On Secularism in South Asia

By Anjum Altaf

I made the argument in an earlier post (The Peculiar Nature of the Pakistani Liberal) that the political debate in South Asia is confused because we have borrowed labels – “conservative,” “liberal,” “progressive,” “reactionary” – from the discourse of the European Enlightenment without adapting them to the local context. My intent was to follow up and attempt a more nuanced portrait of an individual who would be loosely identified as a liberal in Pakistan today.

I realize now that in doing so I would have to negotiate through the tricky terrain of secularism, which, like the others, is a concept that has suffered much distortion in South Asia. Therefore, I need first to state clearly how I understand secularism before I move ahead to discuss how South Asian ‘liberals’ or ‘conservatives’ relate to it.

The interpretation of secularism varies even within South Asia – the countries with Muslim majorities (Pakistan and Bangladesh) give a different color to it than the others. In the former, the religiously inclined have seized the high ground by arbitrarily conflating secularism with godlessness – a strategy that automatically puts those who disagree on the defensive and more or less removes the topic from the realm of reasoned debate.

Of course, secularism is not so easily defined and there is need to explicate its contextual meaning if we are to progress to the stage of a serious discussion. Since I have been reading Olivier Roy’s Secularism Confronts Islam, I will rely on his text to outline the essence of secularism in the West adapting it to the South Asian context as and when I feel it warranted.

Because Roy is participating in the heated debate underway in France on the issue of the Muslim veil, he begins by making a clear distinction between secularization and laicite to make the point that the two are not synonymous. Secularization occurs when a society emancipates itself from a sense of the sacred that it does not necessarily deny; laicite refers to the situation in which the state uses law to define the boundary beyond which religious expression is not allowed.

“Secularization is a social phenomenon that requires no political implementation: it comes about when religion ceases to be at the center of human life, even though people still consider themselves believers; the everyday practices of people, like the meaning they give to the world, are no longer constructed under the aegis of transcendence and religion…. Secularization is not antireligious or anticlerical… it is a process. Laicite is decreed by the state, which then organizes public space… [limiting] the visibility of religion in the public space.”

“Situations differ considerably, depending upon variations in two parameters: the separation of church and state (yes or no) and the position of religion in society (strong or weak). A country may be secular but not laique, because it has an official religion (Great Britain, Denmark); it may even be laique (strictly asserting the separation of church and state) while simultaneously recognizing the role of religion in the public sphere (the United States where the Supreme Court recently upheld the recitation of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools); in a state described as laique like Turkey, where the law contains no reference to Islam, there is, in fact, no separation of church and state, because imams are government employees, as are pastors in Denmark.”

For Roy there is little need to get lost in cultural and theological debates that are not meaningful today. Rather the need is “to reconsider the constant oscillation between secularization, whereby society gradually emancipates itself from religion without necessarily denying it, and laicite, in which the political authority closes off the space of religion the better to define public space as its opposite.”

The key insight is that ‘secular’ is not an identifier in the same sense as Muslim or Hindu, and a secular individual is not, by definition, irreligious. To repeat: secularization is a social phenomenon that comes about when religion ceases to be at the center of human life even though people still consider themselves believers. Roy makes the point that “there is no abstract process of secularization” – “the forms and spaces of secularization are defined by reference to each particular religion. These spaces are the product of a history and also of a religious history. Religion inhabits society: religion has shaped society, and it returns either in a secularized form or, on the contrary, in outbreaks of fundamentalism.”

Roy describes how many very conservative Muslims have adapted very well to secularization by “reformulating their faith in terms of values rather than norms, along the lines followed by Christian conservatives. They defend the family, sexual difference, and the criticism of morals; they oppose homosexual marriage and even abortion and divorce… but they remain within the framework of legality… Centrist but conservative Islam is being restructured following the Catholic, even the Orthodox Jewish, model (for example, on the issue of dietary prohibitions)… This movement from legal norm to value is what makes acceptance of the rules of the game possible, which is the basis for laicite and democracy. It is taken for granted by traditionalist Muslims living in the West, but obviously much less so by the born again and the converts.”

“Islam has thus been transformed, on the one hand, by a process of secularization of society (one of whose manifestations is paradoxically the ambient re-Islamization, because you re-Islamize what has been secularized) and, on the other, by a negotiated political integration… Hence in every Western country, Islam is being integrated not following its own traditions [or theological reform] but according to the place that each society has defined for religion, from Anglo-Saxon indulgence to Gallic suspicion, although the former needs to be less naïve and the latter less pathological.”

And finally: “There is no reason to believe that state censorship comes primarily from clerical states like Iran. Authoritarian secular states are often just as hostile to theological innovation as they are to fundamentalism. They almost always favor conservative Islam, as we saw in the Algeria of the Front de liberation nationale, because they are suspicious of any form of intellectual freedom and critique, even in the restricted realm of theology.”

Looking at this issue from various angles, one thing stands out: In the West secularization was a social process in which people who may remain believers cease to order their political lives in accordance with religious mandates or divinely ordained values. And, even if they subscribe to such values, they accept to live by the rules of the game laid down by the state.

It should be clear from this perspective that South Asian societies are not at all secularized in the same way. Religion remains very important in the daily lives of people and therefore secularization in this context means something quite different. Sunil Khilnani captures this difference well in The Idea of India: “To Nehru, secularism was not a substitute civic religion, still less a political project to remoralize society by effacing religion and stamping a secular identity on all Indians. He fully recognized the depth and plurality of religious beliefs in India. It was precisely this that convinced him of the need to keep religious social identities outside the political arena. His energies were directed not towards installing a doctrine of secularism, but against the use of religion for political purposes, the dangers of what he called ‘communalism’.”

This should make it clear that what is being called secularism in South Asia was really an attempt at a quasi-laicite – an attempt to protect the instruments of state from the influence of religion. But unlike the strong Kemalist state in Turkey, the relatively weak states of South Asia could never quite carry off the project.

[Indeed, this is the problem in France today. The roots of French exceptionalism lie in the fact that it was the only state in Europe that faced an alternative source of power in the form of the Catholic Church. But in 1905 the state was powerful enough to dictate the rules of engagement and although the Church disagreed, it accepted the rules as the least-worst option. Today, besieged by the twin processes of Europeanization and globalization, the French state is no longer powerful enough to dictate terms in the same way.]

It is here that the relation between secularization, laicite and democracy becomes significant. It is important to keep in mind the fact that European societies secularized before the advent of democracy based on universal suffrage. It was not possible for majorities to impose sectarian religious values on others using the power of the vote.

In South Asia, on the contrary, democracy based on universal suffrage preceded the secularization of societies that in any case lacked an indigenous push for secularism. In Khilnani’s description secularism became an “instrumental ideology of the state.” “It now functioned as a legitimating cloak for the modernist elite, who used it to mask their grip at the very moment when this was being challenged by the surge of mass democracy. The use of secularism as an ideology of state power had engendered a new monster on the political landscape, a Hindu nationalism remotely linked to religion, which merely used it instrumentally to capture state power.”

It is here that the similarities between Pakistan and India become clearer. In Pakistan, the forces opposed to the ‘secular’ state began to wield their power within six months of Jinnah’s death and rolled over the ‘secularism’ of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who conceded most of the religious legislation that defines Pakistan today. This process gained a huge boost with Zia’s Islamization of education to the point that today’s ‘secular’ state is in the forefront of defending the religious provisions in the Constitution.

India saw a similar rise of demands for the state to reflect the character of society pushed by the growing force of fundamentalism. But without the intervention of a Zia-like intermediary, the ‘secular’ state and the fundamentalist forces remain locked in a standoff. It is not clear which way the balance will tilt in the future given that India is in the middle of an economic boom unlike Pakistan where an economic collapse has been underway for some time and threatens to worsen.

We are clearly in a new global environment as far as the relationship between religion and politics is concerned. Even in the US, the Christian Right has organized to use its vote to influence legislation pertaining to issues involving values that it considers non-negotiable. And in France, the old concordat shielding politics from religion is breaking down. In the face of the assertion of Muslim values a coalition of the Christian right and the secular left is mobilizing its voting power to prevent what it considers undesirable social outcomes.

Notwithstanding the above, the differences between the West and South Asia in the nature of secularism (in terms of its starting points, rationales, roots in society, and relation to mass democracy) are so significant that any loose usage of the term can only lead discussions into meaningless polemics.

Postscript: It is of interest to concretize the early debate about secularism in India and Pakistan to get a sense of the context and the conceptual borrowings from Europe.

In her book on Somanatha, Romila Thapar notes the following incident:

“In 1951, a new temple was constructed on the site… The statement that it was the Government of India that was rebuilding the temple was strongly contradicted by the Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, for whom such activity was unacceptable as government activity and inimical to the policy of a secular state… In his letter to the Chief Ministers, dated 2 May 1951, Nehru states categorically:

You must have read about the coming ceremonies at Somnath temple. Many people have been attracted to this and some of my colleagues are even associated with it in their individual capacities. But it should be clearly understood that this function is not governmental and the Government of India as such has nothing to do with it. While it is easy to understand a certain measure of public support to this venture we have to remember that we must not do anything which comes in the way of our State being secular. That is the basis of our Constitution and Governments therefore, should refrain from associating themselves with anything which tends to affect the secular character of our State. There, are, unfortunately, many communal tendencies at work in India today and we have to be on our guard against them. It is important that Governments should keep the secular and non-communal ideal always before them.

However, Rajendra Prasad ignored Nehru’s advice, as well as the criticism in the Gujarati press of the President of India participating in the ceremony, as reported by Mridula Sarabhai. Nehru does record in his Autobiography that there was only a small explicitly secular group in the Indian National Congress.”

And in Pakistan, this is an excerpt from Jinnah’s address to the Constituent Assembly in August 1947:

“Today, you might say with justice that Roman Catholics and Protestants do not exist; what exists now is that every man is a citizen, an equal citizen of Great Britain and they are all members of the nation. Now I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal and you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the state.”


  • Kabir
    Posted at 19:25h, 17 January Reply

    My understanding of a secular state is along the lines of what Roy considers laicite. Religion should have no role in the public sphere, though individuals in their private lives are free to belief whatever they wish and to act out their beliefs as they see fit, as long as those beliefs are not forced on anyone else. A secular state can (and should) promote freedom of religion– those two concepts are not mutually contradictory.

    I would say though that the United States is not truely a secular state, despite the Constitution. As you mentioned “under God” is still in the pledge of Allegiance and our currency still says “In God we trust”. It can be argued this is the government endorsing a theistic view and forcing it upon atheist and agnostic citizens. Organizations, such as the American Humanist Association fight these types of issues legally through the courts.

    I do agree with your overall thesis though that secularism is not necessarily Godlessness. In a Pakistani context, one could argue that the state should be secular, that is not promote any one Islam, but individuals in their private lives are free to be Shia, Sunni, Wahabi, etc.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 15:07h, 18 January

      Kabir: I think if we keep in mind the relationship between society and state we will be able to negotiate our way through this tricky field. If society is secularized (i.e., it no longer locates religion at the heart of its self-definition), then laïcité (a legally enforced separation of church and state) might not be needed. This is the case in Great Britain and Denmark – both countries have an official religion.

      A legally enforced separation of church and state (versions of laïcité) exist in both the US and France but the boundaries are drawn differently. In the US religious expression is allowed in the public sphere but in France it is not. Thus you will find an immigration agent with a headscarf in the US but not in France. France is also a secular society; its laïcité is a legacy from the time when it was not – the Catholic Church was a powerful challenger of the state and where the lines were finally drawn was a test of the political strength of the contenders. Such was not the case in Protestant countries – hence the different histories. Of course, there are varying opinions – some people would like the French version in the US while others would like the US version in France. These are political battles and not the result of theological arguments or reform.

      In South Asia the situation is more complex because society is not secular. Some states wish to be secular and others not. But, in general, the states that wish to be secular are not powerful enough to enforce any strong version of laïcité (the contrast here is Kemalist Turkey where the state had the power to enforce a version of laïcité on a non-secular society). To its credit, the Indian state aspires to the weakest (but perhaps the most feasible) version of laïcité (equidistant from all religions) but even there it is an uphill struggle – the state is besieged by pressures to undo its neutrality.

      The problem that is emerging now in the West is that there is a revival of religion (e.g., the Christian Right in the US) and the states are nowhere as powerful as they once were. Hence the breakdowns of multiculturalism and the stresses in laïcité.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 23:12h, 17 January Reply

    I find it puzzling that Roy chose to contrast secularization with laïcité because the terms are categorially distinct. Roughly, the relation of secularization to secularism and to laïcité is like the relation of memorization to mnemonic and to tying a string around a finger to remember something. In each sequence, the first term is a process, the second is a principle, and the third is a specific instantiation of the principle.

    So I agree with Kabir when he says that a secular state and laïcité are closely related: the latter is one way of realizing the former.

    India chose a different way of implementing secularism. Instead of laïcité, it chose *equidistance from all religions*. This is closer to English and American multiculturalism than laïcité, the latter being a socially more advanced principle closer to modern science and the beliefs it engenders.

    Indian secularism permits religion in the public sphere, but it attempts equidistance. This is naturally a precarious exercise subject to all kinds of forces both from within the state and within civil society. Politicians since Indira Gandhi have essentially tried to win votes by placating religious blocs and essentially carving up the electorate by religion and this is part of what allowed Hindu communalism to become as strong as it did. The Shah Bano case is well known:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shah_Bano_case

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 14:18h, 18 January

      Arun: Once again, I have not been able to convey Roy’s position adequately – he is not contrasting secularization with laïcité but discussing how they are related. But don’t take my word for it; read the book.

      Re laïcité and the secular state. Great Britain and Denmark are both secular countries but without laïcité because they have an official religion. But the state is secular to all intents and purposes. There need not be a close relationship but it is a complex one.

      A note on India. The term ‘secularism’ was inserted into the Constitution by Mrs. Gandhi in the lead up to the Emergency. So, it is ironic that she was also the one who began to carve up the electorate by religion. In my view this shows the difficulties of attempting to ground a practice that is alien to society. In retrospect, the attempts and exhortations of Nehru and Jinnah referred to in the post sound so naive and piquant – expressions of good ideals divorced from the reality on the ground.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 07:05h, 18 August Reply

    But these ideas and forms of practice don’t just change place as solid blocks; they are modified, reinterpreted, given new meanings, in each transfer. This can lead to tremendous confusion when we try to follow these shifts and understand them. One such confusion comes from taking a word itself too seriously; the name may be the same, but the reality will often be different.

    This is evident in the case of the word “secular.” We think of “secularization” as a selfsame process that can occur anywhere (and, according to some people, is occurring everywhere). And we think of secularist regimes as an option for any country, whether or not they are actually adopted. And certainly, these words crop up everywhere. But do they really mean the same thing in each iteration? Are there not, rather, subtle differences, which can bedevil cross-cultural discussions of these matters?


  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 12:00h, 22 July Reply

    Some mixed signals here:


    “Telangana is proud of Sania who is a true Hyderabadi. She’s now ranked number five in international tennis and we wish she becomes the number one,” the Chief Minister said on the occasion.

    A choice based as it should be exclusively on who would be the best ambassador for Telengana.

    But then read the comments and the objections. How does one square that?

    • Vikram
      Posted at 20:45h, 22 July

      The negative comments and objections are about the money offered to her. Only one of them complains about the fact that she doesnt live in Telangana any more. They have nothing to do with religion, not sure if this is a good example.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 09:48h, 23 July

      Vikram: I was thinking aloud. All the comments were negative picking up on the money. I am wondering if similar objections would have been raised if the ambassador had been someone like Sachin or Dhoni. What’s your feel?

    • Vikram
      Posted at 16:02h, 23 July

      Maybe not for Sachin, but almost certainly for Dhoni. The sentiment here is the general mistrust of political leaders and the feeling that celebrities get paid disproportionately.

      The mistake made by KCR was the presentation of the cheque, if he had just had Mirza appear in a Telangana dress and rave about their food and culture, the comments would have been positive. Its a PR failure, nothing more.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 09:33h, 24 July

      Vikram: A follow-on – http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-28458287

      “Sparking a controversy, BJP leader K Laxman had earlier said the Indian tennis star was the ‘daughter-in-law of Pakistan’ and questioned her credentials to be appointed as the brand ambassador of India’s new state Telangana, Indian media reported.”

    • Vikram
      Posted at 14:21h, 24 July

      Yes, but that has nothing to do with the comments on the original article. This is just usual BJP bullshit.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 16:04h, 24 July

      Vikram: Are these politicians completely ignorant and devoid of any sense of history – they are supposed to be leading a great nation?

      Britain was invaded by the Romans, the Vikings, the French, the Dutch, and the Germans – the descendants of all are now just British.

      The name of the ruling family of Britain was the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha till the first World War. Only then, in the face of rising anti-German sentiment, was it changed to the House of Windsor although the ruling family with its German blood remained the same. Do people think about the fact that the infamous Lord Mountbatten – so central to the recent history of India – was born to Prince Louis of Battenberg and Princess Victoria of Hesse and by Rhine and his name at birth was Louis Francis Albert Victor Nicholas Battenberg? Till 1917, he was known as His Serene Highness Prince Louis of Battenberg. Does anyone in South Asia think he wasn’t English enough?

      These folks need to grow up.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 20:24h, 24 July Reply
    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 19:10h, 25 July

      Vikram: It seems to me there is a very easy way to put a stop to such behavior. An unequivocal statement from Mr. Modi that such statements (re Sania Mirza) or behavior (re force-feeding a fasting person) are unacceptable and would lead to dismissal from the party would be sufficient given the deferential nature of most subordinates. But there is an ominous silence on the part of Modi ji. What could be the reason for that?

    • Vikram
      Posted at 21:11h, 25 July

      SA, that simply is not how the BJP works. Modi cannot dismiss anybody in the party. You saw what the RSS did to Advani. The force-feeding issue is one of feudalism, not communalism. The media ultimately acted against the interests of democracy there.

      Modi, like Manmohan is reticent to respond to daily issues. If someone tries to do that in India, they will never get anything done.

      The real solution to communalism is enforcing the rule of law, not empty statements. The media is programmed to see everything through a communal lens. So, it seems are Pakistani liberals.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 03:59h, 27 July

      Vikram: Pakistan is so rife with discriminations that they use the same templates to interpret things elsewhere – to some extent that is natural. You have a point but accepting that raises two others, the first immediate, the second historical.

      First: If the remedy is enforcing the rule of law, why don’t the governments send a signal that it would have to be enforced much more rigorously? After all it is the agencies of the government that are responsible for doing so. The Prime Ministers don’t need to make any public statement; they just need to convey their intent down the line.

      Second: One could argue that the events are not communal, they are feudal or just plain stupid. But someone could say that when Indians look into the past, they see everything through the communal lens (e.g., Ghazni, Aurangzeb, etc.) even though those were the really feudal-like times compared to the present. Is that having it both ways – the past was communal, the present is not communal – and defining events to suit particular interests?

    • Vikram
      Posted at 14:55h, 29 July

      SA, the killers of Mohsin Shaikh are in custody. Mayaben Kodnani and Babu Bajrangi are in jail for life. At this point, its not really a question of signals, it is a question of capacity.

      Regarding your second point, yes there is absolutely no doubt that a lot of people see the past with a communal lens (this includes Indian Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Pakistanis). The feudal angle is not emphasized until we come to the British Raj. But the roti incident is feudal, not communal, same would have been done to a Hindu employee.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 07:26h, 03 August

      Vikram: I have no stake in this but am just remarking on the contrast. Many Pakistanis see the past as non-communal and the present as communal. Many Indians see the past as communal and the present as non-communal. Both cannot be right. How does one go about making sense of this difference. Should one arrive at the cynical conclusion that one starts out with a favored position and then interprets the evidence selectively to defend that position. Ideology/politics trump evidence/science?

      Also, the argument about capacity has never convinced me. One has to answer the question that follows immediately: Why is there a lack of capacity?

  • Vikram
    Posted at 17:41h, 03 August Reply

    “Many Pakistanis see the past as non-communal and the present as communal. Many Indians see the past as communal and the present as non-communal.”

    The question to ask then would be why the past and present are interpreted in this manner. If Indian’s feel that the present is non-communal because of constitutional democracy and rule of law taking precedence over ethnicity, then there is nothing wrong with it. If, however, they feel that the present is non-communal because of Hindus being a majority in India and most of the administrative machinery being of Hindu background, then they are not correct.

    “Should one arrive at the cynical conclusion that one starts out with a favored position and then interprets the evidence selectively to defend that position. Ideology/politics trump evidence/science?”

    SA, I feel that the idea of applying the scientific method to societies (which is basically what led to Marxism) has reached its limits. In fact, the rise of quantum mechanics and the uncertainty principle has shown the inherent limits of the scientific method apply even to fields like physics and chemistry, which many consider synonymous with science itself. History/politics/sociology will always be an argument, the only thing we can strive for is to let all sides speak and speak as clearly as possible.

    You have offered an example yourself. Earlier on this blog, you had praised Ambedkar for his unbiasedness. But later when I pointed to his comments on India being spiritually closer to Burma than Pakistan, you had indicated that perhaps he was not as unbiased as previously thought.

    “Why is there a lack of capacity?”

    From, http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/ajaisahni/18aug2009_nts.htm

    “the US federal government has a ratio of 889 employees per 1,00,000; India’s Union government has just 295. State and local government employees in the US account for another 6,314 per 100,000; in sharp contrast, Uttar Pradesh has 352; Bihar, 472; Orissa, 1,007; Chhattisgarh, 1,067; Maharashtra, 1,223; Punjab, 1,383; Gujarat, 1,694. Given the magnitude of delays that mar the judicial process, it is not surprising to find this institution is probably the worst off in terms of human assets. India has about 1.2 judges per 1,00,000 population. The US has nearly 11 judges per 1,00,000 population; Sweden: 13; China: 17; and, at the top of the scale, Belgium: 23; Germany: 25; and Slovenia: 39!

    The obvious ‘solution’, theoretically, would be to initiate massive recruitment to fill up these deficits. Government revenues have grown tremendously over the past decades, so that seems feasible. But it is here that the system hits a wall. Forget lack of political will, corruption, bureaucratic delays, interminable selection processes or absence of training capacities. India has an abysmal 9 per cent higher education participation rate, lower than the average for Africa at 10 per cent. An overwhelming majority of ‘graduates’ come out of third-rate institutions and are in fact unemployable, lacking essential language and reasoning skills. For all our boasting about the ‘youth bulge’, India simply does not have the manpower profile to fuel a modern nation and it will take decades before suitable profiles can be generated to meet the demands of modern governance, commerce and society.”

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