SECULARISM IN INDIA: An Interview with Partha Chatterjee

Partha Chatterjee is a preeminent political theorist, anthropologist and historian, and one of the founding members of the Subaltern Studies collective. He is currently a Professor of Anthropology and Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies at Columbia University as well as an honorary professor of political science at the Center for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. His writings include influential works such as Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World and The Nation and its Fragments. The Columbia Journal of Literary Criticism sat down with Chatterjee to discuss the BJP beef ban in India, the politics of dress, and the emergence of secularism and modernity.

CJLC: What’s your take on the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) recent beef ban in Maharashtra?

PARTHA CHATTERJEE: I don’t know if you have been following it, but this matter has been taken to court in Bombay. The background is this: slaughter of cows has been banned in many states of North India for quite a while, mostly since the 1960s. What was allowed was the import of beef from other states or from abroad. So effectively beef was sold. It was available in certain restaurants, and it was obviously consumed by some people. Now, the latest that’s happened is that the government of Maharashtra has made it illegal to possess or sell or consume beef.

What’s been alleged by whoever went to court is that this has been an infringement on individual freedom, that its a violation of a fundamental right. So the government of Maharashtra, has been arguing that this ban has nothing to do with religion because then there would immediately be a question of discrimination, where one religion, or the sensibilities of one religion, was being given priority over those of others. It was likely that this particular law would be declared unconstitutional by the courts. So what the government of Maharashtra has had to do is to say that, “it’s got nothing to do with religion, this is a matter of animal rights.” And there is an overwhelming sentiment in the country that cattle and cows in particular are regarded as particularly valuable because of their use in agriculture, which is why the cow is venerated in a certain sense. So it’s got nothing to do with religion as such, but the of a particularly valuable species of animal.

CJLC: That’s what they’re saying.

The real problem in the rural Indian economy is perhaps the surplus of cattle who have no use. So it’s a strange logic. Essentially, the argument is connected to an assertion made by this particular set of political organizations of a religious identity in a political sense, where the real target is Muslims, and increasingly now Christians too.

CJLC: So the BJP’s case is in fact waged along communitarian lines?

PC: The argument they would make in the more straightforward political campaigns would be: “Muslims get away with asserting a whole range of completely religious communitarian demands, many of which are utterly irrational, but nobody wants to say anything because they are considered a minority, and therefore you have to respect their sensibilities. But what about the majority community?” That’s the kind of argument that they keep making. But the interesting thing is, of course, who are the consumers of beef in India? All over North India, the only consumers of beef would be essentially the poorer sections of Muslims. But in the South of the country, it is eaten by lower caste Hindus very widely. In certain coastal areas, certainly Goa and Kerala, beef is eaten quite widely by all communities. Christians, even Hindus—upper caste Hindus, too—would often eat beef in Kerala.

CJLC: Is the disparity between beef consumption across different demographics and regions taken into account by the BJP?

No. If you point that out, they will say that it’s a local aberration.

CJLC: It is very interesting that they try to deploy that rhetoric. Sudipita Kaviraj observed that when these sorts of controversies emerge, the Congress party’s impulse is to localize it, and the BJP’s impulse is to nationalize it. Do you think that the rhetoric of secularism plays into this in a positive or a malignant way?

PC: Secularism can be defined in all sorts of ways. For instance, you have the variety of secularism in a country like Turkey, which was associated with a whole Kemalist westernization of society, so secularization effectively meant clamping down on Islam itself. In India you’ve never had that kind of strong secularism. This attempt to actually use the powers of the state to keep religion out of the public domain has never been practiced in India. The concern has been much more, “How do you handle the claims of different religions at the same time? How does the state manage to do this?” I think the principal concern of secularism is for the state to demonstrate that it is not being partial to any particular religion. Here, the question would simply be this: “What would be considered partial?”

CJLC: In the 1980s, the BJP accused the Congress party of a policy of “pseudo-secularism.” Providing for all religions was not actually seen as secular, because the state is not impartial in the sense of being removed from all things religious. Do you see a change in the BJP’s line nowadays, when it comes to questions of dictating dress or meat consumption?

You see it’s an interesting move that some sections of the BJP seem to make because the early argument of pseudo-secularism was that there should be equality in the application of the law. The secularist argument was made demanding a uniform set of laws instead of a separate code of personal laws (such as marriage, inheritance). Congress rejected this proposition, advocating for special laws for minorities. And that was what was called pseudo-secularism. The twist today is that the debate seems to have died down. We don’t hear the BJP demanding the abrogation of Muslims or Christians anymore. The interesting thing about the beef argument is that it’s almost a kind of new majoritarianism. It posits the question: why shouldn’t the views of the largest section of the electorate be given priority?

CJLC: Within the wider discourse surrounding secularism, India seems to be almost fetishized; it’s seen as the case study. I’m wondering whether you think this is correct? If so, can we talk about French laïcité and Hindutva politics in the same sentence?

PC: France has a long history in which laïcité is historically situated. When laïcité became accepted, who were the other religious minorities that were affected in France? It was basically an agreement between Catholics and Protestants to say, “Let’s forget our religious differences—as far as the public life of the state is concerned, religion does not exist.” This is hard laïcité. Even if you think of it in the period of the early Republic, this comes out in something like the Dreyfus Affair. What’s the place of the Jew here? It needed to be negotiated all over again. Do the Jews have a place in this? “If we are free to pursue our religion in private, can we have synagogues?” In France even today a Jew cannot walk into a university wearing a skullcap. It’s not allowed. Then of course what happens after World War II is the new waves of largely Muslim immigration from the Maghreb. These people were never part of the original agreement on which laïcité was founded. So this is a completely new set of negotiations which are now going on. What does “religion in the private” actually mean?

CJLC: Even the conceptual categories of the public and private spheres are historically contingent, as are the forms of secularism that arise from them. How does this play out when you transplant these concepts to India?

This has been negotiated very differently. In the Indian case for instance, if you were to wear a hijab, fine. If you want to do it you do it. There is a whole history of clothes, headgear, etc, which is associated with particular sectarian, religious, all kinds of associations. And people were free to display these to the extent that they wanted to, although much of this has changed over time: if you look at any pictures even from the early 20th century you’d find men on the street wearing all kinds of headgear. Each headgear represents a particular type—it could be a caste, a particular area, a religious denomination, all kinds of things. Now all that’s gone, no one wears headgear anymore in India. But this question of to what extent you display your private identity in a public space, this is a matter that’s been historically negotiated over time. The kind of situations that you get in France for instance, about women wearing headscarves, would never happen in the Indian case simply because it’s been accepted that it’s still considered private what you wear. It’s fine to carry one’s private identity into a public place. The kind of situations about women wearing headscarves would never happen in India. I would say France could learn something from the Indian model of secularism.

CJLC: Do you think France could learn something from the Indian model of secularism?

I would say so! But the history of what became a secular identity in France was established against a whole tradition of the church and so on and so forth. There was a serious fight there which was won in a particular way. I can understand people who think that it’s a victory they can’t let go of.

CJLC: But the times have moved on…

PC: Yes, of course. There are completely different kinds of people, who don’t even understand the fight of church versus republic, who don’t understand its significance. Most of these new people who are entering Europe have no sense of what that meant. And why should they?

CJLC: There is the argument that secularism in the West is essentially just Christianity. The Hindu Code Bill assumes an Indian Citizen is Hindu until they can prove otherwise. Can you draw an analogous argument in India, that ‘secular’ registers as Hindu?

There’s an interesting problem there. The Hindu Code Bill had to be fought for because a great deal of variations within what was supposedly Hindu society were completely erased and a single legal framework for all Hindus was sought to be imposed. It seemed to be a step toward something like a uniform civil code for everybody. The reason why it was restricted only to Hindus was precisely because this question of Muslim identity was seen to be too sensitive. It is possible that had Partition not been such a terrible event, the move toward a uniform civil code would have been at that moment far stronger. It’s still there in the constitution as one of those pious wishes. So in a sense, the French kind of idea was accepted as the desirable end for a proper republic to have—that all the laws should apply to all citizens.

CJLC: But it was unfeasible.

PC: It was not feasible, and it was seen to be an exceptional situation. Or a temporary situation: “we’ll get there ultimately, but right at this moment, it would be unwise to try and push it.” Today of course even the BJP doesn’t seem particularly keen to push this agenda at all. There is the additional question of whether the Hindu Code Bill is necessarily the right model for a uniform civil code which applies to everybody—why should that be? One could always argue that a uniform civil code should not necessarily just be based on what’s uniform for the Hindus. As always, it’s a matter that needs to be negotiated between all the parties that are concerned and that negotiation hasn’t happened. And one more thing, when one says “secularism in the West,” one has to realize that there are all kinds of variations.

Secularism in the US is different from secularism in Britain or in Scandinavia for instance. In many of those places you actually have an established Church. They don’t think that stands in the way of secularism.

CJLC: Do you think thats a possible critique of Talal Asad’s account of secularism, that he conceives of Christianity as too monolithic, failing to take into account how the secular compact was negotiated differently in different countries?

That’s correct, but Talal Asad wouldn’t deny the fact. Talal Asad’s main point is to say that in fact when secularism is created, religion is created at the same time. There is no such thing as religion prior to secularism. So when religion is defined in a way which says, “it’s a matter of private belief and private practice,” then what you have is a crucial problem in many of the Protestant countries of Europe, where you actually have an established national church. So the state is identifying with one particular religion, even though you could say that in actual practice the state doesn’t discriminate against other religions. But it is a fact.

CJLC: Ashis Nandy thinks secularism is dead. What is your?

I don’t think it’s dead. Again, you see it depends on what you think secularism is. If you think of the French laïcité’s as the only proper secularism then yes, of course it’s dead. That kind of hard secularism is probably impractical and unfeasible in most places, including Turkey now. On the other hand this question of putting a certain distance between the state and the various religious communities is a problem which simply can’t be avoided in any large country with a heterogenous population. Whenever there is a perception that the state is favoring a particular religious community at the expense of others, you’re going to get a set of conflicts emerging which will be defined along lines of religious difference and the state will be forced into one of two positions: it can either explicitly claim it is in favor of a particular community, and the other communities could just as well disappear or be second class citizens; or else, the state has to demonstrate that it’s not actually being partial to one particular community. The problem of secularism is not going to go away. It’s a problem that’s here to stay.

CJLC: Can you envision a kind of self-government scenario in which particular communities argue among themselves and then present their rulings to the state? So the state ceases to be an arbitrator?

PC: One of the things that Ashis always argued was that whenever there was some sort of religious conflict, without outsiders—these larger forces—the local community left to itself would find ways of resolving the problem. Which may well be correct, but how can you avoid these larger forces from coming in. You can’t have self-governing towns or villages anymore. So there will be larger forces, there will be larger political parties, there will be larger political movements. They will have their effects on local politics, yes. You can’t avoid this.

CJLC: One of Nandy’s arguments is that “a natural tolerance tinged with faith” was a principal component of India’s indigenous religions before modernity. This is part and parcel of an anti-modernist stance that rejects secularism as an ideological imposition.

The problem with that is even if you were to identify modernity as the source of the problem—and accept that—how does one manage to get rid of all the modern institutions? How do you say that we’re going to return to some kind of pre-modern ethos of respecting each other’s differences and still somehow manage to live together? The reality is we have a state where you have votes, you have population groups, and these numbers make a difference. Majority religious communities and minority religious communities are all defined in terms of numbers. You can’t get away from the fact that under modern conditions of citizenship, those who have greater numbers will always have this tendency to impose their views onto others. There must be ways within the framework of the state itself to protect those who are small in number, the minorities. I don’t see any way of getting away from this.

CJLC: So these disavowals of modernity are fanciful?

I would say this: in terms of trying to gain a better sense of the origins and limits of modernity, these are important analytical observations. You become aware that modernity didn’t just drop from the sky ready-made. That certain things were lost because modernity had to come in, but that does not mean that the things that were lost can simply be recovered and brought back—they wouldn’t work anymore. We don’t have the conditions or the means to make them work anymore.

Ian Trueger is a junior at Columbia University who is majoring in History and Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies.

Hallie Nell Swanson is a junior at Columbia University, majoring in Comparative Literature with a focus on South Asia.