India’s Model: Faith, Secularism and Democracy
Open Democracy, UK
November 3, 2004
By Rajeev Bhargava
(Writer is professor of political theory and Indian
political thought at the University of Delhi. He is editor of Secularism
and its critics (1998), co-editor of Multiculturalism, liberalism and
democracy (1999), and author of Individualism in Social Science (Clarendon
1992). He is the South Asia Editor of openDemocracy)
Western variants of multiculturalism and secularism are being challenged
by religious demands for public recognition of faith. Instead of reinventing
the wheel, the world should learn from India, says Rajeev Bhargava.
The reality of the “multicultural”, describing the mere presence
of many cultures within a society, has been present in India for several
millennia. But “multiculturalism” is different: it is a special
kind of relationship adopted by the state towards different cultural communities
that fall within its sovereignty. In addition, it is the official, doctrinal
articulation of this stance; and a label for theories of this doctrine,
propounded and argued over by academics and journalists.
While India might be invoked descriptively in treatments of the epiphenomena
of multiculture, it is rarely mentioned in most theoretical discussions
of multiculturalism. This is testimony to the narrowness and parochialism
of the dominant public cultures of the west, which still assumes that
it houses the future, not the past.
To deepen our understanding of multiculturalism, to understand its internal
tensions and foresee its problems - and accordingly to refine and focus
public policies - the world needs to look to and learn from India.
The emergence of an “ism”
Will Kymlicka, one of the foremost scholars of the subject, says that
“multiculturalism” as a unique experiment started in Canada
in 1971, and that it was followed in other countries such as Australia.
In a sense he is correct: as official doctrine and theory, it certainly
began life in Canada, and was later adopted in Australia, the United States
The reason why, as a doctrine, multiculturalism appears to have originated
where it did was twofold. First, Canada was already a multinational state,
one characterised by French-speaking Quebec’s refusal to “integrate”
with its English-speaking neighbours on the model of the United States.
Second, Canada was, like the US, a country of immigration.
Canadian governments, both fighting to avoid the break-up of their country
and unable to insist that newcomers accept “melting-pot” integration
into a powerful US-style nationality, embraced a policy that recognised
the right of all its citizens to demand distinct kinds of identities.
The unity of the country thus came to depend upon granting a constitutional
right of difference to its own people within the framework of their nation-state.
On this social and constitutional experience, which Canada and its western
partners saw as unique, was built the doctrine of multiculturalism.
Canada, as well as the US and Australia, were formed by immigration,
and came as a result to understand it - in their bones, as it were - as
a permanent fact of life. Most other countries, by contrast, experienced
it as an exception, an intrusion, a crisis in their composition.
But migration has gradually become a permanent fact of life everywhere,
making the view of immigration as exceptional or problematic harder to
sustain. The immense imbalances of wealth and population on a world scale,
coupled with global technologies and transports, render mass immigration
The urbanisation of humankind is accelerating; hundreds of millions of
people are moving from rural areas to the cities, and many of these journeys
are leading people to cross and settle beyond national borders. In almost
every country, new minorities and diasporas - often intensely self-conscious
and interconnected thanks to information technology - are becoming normal
components of the population. It appears that nothing can stop the process
of “people flow” (as it was innovatively described in the
debate jointly hosted by Demos and openDemocracy).
This highlights a sense in which Will Kymlicka is wrong to champion Canada
as the homeland of multiculturalism. For as official policy and broader
normative orientation based on social experience, its lineage is much
older. It has been an integral feature of public debate in India for more
than a century. Indeed, there is hardly a multicultural policy known to
the world that, in one form or another, has not been examined, used or
discarded in India.
All societies, it might be said, are today becoming like India. What
can they learn from it?
Indian constitutional secularism
Since 1950, when India’s lengthy constitution was adopted, the
country’s official, constitutional discourse has attended to the
range of issues and arguments generated by a multiply diverse society.
They include the cultural rights of minorities; the funding of minority
educational institutions; the cultural rights of indigenous peoples; linguistic
rights; the self-government rights of culturally distinct groups; asymmetrical
federalism; legal pluralism; affirmative action for marginalised groups.
Moreover, several concerns have long been part of official state policy:
public holidays that bestow official recognition to minority religions;
flexible dress codes; a sensitivity in history- and literature-teaching
to the cultures and traditions of minorities; and government funding of
especially significant religious practices.
But perhaps the most important lesson India has for debate over and policies
towards “multiculturalism” is the need to rethink and reform
another “ism”- secularism. This term, originally non-Indian,
is now part of the everyday vocabulary of Indian politics and society
in a way that others could embrace.
The introduction of secularism into a discussion of multiculturalism
should be no surprise. Secularism defines itself in relation to religion;
and always, everywhere, even when they are understood to be conceptually
separate, cultures and religions remain deeply intertwined. This is even
more so in cases where the very distinction between religion and culture
is hard to draw. Is the hijab, for a Muslim, a cultural or a religious
object? Is marriage among Muslims a cultural or a religious event? Is
the identity of a Hindu or a Jew cultural or religious?
To think about multiculturalism, then, is to be confronted with the (public,
often conflictual) presence of multiple religions – something that
has been a constitutive feature of social reality on the subcontinent.
Since secularism defines itself in relation to religion, it must also
see itself in relation to multiple religions. This is primarily how the
term secularism works on the subcontinent (when indeed it is allowed to
do any work at all!).
The return of religion
This multi-religious reality of the subcontinent should become the starting-point
for discussions of western secularism, which is now being challenged by
three distinct processes.
First, it is now evident that a central aspect of the classic or western
secularisation thesis is deeply mistaken. The projected privatisation
of religion mandated by classic notions of modernisation has, even in
western societies, failed to occur. Instead, two developments are visible:
the continued public presence of religion, and what Jose Casanova calls
the “de-privatisation” of religions that formerly had retreated
from the public sphere. (Two examples of the latter are the militant role
of evangelical and “born-again” Christianity in the United
States and the global impact of the policies of the Roman Catholic Church.)
Second, migration from former colonies and an intensified globalisation
has thrown together on western soil pre-Christian faiths, Christianity
and Islam. The public spaces of western societies are reappropriated by
people of one religion and its various denominations, and increasingly
claimed also by people adhering to several other religions; the accumulative
result is a deep, unprecedented religious diversity. As a result, the
weak but definite public monopoly of single religions is being challenged
by the very norms that govern these societies.
Third, the encounter between these multiple religions is not fully dialogic;
rather, it generates mutual suspicion, distrust, hostility and conflict.
To some extent, this too is a “normal” reaction to a close
encounter with the unfamiliar; and due in part also to the different understandings
of individual and social selves embodied in the divergent cumulative traditions
of each of these religions.
But there is also something troubling about the exclusions that mark
the self-understanding of religions themselves, about their inability
to form more benign and tolerant understandings of those outside their
fold. The bigotry on one side is matched on the other by a demonisation
that relentlessly legitimises denial of the other religion’s right
to an equal space in public life.
The same point can be put another way. Different forms of dance or dress
can have deep and abiding identity-significance for people, yet a classical
liberalism that has been reshaped by the spectacle of the market and fashion
can also easily incorporate them into a market-driven perspective. When,
however, culture is organised by religion rather than politics, it is
more usually accompanied by lasting forms of exclusion, bans and power-systems
(often involving unaccountable rule by old men) as well as practices and
procedures which limit freedom and have undemocratic consequences.
This raises the question: is western secularism equipped to deal with
the new reality of multiple religions in public life or with the social
tensions this engenders?
The problem of secularism
The dominant self-understanding of western secularism, somewhat encrusted
into formula, is that it is a universal doctrine requiring the strict
separation of church and state, religion and politics, for the sake of
individual liberty and equality (including religious liberty and equality).
The social context that gave this self-understanding urgency and significance
was the fundamental problem faced by modernising western societies: the
tyranny, oppression and sectarianism of the church and the two threats
to liberty it posed - to religious liberty conceived individualistically
(the liberty of an individual to seek his own personal way to God, an
individual's freedom of conscience), and to liberty more generally as
(ultimately) the foundation of common citizenship.
To overcome this problem, modernising western societies needed to create
or strengthen an alternative centre of public power completely separate
from the church. The rigidity of the demand here is unmistakable - mutual
exclusion (a wall , as Thomas Jefferson famously put it) between the two
relevant institutions, one intrinsically and solely public and the other
expected to retreat into the private domain and remain there. The individualist
underpinnings of this view are fully evident.
This classic, western conception of secularism was designed to solve
the internal problem of a single religion with different heresies - Christianity.
It also appeared to rest on an active hostility to the public role of
religion and an obligatory, sometimes respectful indifference to whatever
religion does within its own internal, privatedomain. As long as it is
private, the state is not meant to interfere.
It is now increasingly clear that this form of western secularism has
persistent difficulties in seeking to cope with community-oriented religions
that demand a public presence, particularly when they begin to multiply
in society. This individualistic, inward-looking secularism is already
proving vulnerable to crisis after crisis. The rigid response of the French
republican state to the hijab issue, and the more ambiguous response of
the German state to the demand by Turkish Muslims for the public funding
of their educational institutions, may be only harbingers of clashes to
Which way will these western societies go? Will they become even more
dogmatic in their assertions about their strict-separation secularism;
or, in view of changed circumstances, will they abandon it in favour of
an unashamed embrace of their majoritarian religious character founded
on an official establishment? Or could they not work out a better form
of secularism which addresses these new demands without giving up the
values for which the original was devised?
Most important of all, is it not worth asking if such an alternative
I think it does - a conception not available as a doctrine or a theory
but worked out in the subcontinent and available loosely in the best moments
of inter-communal practice in India; in the country’s constitution
appropriately interpreted; and in the scattered writings of some of its
best political actors.
The Indian model
Six features of the Indian model are striking and relevant to wider discussion.
First, multiple religions are not extras, added on as an afterthought
but present at its starting-point, as part of its foundation.
Second, it is not entirely averse to the public character of religions.
Although the state is not identified with a particular religion or with
religion more generally (there is no establishment of religion), there
is official and therefore public recognition granted to religious communities.
Third, it has a commitment to multiple values - liberty or equality,
not conceived narrowly but interpreted broadly to cover the relative autonomy
of religious communities and equality of status in society, as well as
other more basic values such as peace and toleration between communities.
This model is acutely sensitive to the potential within religions to sanction
Fourth, it does not erect a wall of separation between state and religion.
There are boundaries, of course, but they are porous. This allows the
state to intervene in religions, to help or hinder them. This involves
multiple roles: granting aid to educational institutions of religious
communities on a non-preferential basis; or interfering in socio-religious
institutions that deny equal dignity and status to members of their own
religion or to those of others (for example, the ban on untouchability
and the obligation to allow everyone, irrespective of their caste, to
enter Hindu temples, and potentially to correct gender inequalities),
on the basis of a more sensible understanding of equal concern and respect
for all individuals and groups. In short, it interprets separation to
mean not strict exclusion or strict neutrality but rather what I call
Fifth, this model shows that we do not have to choose between active
hostility or passive indifference, or between disrespectful hostility
or respectful indifference. We can have the necessary hostility as long
as there is also active respect: the state may intervene to inhibit some
practices, so long as it shows respect for the religious community and
it does so by publicly lending support to it in some other way.
Sixth, by not fixing its commitment from the start exclusively to individual
or community values or marking rigid boundaries between the public and
private, India’s constitutional secularism allows decisions on these
matters to be taken within the open dynamics of democratic politics -
albeit with the basic constraints such as abnegation of violence and protection
of basic human rights, including the right not to be disenfranchised.
A lesson in democracy
This commitment to multiple values and principled distance means that
the state tries to balance different, ambiguous but equally important
values. This makes its secular ideal more like an ethically sensitive,
politically negotiated arrangement (which it really is), rather than a
scientific doctrine conjured by ideologues and merely implemented by political
A somewhat forced, formulaic articulation of Indian secularism goes something
like this. The state must keep a principled distance from all public or
private, individual-oriented or community-oriented religious institutions
for the sake of the equally significant (and sometimes conflicting) values
of peace, this-worldly goods, dignity, liberty and equality (in all its
complicated individualistic or non-individualistic versions).
Some readers may find in this condensed version an irritatingly complicated
collage and yearn for the elegance, economy and tidiness of western secularism.
But, alas, no workable constitution will generate the geometrical beauty
of a social-scientific theory or a chemical formula. The ambiguity and
flexibility of the conception of secularism developed by India is not
a weakness but in fact the strength of an inclusive and complex political
Discerning students of western secularism may now begin to find something
familiar in this ideal. But then, Indian secularism has not dropped fully
formed from the sky. It shares a history with the west. In part, it has
learnt from and built on it. But is it not time to give something in return?
What better way than to do this than by showing that Indian secularism
is a route to retrieving the rich history of western secularism - forgotten,
underemphasised, or frequently obscured by the formula of strict separation
and by many of its current articulations!
For the image of western secularism I outlined above is just one of its
variants, what can be called the church-state model. Another equally interesting
version that deepens the idea of western secularism flows from the religious
wars in Europe and can be called the religious-strife model.
Yet, in its attempt to tackle the deep diversity of religious traditions,
and in its ethically sensitive flexibility, there is something unparalleled
in the Indian experiment - something different from each of the two versions.
If so, western societies can find reflected in it not only a compressed
version of their own history but also a vision of their future.
But it might be objected: look at the state of the subcontinent! Look
at India! How deeply divided it remains! How can success be claimed for
the Indian version of secularism? I do not wish to underestimate the force
of this objection. The secular ideal in India is in periodic crisis and
is deeply contested. Besides, at the best of times, it generates as many
problems as it solves.
But it should not be forgotten either that a secular state was set up
in India despite the massacre and displacement of millions of people on
ethno-religious grounds. It has survived in a continuing context in which
ethnic nationalism remains dominant throughout the world. As different
religious cultures claim their place in societies across the world, it
may be India’s development of secularism that offers the most peaceful,
freedom-sensitive and democratic way forward. At any rate, why should
the fate of ideal conceptions with trans-cultural potential be decided
purely on the basis of what happens to them in their place of origin?
A final point - or rather a question. India in May 2004 witnessed an
election in which the Hindu right was democratically ousted. At least
part of the credit for this goes to the way the secular constitution helped
transform the caste system from being an integral part of a sacral, hierarchical
order to a political and associative formation tied to secular interests.
As “lower castes” fight to get their share of power, wealth
and dignity, the friction created in this struggle thwarts the majoritarian
ambitions of the dominant religious group.
Will the American constitution play a similar role in removing the vastly
more dangerous takeover of the state by the Christian right? Or have the
privatising ambitions of the “wall of separation” model backfired,
leaving Americans exposed to yet another term of the same devils?
Copyright © Rajeev Bhargava, 2004