The Dependence of Secularism on Nationalism in Indian Democracy

By: Shaunna Rodrigues

March 30, 2022

Religion and Nationalism in Global Perspective

The meanings and public character of nationalism in India have changed dramatically in the last hundred years. At the end of World War I, the idea that the nation-state would replace modern empires to become the sole internationally recognized political unit was not a given. At this time, anticolonial thought and movements in India were mobilizing themselves against the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire and criticized modern European empires for enforcing liberal institutional orders across territories that they had colonized or defeated in the war. There was no established consensus across the Indian political landscape on replacing colonial rule with a nation-state founded in and by a secular constitution. Rather, there was considerable dissensus, driven by the persuasive force of diverse religious and caste-based judgment in the emerging Indian public sphere, on constituting India as a nation-state founded in a secular liberal institutional order.

Over the course of decolonization, the dissensus over the nation-state as a viable political unit for India transformed into a consensus over the formation and sustenance of a nation-state in India. With exceptions to this consensus, including the formation of East and West Pakistan and separatist movements in Kashmir and northeast India, this transformation was achieved by consolidating different strands of India’s anticolonial national movement into representative democratic political institutions in India. 

The conception of nationalism that emerged from this democratic consolidation upheld the collective political unity of India’s diverse people. It also formulated a distinct form of secularism that publicly acknowledged the relevance of religiously plural modes of envisioning collective life to deliberations on the political principles that could guide Indian democracy. 

Constitutional secularism in India treated religious arguments in the public domain as a crucial mode of engaging in political activity and as a discursive mode through which the endorsement of or obedience towards the nation-state could be contrived.

However, in the past decade, the fragility of this distinctively secular consensus has come to mark most claims made in the country’s public domain. Today, the assimilatory nationalism of India’s Hindu majority repetitively prevails over the once hegemonic secular nationalism of India’s anticolonial founding moment. With its espousal by several central institutions of the Indian state and the sheer force of a consolidated electoral majority, Hindu nationalism has outsized the secular constitutional order in its claim for the collective allegiance of this diverse nation. 

In doing so, the popular nationalism of a religious majority has reconfigured how anticolonial secular nationalism once included the claims of India’s minorities, particularly its religious minorities, into its imagination of political institutions. 

As a result, the central institutions of the Indian nation-state no longer take a principled stance towards the inclusion of religious minorities and their substantive goods in the state’s political imagination for Indian democracy. A principled stance towards religious communities in India would require the nation-state to be aware of and act on the anticolonial context that justified its reformist interventions in religious worldviews as part of its pursuit of social progress.

A common critical response to this dramatic shift in the character of Indian nationalism has been to lament how it no longer depends on a substantive conception of secularism. However, given that over the last century in India there has not always been a consensus on secularism’s relationship with nationalism, a more suitable question would be how secularism depends on particular forms of nationalism to sustain itself as a political doctrine. Jocelyne Cesari’s new book, We God’s People: Christianity, Islam and Hinduism in the World of Nations (2021), prompts us to do just this. In studying how domains of action historically influenced by religious institutions came to be replaced by institutions of the nation-state imported from Europe by anticolonial movements, Cesari shows how shifts or sequences in nationalism shape secularism as a political doctrine that regulates the relationship between religion and politics.

Cesari argues that the relationship of secularism with nationalism in India went hand-in-hand with the modeling of Hinduism as a modern religion in the critical juncture that marked the anticolonial movement in India. While the roots of such modernization lay in the reordering of Hindu beliefs and practices through the administrative practices of the colonial state, its modernization gained a ground-up acceptance through anticolonial nationalism. In pre-nationalist India, local space was the plural unifier that brought together people adhering to diverse religious traditions. However, during the anticolonial movement, modern nationalism homogenized religious traditions, particularly those of Hinduism, across the large territory of India by grafting a Western concept of religion onto diverse local traditions. This led to the redefinition of plural local communities along religious lines. It also lent a national preeminence to interreligious boundaries over local and intrareligious boundaries, like caste, across India. With independence, the postcolonial state adopted this anticolonial nationalist approach towards the redefinition of religion in general and the reform of Hinduism in particular. At the same time, the nation-state defined secularism as its capacity to protect, mediate, and arbitrate across religious boundaries and to enable the coexistence of interreligious pluralities in Indian society.

How does Cesari’s argument help us analyze how secularism is dependent on nationalism? When the newly formed post-colonial Indian nation-state, inspired by anticolonial nationalism, upheld religious pluralism, it built a pluralist amalgamation between political and religious belonging in India that some characterize as “Indian secularism.” This amalgamation became the justification for the nation-state’s reformist interventions in religious and caste-based traditions according to constitutional norms. 

These interventions transformed India’s nation-state-centered public domain into an exemplary site of religious reform. In doing this, they lent a deeper ground to secularism as the stance of the polity towards religion in the imagination of India’s diverse people. 

Thus, in this phase of Indian nationalism, secularism relied on the pluralist amalgamation between political and religious belonging brought about by the reformist nation-state becoming a popular doctrine.

With the rise of Hindu nationalism and its forceful influence on the Indian state, the amalgamation between political and religious belonging has been strengthened by and for the Hindu majority. However, it has become a difficult challenge for religious minorities. While Hindu nationalism welcomes Hindu customs and symbols into public life and appropriates caste-based reform, the public depiction of non-Hindu, particularly Islamic, symbols and practices has been actively discouraged or simply stopped by state intervention. The most recent example of this is a High Court order from the southern Indian state of Karnataka, which requires women who wear hijabs to remove them when entering a public school or college. Hindu nationalism is not only replacing the plural character of Indian secularism with the forceful assimilation of religious minorities and lower caste groups into a homogenous vision of cultural and religious nationalism. The shift in the meaning of nationalism has also caused religions besides Hinduism to recede from the public domain, where they once easily resided as a site of non-state politics.

Conflicting meanings of nationalism have revealed the fragility of the Indian nation-state in protecting, mediating, and enabling the coexistence of interreligious pluralities in Indian society. However, local diversity in India continues to lend people a deep familiarity with each other. The recollection and, in some cases, renewal of how diverse peoples share local spaces and dwell together can provide a vision from which mutual coexistence may be regained as an important political value in Indian society.

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