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Politique et religions en Asie du Sud

Christophe Jaffrelot
Aminah Mohammad-Arif

Minorités religieuses

Secular India and Muslim India. Discourse on secularism and Muslims in contemporary India

Anwar Alam


Cet article explore la trajectoire politique du sécularisme indien à la fois en termes de bases théoriques et de pratique dans la post-Indépendance de l’Inde. Tout en faisant ressortir les traits majeurs du sécularisme indien, l’article en discute l’articulation islamique. Il porte un regard critique sur le discours du développement de la relation entre le sécularisme indien et la communauté musulmane et le trouve éloigné de la réalité sociale. L’article soutient que la doctrine du sécularisme indien, en dépit de la croissance du communalisme et du nationalisme majoritariste, continue à fournir un espace institutionnalisé à la communauté musulmane pour vivre sa religion, sa culture, ses traditions, sa langue et sa dignité. Cela facilite non seulement l’intégration de la communauté minoritaire musulmane en Inde mais aide aussi à stopper la poussée du radicalisme et à développer la perception de l’ennemi vis-à-vis de l’État indien. À l’opposé des sensibilités populaires, ce papier met en lumière le modèle de développement de la communauté musulmane en dépit des obstacles.

Texte intégral


  • 1 There is no such term as “Indian Hindu”, hence term Indian Muslim is not sustainable as this amount (...)
  • 2 As a part of mandalization of Indian political process and in view of “politics of reservation” acq (...)

1Both Secular India and Muslim India came into existence on 15th August 1947 following the partition of British India into the Republic of India and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. The term Muslim India, if not Indian Muslim,1 not only signifies the numerical presence of the Muslim community in India but a “spatial-imagined Islamic space” that entails a conscious collective desire of the Muslim community to protect its culture, heritage, lifestyles, religious identity and language as part of the Indian public life and nationhood. Though this process was set in motion with the onset of the British colonial rule in the Indian subcontinent but culminated in “Partition”. The “Partition” created the overarching, “single Muslim identity” for all Muslim generation to come against the plural identities — regional, sectarian, linguistic, social — with which Muslims were referred in the past and recognized (Roy & Rizvi 2005: 93-121). The dominant thrust and nature of Muslim politics in post-colonial India is also geared to preserve and affirm “Muslim India” in the Indian public sphere. The Muslim community is not monolithic as it is commonly perceived. Like other socio-religious communities, it is internally differentiated in terms of class, caste, sect, denomination, ideological propensities, rural/urban divide and region. Notwithstanding this internal differentiation, the community acts more or less as a “homogeneous group” in the political process of the country. In fact, the greater is the threat of majoritarian politics the greater is the process of political homogenization within the community.2

2The term “Secular India” refers to the “spatial imagined political-national space” of geographic India — articulating and combining legacy of the freedom struggle, Western ideas of secularism and democracy and the Indian cultural traditions of diversity and pluralism — that would remained open to all the social groups and communities to which they can have access to and identify with. This imaginative cosmology of Secular India was reflected in two of its cardinal expression: “unity in diversity and diversity in unity” and “composite nationalism”.

  • 3 It is instructive to note here that former Prime Minister, Shri Atal Bihari Bajpayee, chided and re (...)

3The Indian doctrine of secularism was primarily devised to operationalize this vision of Secular India in the public arena. In other words, “Indian secularism” and “Secular India” are not synonymous. The former is a political instrument meant to realize the latter. Therefore, the doctrine of secularism in India was not visualised as part of a philosophy (worldview), an ideological value to be aggressively pursued against the entrenched religious-spiritual values of Indian society, neither was it conceived as the solution to inter and intra religious conflicts nor was it considered as a scientific basis for tolerance among the different religious groups — as opposed to Europe — but it was articulated primarily as a “framework of governance” and a “political necessity” for multicultural and multireligious societies such as India.3 In other words, the dominant political elite of post-colonial India never asked itself a question which is commonly assumed: the problem of building a secular state in a religious society. They consider India inherently as “secular” in political realm that partly comes from her legacy of cultural tradition of governance running from ancient India to modern British India including the Mughals and partly through the trajectory of modernity that was shaped through the cultural encounter with Europe over the last two hundred years.

  • 4 This modern sensitivity was reflected in the adoption of constitutional provisions such as Uniform (...)

4On the contrary secularism was expected to protect, facilitate and expand the domain of religious freedom. It saw tolerance as rooted in the Indian philosophy and in its plural lifestyle as nurtured through history, customs and the tradition of living together based on the principle of the recognition of each-other as “equal but different”. As a consequence, Secular India since its inception has never embarked on the “ideological project of secularism” and the creation of a secular nation-state as was witnessed in varying degrees in almost all the western nations and in “Kemalist Turkey”. Secular India therefore signifies not the birth of a modern nationhood in the European sense of the term, as commonly perceived, but as an “aspiration” to be recognized as “modern” but remained sensitive to the idea of tradition, identity and pluralism. Thus while Secular India incorporated the Enlightenment principles of Equality, Freedom, Democracy and Secularism, it rejected their colour blind, exclusive, authoritarian, mechanical and binary understanding and preferred to build their “imagined nation” on the combination of principle of force, democratic national consensus, dialogue and accommodation depending upon the political contingency and circumstances. In other words, while Indian constitution and dominant political elite incorporated the broad philosophical foundations and political principles of European liberal nation-state they refuse to imitate latter’s “civilizing and homogenising” role for the purpose of governance and constructing a nation-state. Despite the deep colonial encounter and dominant craving of its elite for a singular, homogenised nation,4 the trajectory of post-colonial Indian state, its programme and policies defy this “inevitable” predicament of nation building process. The post-colonial secular Indian state continues to experiment with “modernity” but without the principle of fixed uniformity. It prefers to govern the country with the combination of a modern notion of rule of law, equality and justice (without its colour blind interpretation) and traditional regimes of personal laws of the communities and other customary laws. This vision of Secular India finds its institutional expression in the Constitution of India (adopted on 26th January 1950 and since then amended several times) that establishes a multicultural model of democracy as against the assimilationist model of democracy of European verities.

Thematic questions

5In the view of the above trajectory of Secular India and Muslim India, what has been then the pattern of relationships/interactions between the two in post-independent India? How has Secular India treated Muslim India? Or what have been the experiences of Muslims in India living under the aegis of Secular India? What have been the responses of Muslim India to Secular India? How has the Muslim community articulated and internalized the Indian notion of secularism? How far has the Indian state and the democratic political process been able to meet the constitutional commitments related to the well being of the minority communities, particularly the Muslim community.

Developmental discourse and its fallacies

  • 5 Social, Economic and Educational Status of the Muslim Community of India: A Report (Prime Minister’ (...)

6Though the experiences of Muslims living under non-Muslim secular political dispensation vary depending upon his/her class, caste, sect, educational and regional background as well his/her understanding of the praxis of political secularism in the public arena, there are broadly two ways of investigating the above questions at the collective level. The first is what I would prefer to call a “developmental discourse” which of late has become a dominant framework to analyze the status of the Muslim community in Secular India. Under this discourse, the notion of secularism is expanded to include the principle of equity and social justice and then applied to examine the treatment meted out to the Muslim minority by successive governments of the post-colonial secular democratic state of India. A survey of this discourse throws the following picture of the relationship between secular India and the Muslim community since independence: increasing exclusion, marginalization and discrimination of the community at all levels — social, political, economic and cultural, reducing the community to second class citizens of the country, under — representation of the community in all public opportunity structures, segregation and ghettoization of the community, victim of institutionalized riots and pogroms, systematic destruction of its cultural heritage and legacy, particularly the demolition of the babri masjid and finally the emergence of the Muslim community as the “other” in India. In other words, the developmental trajectory of secular India over the last 60 years has simply bypassed the Muslim community, rather worsened her situation and rendered the community to live perennially an insecure, unstable and undignified life. This narrative of Muslim community was best captured by one of my radical leftist activist friend who pronounced in a private meeting with me: “the Sachar Commission Report5 has exposed the true (used in a sarcastically, negative way) face of the secular democratic practice of the Indian state.”

  • 6 See Omar Khalidi, “Hinduising India: Secularism in practice”, (...)

7Writing from this perspective many see the contradictions between secular India and its operational reality. The paradox is contrasted in terms of having a constitutional secular state (in theory) and a communal polity (in practice). Focusing on some aspects of the constitutional provisions and largely on state practices the late Omar Khalidi even declared that “India is not a secular state”.6 Others, taking into consideration the “core” and “periphery” dimensions of a modern nation, raised a question, “can a Muslim be Indian?” (Pandey 1999: 608-29). In other words, can Muslim represent the Indian nation? trekking the discourse of symmetry between Indian nationalism and hindu nationalism, they found the answer to this question in the negative. Aamir Mufti drew a parallel between the predicament of the minority jewish population of europe and the Muslim minority in India and concludes that the “representational burden”, religious minorities suffer from, will never make them as “equal citizens” within the structure of the modern nation state (Mufti 1995: 75-96). How fair is this assessment of the relationship between Indian secular nationalism and the minority Muslim community?

8These criticisms do not hold any substantial ground as they are primarily derived from an assumption that all nations are destined to have an assimilationist, homogenised conception of nationhood that was evolved and practiced in the West. However the Indian trajectory of nationhood and the nation-building process does not conform to this pattern as has been indicated in this paper. “Modern” nation is essentially a majoritarian concept and therefore to this extent and in conjunction with the nature of Indian secularism (that calls for “relational neutrality” of the state as against “absolute neutrality” as argued and elaborated in this paper) the majoritarian (Hindu) symbols, cultures, and traditions will have a lion share in the public representation of the Indian nationhood. However this does not mean that minorities’ symbols, cultures and traditions do not have a place in the representational space of the Indian nation as this paper has argued and demonstrated in the following pages. The fact that Muslims continue to occupy some of the highest positions (President, Vice President, Speaker of Parliament, Governor, Ministers, etc) in India itself indicates the space for composite nationalism that exists in this country, though this space has been recently shrinking on account of the development of an aggressive majoritarian nationalism.

  • 7 The Sachar Commission Report brought out the relative material deprivation, if not cultural, of the (...)

9The problem with this developmental discourse is that Muslims emerge as merely passive objects and silent consumer of “politics of development” in India. Second, an examination of the relationship between secularism and Muslim community through this paradigm centres the discussion on the theme of the “backwardness of the Muslim community” which is a very complex matter and requires a different method and approach of investigation. The treatment of the issue of “Muslim underdevelopment” with reference only to the “politics of state discrimination” and “majoritarian nationalism” would be at best a simplification of a complex process that calls for a multi-causal approach. Third, it is hard to demonstrate the communal basis of public policies that have been pursued in the post-independence period, though a communal mindset among a good number of public officials does exit and hampers the accruing of benefits of public policies for the Muslim community. However the hostility, insensitivity and communal outlook of the Indian bureaucracy is not merely confined to the Muslims alone but has been reflected in its dealing with others marginalized and peripheral sections of Indian society, e.g. Dalits, tribals, lower caste Hindus and women. Fourth, despite the communalization of the political process and state institutions and the growth of majoritarian nationalism that has often resulted in riots and at times pogroms as happened in Gujarat in 2002, a section of the Muslim community throughout the country has benefitted from the developmental process of the country and affirmative policies of the state. Both command economy of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s and market economy since the mid-1980s have positively and negatively affected different sections of the Muslim community, like other social groups of the country (Alam 2009). Fifth, the discourse of “developmental deficit” is more centred around the North Indian Muslims for historical reasons than around South Indian ones. Finally, such a gloomy picture of the community is to a large extent ideological and rhetorical, if not completely false, and lacks a sound empirical validation.7

10A second way of investigating the questions raised above within the framework of the relationship between Indian secularism and the Muslim community is to undertake an examination of the Constitutional mandate of secularism, the expectations, understanding and articulation of the Muslim community about Indian secularism, the dominant nature and goal of “Muslim politics” and the particulAR manner in which the Indian state system functions and relates itself with the various social groups including Muslim community. It is within this framework that I would like to examine the issue of relationship between secularism and the Muslim community in India.

Constitutional framework of secularism

  • 8 On the notion of relational neutrality, see Bader (2003: 265-294).

11The constitutional provisions that underpin the secularity of the Indian state are Article (s) 15, 16, 25, 26, 27, 28 and 29 (2). They are part of the Fundamental Rights guaranteed to all the citizens of India and have a direct relevance for the Muslim community. A close reading of these constitutional provisions and an observation of secular practices of the Indian state points towards the three distinct features of Indian secularism which are significant for the integration of minority communities, particularly the Muslims. First it de-recognizes, if not rejects, the principle of strict religious neutrality of the state in favour of the principle of “relational neutrality” of the state.8 This relational neutrality of the Indian state has been maintained by way of avoiding any constitutional definition of secularism and by the adoption of the kind of operative definition of secularism (sarva dharam sambhaV or principle of equi-distance to all religions or what Bhargava (2007: 20-53) has called the “principled distance” combining the traditional sensibility and the modern outlook of the Indian state) that neither endorses the American model of secularism in terms of the complete separation of religion and politics (constitutionally speaking, if not in political practice) nor the European model of secularism, save France, that recognises the varying forms of association between religion and state at the constitutional level.

12Second, it not only underlines the principle of non-discrimination and equal citizenship but it proclaims the equality of religions in the public realm along with the equality to religion in that arena (Mahajhan 1998: 69).

13Third, it provides a degree of associational religious freedom and communal autonomy that is required in particular for religious minorities if only to protect them from “intrusive interference” by states and majority religions.

14Fourth, by not adopting a religion of state the constitution assures the Muslim community the non-homogenization path of the nation building process in the country.

15It is these dimensions of Indian secularism that includes the principle of non-discrimination, equal citizenship, individual liberty, equal recognition and respect to all religions in public sphere along with concern for well beings of religious minorities that constitute the constitutional mandate of Indian secularism. However the full scope of this constitutional mandate of Indian secularism cannot be fully understood unless it is read with conjunction of special constitutional provision for linguistic and religious minorities that have come to be known as “minority rights”. For all practical purposes Indian secularism is increasingly defined in terms of the protection of minority rights not only from a perspective of minority religious community, particularly the Muslim community, but from a larger mainstream liberal discourse on Indian secularism. The notion of “crisis of Indian secularism” mainly derives from a development of aggressive majoritarian nationalism and its consequential attack on rights and well being of the minority community, particularly the Muslim community.

Constitutional framework of minority rights

16The principle of non-discrimination, though important, was not considered enough for the protection of minority rights. Hence the Constitution lays down certain specific collective cultural rights to be enjoyed by members of religious and linguistic minorities alone under Article (s) 29 (1), 30 (1), 30 (1A), 30 (2), 347, 350, 350 (A).

  • 9 The case of Kerala Education Bill 1957, quoted in Massey 1999: 42.

17It is interesting to note here that while the Constitution placed limited obligation on the state in this regard, the scope of minority rights was gradually expanded partly due to the Judiciary innovative interpretation of these provisions and partly due to the system of “competing electoral democracy”, that prevails in India and under which the minorities, particularly the Muslims vote, which can significantly affect political outcomes. Referring to Article 29 (1), the Supreme Court declared: This right is more or less “absolute”, “unqualified” and “positive” and includes even the citizens’ “right to agitate for its protection” (Wadhwa 1975: 98). In a famous judgement connected with Article 30, the Supreme Court declared that “The minorities, quite understandably, regard it essential that the education of their children should be in accordance with the teachings of their religion and they hold, quite honestly, that such an education cannot be obtained in ordinary schools designed for all the members of the public, but can only be versed in the trends of their religion and in the tradition of their culture.”9

18The Government of India has recently taken measures to establish institution to enforce these constitutional provisions. Accordingly the National Commission for Minorities Act (1992) was passed by the parliament in 1992 to monitor the working of the constitutional safeguards in the union and state laws. Sitaram Kesari, the then Welfare Minister, while placing the National Commission for Minorities Bill at the floor of parliament for vote on May 4, 1992, remarked, “… armed with a statutory power the Commission would be an effective instrument for the protection of minority rights and it would instil confidence in the minorities.”

19Secularism in India has been increasingly emerging as a part of the minority rights discourse. It is seen today by most Muslims as a positive feature of Indian life in marked contrast to a large number of Hindus who are today inclined to reject secularism on the ground that it does injustice to a Hindu historical heritage and turns “epistemic error into a political blunder” (Sen 1998). Today most Islamic fundamentalist organizations and other Muslim groups are found actively engaged in organizing/participating (in) seminars, symposia, conferences and other similar activities on their own or jointly with other social groups in order to defend the democratic and secular structure of the Indian state against the challenges posed by the forces of Hindutva. In a document detailing its aims and objectives, the Jamaat-i-Islami-Hind (JIH) declares that Muslims must work towards “safeguarding human rights, promoting democratic values and containing the upsurge of fascism in the country” (Jama’at Islami Hind, Apr.- Mar. 2003, p4).

20From the Muslim point of view, the most important symbol that has come to be identified as part of the package of minority rights is the issue of the protection of Muslim Personal Law or shariat law. Muslim Personal law is derived from the system of personal laws or what is called “legal pluralism” that prevails in Indian society. The doctrine of legal pluralism lays down that every community is entitled to live in accordance with its respective religiously prescribed laws in matters of things called “personal” such as marriage, divorce, adoption, inheritance, succession etc.; the rest, including commercial and criminal matters, are governed by the unified framework of secular law. Thus in legal cases involving Hindus, Christians, Muslims or Parsees, matters defined as “personal” are administered by religious laws. Reflecting on the advantage of the system of personal laws in India, John H. Mansfield argues that “in particular it contributes to their sense of existing and having meaning, something that citizenship in a nation-state alone cannot confer” (ibid.: 158). On a similar line but in a wider framework of minority rights, Bishnu N. Mohapatra also argues that the recognition of ascriptive identities of the people in a substantive sense contributes to a better realization of equal citizenship and increases people’s sense of belonging to the political communities in which they live (Mohapatra 2002).

Indian state, secularism and Muslim community

  • 10 See Shabuddin & Wright (1987: 157), Smith (1957: 285), Troll (1995: 245- 261), Mahmood (1993: 93-12 (...)

21The combination of the above constitutional protection of the cultural and linguistic rights of minority communities (minority rights), the legal recognition of the system of personal laws and the doctrine of Indian secularism structures the relationship between the Muslim community and the Indian state. In fact, in the Muslim imagination, the first two are broadly considered as an integral part of the doctrine and practice of Indian secularism. Accordingly, Indian secularism must protect and affirm the first two in the public arena. It is in conjunction with this goal that the dominant Muslim representation of post-colonial India and the Indian state is one of dar-ul-ahd (land of pact), derived from prophet muhammad’s pact (ahad) with the jews of medina after his hijra (migration) or dar-ul-aman (state at peace with islam). according to this thesis, Muslims and non-Muslims have entered upon a mutual contract in India since independence to establish a secular state under which Muslims would be free to exercise their sreligious obligations, at least in the personal sphere.10 In other words, the allegiance of a Muslim citizen to the non-Muslim state is conditional upon the recognition and protection of Muslim identity, at least in the personal sphere. It is through this process that Muslims enter into relationship with the dominant Hindu majority (Engineer 1999: 263-269).

  • 11 Quoted in I. Ahmad (2010: 13).
  • 12 M. Ahmad (1991: 505, 457-530). However Irfan AHMAD in his studies on JIH demonstrates how JIH suppo (...)

22In post-Independent India, the “paradigm of security” has led Muslim communities to align themselves with all the shades of secular political formations in the political arena at both the centre and state levels. However, among the spectrum of secular political formations, Muslims preferred choice has mostly been the parties, like the congress, that adhere to the moderate version of secularism and not the ones, like the communists, that appear to them as advocates of a radical version of secularism in terms of the complete separation of religion and politics despite the latter’s proven commitment to the principle of secularism and minority rights. in other words, most Muslims see their collective well being as inextricably linked to the moderate version of Indian secularism that takes into consideration the protection of both the physical safety as well as the cultural and religious aspects of their life. It was this understanding of Indian secularism that the Jamaat-Ulema-Hind (JUH) has called Indian secularism as “golden principle of rule”, a “pious objective” and has resolved to keep the candle of “secularism alight”.11 Unlike its counterpart in Pakistan, the Jamaat-i-Islami-Hind (JIH), the most important Islamic fundamentalist organization in India and founder of Political Islam in South Asia, supports the idea of a secular state for its “utilitarian expediency”.12 For the same reason, most Muslim/Islamic organizations, while reacting to communal riots, accuse the government of the day as violating or deviating from the principle of secularism. For them, the opposite of secularism is not religion but communalism and majoritianism. However this position of the Muslim community also converges with the national discourse on secularism that broadly takes place in the framework of secularism vs communalism or majoritatrianism.

  • 13 This case relates to lady called Shaha Bano who was divorced by her husband in her old age. The mat (...)

23The overall position of the Muslim communities vis-a-vis their relationship with the Indian state can be summarized as follows: Muslims do not favour a state/government that is indifferent to their religious and cultural demands but at the same time, they remain strongly opposed to the state’s intervention in the sphere of social, religious and cultural life. This partly explains nationwide mobilization of the Muslim community against the Supreme Court verdict on the Shah Bano case13 in 1986. They forced the then Rajiv Gandhi government to annul the decision of the Supreme Court and to pass the Muslim Womens (Protection of Rights on Divorce Act), 1986. The government’s scheme of modernization of madrasas did not either find favour with the community as the scheme was considered as opening the door of governmental regulation and interference in the institution of madrasas that has become very important in preserving and promoting Muslim identity in the present context. more recently, in view of opposition of various islamic organisations, particularly of all India Muslim personal law, the government of India has exempted madrasas from the ambit of right to education act, 2010. hence, given this kind of relationship between Muslim communities and the Indian state, what is defended is the autonomy of the community, and minority cultural rights are seen as instruments for the protection and realization of that ideal (mahajhan 1998). for this reason, the most preferred version of article 25 by islamic fundamentalist organizations/institutions is the one that construes it as conveying an absolute right to distinct personal laws for Muslims based on the sharia without any outside interference.

Indian political process and Muslim community

24How far have the Indian state and the secular democratic political process been able to meet the constitutional commitments related to the well being of the Muslim community? An answer to this question lies in understanding a) the particular manner in which the Indian state system functions and relates itself with the various social groups including the Muslim community and b) the nature of the dominant goals that have been set before the Indian polity and pursued by the dominant sections of Muslim political and religious elites in India.

  • 14 In case of majority community the state assumed itself as representing the community and has moral (...)

25The noticeable features about the particular manner within which the Indian state system has been functioning are its flexibility and ambiguity about norms, doctrines and principles, its being non-definitional, its fuzziness about the things “political” and decision making process, its capacity to live with uncertain situations, its tendency to look for context-specific solutions and to develop a political grammar that recognizes the public-private, formal-informal distinctions but without making it its official doctrine. Thus, while the Constitution and the law of the land speak both about the rights of the individual and the groups, no specific procedure or guidelines were laid down in the Constitution, neither any attempt was ever made by the Supreme Court or by the Indian Parliament to realize the same so as determine why the state should support one rather than the other in the case of a conflict between the two. Another example of fuzziness and ambiguity of the Indian state pertains to the issue of private-public distinction. the principle of separation of public and private realms has long been considered in western political discourses as a central necessity for the maintenance of the idea of “absolute neutrality” of liberal-democratic states as well as for the idea of the dissociation of the religious and the political. in the Indian context, neither the constitutional provisions nor the overall political practices of the Indian state/government points either to the separation or the fusion between the two. in addition, the state can interfere in the religious realm to carry out its modernist agenda of social reform which so far has been confined to majoritarian community.14 the passing of the hindu code bill in the 1950s signifies one such reformist agenda of the modernist state among many. it also has constitutional mandate to regulate the financial aspect of religious places of public importance. accordingly government has established financial administrative control over all the major religious places/centres belonging to both majority and minority communities.

  • 15 Mathew John, Indian Exceptionalism? A discussion on India’s Experiment With Constitutional Seculari (...)

26Further, while concern for group rights led to the recognition and even legitimization of collective religious identity and performance in public arena the modern sensibility of constructing a liberal-secular state, that demands the separation of religion from politics, led to the incorporation of a provision in the representation of peoples act, 1952, (further amended in 1961), that prevents the misuse of religion for corrupt political (emphasis mine) practice. However what constitute the “misuse of religion” depends upon the “definition of religion”, which is subject to judicial interpretation. The various judgements of Indian courts in this regard does not reflect a uniform pattern but a varied one depending upon subjective understanding of the judges and his/her reading of the contexts.15 With regard to cases concerning the misuse of religion for electoral purposes the pattern of judicial ruling in this regard has been that while references to a candidate’s religion or to the religion of the contender was considered as constituting corrupt electoral practices, it has not ruled against the general reference to religion in political campaigns (Rekhi 1993) despite the political rhetoric of separating religion from politics that dominates the public arena in the country. The Supreme Court, thus, did not consider the use of the expression, “Hindutva” in the political campaign as violating Art. 127 (3) of the Representation of Peoples Act.

27Over the years this flexibility, accommodative, fuzziness, vagueness and non-doctrinal tendencies of the Indian political process has proved to be its strength, not its weakness as many advocates of the rational-modernist model of development would like to believe, in dealing with the complex issues of integrating the large social diversities that exist in India without undertaking the violent route. Commenting upon the ambiguity surrounding the meaning of secularism in the Indian context, Imtiaz Ahmad observed:

On a practical view, it would appear that leaving secularism largely undefined and neither rejecting nor accepting the idea that the state in India would function on the principles which had become established since the rise of secular ideology in Europe was after all not a bad strategic choice. One positive feature that flowed out of this deliberately left ambiguity was that it allowed secularism to be accepted widely among the different social and religious communities in India. Of course, the readiness for acceptance of secularism, the speed with which it was accepted and the reasons that prompted acceptance varied across social communities and groups. For example, secularism found relative readiness among a large body of Hindu rights in the beginning. On the other hand, Muslims and a few other groups were initially quite sceptical about what secularism might entail and whether the state was actually seriously committed to upholding it in the future. They first preferred to wait and watch. Then they rejected it, claiming that it carried the potential to deny them a basis for their preservation of their cultural distinctiveness and religious integrity. Finally, they recognized the positive role of secularism and accepted it with a view to using it to their advantage wherever possible [Ahmad 1999: 7-8].

28One of the positive implications of the above narrated ambiguous, fuzzy and non-doctrinal nature of secularism in particular and the larger political process in general is that that minorities, especially Muslims, continue to enjoy the recognition of their religious and cultural symbols in the public realm as part of the evolved political culture if not as an outright matter of constitutional rights. This is reflected in the observance of national public holidays connected with minority religions. Thus, out of 14 declared national religious holidays, 10 belong to minority communities (4 Muslims, 2 Christians, 2 Sikhs, 1 Buddhists, and 1 Jain). It is a general practice that the Quran and the Bible are recited along with the Hindu scriptures during national mournings and on other occasions. In addition to this there are varied numbers of other religious public holidays that are celebrated at state level. Of late, iftar party during the holy month of Ramadan is fast becoming a political norm in Indian politics. Custodians of state authority, including the President, Prime Minister, Cabinet Minister and the national and state leaders of political parties including the Hindu Right party, the BJP, arrange lavish iftar parties attended by eminent citizens and diplomats and widely reported in the media. Interestingly, the public exchequer partly meets the expenses of these parties. Similarly, the government provides subsidy and make elaborate arrangement to facilitate Muslims’ trips to Mecca (Saudi Arabia) to perform Haj. Further, the benefit of censorship laws was also liberally extended to Muslim community. Among the books (related to Islam and Muslim communities) so far proscribed in India have been Thomas and Thomas on the Prophet, Kurt Frishler on his wife Syeda Aisha, Desmond Steward and Ram Swarup on Islamic religion and Salman Rushdie’s satanic verses banned in 1956, 1963, 1975, 1983 and 1988 respectively. the proliferation of madrasaS in post-colonial India (Krishna 1985: 377; Sikhand 2004: 94-100) is another indicator of India’s liberal political culture.

29Connected with the ambiguity of the doctrine of secularism, there is another crucial feature of the Indian political process that helps to protect the interests of minority/Muslim communities: the lack of the development of “majoritarianism” as a political creed and as a basis of governance. Both the internal structure of the Constitution and the diversities of Indian society greatly constrain the possibility of emergence of majoritarianism, if not of the development of majoritarian politics. Majoritarianism is a fixed and relentless position, which is incapable of alteration, whereas a majority rule is open to transformation and change. The fact that a political decision in a (majoritarian) democracy is democratically arrived at leaves open the option of further representation and the possibility of a reversal of the earlier decision. It is through this process that minorities including women have succeeded in getting their due rights in democratic societies.

  • 16 See Bhargava, “Words Save Lives: India, the BJP and the Constitution”, (...)

30Needless to say that majoritarianism should be distinguished from the various shades of majority rule that is constantly under democratic pressure to change. The “politics of majoritarianism” is one thing; its transformation into the “creed of majoritarianism” is yet another. In fact the alarmist view that was generated in certain liberal sections following the rise of the Hindu Right was found to be exaggerated, if not completely false. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government miserably failed during its rule (1998-2004) to implement its core agenda of majoritarianism that was instrumental in bringing it to power. This agenda included the construction of the Ram Temple, the adoption of the Uniform Civil Code, the scrapping of Art. 370 that gives special status to Jammu and Kashmir and the abolition of the National Commission of Minority Rights, set up by previous governments. While the BJP put the blame of the failure on coalition rule, the fact is that it was the constitutional propriety that became the main obstacle in implementing this agenda.16 It even failed to push a nation-wide ban on the central symbol of Hindu politics during India’s pre and post independence phase, cow slaughter (Freitag chap5 and 6).

  • 17 See Krishna 1985: 377; T.N. Madan 1997: 106–49; Alam 2003: 4881–5.

31In fact the in-built elasticity of the Indian democratic political process does not allow to privilege or de-privilege any social groups in perpetuity. any student of the social transformation of Indian society in the post-colonial period will testify the gradual upward mobility of hitherto excluded social groups of lower caste/class in the higher echelon of state administration and others areas without any large scale violent backlash. the nature of the democratic political process in India has helped expanding the domain of equality both horizontally and vertically (jaffrelot 2003; varsheny 2000: 3-25). this process has also largely helped Muslims to realize their dominant goals through mainstream secular political parties, chiefly the Indian national congress. the dominant goal of “Muslim politics” since the decline of Muslim power in India has been the protection and promotion of the religious and culture identity of the community.17 thus the few demands that have agitated “Muslim minds” in post independent India are the protection of the Muslim personal law, the promotion of urdu, the preservation of the minority character of aligarh Muslim university, the construction of the babri mosque, the protection of mosques, shrines, madrasas, the saffronization of school textbooks, etc.

  • 18 The University Grant Commission has never failed in granting adequate grants to Aligarh Muslim Univ (...)
  • 19 Among the other benefits, the declaration of a language as “schedule language” allows students to w (...)
  • 20 The importance of second official language lies in the fact that all government notifications and o (...)
  • 21 Congress Committee Report, 1957, the Gujarat Committee Report, 1972, The Gopal Singh Panel report, (...)

32The attitude of most of central and state governments, barring Hindu Right, towards these demands has neither been “outright rejection” nor “total acceptance” but “a gradual concession” to the community depending upon the “context” and the “political weight” of the issue. In general, governments have been sensitive to conceding the religious-cultural demands of the Muslim community for three principle reasons. First it helps them to bolster their secular credentials. Second, it does not cost much to the state exchequer. Third, it ensures a good political return in terms of getting support of the community. Some major government initiatives in this regard are as follows: liberal grants to minority educational institutions, conferring “minority status” to various Muslim educational institutions,18 inclusion of Urdu in the Constitution’s eighth schedule,19 declaration of Urdu as the second official language in many states,20 setting up the National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language (NCUPL, 1996), setting up Maulana Azad National Urdu Central University (1998), Protection Of Religious Place of Worship Act (1992), Muslim Women Protection of Right on Divorce Act (1989), the declaration of national holidays on the occasion of barafat (the holy birthday of Prophet Muhammad) (1990), setting up various commissions to look into the grievances of Muslims.21

33It is only recently in the mid 1990s that the focus of “Muslim politics”, particularly in the North Indian context, has shifted from “identity making discourse” to “identity and developmental discourse”. Three factors underlie this shift. First, as politics of Mandal (caste) and Kamandal (religious) exhausted its potential by the late 1990s, the developmental politics came to acquire the centre stage in the Indian political process. This process also galvanized a section of the Muslim community for empowerment. Second, the demolition of the Babri Masjid totally discredited the ashraf based political and religious leadership in the community, particularly in North India. As a result they also focussed on developmental discourse, particularly demanding 10 % reservations for Muslims in all categories of Central public services, partly to maintain their hold on leadership and partly to meet the expectations of restless segments of upper caste Muslims. Third, the fragmentation of social and political constituencies during the 1980s and the 1990s made the electoral democracy more competitive, thereby increasing the political weight of the Muslim community for every political party. The combined result of this is that today the community has become far more politically assertive than was the case in the previous four decades. Various local and regional Muslim political formations such as the Muslim Front and the Umma Council (Uttar Pradesh), the INSAF party (UP and Bihar), the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) (Assam), the Majlis-e Ittihad al-Muslimeen (MIM) and the reorganised Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) (Kerala) surfaced at the political level with the plank of identity and developmental discourse. The Jamaat-i-Islami Hind (JIH) has formally launched “the Welfare Party of India” in April 2011 on all India level. This political assertion is partly derived from Muslims’ perception of the failure of secular political parties to address their grievances and is also partly indicative of the formation of sizeable Muslim middle classes over the last fifty years in North India (Alam 2009), who were lost in the wake of Partition when a bulk of Muslim middle classes migrated to Pakistan-a process that continued till the mid-1960s. In the South, which was not affected much by Partition, Muslim middle classes managed to survive, and who continue to grow owing largely to the absence (in relative sense) of the non-communal outlook of state governments, affirmative policies and remittances from the Gulf. However the formation of BJP government in Karnataka is a worrying trend in the South despite a fact that government has so far not adopted overtly communal postures.

  • 22 Muslims groups now receive the benefit of reservation in state of Kerela, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, An (...)
  • 23 This Act replaced the infamous Prevention of Terrorist Activities (POTA), 2002, which was brought i (...)

34What is interesting to observe is that some of aspects of political safeguards  —  reservations in legislature, quotas in government employment, representation of minorities in the Cabinet and the creation of administrative machinery to ensure supervision and protection of minority rights — that were guaranteed under British rule and were part of the deliberations of constitution making exercise till August 1947 but were withdrawn in the final draft of the constitution (1948) after the Partition (which critics see as a great setback to Indian secularism and as the origin of majoritarian nationalism) — began to resurface in national political debates in the mid-1990s. This has resulted in the following governmental measures: extending to the Muslims the benefit of affirmative policy in the opportunity structure of the state,22 formation of a Rapid Action Force (RAF), created in 1991 as special Police force to deal with communal riots, upgradation of Jamia Millia Islamia as Central University (1988) Prevention of Terrorism (Repeal) Ordinance (2004),23 the National Minority Development and Financial Corporation (1992), setting up of the National Commission for Minority Rights (1978), reconstituted as the National Commission for Minorities (1992), setting up of the Ministry of Minority Affairs, passing of National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions Bill 2004 that allows affiliation to nearby universities and opening of two more campuses of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), in Kerala and in West Bengal, the Rajendra Sachar Commission Report (2006) and the Ragnath Misra Commission Report (2007) that has recommended 15 % reservation of jobs in government services and seats in educational institutions for minorities including 10 % for Muslims, 8.4 % out of existing OBC (Other Backward class) quota of 27 % for minorities including 6 % for Muslims and extension of SC reservation to Dalits who have been converted to Islam or what is called Dalit Muslims. Given this trend, Steven Ian Wilkinson, while criticizing Arend Lijphart’s identification of consociational democracy with Nehruvian regime in India, has detected the process of emergence of a consociational form of democracy for the first time in post-colonial Indian history (Wilkinson 2000: 767-791).

Concluding observations

35What emerges out from the above analysis is that “Secular India”, despite the growth in the process of Hindu majoritarian nationalism and communalism, through its doctrine of secularism (that includes the recognition of minority rights and their cultural and religious symbols in the public arena) continues to provide the “institutionalised space” for Muslim communities to live in accordance with their religion, culture and identity. Tahir Mahmood explained how the operation of public law in India does not contradict the precepts of Islam and does not obstruct the Muslims from organizing their lives in accordance with Islamic values (Mahmood 1993). This space for “Muslim India” within the Indian nationhood goes a long way in stemming the tide of growing isolation, radicalism, apathy and alienation among the Muslims and helps in restoring their “wounded” confidence in the Indian state system. According to a survey conducted by Subrata Mitra in 1996 on the acceptance of the democratic and secular political system among the different religious groups, the most vocal support came from Muslims (72.2 %) as against 68.2 % among Hindus (Mitra 2001: 26). The same trend among Muslims was also confirmed by the Centre for Studies on Developing Countries (CSDS). According to the CSDS’s State of the Nation’s Survey, 2005, that involved 28 states of the country, 98 % of the Muslims identified themselves as Indian against 97 % of Hindus, and 76 % of Muslims, as against 78 % Hindus, stated that democracy was always better (Hindustan Times, 10th Feb. 2006).

36The overall decline of political secularism, the communal outlook and insensitivity of law enforcing agency, the context of terrorism that has led to the arrest of a large number of Muslim youths and the rise in communal riots have certainly resulted in Muslims’ growing sense of insecurity and distrust in state agencies. However, unlike the West, Islam is not perceived by the government as a “security threat”, neither do Muslims look upon the state as decisively working against Islam and against them except for some fringe segments, such as the Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). In other words, the state has not lost its total legitimacy in the eyes of Muslims, nor is it perceived as the “enemy” of Islam and Muslims per say.



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1 There is no such term as “Indian Hindu”, hence term Indian Muslim is not sustainable as this amounts Hindu and India being synonymous with each other that exist only in the imagination of fundamentalist Hindu organisations. In others words, the term “Indian Muslim” smacks assimilation in majoritarian Hindu culture.

2 As a part of mandalization of Indian political process and in view of “politics of reservation” acquiring centre stage in Indian politics during mid-1980s and 1990s the caste based Muslim political organisations have also surfaced at the national level. However given the fact that caste lacks legitimacy in Islam and perception of caste based exploitation and discrimination is weaker among the lower segment of Muslim community, caste based Muslim politics has not acquired the political legitimacy as the one found in the Hindu community and hence not affected politically homogenous behaviour of Muslim community. Further, political parties across all ideological spectrum projects the undifferentiated view of Muslim community so as to enlist latter’s enblock support. Moreover, Muslims participation in the political process of India is mainly guided by “threat perception” (A. ALAM, 1995: 106-133, also J. ALAM 2010).

3 It is instructive to note here that former Prime Minister, Shri Atal Bihari Bajpayee, chided and reminded the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narenedra Modi, of the principle of “Raj-Dharam” in the context of Gujarat Riots in 2002 despite belonging to same Hindutava genealogy. The term “Raj-Dharam” in Hindi lexicography refers to moral and ethical dimension and principle of non- discrimination in matter of political rule and governance.

4 This modern sensitivity was reflected in the adoption of constitutional provisions such as Uniform Civil Code, Hindi as official language, Hindu Code Bill, ban on cow slaughter, etc.

5 Social, Economic and Educational Status of the Muslim Community of India: A Report (Prime Minister’s High level Committee Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India, New Delhi, November 2006), also available at

6 See Omar Khalidi, “Hinduising India: Secularism in practice”, retrieved on 17th Feb. 2011.

7 The Sachar Commission Report brought out the relative material deprivation, if not cultural, of the Muslim community vis a vis other socio-religious communities of Indian society as well as lack of public utility services and infrastructure in Muslim dominated area. However it did not account the state discriminatory practices responsible for relative marginalization of Muslim community. Contrary to the peception, the Commission found that the success ratio of Muslim community in the Central services is simlar to other socio-religious groups if comparision is based on the basis of number of applicants and number of applicants who qualified the written test, if not on the basis of population which is normally invoked to demonstrate the under-representation of Muslim community in public services. See, pp166-167.

8 On the notion of relational neutrality, see Bader (2003: 265-294).

9 The case of Kerala Education Bill 1957, quoted in Massey 1999: 42.

10 See Shabuddin & Wright (1987: 157), Smith (1957: 285), Troll (1995: 245- 261), Mahmood (1993: 93-120).

11 Quoted in I. Ahmad (2010: 13).

12 M. Ahmad (1991: 505, 457-530). However Irfan AHMAD in his studies on JIH demonstrates how JIH support to secular state in India is not instrumental but signifies its own democratic ideological transformation under the impact of Indian secular democracy. See I. Ahmad (2010).

13 This case relates to lady called Shaha Bano who was divorced by her husband in her old age. The matter reached to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, while interpreting the sacred text of Koran and Hadith, endorsed the earlier High Court decree that Shah Bano had the right to future maintenance from her former husband under section 125 of the Indian Code Criminal Procedure. The All India Muslim Personal Law Board and other Islamic fundamentalist organnizations raised the issue that a secular institution does not have a right to interpret the Koran and the Hadith and hence the court judgment amount to interference in the matters of personal law that has been sanctioned by the constitution to the Muslim communities. The movement became so powerful that it forced the then Rajiv Gandhi government to annul the Supreme Court judgment by passing a very retrogressive law called Muslim Women (Protection of Right on Divorce) Act in 1989. On the implication of Shaha Bano Case for national politics in Indian, see Das 1997.

14 In case of majority community the state assumed itself as representing the community and has moral authority and mandate to reform those aspects of Hindu society that hinders the goal of equality. With regard to minority community the government took a democratic position that the demand for the reform should come from within the community. Any reform from above on the community will be considered as “imposed” and “undemocratic” and might be counterproductive.

15 Mathew John, Indian Exceptionalism? A discussion on India’s Experiment With Constitutional Secularism, Asia Research Centre Working Paper 17, 2006, The recent Allahabad High Court Judegement on Babri Masjid-Ram Janam Bhumi controversy and differences of opinion among all three judges reflects the same trend. For judgement, see (retrieved on 18th Feb. 2011).

16 See Bhargava, “Words Save Lives: India, the BJP and the Constitution”, (dated: 2.10.2002).

17 See Krishna 1985: 377; T.N. Madan 1997: 106–49; Alam 2003: 4881–5.

18 The University Grant Commission has never failed in granting adequate grants to Aligarh Muslim University. A certification of minority status by government allows the minority education institution to reserve up to 50 % of total seats for students belonging to their co-religion. The most recent case is of Jamia Millia Islamia which has been declared as “minority institution” by a controversial judgement passed by National Council of Minority Educational Board (NCMEB) in Feb. 2011.

19 Among the other benefits, the declaration of a language as “schedule language” allows students to write examinations for national government services in any one of the 22 language listed under the 8th schedule.

20 The importance of second official language lies in the fact that all government notifications and orders will also be made available in this language apart from the official language. This creates employment opportunity in terms of appointment of translators in all the departments of the government as well as the appointment of teachers in the public school. Urdu has been declared as second language in the fifteen and thirteen districts of state of Bihar and Andhra Pradesh. In state of Utter Pradesh Urdu was declared as second language in the western parts of the state in early 1980s through ordinance which subsequently lapsed. In certain parts of Karnataka Urdu enjoys the status of second official language. More recently the government of Delhi has declared Urdu along with the Gurumukhi (the language of Punjabi community) as the second official language.

21 Congress Committee Report, 1957, the Gujarat Committee Report, 1972, The Gopal Singh Panel report, 1983 and the Prime Minister’s High Level committee For Preparation of Report on Social, Economic and Educational Status of the Muslim Community of India, 2005.

22 Muslims groups now receive the benefit of reservation in state of Kerela, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Bihar. In Kerela, 12 % of jobs are currently reserved for Muslims. Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh brought in 4 % and 5 % reservation for Muslims in 1994 and 2005 respectively. In Tamil Nadu and Bihar, Muslims are entitled to reservation under the 30 % and 17 % category earmarked for Other Backward Class (OBC). The Mayawati government in Uttar Pradesh has announced a 5 % reservation for entire Muslims in state services. In addition to this, some 80 lower caste Muslim groups enjoy the benefit of 27 % reservation in Central Government services and educational institutions as per the Mandal Commission Recommendation. For details and “politics of reservation in Muslim Community”, see Fazal (2010).

23 This Act replaced the infamous Prevention of Terrorist Activities (POTA), 2002, which was brought in by BJP led NDA government. Muslims alleged the misuse of POTA as large number of Muslims was arrested under POTA in the name of fighting terrorism.


He holds a position of Professor and Director, Centre for West Asian Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. His area of research interests includes International Politics, Political Theory, Religion and Politics, Political Islam, Globalisation and Muslim Society. He has served as a Lecturer in the Department of Political Science, Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), and Assistant and Associate Professor at the Centre for West Asian and African Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. He was Visiting Professor at Fatih University, Istanbul, Turkey (Sept. 2010-August 2011).

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