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After fifty years of independence India maintains a constitutional commitment to secularism. However, the practice of secularism in India is now increasingly under attack. In the quest for electoral advantage, the once-dominant Congress Party, made a series of choices that compromised India’s secular ethos. These choices enabled the explicitly anti-secular Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to dramatically expand its political base through the pursuit of a blatantly anti-secular and majoritarian political agenda. In recent years, as a direct consequence of the BJP’s rhetoric and policies, a range of religious minorities have been subjected to discrimination and violence. Despite this adverse trend it is still too early to ring the death-knell of Indian secularism. The growing electoral strength of hitherto disenfranchised groups, the existence of institutions committed to secularism and the continuing secular constitutional dispensation offer some hope for sustaining the secular order in India.

Is India, home to nearly a sixth of humanity, still a place where citizens can count on being treated equally, regardless of their religious or communal identity? On 27 February 2002, a group of Hindu activists boarded a train leaving the city of Ayodhya in the populous north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. They had gone to there for a ceremony to mark the start of work on a temple at a disputed religious site. Back in December 1992, Hindu militants with ties to the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its affiliates had descended on Ayodhya for the purpose of razing the Babri Masjid, a centuries-old mosque which, so they claimed, the Muslim rulers of an earlier day had erected after tearing down a major Hindu temple on the spot.

While the train lay at a stop in the town of Godhra, in the state of Gujarat along India's northwestern coast, local Muslims set fire to the railcars, burning 58 people to death. Within days of this atrocity, well-organized Hindu mobs were systematically attacking Muslims and Muslim-owned businesses in various parts of Gujarat. The BJP-run state government of Chief Minister Narendra Modi took days to act, by which time several thousand Muslims had lost their lives. Some Hindu militants sought to justify this pogrom by pointing to the Muslim train attack. 1 Later, credible allegations would surface that officials in Modi's government were complicit in acts of arson and mayhem.

According to India's constitution, national officials can dismiss a state government if they determine that state officials are failing to maintain law and order. The orchestrated attacks on Muslims in many parts of Gujarat and the near-complete—and to all appearances willful—failure [End Page 11] of the state government to put a quick stop to the carnage should have been grounds for dismissal. In the event, the BJP-led coalition government of Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee in New Delhi refused to suspend or even criticize Modi, and instead embraced him and permitted him to campaign for fresh elections in his home state and beyond. The BJP handily won Gujarat state elections in December 2002. Though Modi's appeal outside his home state was limited, he also played a role in the BJP's election strategy in the state of Himachal Pradesh that year. The Gujarat pogrom of 2002 and its political aftermath raise serious questions about the Indian state's commitment to secularism—a word that in the Indian context means simply the principle of treating all citizens equally, without regard to religious (including caste) or communal identity.

The crimes of commission and omission in Gujarat notwithstanding, the constitutional dispensation of Indian secularism remains intact, and its practice is not dead—yet. But its health is poor, and it may be facing a slow demise. The stakes are huge. If secularism breaks down decisively in India, this will spell the rise of "illiberal democracy" 2 in that country and raise grave questions about the sustainability of liberal democracy across the entire postcolonial world. In the most immediate practical terms, the rise of a purely majoritarian democracy amid India's cultural, religious, and ethnic heterogeneity would consign hundreds of millions of people to a dubious political future with little or no security for even their most basic rights. In the worst case, it could mean bloody strife on an unprecedented scale between militants from India's 82 percent Hindu majority and their opposite numbers from minorities such as the Muslims, who make up about 12 percent of India's population of more than one billion people. Therefore it is important to pay close attention to the sources and likely trajectory of illiberal sectarian politics in India.

Constitutional Secularism

Contrary to what many may think, neither Indian secularism nor Indian democracy is something that Indians passively received from British colonialism. In fact, the British did little during their two centuries of rule over the subcontinent forthrightly to promote either democracy or secularism. Both are best understood less as British bequests than as Indian appropriations. Indian nationalist leaders, and above all the Harrow-trained Jawaharlal Nehru, consciously decided to borrow certain liberal and pluralist tenets from European thought and historical experience and plant them as principles to guide Indian political life. 3 It was an admirable, courageous, and highly intelligent act of creative adoption—undeterred by the shameful yet ultimately immaterial fact that Europeans often honored such tenets more in the breach than the observance when running their colonies—and India as well as the world have been much the better-off for it. [End Page 12]

During the era of activism on behalf of independence, the principle of secularism hardly ruled the Indian political arena uncontested. The principal nationalist group, the Indian National Congress, managed from the 1930s on to build a mass anticolonial movement, but never quite succeeded in bringing every group under its umbrella or bridging all the major divisions in Indian society. The reasons for failure were complicated. The apparently primordial Hindu institution of caste had riddled Indian society with wide and deep cleavages, as had the checkered history of Hindu-Muslim relations.

Certain colonial practices, some adopted out of an aim to divide and rule and others for reasons of administrative convenience, exacerbated the splits among Indians. The British-run census, for instance, used classifications that reinforced caste distinctions among the Hindu majority. Similarly, British willingness to create communal electorates in the early part of the twentieth century reinforced Hindu-Muslim political differences. As independence approached in 1947, the demands of electoral politics led Congress to compromise its secularist principles. Finally, by introducing European mores, customs and values, British colonial rule inadvertently stimulated various Hindu revivalist movements that sprang up in reaction. 4

As the constitution of newly independent India was being drafted (ratification came in 1950), disagreements over secularism welled up. While most of the framers were secularists, some members of the Constituent Assembly did harbor strong majoritarian religious sentiments and opposed the idea of a religiously neutral state. More generally, the framers had to confront the challenge of fashioning a secular constitution to govern a society deeply suffused with a variety of religious sentiments. 5 Difficulties notwithstanding, the end result was a constitution that recognized the rights of religious minorities, that did not privilege the majority Hindu system of custom and belief, and that granted freedom of religion to all citizens "subject to public order, morality, and health."

It should also be noted that the constitution the framers produced was not religiously neutral. On the contrary, it contained explicit provisions abolishing certain retrograde features of Hindu society, namely, those associated with the practice of "untouchability." Indian secularism, as one scholar puts it, is ameliorative. 6 Ironically, this ameliorative impulse has helped to reinforce caste distinctions. Hoping to redress past injustices, India's postindependence leaders started various affirmative action or "positive discrimination" programs, most notably as regards college admissions and government jobs. Not surprisingly, numerous politicians now make blatant caste-based appeals.

At another level, subsequently, a number of framers, who were also members of the ruling Congress party, introduced legislation that transformed Hindu personal law in the realms of marriage, divorce, and inheritance. Yet the same legislators made a conscious effort to avoid [End Page 13] changing Muslim personal law, concluding that the still-fresh trauma of partition made it advisable to defer legal reform of the Muslim minority's religious practices to a later time. This decision to defer the reform of Muslim personal law would later play into the hands of Hindu zealots and political activists who could disingenuously argue that the officially secular state was actually a scheme for pandering to minorities. 7 And the question continues to roil Indian politics. In July 2003, the Supreme Court nonbindingly endorsed the idea of a uniform civil law for all religious communities. Every major camp reacted predictably: The BJP praised the Court, the opposition Congress party suggested that such legislation should not be imposed on minority religious communities, and Muslim spokesmen suggested that only Islamic scholars could be competent in such an area. 8

The Secular Record

For the first several decades after independence and partition, the Indian National Congress thoroughly dominated politics, and the party's wide aegis covered a varied array of opinions and interests. 9 Not all Congress members were committed to secular principles. Many, including Nehru's successor as prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri (1964-66), were inclined to favor Hindu primacy. Nevertheless, the constitutional commitment to secularism, the large numbers of votes to be found among Muslims, and the presence of numerous dedicated secularists in party ranks kept Congress loyal to secular principles and practices.

Moreover, the principal antisecular party, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (the predecessor to the BJP), failed to attract many adherents and hence posed only a minor electoral challenge. The Jana Sangh's shortcomings as a vote-getter came in part from its dubious ties to the Hindu radicalism of the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak (RSS), and organization that had been implicated in the January 1948 assassination of Mohandas K. Gandhi. The Jana Sangh also held little attraction for India's lower-caste Hindus or minorities because of its upper-caste Hindu orientation and its explicitly antiminority rhetoric.

Congress's political dominance began to slip in the late 1960s and with it India's secular principles began to be sapped. In 1967, the post-Nehru party suffered a significant defeat at the polls on issues of both personality and substance, and soon split in two. Nehru's daughter Indira Gandhi had become prime minister upon Shastri's sudden death of natural causes in early 1966, and she played a significant role in engineering this schism. By the early 1970s, Gandhi had tenuously restored Congress to a leading position by making populist promises to abolish poverty. But her triumph was fleeting. Under her tutelage, Congress and indeed most of India's political institutions fell into disarray. Whereas [End Page 14] her father had played a signal role in building up key institutions from the independent judiciary to the robust party system, Indira Gandhi engineered their decline. 10

The full reasons for her attack on India's institutions are highly complex. In a nutshell, her populist rhetoric and practices stirred a wave of mass political mobilization. From her vantage atop its crest, she saw established institutions—including the independent judiciary and civil service as well as the democratic internal procedures of her party itself—as barriers to her goal of prevailing politically at the head of a securely dominant Congress party. Hence her assault on these institutions and her reckless abuse of such constitutional prerogatives as the right to dismiss state governments. 11

Secularism, a cornerstone of the Indian constitutional order and a principle that Congress under Nehru had mostly championed, was another set of restraints to be opportunistically knocked aside by Indira Gandhi's electoral surge. There was a double irony here, for not only had her father been among secularism's founders, but her own personal commitment to secularism was never in doubt. 12 Her actions against the secular enterprise cannot be separated from her general hostility toward constitutional proprieties or her willingness to thwart the rule of law when votes were at stake.

Gandhi's readiness to overstep the bounds of constitutional propriety on secularism and other matters created space for the rapid rise of an antisecular alternative. The Jana Sangh was the leading candidate for the role. Founded formally in 1951 but with roots that stretched back to the 1920s and the early years of such militant Hindu organizations as the RSS and Mahasabha, Jana Sangh had its social base among the upper-caste Hindus of north India. 13 The group had long viewed itself as Congress's rival for the allegiance of India's Hindu majority and had always taken an anti-Muslim, anti-Pakistan stance. Despite a strong economic-nationalist strain in Jana Sangh's ranks, it was more sympathetically inclined toward market-oriented economic policies than was Congress, which leaned socialist.

In 1975-76, Indira Gandhi declared "emergency rule," allowing her to seize power in a kind of executive self-coup and trample civil liberties in the process. The election of 1977 turned her out of power and left Congress in disarray. As part of these events, Jana Sangh had merged briefly with other groups to create the short-lived Janata (People's) Party and rule as part of a governing coalition that hung on shakily until 1980. When voters swept Indira Gandhi back into power that year, the new BJP, with the old Jana Sangh cadres at its core, emerged out of the Janata coalition's wreckage. Ever since then, the BJP has been the antisecularist standard-bearer. Around it swirls an alphabet soup of mass-based groups, including not only the RSS but the VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad, or World Hindu Congress, founded in 1964), and the Bajrang [End Page 15] Dal (the VHP's youth wing, founded in 1984). Together, the whole collection—BJP plus affiliates—is known as the Sangh Parivar.

Three Episodes and Their Import

A series of events, some accidental, others deliberate, tore at Indian secularism beginning in the 1980s and allowed the emergence of antisecular politics. Three episodes in particular stand out as deliberate choices that undermined the secular order: 1) Indira Gandhi's political courtship of a violent Sikh fundamentalist preacher in the early 1980s; 2) the 1986 decision of her son and political heir, Rajiv Gandhi, to overturn a critical decision of the Supreme Court on Muslim personal law; and 3) the failure of the Congress government of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao to stop a Hindu nationalist mob from tearing down Ayodhya's Babri Masjid in 1992.

The unraveling of the secularist fabric started with the rise of demands for regional autonomy in the Punjab—a northwestern border state, divided with Pakistan during partition, that had a slender Sikh majority—and the manner in which the Indian state under Indira Gandhi responded to those demands. A desire for regional autonomy had long made itself felt in the Punjab, but the constitutional order and the practice of Indian federalism had managed to contain this desire during the first three decades of independence. Then came the 1980s, with their confluence of greater mass political mobilization and an increasingly ossified Congress party—factors that together fueled the rise of regional parties across the vast breadth of the subcontinent. The local manifestation of this phenomenon in the Punjab struck Indira Gandhi with special force. She detected in the appearance and rhetoric of the regional Akali Dal party not only a threat to Congress's dominance but also a strong whiff of secessionism. In a perverse attempt to undermine the growing popularity of the Akalis, she chose actively to court and encourage a violent, fundamentalist Sikh preacher, Jarnail SinghBhindranwale, who had political ambitions of his own and proved to be more than a match for her. Soon he and his followers had turned their wrath against the Hindus of the Punjab, terrorizing them at will and killing hundreds, often by sending motorcycle-riding terrorists to spray crowds with deadly machine-gun fire.

Not surprisingly, these rampant attacks on Hindus, orchestrated by Bhindranwale from the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the holiest of Sikh shrines, led to a Hindu backlash across northern India and helped solidify an otherwise atomistic set of communities. Worse still, the communal violence created a whole new rift in Indian society—between Hindus and Sikhs. Unable to contain Bhindranwale's terror campaign, Gandhi ordered the army to attack the Temple in June 1984. The military operation on the night of June 5-6 proved costly in both human and political terms. As many as a thousand people were killed, [End Page 16] among them Bhindranwale, and the attack inflamed even moderate Sikhs, who construed it as an assault on their faith.

On October 31, the prime minister's own Sikh bodyguards assassinated her. In response, Hindu mobs with links to the Congress party went on a systematic rampage, slaughtering Sikhs at will throughout the capital city of New Delhi. This pogrom, which cost thousands of lives, did not stop until the army was called out to restore order several days into November. Indira Gandhi's willingness to court religious zealots to achieve dubious short-term political ends had contributed not only to her own demise but also to the deaths of several hundred Hindus and many more Sikhs. The complicity of the Congress party in the revenge killing of Sikhs showed the danger and doubt that now shadowed the practice of secularism.

The assault on secularism and the disregard that Indira Gandhi had evinced for institutions would continue under her inexperienced son and successor, Rajiv Gandhi, albeit in a more complex and convoluted fashion. Some of the same imperatives drove mother and son. Like her, he was a secularist personally, but found the idea of scoring quick electoral gains by tampering with secularist institutions and norms too tempting to turn down.

The Problem of Muslim Personal Law

The second major step in the unraveling of the secular order was the Shah Bano case, which began in 1985. Shah Bano was an indigent and divorced Muslim woman who appealed to the Indian Supreme Court under Section 125 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. She wanted the Court to overrule her ex-husband's claim that Muslim personal law exempted him from having to pay her alimony. The court ruled that, despite the existence of a separate Muslim personal law, the husband was indeed obliged under Indian criminal law to make the alimony payments. The Court's opinion was in line with the ameliorative tradition in Indian secularism. According to this view, state authorities could actively intervene, in the name of supreme public values such as equal justice, to change deeply embedded and historically sanctioned practices, even when some claimed religious sanction for such practices. Thus the laws of modern India had altered Hindu inheritance customs and done away with untouchability.

In reality, of course, things could not be this simple. The Court's judgment in the Shah Bano case angered many Indian Muslims. Leading Muslim politicians insisted vociferously that their personal law was now in danger. There was a dramatic surge in political mobilization among Muslims nationwide, and in north India especially. Also fueling this mobilization were growing ties between certain Indian Muslims and their coreligionists in the Persian Gulf states. 14 During the oil-boom years of the 1970s and 1980s, many (often skilled) Indian Muslims took high-paying [End Page 17] jobs in the Gulf region and came home flush with previously unheard-of wealth and a much greater readiness to assert the claims of their community. To accommodate the Muslim ferment, Rajiv Gandhi used his parliamentary majority to grant Muslims a separate dispensation in matters of marriage and divorce.

The decision to overturn the Court's ruling had unsettling consequences, however. It made significant sections of the Hindu majority feel more vulnerable—especially in north India, home to most of India's more than 100 million Muslims and the focus of the Sikh-separatist terror campaign. The BJP courted these jittery Hindu voters skillfully, playing on their resentment at seeing the Congress party so ready to pander to minority sentiments. Grasping the danger of a backlash from Hindu voters, advisors to Rajiv Gandhi concluded that they needed to assuage the majority's anxieties. Sadly, the method that they chose would badly wound Indian secularism yet again.

The issue that Congress decided to highlight touched on the most primeval elements of Indian culture and society. 15 Most practicing Hindus believe that Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, is the birthplace of Lord Rama, the legendary hero-king who, together with his three half-brothers, is believed to have made up the seventh avatar or incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. Ever since the nineteenth century, Hindu activists had been claiming that a sixteenth-century mosque (the Babri Masjid) built there by the Mogul emperor Babur stood on the spot of an earlier Hindu temple—allegedly torn down by Muslims—marking Lord Rama's exact birthplace. Hindus had sought to build a new temple in the vicinity during the British Raj, but colonial authorities stopped them. Not long after independence, in December 1949, Hindu zealots placed icons of Lord Rama within the Babri Masjid's sanctuary. Fearing religious discord, the Nehru government in Delhi sent word to state and local officials that the icons would have to go. The local magistrate refused, and was eventually sacked. The Uttar Pradesh state government left the icons in place, but sealed the mosque to head off trouble. Thereafter the issue lay mostly dormant, despite occasional Muslim lawsuits and Hindu agitations.

The decision by Rajiv Gandhi's government to make a national issue of this dispute between two religions over a single piece of holy ground was entirely deliberate and calculating. The Ayodhya conflict did not just happen—it was engineered. The opportunity began to take shape in 1985, when the Hindu militants of the VHP reacted to the Muslim mobilization that followed the Shah Bano case by launching a mass agitation to demand the unsealing of the Babri Masjid. In early 1986, a local lawyer with no previous role in any of the old cases began petitioning the courts for this purpose. A local judge agreed with him on appeal and ordered the mosque unlocked. Serious observers familiar with these events insist that the judge acted at the behest of certain [End Page 18] local Congress party stalwarts—again underscoring the decline of institutional and judicial probity at local levels.

The BJP and its affiliates started a nationwide campaign to demolish the mosque and construct a Hindu temple in its place, urging people from across India to send bricks to Ayodhya for this end. Not to be outdone, Congress resorted to symbolic gestures aimed at arousing Hindu feelings. Among other things, it arranged for the state-run television network to serialize a version of the Ramayana (or story of Rama), one of the two great Hindu epics; it launched a local electoral campaign from Faizabad, a town near Ayodhya; and it allowed the foundation stones of the proposed temple to be laid near the mosque. 16

The Ayodhya Crisis Mounts

The events of the late 1980s were tumultuous as the BJP and its allies stepped up the pressure to build a temple in Ayodhya, receiving in the process a good deal of support from northern India's Hindu voters. From the 1984 to the 1989 national elections, the BJP went from just 2 to 88 parliamentary seats.Rajiv Gandhi and Congress, meanwhile, failed even to gesture toward pursuing a countermobilization strategy based on the reaffirmation of secular principles such as freedom and tolerance, giving the BJP all the moral and political space it needed to push its viciously antisecular agenda.

Contingent events also helped the BJP. The 1989 elections saw Congress routed, but no single successor party emerged. The BJP wound up forming a loose and unlikely alliance with V.P. Singh's left-of-center National Front, offering the parliamentary support without actually joining the cabinet. The strains within this marriage of convenience began to show as soon as the National Front, eager to secure its lower-caste base, put in motion a sweeping affirmative-action plan that called for 27 percent of all government jobs and higher-educational places to be set aside for applicants belonging to what in Indian bureaucratese are known as "members of the Other Backward Classes." The reaction against this so-called Mandal Plan (after the chairperson of the commission that suggested it) proved to be both swift and violent, resulting even in the self-immolation of some university students.

The stir placed the BJP in a tricky position between its middle- and upper-caste base (which was furious over the Mandal Commission report) and the lower-caste voters whom the party was trying to woo. In the end, loyalty to the base won out. In September 1990, BJP stalwart Lal Krishna Advani embarked on a national trek (rath yatra) in a Toyota truck bedecked to look like a chariot from the ancient Hindu epic the Mahabharata. Trailing clouds of nostalgia for Hindu martial glory, Advani's caravan caused massive excitement among BJP backers across northern India. There were outbreaks of ethnoreligious violence as well, [End Page 19] and a worried Singh government had Advani arrested in October. The BJP then withdrew its support from the National Front coalition government, triggering its collapse. Elections followed in June 1991. While the BJP mounted a vigorous campaign strongly flavored with Hindu nationalism, Congress prevailed, thanks to "sympathy votes" cast in memory of Rajiv Gandhi, who had been slain on May 21 by a female Tamil suicide bomber while campaigning in southern India. The BJP's setback at the polls failed to steer the party away from Hindu nationalist agitation. After the 1991 elections, the nationwide campaign for a new Hindu temple in Ayodhya resumed, helped by the presence of a BJP government in the state of Uttar Pradesh. In Delhi, meanwhile, the new Congress cabinet under Prime Minister Narasimha Rao deluded itself into thinking that it could manage the BJP by reasoning with its putatively "moderate" elements. Thus did Congress fail to take a firm stand against antisecularist opportunism, even as thousands of VHP and RSS extremists began to descend on Ayodhya in late 1992, egged on by the fiery speeches of BJP politicians. The Uttar Pradesh state government, sympathetic to the radical agenda, deployed insufficient forces to protect the mosque.

On December 6, a large crowd thick with slogan-shouting, saffron-headbanded RSS and VHP members brushed aside a thin police cordon and attacked the Babri Masjid, leveling the triple-domed structure with bare hands in just hours as pictures of the frenzied spectacle flashed across the world. Rao dismissed the Uttar Pradesh government for failing to maintain law and order, and had a number of BJP leaders arrested for inciting violence. But it was too little, too late. Riots exploded across north India. As many as 2,000 Muslim and Hindu citizens were killed. Believers in human equality and lovers of justice and peace in every community could only look on in horror as the secularist edifice—meant precisely to forestall such conflict—reeled amid these fearsome intestine broils, "where civil blood [made] civil hands unclean."

After more than a decade, the Ayodhya problem refuses to go away. A local court tried to depoliticize it by having the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) study the site to learn if an earlier structure existsbeneath the razed Babri Masjid, but the ASI's research has so far proved inconclusive, while political controversy dogs the study. The more ardent in the ranks of the Sangh Parivar, meanwhile, still want to build their temple atop the mosque's ruins. In early July 2003, the BJP's executive committee publicly embraced this aim, demonstrating the continued Hindu nationalist belief that rubbing this sore offers electoral advantages.

Requiem for a Secular Polity?

Public incitement of sectarian hatred is not the BJP's only weapon in its war on India's secular order. In quieter ways, too, the party and its [End Page 20] Hindu-nationalist affiliates have sought systematically to undermine the principles of equality guaranteed by the Indian constitution. Among the more disturbing of these is the BJP's campaign to rewrite Indian history. Since coming to power nationally in 1998, the party has worked to install pro-BJP historians in key academic posts. 17 Under the aegis of the National Council of Educational Research and Training, it has worked to change the content of history texts. New schoolbooks extol the virtues of Hinduism, make dubious claims about the alleged scientific advances of the Vedic Age (circa 1500 to 500 B.C.E.), and disparage the advent and role of Islam in South Asia.

Sadly, this is not an altogether new game. To a more limited extent, the Congress party had used its decades of postindependence political dominance to promote a different ideological slant by looking for scholars with Marxist or at least socialist views to write history books and hold the most important educational positions. Despite its litmus tests, however, Congress managed to appoint scholars with real standing in their fields. The BJP, by contrast, shows no compunction about promoting people whose intellectual credentials are dubious at best.

This is no small matter. As Abraham Lincoln is once supposed to have observed, "The philosophy of the schoolroom in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next." In a country where the state virtually monopolizes higher education, fundamentally altering the writing of history can affect political attitudes far into the future. The actions of the BJP's ideologues make it clear that they intend just such a reshaping of thought and feeling.

Two challenges confront Indian secularism. One is a direct political threat. The BJP and its associated organizations have fostered a significant body of antisecular sentiment, and have exploited failures and omissions by Congress in order to do so. Worse still, a desperate and rudderless Congress party—its organizational base tattered, its vision occluded, its leadership in disarray—has now drifted into the game of political outbidding. Instead of drawing upon and reinforcing its own salutary tradition of defending principled secularism, Congress has begun to peddle a cleaned-up version of the BJP's Hindu chauvinism.

Apart from the Congress, only the two far-left parties, the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), have even a notional national presence. But each is burdened by a declining organizational base and a discredited economic ideology. Consequently, apart from idiosyncratic local and regional parties, which may or may not have strong commitments to the secular ideal, the BJP faces no meaningful national challengers. In the absence of a powerful national alternative, will the BJP's Hindu-chauvinist vision inevitably prevail, thereby snuffing out the last embers of Nehruvian secularism? The question is not subject to any simple answers. [End Page 21]

A second challenge is more intellectual than concretely political, and comes from people who do not share the BJP's brand of virulent antisecularism, but who might be best described as skeptical of secularism in its classic Nehruvian guise and in the market for new or seemingly new alternatives. Some more or less sympathetic observers have started to ring the death knell of the secularist order, often with the observation that secularism is an alien transplant that never had much chance at long-term survival within the Indian body politic. 18 Consequently, they assert, it should be allowed to die a natural death. In its stead, some of its opponents call for an ethic of religious tolerance that they believe can be extracted from India's own organic religious traditions.

This argument is flawed and dangerous. India's welter of indigenous spiritual traditions offers no clear teaching in favor of religious tolerance. 19 As with most complex bodies of beliefs, customs, experiences, and discourses, the generalizations that can be drawn are various, and may or may not endorse kindness toward "the other." More to the point, this is a plea for feckless voluntarism. Is it not wishful thinking to expect that, in the absence of sanctions against religious hostility, an ethic of religious tolerance will somehow emerge to guide public life? Those who suggest that religious tolerance can effectually exist apart from secularist institutions may mean well, but theirs is not a serious answer to this crucial question of public policy.

Must the large-scale political and societal pressures that we have been discussing inexorably cause India to abandon its founding commitment to secularism? Are there no countervailing forces that might stem the tide of majoritarian sentiment? Despite the uncertainty that stalks the future of secularism, some clues suggest that all may not yet be lost. It is important to reiterate that the constitutional structure of secularism remains intact. Despite their blatantly antisecular agenda, no BJP stalwarts have suggested any replacement of the constitutional structure of secularism. Also, they remain acutely cognizant of the support that secularism still enjoys in significant quarters of Indian society. For example, important segments of the Indian press remain deeplycommitted to secular principles. At another level, large numbers of Indian social scientists, committed to Nehruvian principles of secularism, are standing their ground despite the antisecular tide. Consequently, the BJP and its acolytes publicly insist that they are opposed not to secularism but to "pseudosecularism," one that privileges minority rights at the cost of the majority community.

At another level, the logic of electoral politics has forced the BJP to abandon some of the most dramatic antisecular features of its platform. When it came into office in 1998, the BJP promised to dispense with Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. Among other things, this article prohibits the sale of immovable property in the only Muslim-majority state in the Indian union, Jammu and Kashmir, to any non-Kashmiri. [End Page 22] Overturning this ban would open the valleys of this mountainous state to a flood of Hindu settlers from the plains of north India and beyond, thereby "tipping" the demographics of this contested land. Yet even after nearly five years in office, the BJP-led coalition government has taken no steps whatsoever to alter the status of Kashmir in the Indian union. Nor has the BJP pursued legislation to bring about a Uniform Civil Code that would finally end the special provisions of Muslim personal law. Thus even the most ardent elements in the BJP recognize the structural limits on their power. Delving into these nettlesome areas could generate substantial hostility amongst diverse segments of the Indian polity. Lower-caste voters remain deeply skeptical of the BJP's agenda. In the eyes of many of these Indians, especially in the north, the threat of Brahmin oppression remains all too real. Not surprisingly, lower-caste elected politicians are making common cause with Muslims against the BJP. 20

The imperatives of electoral politics have also forced the BJP to seek alliances with many regional parties in order to govern at the national level. These parties have often teamed up with the BJP, less because of shared ideology than to gain access to the spoils of office. The devolutionary trend in Indian politics is likely to endure for a long time. Accordingly, any government in New Delhi, BJP-led or otherwise, will have to make electoral adjustments to accommodate a plethora of regional parties with diverse political agendas.

From a sociological standpoint, the BJP has already encountered a fundamental and possibly insuperable barrier to the expansion of its electoral base. Indeed, this may be the gravest impediment to at least the more extreme items on its agenda.The Sangh Parivar has been on a relentless quest to fashion a Hindu monolith. Thankfully, such exertions are unlikely to bear much fruit, for Hinduism is inherently plural. It does not have a common sacred text; it lacks a centralized hierarchical, sacerdotal authority; and local—not "all-India"—deities are the focus of everyday devotion. At another level, caste, though formally derecognized under the 1950 Constitution, has become a formidable force in Indian politics. For decades now, growing participation by lower-caste voters, particularly in the closely contested districts of north India's thickly settled "Hindi Belt," has been one of the key stories in Indian politics. As a consequence, caste organizations and caste-based parties have proliferated and have lately gained substantial electoral clout. 21 Despite its recent resort to more inclusive political rhetoric, the BJP cannot draw in these lower-caste voters without alienating its middle- and upper-caste base.

Finally, India's political institutions, though denuded, have demonstrated a remarkable resilience in recent years. Over the last decade, for example, the Election Commission has roused itself from a long period of somnolence and shown a dramatic capacity to rein in corrupt politicians. [End Page 23] Its revival as a political watchdog cannot be overstated. As with any legally constituted body, it has seen routine rotations of senior personnel and considerable variation in the temperament and personality of the top commissioner, a presidential appointee. Yet through all such changes the Commission has displayed great probity and fairness, and stood tall in its resolve to uphold the rule of law. Most recently, newly named Chief Election Commissioner James Michael Lyngdoh showed these colors in the case of Gujarati elections. Modi and his backers in New Delhi wanted speeded-up voting in the state as part of their plan to exploit anti-Muslim sentiment, and did not want to wait for the legally required vetting of the electoral rolls. While Lyngdoh's principled stand did not change the election's outcome, he (like several of his recent predecessors) made a valuable contribution just by underscoring the need to respect the integrity of the electoral process. Though the ambit of the Election Commission is limited, it can nevertheless uphold many of the procedural aspects of democracy, thereby protecting the rights of the poor and hitherto disenfranchised minorities. As long as some of these key institutions of democracy remain intact, they may still be able in conjunction with other social forces, to ward off the seemingly inevitable demise of Indian secularism.

Sumit Ganguly

Sumit Ganguly is the Rabindranath Tagore Professor of Indian Cultures and Civilizations in the department of political science at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is the author of (2002) and the founding editor of a social-science journal dedicated to the study of contemporary India.

Conflict Unending: India-Pakistan Tensions Since 1947

India Review,


1. Celia W. Dugger, “Hindu Justifies Mass Killings of Muslims in Reprisal Riots,” New York Times, 5 March 2002, A4. For more on the Gujarat pogrom of early 2002, see the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s Center Conversations transcript “Hindu Nationalism vs. Islamic Jihad: Religious Militancy in South Asia—A Conversation with Cedric Prakash, Teesta Setalvad, Kamal Chenoy, Sumit Ganguly, Sunil Khilnani, and Jonah Blank,” which can be accessed at

2. For a discussion of this concept, see Fareed Zakaria, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad (New York: W.W. Norton, 2003). See also Larry Diamond’s review of Zakaria on pp. 167–71 below; and Robert Kagan, “Idealism Without Apologies: Why There’s No Such Thing as Too Much Democracy,” New Republic, 7 and 14 July 2003, 27–37.

3. For an excellent discussion of the rise of secularism in Europe, see Owen Chadwick, The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975). For a discussion of Nehru’s signal contributions, see Sarvepalli Gopal, Jawaharlal Nehru: A Biography (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976).

4. For one useful discussion, see Christophe Jaffrelot, The Hindu Nationalist Movement in India (New Delhi: Penguin, 1996).

5. James Chiriyankandath, “Creating a Secular State in a Religious Country: The Debate in the Indian Constituent Assembly,” Journal of Commonwealth and Comparative Politics 38 (July 2000): 1–24.

6. Gary Jeffrey Jacobsohn, The Wheel of Law: India’s Secularism in Comparative Constitutional Context (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003).

7. Gary Jeffrey Jacobsohn, Wheel of Law, 286.

8. Reuters news service, “Indian Court Urges Common Personal Laws,” 24 July 2003.

9. The Indian political scientist Rajni Kothari dubbed this the “Congress system.” See Rajni Kothari, Politics in India (Boston: Little, Brown, 1970).

10. Even one of the staunchest critics of Indian democracy concedes that Nehru’s role in promoting India’s institutional development was exemplary. See Fareed Zakaria, The Future of Freedom.

11. Paul R. Brass, The Politics of India Since Independence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

12. For example, even after the rise of violent Sikh separatism in the Punjab and the Indian Army’s attack on the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the holiest Sikh shrine, she refused to dispense with her Sikh bodyguards. She explicitly stated that in a secular state the removal of her bodyguards on the basis of their faith would convey an infelicitous political symbolism.

13. For a detailed analysis of the rise of the Jana Sangh and its affiliated organizations, see Bruce Desmond Graham, Hindu Nationalism and Indian Politics: The Origins and Development of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

14. Thomas Blom Hansen, The Saffron Wave: Democracy and Hindu Nationalism in Modern India (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).

15. For a scholarly analysis of this controversy, see Sarvepalli Gopal, Anatomy of a Confrontation (New Delhi: Viking, 1991).

16. Partha S. Ghosh, The Rise of Political Hinduism in India (Ebenhausen, Germany: Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, 1995).

17. Karl Friese, “Hijacking India’s History,” New York Times, 30 December 2002.

18. Those making this argument include the prominent social psychologist Ashis Nandy and political commentators such as Jug Suraiya. For Nandy’s views, see “The Politics of Secularism and the Recovery of Religious Toleration,” in Rajeev Bhargava, ed., Secularism and Its Critics (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999); Suraiya’s position is articulated in “The Death of God: And the Invention of the Human,” eds., Times of India (Delhi), 17 May 2003.

19. On this point see Sanjay Subrahmanyam, “Before the Leviathan: Sectarian Violence and the State in Pre-Colonial India,” in Kaushik Basu and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Unraveling the Nation (New Delhi: Penguin, 1996).

20. Edward Luce, “Faith, Caste, and Poverty,” Financial Times, 4 July 2003.

21. For an excellent treatment of this subject see Christophe Jaffrelot, India’s Silent Revolution: The Rise of the Lower Castes (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003).

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