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  • Untouchable Demands for Justice or the Problem of Religious “Non-Interference”: The case of temple entry movements in late-colonial India
  • Shabnum Tejani

The early twentieth century saw non-Brahmans and Untouchables in India mobilize cultural symbols and forge political movements for the recognition of their civil and religious rights. Among these were campaigns for access to public space—tanks, temples and bathing ghats—which became sites of conflict with caste Hindus who opposed these attempts.1 Such movements have been understood as part of a story of an emergent Dalit political consciousness within the context of British colonialism and Indian nationalism.2 However, a little-studied aspect is the way they intersected with questions of the state’s involvement with religious institutions and practices, or “secularism.”3 Scholars have argued that the form that secularism took in India was quite different than in many societies of Europe and North America from where the idea originated, albeit in a variety of forms. It did not institute a “wall of separation” as in the United States Constitution but rather stood over and above the population, adjudicating fairness, moderating the relations between religious communities, maintaining an “equi-distance” or “principled distance” as it has been called.4 This position of “principled distance,” one could argue, had its beginnings in the colonial period. The colonial state sought to uphold rather than to change Indian customary practices and moderated communities’ claims against each other while professing, from the time of the widely circulated proclamation of Queen Victoria in 1858, to maintain a policy of religious neutrality or “non-interference.”5

Scholarship on secularism and communalism has tended to address “religion” and religious communities, particularly Hindus and Muslims, to the exclusion of caste.6 In an earlier study on Indian secularism, I examined the historical emergence of secularism as a political idea in the early twentieth century.7 I argued that to understand the particular meaning of secularism in India, one must move beyond the established concern with “religion” to a consideration of caste. The ideal of secularism was at the centre of the independent state as a liberal democracy. As such it was shaped by the imperative to create a democratic majority, which in India was broadly defined as a community of Hindus. This earlier research argued that Indian secularism was not simply about a separation of political from religious institutions or creating a particularly Indian ethics of tolerance. Rather, it represented a formulation of nationalism that involved dovetailing liberal discourses around individual representation with definitions of majority and minority populations that were defined communally. Secularism in the Indian context thus took on quite specific historical meanings: it was not distinct from caste, communalism and democracy but a relational category that emerged at their nexus.8 Moreover, Indian secularism emerged in the transition from nationalism to independence at the fault lines of where minority communities, Muslims and Sikhs, as well as the Untouchables, asserted their right to be recognized in the new state. Religious minorities and Untouchables had been entitled to recognition in the form of reservations in legislative councils under the colonial state. At independence, only Untouchables, as a historically oppressed population, received such representation on the grounds of egalitarianism and social justice, while religious communities did not, on the basis that a secular state remained aloof from religion.9

This article explores the history of Indian secularism in a different arena. While the category of secularism in India had meanings that were tied to the historical context of its emergence, a study of the way in which the colonial state navigated its position vis-à-vis communal claims to public space in the languages of rights can shed light on the significant legal and ethical challenges to the state’s own presentation of its religious neutrality. In other words, it can illuminate some of the historical antecedents of India’s postcolonial “secularism” in its position of “principled distance.” A study of temple entry movements can be particularly fruitful for this enquiry: debate within official and Indian circles around how the state should intervene demonstrated the ambiguous position that Untouchables held in the communal balance of claims as both a downtrodden social group with...

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