provisions, however, the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes report of 1990 states that in Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Rajasthan and Karnataka, dalits still do not have access to temples and other places of worship (Mander 2002: 149-152). This is also true of an important study conducted earlier on rural Gujarat (Desai 1976). The Andhra Committee too found that as many as 80 temples in the 249 villages it visited explicitly forbade entry of dalits into the temples (Mander: ibid.).

Religion-based legal, social and economic exclusion: the denial of passive citizenship rights

External exclusion: state bias

  • 9 Reported in The Hindu, May 18, 2009.

21Despite its secular Constitution, the partisan character of the state is most blatant in incidents of communal violence in India. I have already mentioned the calculated, cold-blooded massacre by a communalized police force in Moradabad that tried to cover this up by making it out to be a Hindu-Muslim riot (Akbar 1988: 33-34). But the communal role of the PAC has also been seen in Meerut where custodial deaths of Muslims became a regular feature in 1987. Much worse than riots is the arbitrary murder committed by the guardians of law (ibid.: 151-158). Thus, six persons of a Muslim fishing community were casually killed by the Kerala police, on the ground that the mob had turned violent. It is widely believed that this was a case of police targeting a particular religious community.9

  • 10 The PUDR report notes that a camp for 700 people in Anand town was functioning from 3 March when di (...)
  • 11 The 28 Feb. resolution fixed an ex-gratia payment of Rs.5,000–50,000 for permanent disability and R (...)

22Direct violence is not the only expression of police brutality towards religious minorities. Deliberate indifference to the plight of the needy manifests the same exclusionary intention. For example, the Gujarat government did not set up a single relief camp for Muslim victims. It was left to Muslim-dominated Panchayats or Muslim religious trusts to provide protection and to feed and house the victims. Shortage of ration was characteristic of these camps.10 Evidence also exists for discrimination in compensation paid to victims.11 Damage to property owned by Muslims was rarely recompensed. Persons who lost property worth lakhs were given a mere few thousands.

23The religious bias of the State also seems to show in a recent judgement on Babri masjid by the Allahabad High Court. The judgement divides the site of the razed 16th century Babri masjid into three plots; split between two Hindu groups (NirmohiAkhada and the party for “Ram Lalla”) and one Muslim (Sunni Waqf Board). The most problematic part of the verdict concerns the claim of the court that a Ram Temple once stood on the site allotted to Hindus. We know, thanks to the testimonies of travellers, including that a Jesuit father, Joseph Tieffenthaler, that in the 18th century the place that Hindu devotees regarded as the Ramjanmabhoomi — and where the pilgrims worshipped Him — was not in the masjid, but outside, on a platform called the Ram chabootra. In fact, the site became a bone of contention only in 1949 after Hindu fanatics installed idols of Ram and Sita. To get back to the harmonious arrangement of the 18th century, the judges should have given the land under the central dome to the Sunni Waqf and the Ram chabootra to the Hindus. The Supreme Court has subsequently put a stay on the High Court’s order, criticising the divisive nature of the verdict. However, the original High Court decision shows the ability of the judiciary to stray from its ostensibly secularist principles and pass judgements which uphold majoritarian religious exclusion.

Internal exclusion: the limited impact of laws

The case of women

24Customary practices with at least some association with local religious belief directly stipulate death for women. The whole issue of sati — the immolation of a widow following her husband’s death — is a complicated one but there is no denying its link with local religious beliefs. Despite a law against satI, Roop Kanwar, an 18-year-old student, was burnt alive in Rajasthan in India on the funeral pyre of her husband. Soon after the event, she began to be revered and glorified as a Goddess. Public outrage followed in India, not least thanks to powerful women’s movements. A stringent new law was passed in the Parliament prohibiting the glorification or justification of including, the justification of sati. This has had some effect but the practice continues.

25A conflict between religious legal systems and the constitutional provision of equality is common in India. For example, in 1983, Mary Roy, a Syrian Christian challenged the Travancore Christian Act that governed them in Kerala on the ground that it violated the equality provision guaranteed by the constitution. When the Supreme Court overturned the act to be replaced by the Indian Succession Act of 1925 that grants daughters and sons equal rights, several members of the Christian community protested against the judgment and were supported by the Synod of Christian churches.

  • 12 See Hasan 2000: 282-301. For a philosophically informed reflection on the same issue, see Bhargava  (...)

26Similarly, in a landmark judgement in 1985, the Indian Supreme Court granted a small maintenance allowance to Shah Bano, a 73-year-old divorcee, to be paid by her husband under the provisions of the Criminal Procedure Code. The husband had appealed to the court that since he had fulfilled his obligations under Muslim personal law by paying her an allowance for three months during the Iddat period, he was not bound to maintain her any further. The court ruled that Indian Criminal law overrode all personal laws and therefore, rejected the appeal. Under pressure from religious orthodoxy, the then Congress government enacted a legislation that “literally adopted the provisions of the Shariat into the secular law” (Brass 1994) and excluded Muslim women from secular legal provisions.12

27In India, although secular marriage is available as an option, secular divorce is not. For divorce, a couple must appeal to the religion of their birth. There is no right of exit from one’s religion when it comes to important issues such as marriage or death. This is a direct infringement of one’s freedom. In most systems of Islamic law, a woman is the guardian of a male child only until he is seven years old. Till very recently, the Hindu law regarded only the father as the natural guardian of the child, except for children under the age of five (Singh 1994: 96-107). The mother could have custody only of an illegitimate child. The right to adopt a child is also directly affected by religion. For many years, the Hindu adoptions and maintenance act passed in 1956 was the only law of adoptions in India and applied only to Hindus. This meant that for all these years only Hindus could adopt a child and only a Hindu child could be adopted (Nussbaum 1999: 99). All attempts to enact a new law covering all religions was resisted by conservative Muslim leaders on the ground that adoption is forbidden by the Quran. In 1980 a new bill was passed and adoption rights were granted to Jews, Christians and Parsis but Muslims were exempted. The orthodoxy denied members of its own religion an important human freedom.

The case of the dalits

  • 13 Guru 2000: 59-72. Also see Shah, ed., 2002, especially the articles by Harsh Mander, M. Thangaraj, (...)

28Dalits have long been confined to prescribed areas and, without the permission of the upper castes who policed these boundaries with both physical force and an ideology of purity and pollution, were not allowed to walk on the main streets of the villages.13 When they did walk these streets, it was only to serve the upper caste feudal lords and always with brooms tied to their waist so as to erase polluting footprints, and with earthen pots around their necks to protect the earth from their impure sputum. Gopal Guru argues that the religious core found in the Hindu text, manusmriti, sanctions restrictions on freedom of space or mobility for dalits.

29Dalit life was also marked by a complete lack of control over their time. They worked round the clock for their feudal lords, except when their appearance was dangerously polluted. Under the Peshwa rule in Maharashtra, dalits could enter public streets that went past upper caste homes only around noon because during this hour, the shadow of the dalits was shortest and therefore least likely to pollute the upper caste. As Guru puts it, “the beautiful mornings and cool evenings were denied to dalits”; in their lot fell only the scorching afternoon. Thus, even their time was policed by upper castes.

30Much of this has changed for many dalits. The arrival of colonialism itself was a blessing of sorts. Emancipatory ideas came with colonial modernity and sections of dalits were quick to use them. Some control over space and time was now possible, as was the opportunity to enter educational institutions or the legal domain. After independence, dalits benefited from constitutional provisions that initiated political inclusion at several levels. Yet, it has been an uneven, partial success at least partly because the force of specific cultural memory is not diminished by colonialism, capitalism or the law (Robb 1993: 66). Religiously sanctioned structures of exclusion and marginalisation still remain intact. Institutionalised ideas of impurity and pollution lurk in the hearts, minds and actions of large number of people, in rural India, and even urban India.

31Several empirical studies indicate that untouchability — the practice of avoiding physical contact with persons and things believed to be polluting — is an integral part of the experience of dalithood. The findings of both the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and the Ambedkar Centenary Committee in Andhra Pradesh in 1990 concluded that untouchability was still prevalent in many areas. For example, the Andhra Committee found that of 249 villages, in 122 tea shops tea was still served in separate glasses for dalits who had to wash the tumblers themselves. In many parts of Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Kerala dalits were denied access to the village well, even barbers and washermen, because none would serve them. Participation in social ceremonies was difficult and discrimination existed in the use of even cremation grounds. Dalits are still excluded from most occupations considered dignified and worthy. They are forced to work in jobs considered demeaning such as the tanning of leather and scavenging. In 16 of the 249 villages studied by the Andhra Committee revealed that dalits had never walked through the streets with any type of footwear.

  • 14 He introduced the notion of what in Arabic is called kafaa, setting down rules about marriage betwe (...)

32Nor is this problem restricted to Hindus. The Muslim community is afflicted with the same malaise, despite claims to equality of all. For example, if dalits convert to Islam, non-dalits would not marry or eat with them. The founder of the Barelvi school of thought in Islam, Ahmad Raza Khan (1856-1921), championed the notion of caste superiority based on birth and gave fatwas to this effect.14

33In urban India, greater anonymity and occupational mobility blurs caste identities and has diminished the practice of untouchability. This is particularly true in the public and the political sphere. But it has not disappeared altogether. Inclusion is uncommon in marriage, inter-dining and other forms of social intercourse. This “new” inclusion is infused with newer forms of hierarchy and inequality, however. Instead of becoming equal participants in the mainstream, dalits are jostled to the margins and perpetually remain on the verge of exclusion. For example, they are still unable to get decent jobs and continue to perform work that no one else wants to. In a soap factory, they are forced to handle tallow. In textile mills, they are excluded from weaving on the ground that they would pollute the entire fabric. Dalits are often kept out of hotel industry and would certainly not work in the kitchen. In educational institutions, they are frequently ghettoized in one part of the hostel, generally acknowledged to be the filthiest. Paradoxically, what is bestowed as a special privilege soon begins (?) to spawn exclusion. This is certainly the case with backward class hostels, Ambedkar Foundations and schools run by the Social Welfare Departments. Guru rightly points out that the dominant framework of these provisions is a demeaning form of charity rather than an uplifting vision of equal concern and respect.

34In many parts of rural India, dalits continue to suffer from all kinds of exclusions. Several invisible castes remain in independent India that are not included in the list of scheduled caste communities, beneficiaries of the provisions of affirmative action enshrined in the Constitution. One such community is the Kahars in Bihar. Their social exclusion is so extreme that even other dalits do not deign to interact with them. “We are not allowed into the vicinity of the others houses. And they won’t even let us catch fish in the river or in regular ponds.” So the Kahars fish by draining ditches and catching them with bare hands. They are paid a wage far below the official minimum wage and remain outside the public distribution system. Most of them are landless and without the requisite skills necessary for raising a standard of living. Their houses, if they can be called houses at all, are never lit. “The average kahar home is really a hovel” (Sainath 1996: 175-178). A vanishing group, the main demand of the kahars is to be included in the scheduled caste list. Apart from this, they want education and land. “If these demands are not met, there may be no kahars to count some years from now” (ibid.: 178).

35Dalits present the most heart-rendering example of indirect religious and religiously-grounded exclusion of communities and individuals. What is worse, this form of exclusions is also found in the professedly more egalitarian religions such as Christianity. The Pulaya Christians of Kerala, who were formerly untouchable Hindus are still treated as untouchables by the Syrian Christians. Similarly, conversion to Islam has helped dalits to read the namaz in the mosques along with co-believers. But this religious inclusion has not curbed indirect religious exclusion. The social stigma attached to them has not evaporated and non-dalit Muslims avoid dining or having marital relations with them.

Religion-based political exclusion: the denial of active citizenship rights

External exclusion: the political marginalisation of the Muslims

36The secular state in India de-politicised religion with the result that there is neither a separate electorate nor reservation of seats for Muslims. Given the ghettoization implicit in the institution of separate electorate and the separationist legacy it still carries in post-independent India, the rejection of separate electorates appears justified. However, in view of the severe under-representation of Muslims in the Indian Parliament, Indeed its steady decline over the years, one wonders if justice does not require some form of representation-enhancing policy for them. Muslim population is a little over 12 % of the total (over 120 million). However, their presence in the legislature is disproportionately low. Barring 1980 (9.2 %) and 1984 (8.3 %) it has hovered between 4.6 and 5.4 %. The Muslim share in public employment hovers around 3 % (Hasan 2001: 294). Muslim representation in the police is also inadequate. For example in Delhi, it is only 2.3 %, in Uttar Pradesh, 4.9 % and in Maharashtra, 4.2 % (ibid.). The Indian Armed Forces do not mirror the social diversity of the Indian population. In the paramilitary forces, the percentage ranges between 1.81 and 6.9 % (Khalidi 2003: 62-63).

Secularism survives

  • 15 The Chief Justice told the Additional Solicitor General who appeared for the Gujarat government: “I (...)

37The persistence of different forms of religious and religion-based exclusions shows that the State in India often lacks the political will to implement its own secular provisions. At the same time, the presence of these provisions continues to provide opportunities to individuals and groups to fight those who directly challenge secularism. Moreover the discursive field created by the Constitution continues to hem in Hindu ultra-nationalists in the sense that they are continually compelled to justify their inseemly acts in terms of the normative secular vocabulary of the Indian Constitution. For example, in 2002 when the Chief Minister dissolved the assembly to seek a fresh mandate, a meticulously worded order of the Election Commission (EC), a constitutional body with sole responsibility to conduct free and fair elections, ruled that conditions were not yet appropriate for elections in Gujarat. The argument of the commission was premised on a fundamental democratic principle: that every vote is equally valuable, and that the overall political climate must allow each vote to be cast peacefully and fairly. The EC argued that the large-scale displacement of people, especially victimised minorities, and the pervasive fear that still haunts riot-affected areas had rendered the electoral roll gravely defective. The commission argued that elections could be held only after the revision of the roll. It rightly claimed that, at that juncture, political mobilisation, an integral part of the electoral process, would inflame passions and shatter the fragile peace in the state. The Chief Election Commissioner, Lyngdoh played an exemplary role. He came down heavily on the Gujarat government for its purported claim of readiness to face the next state elections. He used the state’s own report that “151 towns and 993 villages covering 154 out of 182 assembly constituencies in the state and 284 police stations out of 464 police stations were affected by the riots, to falsify the Gujarat Chief Minister’s claim that the riots were localised only in certain pockets of the state” (Varadarajan 2002: 329). The structural impartiality of the Office of the CEC and its autonomy from the government of the day was demonstrated when Lyngdoh recommended that, in view of the vitiated atmosphere in the state, elections be held at a future date. He successfully resisted the pressure of the ruling party bent upon exploiting Hindu communalism in Gujarat for its electoral benefits. The National Human Rights Commission and the National Minorities Commission demonstrated their integrity and their autonomy by bringing to the notice of the Supreme Court the threats faced by witnesses of the pogrom in Gujarat. When in June, 2003, the Fast Track court of H.V. Mahida at Vadodara, set up to speed up trials involving serious offences, acquitted, for lack of evidence, all 21 persons accused of killing 14 Muslims in the Best Bakery case, the Supreme Court granted permission to the NHRC to file a special leave petition seeking the quashing of the trial court’s judgement and the retrial of the case. The SC also issued notices to the central and Gujarat governments for their sloppiness in handling such cases. It asked the Chief Minister of Gujarat to quit if he was unable to ensure justice to the victims.15 The secular Constitution of India continues to inhibit the exclusionary designs of ethno-religious forces.

38The democratic space opened up by the Constitution also builds secular resources to fight internal exclusions. I take two examples from the Muslim community. On November 7, 2008, nearly 6,000 Ulama-Islamic scholars gathered in Hyderabad and endorsed a fatwa that declared that all forms of terrorism are against the spirit of Islam. The endorsement, termed the Hyderabad declaration, came at the 29th general body meeting of Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind and was signed by the Grand Mufti of Darul Uloom, Deoband, Uttar Pradesh, Maulana Mufti Habibur Rahman and three other leading scholars.

  • 16 Reported in The Times of India, 8 November 2008.

39Explaining the rationale for ratifying the fatwa, Maulana Mahmood Madani, a prominent leader of the Jamiat said: “It is a demonstration of the faith the Muslim scholars are reposing in the importance and timeliness of the edict. When these delegates go back to their homes they would take back the signed Hyderabad Declaration that endorses the stand taken by Darul Uloom against terrorism.”16

40Another interesting development occurred in Uttar Pradesh where the rivalry between Barelvis and Deobandis resurfaced. The two groups are fighting over control of more than one lakh madrassas, dargahs, and graveyards and other historical monuments. Under the control of Sunni Waqf board, these properties are worth at least Rs 10,000 crores. The Barelvis have demanded that all the “idaaras” (religious places) be freed from “Wahabis” (the term used for identifying the people who are following the puritan notions of 18th century Arab Islamic revivalist Muhammed bin Abdel Wahab, who lived in Arabia. Here in India, the Deoband seminary is influenced by his thoughts) The Deobandis were told that the “13 % minuscule, manipulative minority cannot hijack all minorities bodies in Uttar Pradesh and the national level.”

  • 17 Source: the Report of Manjari Mishra, Times of India, 6 January 2010.

41One leader of the Barelvis, Maulana Kichowchhwi said this was a fight between moderates and hardliners. “Since the latter do not have faith in patron saints of ‘dargah’ or ‘mazar’ and have condemned the practice, logically they must not be considered for management of Ajmer Sharif or Deva Sharif. The government must ensure that the chairperson and members of the Sunni Waqf Board come from among 80 % of the population of moderate Muslims who follow the Sufi tradition”, he said. This apart, the board also demanded representation in Central Haj Committee, Urdu Academy and other minority related institutes. One Barelvi, Babar Ashraf, accused Dar-ul-Uloom Deoband of trying to dominate Barelvis “on the strength of petro-dollars”. “Members of Waqf board in the past have systematically captured our mosques and madrassas”, he said, and added, “The board would launch a public agitation to liberate our properties.” The gathering of ulema, imams and intellectuals also demanded “a rightful share and representation as per their population percentage in all government and semi-government bodies” and appealed to the government to ensure the enforcement, failing which the board would take the fight to the public.17 Hence the rivalry between Barelvis and Deobandis points to the opening up of spaces for religious plurality which, under conditions of a secular state, becomes a fight for secularism.

42The secular-democratic provisions of the Constitution are not always ineffective. Indeed, the last decade has seen a massive change of attitude among Muslims who are keen to shed their “socially backward, religiously obsessed tag” and move on to partake in the gains of development in the rest of the country.

Conclusion: Secularism misunderstood and distorted

43In conception, Indian secularism has been a wonderful invention. Its crisis is due to a continuous but contingent assault on it by Hindu ultra-nationalists and to the opportunism of various political parties. It also stems from the failure of nerve on the part of constitutional secularists. But — this is rarely recognized — it is also due to internal misunderstanding and deliberate distortion. In my concluding remarks, allow me to elaborate this point. Some proponents of secularism believe that a State is secular only if it intervenes negatively in religion. These proponents reduce Indian secularism to a doctrine with just one single function, i.e. to defend the rights of minorities. In doing so they open themselves to the charge of minoritism, an accusation that is largely false and frequently mischievous. Opponents (predominantly Hindu ultra-nationalists) of secularism also view it through the lens of mainstream western conceptions and then redraw its conceptual contours in such a way that it becomes undistinguishable from a doctrine defending the will of the religious majority. Neither is able to grasp the basic and quite distinctive features of the Indian model of secularism for which the State must keep a principled distance from all religions.

  • 18 It is worth noting that while the Muslim Personal Law in Pakistan was reformed under Ayub Khan gran (...)

44Let me illustrate my point by way of an example. Many proponents of secularism fail to explain why the State appears to intervene negatively only in one religion, namely Hinduism. Why ban untouchability or alter Hindu personal laws but adopt a policy of non-interference in a minority religion such as Islam? Why does the State not intervene in Muslim personal law?18 Why adopt a policy of one-sided exclusion for Hindus and of mutual exclusion for Muslims? Why this differential treatment? And when the state intervenes in minority issues, why does it do so to help only the minorities, for example by a subsidy for Haj or support for minority educational institutions? If one identifies separation with either mutual or one-sided exclusion, as proponents of secularism usually do, a good justification for such policies is hard to come by. Such secularists have no proper response because they have no proper understanding, leave alone a theory of what separation means or what separation is really for. Their confused utterances or silence only ends up making secularism identical with positive intervention of the State in favour of rights of religious minorities. Hindu ultra-nationalists then add fuel to fire by wrongly claiming that the exercise of these rights is always at the expense of the majority. They then point to the American Model of mutual exclusion and charge proponents of secularism for not being properly secular and for being pseudo-secular instead. There is a lot of mischief with facts here, for example, no figures are ever provided of expenditure by the state on arrangements for Hindu fairs attended by several million devotees. But this is not at issue here. My point rather is that the proponents of secularism in India can save it from such criticism if they correctly understand separation to mean principled distance. They can then justify why the state may contextually help or hinder religion and why it may even intervene, positively or negatively, in one religion more than in others. They forget to make the point central to the notion of principled distance that sometimes treating all religious communities as equals requires differential treatment. There is nothing wrong with allowing Sikhs to wear turbans in the armed forces if everyone recognizes the deep significance this has for Sikhs but not for other religious people. Nor is anything wrong if upper-caste dominated Hindu temples are singled out for state intervention in order to prevent the exclusion of dalits should they wish to enter them. True, the failure of reforms in Muslim personal law is an anomaly that needs fixing but the grounds in which to do so need to be properly understood. It must come out properly in the public domain why Muslim personal laws have not been interfered with by the state.

45A further problem is due to a strategy by Hindu ultra-nationalists who have slowly changed the meaning of secularism and made it indistinguishable from an ideology of states with established religion. How have they done so? First, by conflating theocracy with states with established religion and working with a simple theocracy/secular state binary. By showing that they do not wish the state to be governed by a priestly class in accordance with divinely ordained laws but rather by a political class in accordance with laws made by people themselves, they claim that they are in favour of a secular state. A non-theocratic state, they say, is one that separates itself from religion and is therefore secular. But a non-theocratic state is not automatically secular. It can formally align itself with a particular religion and thereby establish it. Hindu ultra-nationalists may not be theocratic but nor are they secular because they stand for a de facto alliance with the faith and cumulative tradition of one religious community.

  • 19 This is a revised and shorter version of the background paper written for the UNDP report of 2004 o (...)

46The fate of Indian secularism still hangs in balance. Despite the best efforts of some activists and intellectuals and the overtures of the Congress party to redress the grievances of Muslims and other minorities, minorities continue to be alienated. Dalits and large sections of women continue to suffer. The Kashmir issue remains unresolved. If India does not stem this rot, the world will witness not only the failure of one of the great experiments of introducing secular democracy in a radically heterogeneous society but also lose one of the major conceptual innovations of the sub-continent.19



Akbar, M.J. (1988), Riot After Riot, New Delhi, Penguin Book.

Bhargava, R. (2006), Political Secularism: a Hand Book of Political Theory, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Bhargava, R. (2000), “Do Muslims Have a Right to their Personal Laws?”, in P. de Souza, ed., Contemporary India: Transition, Delhi, Sage, pp. 182-202.

Brass, P. (1994), The Politics of India Since Independence, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press (2nd ed.).

Desai, I.P. (1988), Untouchability in Rural Gujarat, Bombay, Popular Prakashan (1st ed. 1976).

Dharkar, A. (s.d.), Crime against Humanity, Damning Verdict, Sabrang Communications and Publishing, New Delhi.

Guru, G. (2000), “Dalits: Reflections on the Search for Inclusion”, in P. de Souza, ed., Contemporary India: Transitions, Delhi, Sage, pp. 59-72.

Hasan, M. (2001), Legacy of a Divided Nation, New Delhi, OUP.

Hasan, Z. (2000), “Uniform Civil Code and Gender Justice in India”, in P. de Souza, ed., Contemporary India: Transitions, Delhi, Sage, pp. 282-301.

Kanungo, P. (2008), “Hindutva’s Fury against Christians in Orissa”, Economic and Political Weekly, xliii (37), pp. 16-19.

Kesavan, M. (2001), Secular Common sense, New Delhi, Penguin Books.

Khalidi, O. (2003), Khaki and the Ethnic Violence in India, New Delhi, Three Essays Collective.

Mander, H. (2002), “Status of Dalits and Agenda for State Intervention”, in G. Shah, ed., Dalits and the State, New Delhi, Concept Publishing Company, pp. 149-152.

Michael, S.M., ed. (1999), Dalits in Modern India, New Delhi, Vistaar Publications.

Nandy, A. Trivedy, S. Mayaram, S., et al. (1997), Creating a Nationality, Delhi, OUP.

Nussbaum, M.C. (1999), Sex and Social Justice, Oxford, OUP.

Robb, P. (1993), Dalit Movements and Meanings of Labour, New Delhi, OUP.

Sainath, P. (1996), “Everbody Loves a Good Drought”, Penguin, New Delhi.

Sarkar, S. (s.d.), in K.N. Panikkar, ed., Every Man’s Guide to secularism and Communalism, Penguin, pp. 73-77.

Sen, A. (1990), “More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing”, New York Review of Books, December, 20.

Shah, G., ed. (2002), Dalits and the State, New Delhi, Concept Publishing Company.

Singh, K. (1994), “The Constitution and Muslim Personal Law”, in Z. Hasan, ed., Forging Identities: Gender, Communities and the State in India, Boulder, West View Press, pp. 96-107.

Varadarajan, S. (2002), Gujarat: The Making of a Tragedy, New Delhi, Penguin.

Vershney, A. (2002), Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life, New Delhi, OUP.


1 The distinction is drawn in the background paper for the UNDP Report on Cultural Liberty, 2004.

2 It is difficult, particularly in South Asia, to make a distinction between religion and culture. If religion is seen as part of culture, then all religion-related exclusions are a form of cultural exclusion. If the two are entirely indistinguishable, then too, all religion-related and cultural exclusions are identical. I shall use the term “religion” to cover both phenomenon that is plainly religious and to those aspects of culture that have a strong bearing on religion.

3 Akbar, 1988; Varadarajan 2002; Dharkar; Vershney 2002; Nandy, Trivedy, Mayaram et al.1997.

4 The final tally of casualty figures for December 1992 and January 1993 are: Dead-900 (575 Muslims, 275 Hindus, 45 unknown and 5 others), Injured-2,036, Muslims-1,105, Hindus-893, Others-38. See Justice B.N. Srikrishna Report, in Damning Verdict, Sabrang Communications.

5 Events in Gujarat could hardly qualify as a “riot”. For a detailed account, see Varadarajan 2002: 229.

6 Kanungo 2008: 16-19. Kanungo writes that Laxmananda had himself been a missionary of sorts, “converting” or counter-converting adivasis and dalits to the VHP-brand of Hindu ecumenicalism, and spreading anti-Christian rhetoric throughout Kandhamal since the late-1960s


8 Reported in the Hindu, May 7, 2010.

9 Reported in The Hindu, May 18, 2009.

10 The PUDR report notes that a camp for 700 people in Anand town was functioning from 3 March when displaced persons started arriving. With over 700 people in the camp, a week’s ration arrived only on 6 March. Nothing after that, even numbers rose to 1,155 proper. The next ration on 2 April was sanctioned only for 247 people. Pleas for more supplies fell on deaf ears.

11 The 28 Feb. resolution fixed an ex-gratia payment of Rs.5,000–50,000 for permanent disability and Rs.1,000–5,000 for temporary disabilities. For the predominantly Muslim victims of the subsequent genocide, a 2 March resolution provides no payment for temporary disabilities at all. Even for permanent disabilities, the amount has been substantially scaled down: Rs.2,000 for disability up to 10 %, 3,000 for disability between 10 & 30 %, 5,000 between 30 & 40 %, 50,000 for above 40 % disability.

12 See Hasan 2000: 282-301. For a philosophically informed reflection on the same issue, see Bhargava 2000: 182-202.

13 Guru 2000: 59-72. Also see Shah, ed., 2002, especially the articles by Harsh Mander, M. Thangaraj, Ramesh Kamble, Susan Chaplin and S.R. Shankaran and Michael 1999.

14 He introduced the notion of what in Arabic is called kafaa, setting down rules about marriage between groups ranked hierarchically. Muslims of Arab origin (i.e., Sayyeds and Shaikhs) are said to be superior to non-Arab or Ajami Muslims, and so, although a man who is of Arab origin can marry an Ajami woman, the reverse is not possible. Likewise, a Pathan Muslim man can marry a Julaha (Ansari), Mansuri (Dhunia), Rayin (Kunjra) or Quraishi (Qasai) woman, but an Ansari, Rayin, Mansuri and Quraishi man cannot marry a Pathan woman. The Ulema believes that it is best to marry within one own caste.

15 The Chief Justice told the Additional Solicitor General who appeared for the Gujarat government: “I have no faith left in the prosecution and the Gujarat government. I am not saying Article 356. You have to protect people and punish the guilty. What else raj dharma? You quit if you cannot prosecute the guilty. It is not your personal property. If you cannot protect the poperty of the people, you cannot continue.” Frontline, October 10, 2003: 37-38.

16 Reported in The Times of India, 8 November 2008.

17 Source: the Report of Manjari Mishra, Times of India, 6 January 2010.

18 It is worth noting that while the Muslim Personal Law in Pakistan was reformed under Ayub Khan granting more rights to women, it has remained unchanged in India since the British codified and unified the Sharia into a set of immutable rules in 1772.

19 This is a revised and shorter version of the background paper written for the UNDP report of 2004 on Cultural Liberty. It is largely based on data up to 2003 and does not fully reflect any substantial changes since then.
For research on the post-2006 period, thanks are due to Ed Anderson, Jabir Ahmed and Anuradha Singh.


He is currently Senior Fellow and Director, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi. He obtained his BA degree in Economics from the University of Delhi and M.Phil and D.Phil from Oxford University. He has previously been a Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi and between 2001-2005 held the chair in Political theory and Indian political thought at the University of Delhi and was the Head of its Department of Political Science.

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