Volume 2: Number 1                 November 1, 1998

In this Issue...
Gail Omvedt and Liberalization Natarajan, Faolain and Philip
The Biggest Corporate Takeover Basav Sen
Taxi Strike Biju Mathew
Foil Notes

The Secularization Thesis

Vijay Prashad

Book Review: Achin Vanaik, The Furies of Indian Communalism. Religion, Modernity and

Secularization (London: Verso, 1997). 374pp. ISBN: 1-85984-016-7. $22.

As I sit to write this review, the pro-Nazi German Peoples Union (DVU) has just won 13% of the vote in Saxony-Anhalt (27 April) and a huge fascist rally in Leipzig overtakes the town (1 May). In India, the BJP comes to power (7 March) and within months, it indulges in an act of militarism and detonates five nuclear bombs in the deserts of Rajasthan (11 May). The tide of fascism appears to be on the rise. But "fascism," like other political philosophies, is not a template that can be lifted from one setting and placed upon another. "Surpassing in its cynicism and hypocrisy all other varieties of bourgeois reaction," Dimitrov wrote in his 1935 Comintern Report, "fascism adapts its demagogy to the national peculiarities of each country, and even to the peculiarities of the various social strata in one and the same country." If in Germany the fascists use unemployment, the Euro and those called "Ali" as political markers, in India the terrain is forged in an anti-Muslim, anti-dalit and anti-Communist fashion. Achin Vanaik's book recognizes the specificities of Indian communalism, the religio-political ideology of a fascistic movement led by those who Subir Sinha has called the "Sangh Lafangs" and Harsh Kapoor has called the "Jung Parivar."

Like his earlier study of the political economy of independent India (Painful Transition: Bourgeois Democracy in India, published by Verso in 1990), Vanaik's new book is rigorous (in terms of sociological method), practical (in terms of its usefulness in an analysis of our present) and guided by a sophisticated use and development of "a critical and modest Marxism" (p. 14). We are offered a book on the problem of communalism and the decisive issue of secularism. Too much of the debate these days on communalism remains at the level of a defense or a condemnation of this unspecified thing called the "secular." While an entire swath of intellectuals and politicians seem to agree on something called the "pseudo-secular," they rarely bother to define it for us. Vanaik spends some time clarifying the genealogy of key terms in the field (modernity, culture, religion, secular) before he takes on these intellectuals, such as T. N. Madan, Ashis Nandy and Partha Chatterjee, all of whom Vanaik argues render religion, to different degrees, into something natural to either the Indian psyche or to Indian culture. For this alone, his book is worth a read. There is no engagement with the blatantly communal writers, people such as those who have recently been nominated to the Indian Council of Historical Reseach in an act of high-modernist hubris by Murli Manohar Joshi, since their texts do not merit critique.
Vanaik's new book is rigorous,
practical and guided by a
sophisticated use and
development of "a critical and
modest Marxism"
A scholar like B. B. Lal who refuses to share his sources and his materials with the public cannot be engaged in debate. It takes less than a few lines to show how the programmatic Hindutva scholars are far from the norms of History (such as documentation and a discussion on source materials). Vanaik spends time, rather, on the pragmatic Hindutva scholars, those who probably disagree with Hindutva as a political enterprise, but who seem to line-up behind it as an ideological project. These are "pragmatic Hindutva scholars," because they tend towards the ideology of Hindutva often with a stated distance from the political project of Hindutva.

The anti-secular, but not overtly Hindutvawadi, scholars begin with the premise that modernity itself is one-dimensionally Cartesian. The state, within modernity, claims to be the guardian of a rational function, to render society in the categories of reason. Modernity, for the anti-secularists, is an inheritance from Europe, wherein religion was abandoned for a secular faith in the nation-state. Given the troubles of modern history, these scholars ask us to jettison our trials within the modern and seek something outside the modern (community, religion, indigenous peoples) from which to be both critical of the modern and on top of which to build a new society. All societies, the pragmatic Hindutva thinkers suggest, require Durkheim's "social cement," such as nationalism in Europe or religion in India. Since religion is treated as a worthwhile cement for the Indian people, the anti-secularist scholars give it a decisive role in the creation of Indian society ( see especially, Chatterjee's 1994 "Secularism and Tolerance" which echos Foucault's troubling statements in the wake of the Iranian revolution, particularly "A quoi rovent les Iraniens?" Les Nouvel Observateur, 16 October 1978).

Vanaik finds, however, that society does not necessarily stand by consensus, but perhaps by the lack of an organized and unifed dissensus (p. 91). If there is nothing to crack the multifarious cords that bind people together, society of a sort is maintained (this is graphically so in diverse regions such as the subcontinent). Using Raymond William's theories on culture, Vanaik argues strongly against the premise of the anti-secularist position. Further, he holds that religion, far from being simply the cement of society, operates on the intersection between meaning and power (p. 72). Therefore, religion is not just about questions of eschatology, but also of social hierarchy and conflict. If religion is imbricated within the matrix of social relations, it is then, a part of the modern conflicts that embroil us. The first section of Vanaik's book slowly and cautiously guides us through the false premises of anti-secularism. He shows us how Hindutva seeks to "redefine democracy as majoritarianism and secularism as tolerance, in order to present itself as more truly secular and democratic" (p. 188). If the first part of the statement has received just criticism, the second part (tolerance) seems to attract too many people. As Vanaik notes, Hinduism may be a variegated phenomenon, but "tolerance in its positive sense means much more than coexistence" (p. 114). The contradictory and creative history of "Hinduism" is adequate proof for coexistence with only moments of tolerance (a historiography created by the ceaseless labors of Romila Thapar and her students).

Vanaik carefully unravels the logic of anti-secularists like Chatterjee who denies the basis of universal justice and turns instead to a communitarianism that seems to be indefensible (as in the work of Michael Walzer or Richard Rorty). When a minority group demands a cultural right, Chatterjee says in his 1994 article, "it in fact says, 'we have our reasons for doing things the way we do, but since you don't share the fundamentals of our world-view, you will never come to understand or appreciate our reasons. Therefore, leave us alone and let us mind our own business'" (quoted on p. 190). The state, the partial embodiment of universal justice, is deemed to be out of line if and when it enters into the regulation of the lives of communities. Chatterjee, here, endorses a small state argument without making any attempt to differentiate himself from the small state tide that calls for the retraction of the state in the provision of social services and the expansion of the state for corporate welfare (p. 187). Further, Chatterjee suggests that the "community" is a better government of peoples than a "state" without being clear as to who defines "community" and what the character of its accountability and democracy is. His example of the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Community is highly suspect given that the SGPC is captured by the various Akali Dal factions whose only concern seems to be for political power rather than for the just demands of Punjabi people (as a whole).

Well-versed in classical sociological theory, Vanaik shows us how it is insufficient to champion the secular only in the domain of the state. He understands the problems of the bourgeois state and of its form of democracy. There is no need to defend that state against the predations of anti-secularist thought (even though there may be a
To counter Hindutva,
anti-secularist thought and
imperialism, Vanaik
recommends a strategy of
secularization of society to
halt the march of chauvinism.
tactical use in the defense of this state form against imperialism). Instead of trying to secure a state-centered secularism, Vanaik argues that the task of progressives in South Asia must be to reduce the role of religion in society, to conduct the secularization of society. Those who remain at the level of the state, he shows, do not necessarily secularize society, since many displace religion from the state onto civil society (p. 38, an argument being made now in EPW by Rustam Bharucha). To counter Hindutva, anti-secularist thought and imperialism, Vanaik recommends a strategy of secularization of society to halt the march of chauvanism.

The agents of this practice come from many quarters. "The anti-caste struggle," he notes, "is vital to the effort to de-communalize and transform Indian society in a more secular, humane and socialist direction" (p. 52). Vanaik realizes, however, that this struggle requires leadership and direction. To this end, the "dalit parties" seem to be of little value, given as they are to the wiles of the "dalit bureaucracy" within the BSP (p. 323). The books ends with a call for the foundation of a New Social Democracy, at the Left of the old Nehruvian Congress Socialism. "It would involve a newer and stronger commitment to transformative politics, a more serious engagement in mass activity and in the setting up of structures of popular empowerment" outside the control of political parties (p. 335). For all this, Vanaik recognizes the importance of the Communist Parties, the women's movement and those socialists still committed to transformation. His assessments of these agents of change is useful for its balanced approach, especially given the knee-jerk rejection (notably in the academy) of much of what is called the "traditional" Left. The main tasks of this struggle will be secularization, a strategy worthy of some serious discussion before it is undertaken by the Left in sum.

Written before the election of 1998, Vanaik concedes the value of preventing the passage of the BJP into governance, a route that enables them to consolidate power by infiltration of the bureaucracy and by such policies as the "Om-Made Bomb" (as Raju Rajan put it in the style of the Amul advertisements). Since these forces have now appropriated the Indian state, the "longer term task for secularists, democrats and socialists [is] immeasurably more difficult as the dark night of an authoritarian and communal Hindu state descends upon us" (p. 285). Now we are urged to consolidate a Popular Front that connects the working class in what Dimitrov called the "living dialectics of struggle."

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