Hindu dharma is implicitly at odds with monotheistic intolerance. What is happening in India is a new historical awakening... Indian intellectuals, who want to be secure in their liberal beliefs, may not understand what is going on. But every other Indian knows precisely what is happening: deep down he knows that a larger response is emerging even if at times this response appears in his eyes to be threatening.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Always Already Secular?

Afterthoughts on the Secular-Communal Question

A theory of secularism in the sense of a theory about possessing the concept 'secular' is quite distinct from a theory about how the concept secular represents. Much of the debate on the secular-communal question has emphasised the latter aspect. This article argues, however, that the treatment of the secular-communal question is not only one of separating religion from politics but one that must be orientated towards the place of secularism. The secular-communal debate essentially ignores issues of ethical particularism, or the intranslability of concepts (i e, secularism) as well as the kinds of necessity that bind previous (or parallel) instances of a concept with a new one; hence the long-standing debate must also articulate an alternative for secularism.

Sasheej Hegde

We are not in the realm of causal explanations, and every such explanation sounds trivial for our purposes.

– Wittgenstein (1974: 63)

One of the characteristic features of the many disagreements underwriting what can be termed ‘the secular- communal question’ is that the parties to them are simply opposing one strand of thought to another. The overall effect has been one of controversy no doubt, but without any apparent move towards a decisive outcome. It is perhaps more worthwhile to be following through each strand of the question, to see where they lead, and decide whether it is possible to remain there, or determine what the chances are of their transformation. Something of the order of this line of thinking is implied by my approach here, in the pages that follow, although in going over this ground, marshalling considerations appropriate to it, I have also had to engage with the dominant line on the secular-communal question in India. This is the line that can be identified broadly as the cultural inadaptability thesis about secularism in India. The thesis, broadly stated, is that secularism cannot take root in India because of its peculiar cultural and religious conditions. It is further maintained that, since religion itself is a ‘western’ category, versions of secularism that take for granted that what needs separation from politics is something called religion get their basics wrong. Mark the nuance, characteristic, I need add, of whole modes of elucidating the secular-communal question. My effort in this paper is largely to respond to the thesis, although in the course of this response I have also had to grapple with alternative characterisations. Devolving as we are upon the very dynamic and sites of recognition proper to the secular-communal question, I have desisted from embodying a strong historical consciousness about the problem. The deep issues posed by a programme of philosophical justification of a norm like secularism provide a context for my remarks here.

Marking Judgments

The imperative of arriving at precise judgments of the secular-communal question may be compared, dare I say it, with the solving of a jigsaw puzzle. An immediate provocation for such a procedure would be to sort out the information-cum-ideological overload obscuring the real issues.1 If one succeeds in arranging the confused heap of fragments, each of which bears upon it an unintelligible piece of drawing, so that the picture acquires a meaning, so that there is no gap anywhere in the design and the whole fits together, then one knows that one has solved the puzzle. My problem however is that, although the puzzle may have fallen in place, this perforce need not, and does not, amount to a demonstration. There is still the question of standards to be met in establishing that something is the case – note, not just how something is the case (the falling of the jigsaw puzzle in place) but also whether knowing how something is the case is enough for asserting that this is the case and that this (or some other course of action) ought be attempted or pursued. In other words, to seek what is logically required of a focus on the secular-communal question is not quite the same as suggesting that this involve a scaffolding of facts and frameworks.

It would be instructive to reflect on what is being entailed by this point, and one can do so from a thought by Wittgenstein. He writes, albeit traversing another modality (and I am altering somewhat the terms of his remark): “Really (to assert that something is the case, that is to say, true or false) only means that it must be possible to decide for or against it”; and adds, ever so blithely, in a move characteristic of his oeuvre – “But this does not say what such a decision is like” (1969: 200, emphasis added). We are far from claiming, therefore, that the secular-communal question cannot admit of being put, or even answered, without some precise calculus. Rather, that in seeking after a stronger recasting of the problem of secularism, the question of the justification of what we come to count as an authoritative explanation of a given state of affairs or as an evaluation of normative schemas is not to be confused with a historical narrative account of how it is that we have come to regard the world the way we do and why we employ the specific evaluative criteria that we do. If it makes no sense to say that we are all secular, indeed that there is no problem of communalism to tackle, then equally it makes no sense to be resting our case upon a mere consideration of the facts and frameworks upon which the specific values ‘secular’ and/or ‘communal’ supervene.

Pithily: the concept of secularism has its postulates, and their parameters have shifted, keep shifting. A genealogical focus attentive to the constructed character of ideas, even one striving to tell the truth about power, would give us all that could be said about these shifting parameters in general. But the real work, it seems to me, can only be accomplished by a detailed examination of how something is the case. Note, not so much the falling (to recall the imagery alluded to above) of a jigsaw puzzle in place, but: how the problem, the secular-communal question per se, comes to be settled upon in the first place; in effect, recasting the problem of genealogy as an idea of normativity. It is not my claim of course that the determinacy attaching to the secular-communal question can come from what one has decided, or is prepared to admit, in advance as determinate. That would be an inadmissible, and even unwarranted, idealism. What one is concerned to emphasise is the locus from which we have to be striving after a stronger recasting of the problem. It would be necessary to pick on the imperative implied here. For, if one must respond to the tangle by devolving upon that very mode (namely, secularism) which one is concerned to disintricate, then perhaps there must be something attaching to that very mode which can only be the object of a normative appropriation, and cannot remain strictly or only a factual reordering.

To make sense of this, it is necessary to regard the categories of secularism as incompletely saturated or determined by their instantiation in socio-historical processes. Indeed it will be imperative to hypothesise that the rationality of these categories is blocked by the way they have become empirically instantiated. Not only is the secular inhibited by the rise and resurgence of communal relations, but so are the categorial forms which constitute the comprehensibility of those relations. This is only to say, minimally, that the meanings of some of the categories structuring secular-communal relations and practices exceed their empirical determination in a manner logically incompatible with that determination. Clearly much here depends on what is meant by ‘categories structuring secular-communal relations and practices’. We cannot, on pain of circularity, define secular-communal relations in terms of reasons to act or desire – transposing thereby the problem of secularism into a moral problem – and surely I would desist from this procedure. I realise that the concept of secularism can encapsulate a set of platitudes – such that a truly religious person is bound to be secular, that all religions proclaim the same truth albeit differently, that religion serves to unify one’s reasons to act (or desire) or makes them coherent, and so on – each of which can serve as the basis for a moral transposition of the secular-communal question. Unfortunately, doubts can be raised at each level of this transposition. In a central sense, why should either being ‘religious’ or ‘secular’ – defined as ‘manners of being’ – move one to action? Indeed, might it not be that the normative belief that being ‘religious’ or ‘secular’ can be motivating would itself require analysis. What is more, the moral transposition also seems incapable of treating judgments as, shall I say, objectively true. The account makes our normative reasons for acting depend on the result of a process of unifying our desires, but surely that result would depend on the desires from which it starts. There is a significant difference between claiming that secularism is grounded and expressive of mutual recognitions between community and citizen (which could be true whether that fact was recognised or not) and claiming that at a certain juncture secularism was actively conceived as having that ground and character. I am affirming a variant of the former here and not the latter historical thesis, and in keeping with this difference – the spirit of Marx, really, in ‘On the Jewish question’2 – offering an argument not about meaning but the ground and telos of secularism. So put, the problem has an obvious Kantian ring to it, but also comes to possess a non-Kantian underside – not quite (or only) how we can show, of any form, how it is at all possible, but also how, if impossible, that impossibility could yet constitute its possibility.

A Thesis Revised/Revisited

Invariably, in much discussion about secularism in India, it has been emphasised that the latter is a ‘western’ concept and indeed that, since the meanings that attach to the word in the Indian context are very different from their English counterpart, the Indian debate on the subject can and should proceed independent of the European or American discourse of the same. Facing up to precisely this point, Partha Chatterjee has noted:

Unfortunately the matter cannot be settled that easily. The Indian meanings of ‘secularism’ did not emerge in ignorance of the European or American meanings of the word ... To pretend that the ‘Indian’ meaning of secularism has marked out a conceptual world all of its own, untroubled by its differences with ‘western’ secularism, is to take an ideological position which refuses either to recognise or to justify its own grounds (1994, p 1769).

He then goes on to advance (in his words) ‘an even stronger argument’, taking a cue from the intellectual historian Quentin Skinner that “a concept takes on a new meaning not (as one would usually suppose) when arguments that it should be applied to a new circumstance succeed, but rather when such arguments fail” (ibid). Chatterjee further notes – and I am compressing the terms of a much more nuanced summation – that while the Indian usage “might open up conceptual or referential possibilities in Indian discourse which were unavailable to the concept of ‘secularism’ in the west”, the continued use of the concept, either in its native idiom or in its English usage, “indicates that the more stable and well-defined reference for the concept lies in the western political discourse about the modern state” (ibid). The question definitely is: what is one to make of this? What kind of theoretical weight can it be given?

Chatterjee clearly is resting his case on considerations of an economy of argument emphasising, at once, a certain distrust – not quite the word, but that can pass – of the modern state, and yet looking for (in his own words) “political possibilities within the domain of the modern state institutions as they now exist in India” (ibid: 1776-77, n 2). All the necessary explaining is sought to be done in terms of a recognition, which is really a note of caution, to the effect that there is the “very real theoretical possibility that secularisation and religious toleration may sometimes work at cross-purposes” (ibid: 1768). Accordingly, in what I think to be an overdetermined series of moves, Chatterjee, even as he is concerned to affirm the positive question “Is the defence of secularism an appropriate ground for meeting the challenge of the Hindu right?”, also confronts the failure of the attempt (at least on the part of the modernising elite) “to see the ‘original’ meaning of the concept actualised in India” (ibid), while going on to detail the anomalies in the “career of the secular state in India” (ibid: esp1771-73). This is a perilous passage however, something that Akeel Bilgrami latches to, but is concerned to pick on and disintricate only the ‘anti-statism’ of Chatterjee’s manoeuvre. Bilgrami (1997) does not deny that the Indian state ever since independence (and especially since Nehru’s departure) has shown an inability to cope with communal conflict, but maintains that the phenomenon cannot be grasped as something wired into the very idea of the modern state and its forms of rule.

He proposes an alteration in the way in which the modern liberal state is theoretically viewed, which should allow for possibilities “which necessarily happen on intra-community sites (as in Chatterjee’s picture of things) to ... happen on a statist site” (1997: 2535). And then, in what seems to me a shift of gear, orients his analysis towards a diagnosis of the way that a self-proclaimed secular state has dealt with the question of religious communitarian substantive conceptions of the good, arguing that there is much to fault here. Bilgrami’s argument here, we need to reiterate, is also part of the clarifications that he seeks to effect upon his idea of ‘emergent’ and ‘negotiated’ secularism, one which would issue from a “descriptive acknowledgement of community by the state” but which would also disclose “no normative commitment to community” (ibid: 2538). In terms of the theoretical space that he has been trying to clear, removed from both ‘archimedean’ secularism and ‘communitarianism’, Bilgrami is seeking to innovate conceptually from within liberal thought the axes for coping with the specific problems of governance in multi- communal societies. The ‘faults’ he records therefore are nothing intrinsic to the sites he deconstructs, so that in picking off one (say, the archimedean secularism of the Indian state before and after independence) he is not concerned to foreclose possibilities for an alternative (what he has termed a ‘negotiated’ secularism) within the same site.3

My problem, to develop something of the determinations of the foregoing section, concerns less the content of these conclusions themselves than the ideas being brought to mediate the record. The issue of course is not delimited to Chatterjee and Bilgrami, or even the contexts they speak off and against (Bilgrami, in fact, is interested also to modulate a space distinct from the historian, while remaining avowedly historical, cf his 1998, especially the ‘Postscript’). Rather, it involves broader ranges of scholarship and commitment vis-à-vis the secular-communal question. Consider, for instance, a recent redrawing of the map of secularism – one which seems oblivious to the terms of either Chatterjee or Bilgrami – Neera Chandoke (1999). Conceived against a backdrop of the charged debate on secularism and Hindutva, Chandoke seeks to avoid the sharp polarisations that have underscored the framing of questions. According to her, there is a need to shift the ground of the debate “so that we produce some consensus both on the desirability of secularism, as well as on the need to buttress it” (1999: 3). Along this course, she pursues two questions – one, how do people belonging to diverse persuasions come to live together in a polity (and what the norms are that could regulate this project) and, two, what is the status that the polity should grant its minorities – but clearly the burden of the argument is concerned to mediate a space ‘beyond secularism’. For Chandoke, secularism “in its present form … has simply exhausted its potential” (ibid: 96) and, what is more, places a constraint upon how the state ought to protect its minorities. Secularism, particularly, is marked out as failing to manage interreligious relationships, and therefore constraining the pursuit of substantive equality. Gurpreet Mahajan is concerned to address this point in a recent review, observing that “it is necessary to rescue secularism from readings that posit an antagonism between secularism and minority rights” (2002: 406). But crucially, in a larger tract, Mahajan (1998) encounters this ground from within specific intimations of failure (or, rather, incompleteness). As she maintains therein: “The point that needs to be emphasised is that the mere separation of religion from state cannot guarantee the extirpation of community sentiments. Tolerance and secular politics are the end products of the process of secularisation; hence, it is this dimension of democratic life that needs to be strengthened” (1998: 23). Or, again, that the “(f)reedom and equality granted to the religious domain, rather than absence of an individualist ethic, shaped Indian democracy, creating a situation in which the logic of cultural pluralism has frequently obstructed the process of secularisation” (ibid: 39).

To be sure, these inflections introduce other considerations as well, especially of the difference between secularism and secularisation, and I shall be engaging the ground of these postulations in a subsequent section.4 Nonetheless, we have here a way of animating the secular-communal question which amounts to an apprehension of it in a specific modality; a modality, I need add, of reversal, whose question apropos any assertion of the secular-communal problematic, is never (or not quite) ‘What is secularism?’ or even ‘What is communalism?’ but rather, ‘Secularism for whom? To do what? Who advocates communalism, when and where, how and how much?’. In effect, these two gestures point to different worlds for their answers. But, more specifically, what obtains as further enigmatic about the conclusions being drawn – not quite limited to either Chatterjee or Bilgrami but also involving others, as we have seen – is the extra entailment of failure (or incompleteness) from within which the construal is being effected as a whole – so that, even as the secular-communal question is being apprehended in a specific modality, the modality of that construal, as mediated through the added accent of failure and/or incompleteness, comes to constitute a reduction of that question to a particular determination of it. I need add here that the two ‘notions’ (or operations, if you will) – the apprehension of a whole in a specific modality and the reduction of a whole to a particular determination of it – are not symmetrical, since construal and determination are not themselves symmetrical. We see things under variable aspects and this ‘seeing’ need not quite amount to a determination of that which is seen. Indeed it is possible to bring about in ourselves a transition from the seeing of one aspect to the seeing of another, according to the interpretation that we put upon the object or the dimension in which we see it. As Wittgenstein avers in his treatment of the concept of ‘seeing’: “There is not one genuine proper case of such description” (1968, p 200e). With determination, however, it seems to be the case as though something were being forced into a form it did not really fit – or at least could have been thought otherwise. Let me try to elaborate in context and in the process weave a consideration that would bear especially on any enunciation of a thesis of cultural inadaptability.

It is important to be clear about what I am gesturing at in inscribing such a focus. That it is meant to avoid reducing a problem (in our case, the secular-communal question) to a particular determination of it seems obvious enough; that this gesture of avoidance – of deferral, we can even say – is also capable of yielding an interpretation which opens out the space of the record from the inside may not be quite so discernible. Consider Chatterjee: even as he poses directly the question of grounding a challenge to the Hindu right from within secularism, the analysis inscribing this focus also confronts the failure of this ground. Particularly, he is concerned to emphasise that the concept ‘secularism’ carries within itself the fate of a failure of a certain secular-modernising discourse to seize the world, as it were. Likewise, for Bilgrami, the concept, at least in India, seems to bear the brunt of a certain liberal archimedean stance which did not – and indeed does not? – have enough place for a politics of recognition. Both answers may have a suggestiveness in connection with the specific situations they address. What is being overlooked, however, is the possibility that the failure they pick on and thematise could yet be the mark of an excess that necessarily attaches to the secular-communal question, one which tends both to universalise the latter as well as to particularise it. The failure is then the determination’s inherent limit, but is also, on that count, bearing upon an excess which prevents it (the secular-communal question) from achieving an identity with itself; and thus keeps alive the possibility of its rearticulation across diverse socio-political fields. Of course, this is not to imply that the question is being arbitrarily grafted, by means of hastily formulated criteria. We are not talking about a process that would entail an abandonment of validation, here or elsewhere. The attempt rather is to force an understanding in terms of what has enabled one to make a constitutive claim about secularism in the first place and, what is more, to show this in terms of the supplement that it asks for.

This may seem to be merely a hedge on our part, but there is, I believe, more at stake. Particularly, the thought informing this passage is traceable back to what a leading contemporary theorist of ideology has termed “the principle of insufficient ground” – that is to say, that “between the causal chain of reasons provided by knowledge... and the act of choice (that is, the decision that by way of its unconditional character concludes the chain ...), there is always a gap, a leap that cannot be accounted for by the preceding chain” [Zizek 1994: 40]. Paradoxically, then, it is not only reasons for that could provide grounds for action; reasons against can function as reasons for (vide Zizek’s idea of a choice/decision as an act which retroactively grounds its own reasons). Approached along these lines, it seems to me that the cultural inadaptability thesis in general is quite right in assuming that to think a concept necessarily means to think its ‘fate’, its inscription and its politics, the standard repertoire of a genealogical mode (a la Foucault or even Nietzsche). But where it seems to err is in positing that this is all that one needs to do in both opening up to an idea (or ideal) and instituting a modality. There remains, of course, the question of this reversal, of whether what is of interest is only (or strictly) whether that something – an idea, an ideal, a modality, any given cultural form – can be universalised or not, that is to say, grounded in itself, without reference to its contents, and applied across contexts? Or whether – an axis I would be interested to push – one can say what the necessity of a form (an idea, an ideal, a modality) is, by ‘developing’ this necessity? Needless to say it, this would presuppose working on a concept’s conceptuality and, unto this last, asserting its supplementarity, that excess attaching to the secular-communal question.

Something of the order of this enumeration is implied by Javeed Alam’s arguments grounding what he has termed (in a loaded phrase) the ‘indispensability of secularism’ (1998). It is very hard to give a critical justification for juxtaposing secularism and modernity, although it has been constantly resorted to in the historical study of cultural forms (and Javeed is clearly not outside the sway of this frame). One cannot doubt a certain causal connection between them, of course. But what seems even more pertinent is how this causal relation is effected and being mediated by what kind of necessity? Summarily, for Javeed, it is necessary to ground secularism in the historically emergent and the culturally encoded, without of course rendering the latter into an immutable principle (a rendering which he believes is the wont of ‘foundationalism’ conceived in Cartesian or Kantian terms). Interestingly, the entire argument is structured by the expectation that some form of causal activity – in his case, the processes internal to modernity – procured certain effects by means of some kind of force or immanent logic. Secularism is treated “not as an innate feature inherent to the human situation but as a need at a specific moment in history in different societies” (ibid: 9); and, what is more, goes on to claim that “many concepts that originated in western modernity are not only living needs – to capture and nurture new expectations, aspirations and telos of life – but can also become rooted in many different cultural situations” (ibid, p 15)5 . In grounding secularism thus, Javeed is also interested to pose the question of the relation between religion and politics, to try and draw a scrupulous separation, as it were, between the two. Now, it is not that such consequentialist (one may even read them as ‘functionalist’) arguments are in principle unjustified or in practice useless; they could correspond to the way things (have) come to be and thus elicit something internal to a process of being (or becoming). But it is frivolous to keep pressing the inquiry in such terms when the answers do not always justify them; and it leads only to confusion and miscomprehension then to posit classes of phenomena which correspond not to the answers received but to the questions put.

The philosophically-minded historian Hans Blumenberg has called attention to the ease with which we confuse ‘preconditions’ (plainly, the histories of what led up to something) and ‘effects’ (the aggregate of the changes which that something causes or that unfold in respect to it).6 I suspect that such a conflation underwrites Javeed – a necessary derivative of his consequentialist (and functionalist) mode of theorising and doing history – although it should be mentioned in his defence that in determining what conditions are necessary (vide the indispensability of secularism) one may actually be involved in determining what is sufficient (apropos the logic immanent to modernity) for those very conditions. It is nevertheless by no means clear, within the space of this argument, how the deliverances of secularism are to be either derived or secured. A most charged issue turns on the question whether secularism implies neutrality – and again, on what site, the state and/or its communities? – or even whether secularism as process can take shape only gradually and in definable stages (apropos the secularisation of civil society)7 , and Javeed’s terms clearly sidestep these questions. Nor is the position, it seems to me, clarified by affirming, against the consequentialist (or functionalist) preoccupation with ‘results’ and ‘effects’, that the concern can and ought to remain the securing of certain acts ‘in themselves’ (in the Kantian mode, say, of deontology). Indeed, there is no clear line between acts and consequences; and, one might add, consequentialists can be just as concerned about acts, regardless of their consequences, usually those which maximise well-being overall [cf Bennett 1996].

This general methodological point is essential to understanding the limits of the epistemology of value underscoring Javeed, as indeed any engagement with the secular-communal question per se. It is not so much that arguments both grounding and asserting the necessity of secularism are inevitably flawed; rather, that such reasoning may indeed very often be the source of our arriving at our values. What Javeed fails to do, thus leaving himself open to objection, is to explain adequately how secular obligations (and therefore secularism) are related to the good life as a whole, let alone consider whether, and if so in what sense, such obligations lie at the heart of the good life, or whether without them life cannot be good. I am not, of course, concerned in this paper to offer such an argument; rather, only just about clearing a space for it.8 But, as I indicate later on, we may require a ‘philosophy’ in order to tell a story after all! It is towards a more precise determination of these contours that I shall now turn. In doing so, however, let me set up a further consideration upon the variation wrought within the thesis of cultural inadaptability.

‘Religion is a Western Category…’

Consider now the claim that ‘religion’ is a western category – as indeed the deduction that comes to be placed thereupon, that versions of secularism which take for granted that what need separation from politics is something called religion get their basics wrong. The question to be considered here is: what should we understand by the statement ‘religion is a western category’? As an illustration of the general point that all concepts are bounded by time and place, as the concepts of a particular society or tradition, this formulation (as indeed the wider axis of theoretical intervention that it provokes) could scarcely be altered. But if this is so, it can still be asked how far one is justified in detaching a concept from its social matrix and presenting it as having applicability outside the form of society in which it bears expression. This question is obviously relevant in any consideration of the claim – voiced most insistently by Ashis Nandy above all (and perhaps also T N Madan) – that we would do well to abandon secularism for some more proximate ideal or norm. I shall cover this ground in a subsequent section (Section IV), but for now my interest attaches to the proposal ‘religion is a western category’.

To be sure, the claim is a precipitate one, condensing much that is both factual and normative. The burden of this testimony, taken as it stands, is the subject of a book by Balagangadhara (1994), who, speaking about the conviction that religion is a cultural universal, discerns here a claim that is ultimately ‘theological’, being itself part of a Christian religious framework. Is it, on this reading, a statement of fact, a judgment of reality? It is very hard, I realise, to give a critical justification for any clear contrast between fact and value; and, to be sure, no such contrast has been presupposed here. If however, as the ‘classical’ sociological theorist Emile Durkheim has noted, “(a) value judgment expresses the relation of a thing to an ideal” (1974, p 95), then, in this case, it might be affirmed that it is a certain official definition – an ideal type? – which determines the character of the claim in question. The considerations thus adduced could be added to endlessly of course, and indeed there is no end to the question of fact and value to which they respond.

It is important to be quite clear what is at issue here. There are, it seems to me, grave difficulties facing the idea of difference, of radically distinct communities, concepts and/or discursive agendas. For instance, where do we or us (or our) stop and they or others (or them) begin? Certainly geography and time may help implicate separateness, even exclusivity, and therefore difference, but this does not, of itself, establish the difference as difference. What has to be shown – and this is important – is that there are points of separation – exclusivity – beyond these spatial and temporal ones, which constitute incommensurable differences. A line of reasoning familiar from Wittgenstein and Davidson suggests that this may not be possible.9 Indeed, to reiterate an earlier formulation (Section I), if one must respond to the secular-communal question by devolving upon that very mode (namely, secularism) which the question is meant to answer, then, perhaps, there must be something attaching to that very mode which can only be the object of normative appropriation, and cannot remain strictly or only a factual reordering. Our accounts, of ourselves, of the secular-communal question per se, to the extent that they can, and ought to, obtain as normative, require us to have an independent conceptual grasp of the relevant identifying norms. We might require a ‘philosophy’ in order to tell a story after all.

To generalise our terms somewhat: the point, note, is not that if there are no decisive reasons to live in one way rather than in another (among the more or less disparate forms of life that are known or that can be conjectured) then we may as well conduct ourselves as the people around us expect – whether or not they themselves have any good reasons for regarding their rules of life as right and proper. This would be to take for granted the relativist arguments that since forms of life differ, none of them are absolutely right. But this is logically mistaken. Numerous though forms of life may be, and however discrepant they may be from one another, it could still be the case that just one of them was (or is) absolutely right. It is not self-contradictory to assert as much, and plainly it is a logical possibility. The question, however, as to how we should discover the one right form of life is separate, and not a purely ‘logical’ matter. But the consideration that has to be borne in mind is that the relativist has given us no proof that it is not to be found.

One might confess to a certain perplexity about what is being entailed. Could not the claim ‘religion is a western category’ be taken to signify, precisely, the axis of such a retrieval – that it could yet constitute the basis of a higher order conviction, an independent conceptual grasp of the relevant identifying norms vis-a-vis the secular-communal question? Perhaps, but I have the problem of reconciling this near- relativist construal with the fact of ‘difference’ being, while salient, not of itself crucial. What must preoccupy us is the question of the conclusions to be drawn from a proper recognition of this fact. Indeed, the question will only be seen in sharp relief when one weaves the position that our point of view has led us to with (yes) the work of Wittgenstein. Consider the following:

But how can a rule show me what I have to do at this point? Whatever I do is, on some interpretation, in accord with a rule”. – That is not what we ought to say, but rather: any interpretation still hangs in the air along with what it interprets, and cannot give it any support. Interpretations by themselves do not determine meaning (1968, p 198).
Can one say that at each step of a proof we need a new insight? Something of the following sort: If I am given a general (variable) rule, I must recognise each time afresh that this rule may be applied here too (that it holds for this case too). No act of foresight can absolve me from this act of insight. Since the form in which the rule is applied is in fact a new one at every step. But it is not a matter of an act of insight, but of an act of decision (1974, p 301).

The challenge is what construction to put on these remarks? Wittgenstein’s point would be missed by anyone who took him to be simply arraigning against the realist case (the thesis, broadly, that thoughts are either true or false, and are so antecedently to our knowing which; in short, that there is something in virtue of which they are true or false). Again, it seems to me that the characteristic concerns of these passages has nothing to do with the reality of rules, but are (as one might say) ‘epistemological’. Read straight, they amount to a sort of idealist construal, in which the determinacy of reality comes from what we have decided or are prepared to count as determinate. But it is important to reiterate that the ‘determinacy’ in question is one of sense, not of truth: ‘don’t think, but look’ (1968, p 66). There is again no special problem, for this position, as to the relation between the sense and the reference it determines: it simply is in the nature of a sense to determine a referent. But ultimately the question would have to be faced, why this sense, and not another? Also, how is it that the existence of an activity or an idea could constitute grasping any particular sense?

Wittgenstein, in the remarks cited, is trading on the possibility of an oscillation between two orders of sense – between what one might term a descriptive pole (where, for a given order of entailment relations, it could be affirmed that they are necessary yet contingent, that is, they could be false and/or refuted by new experience) and a normative pole (where everything is what it is and not another, not just happening to be so but also, what is more, cannot be otherwise). And yet, it is important to note, not quite obliterating the difference between the two roles. When Wittgenstein states that ‘interpretations by themselves do not determine meaning’ and/or that there need not only be one correct way of being guided by a rule, he is supposing that the order of reasons can be separated from what those reasons are about, and hence what we are responding to when we raise validity claims. The latter too are responses, that is, they record the place of the pull of the world in claims of that kind. What all this would require is an order of appraisal which asks, of any given claim – be it of what can be known or what must be done, or even what should be hoped for – not only why it must be so, but also the relevant identifying norms that bear upon it.

In focus, then, is not some ultimate truth about the secular-communal question, but rather the cultivation of an attitude – an order of conviction, something not strictly moral in a reductive and utilitarian sense – proper to that question. The tendency to think that something is not quite right about a concept or an ideal, as indeed the thought that there can only be one correct way of applying the concept/ideal, leads us to think that the conventions proper to the latter could not possibly guide another concept or ideal, since (as is claimed) the situations specific to them are so different. Clearly, there is a need to dispel ourselves of this fixation; and, in what follows, I propose to give further body to this evaluation, while going on, in a pair of final summations, to mediate another locus for bearing upon the very norm of secularism today.

Measure of ‘Anti-secularism’

Consider the line of demarcation with reference to which the secular-communal question is most often constituted. ‘Anti-secularism’, or that peculiar hybrid of scholars, namely, Ashis Nandy, Partha Chatterjee and T N Madan, is what I have in mind here. Not only has this constellation meant to query a whole mode of investment on the secular idea (and ideal); it has also come to represent the principal ideological axis of the secular-communal question, at least within Indian academia today. It is a serious mistake however, I would think, to lump these scholars together, as emblematising a singular idea and ideal, namely, ‘anti-secularism’. For, if one were to approach this trinity in terms of a division, broadly, between the actual words uttered and the act of uttering them, then possibly only Ashis Nandy would seem to fit this label. As he has written, in a flourish that is characteristically his own:

I must make it clear that I am not a secularist. In fact, I can be called an anti-secularist. This is because I have come to believe that the ideology and politics of secularism have more or less exhausted their possibilities, and that we may now have to work with a different conceptual frame which is already vaguely visible at the borders of Indian political culture (1990, p 73).

Mark the turns in the passage, which I have italicised. They designate an order of recognition different from the accent of failure (and incompleteness) that we were earlier concerned to disintricate (Section II above). Consequently where, off the latter, we could read the possibility of an excess necessarily attaching to the secular-communal question, with Nandy, one would have to be confronting another prospect altogether. In getting the measure of anti-secularism, therefore, I shall restrict myself to Nandy, although there will be a consideration or two thrown in of Madan as well. Commensurate with our gestures above, it will be more than just a matter of stepping into this discourse; we shall also be striving actively to transcend its problematic.

Let us start by considering the schema in relation to which anti-secularism as a standpoint on the secular-communal question constitutes itself. Nandy’s approach asserts, above all, that, one, it is both possible and necessary to draw a dividing line, within religion, between ‘religion-as-faith’ and ‘religion-as-ideology’ and, two, that while the pole of ‘faith’ corresponds to traditions and ways of life ‘definitionally nonmonolithic and operationally plural’ (ibid, p 70), obtaining ‘outside the ideological grid of modernity’ (ibid, p 91), the pole of ‘ideology’ calls attention to an ‘instrumental concept of religion’ as a principle ‘useful for political mobilisation and state formation’ (ibid, p 83). Strictly, the analysis accepts no possible mediation between ‘religion-as-faith’ and ‘religion-as-ideology’ – the latter can only distort the former – while also holding, in the same breath, that “the modern state always prefers to deal with religious ideologies rather than with faiths” (ibid, p 70). An attentive examination, besides, would show that we are here in the terrain of a ‘classical’ (early modern?) antinomy between reason and faith: either reason realises in itself faith, that is, it transforms itself into a sort of transparent medium through which faith operates; or it negates faith, asserting the latter as irrational, having no entity of its own and only existing as a corruption of reason. I must admit that my remarks here are somewhat tendentious and even issue from a certain hypostatisation of the contents of ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity, which incidentally Nandy may pick on (while himself not outside the pull of such generalities). We need to know, nonetheless, what it takes the measure of, and whether this measure is not itself founded on something.

‘Religion as faith’ or, more particularly, the idea of religious faith is a rich and confusing field. The ground is rendered even more complicated if one stresses the philosophical need to avoid generality and focuses, instead, on particular religious beliefs as they show themselves in the language and actions of believers. Now, this would require a breadth of wisdom outside the rubric of the secular-communal question, and neither Nandy nor one for that matter has that competence. Let us remain within the folds of the rubric, however. Nandy’s reflections [Nandy 1998] for the most part do not engage with specific instances of religion as faith and sometimes depend on questionable and undeveloped assumptions as to what secularism or the secular state amount to. To be sure, he is working from within a specific determination of the antinomy between reason and faith, taking reason – inflected, herein, into ideology, and what is more rendered univocally – as embodying necessarily an antagonistic relationship with faith. Nandy is never tired of repeating how this antagonism constitutes itself from within modernity, how it does not emanate from within tradition; and, that a ‘religious tolerance’ – of the kind embodied in the figure of Gandhi – outside the bounds of modernity and counter to the ‘politics and ideology of secularism’ might be a prospect worth fighting for in our times. A more recent essay affirms the same, only this time bolstering the point that “any study of ethnic and communal violence in the subcontinent must start from a vantage ground that takes into account the distinctive traditions of cosmopolitanism and plurality of self in the region” [Nandy 1999: 162].

Still more striking is the place of Nandy’s questioning, which, in requiring certain questions to be asked, also predetermines the kind of answers to be expected. He has spoken elsewhere of this as involving a reversal of the standard procedure of criticising modernity from within the frame of modernity and traditions from outside the frame of modernity, in other words “to look at modernity from outside and traditions from within” [Nandy 1988: 64]. This hardly seems to qualify as a statement of difference, but that can pass. The more obvious question ought to concern the frontier instituting this schema, as well as dividing the poles within it. In a manner of speaking, is faith only a reason which defines itself in terms of a propensity for inclusion? Or, alternatively, is reason itself a part of the self-assertion of faith, a secularisation of faith, as it were? While it is not hard to think of conclusive arguments that might settle these claims either way, what must count, for our purposes here, is that in either case the dividing line instituting the schema in the first place – ‘religion as faith’ and ‘religion as ideology’ – is being blurred. To be fair to Nandy, he would admit of this eventuality, although perhaps framing it differently. In fact, in the latter essay (1999) while calling attention to three models – the ‘centralised secular model’, a more managerial, widely extant ‘governance’ model, and an insufficiently embodied ‘ecumenical’ model – which, broadly speaking, have constituted the terms for handling ethnic, cultural or religious differences and conflicts of politics in India, Nandy notes formulaically the propensities for violence that each encode. Nevertheless, the very possibility of formulating this blurring would require that the form of modernity as such, and not only the actual contents to which it is associated are subjected to a clear differentiation. The thought of this difference, however, is not available to Nandy.

Broadly, this is the thought that I think Achin Vanaik, for one, has been concerned to press off Nandy – antisecularism generally – while asserting the latter’s approach to the problem as not only highly ambiguous but also question-begging as to the processes at work in both tradition and modernity [Vanaik 1997: esp pp 162-79]. But let me carry this measure of antisecularism further. The measure provided in Vanaik is limited somewhat by the tendency, endemic among Marxists, to identify modernity with capitalist modernisation. While they may not be entirely mistaken in doing so, it seems important to reiterate that this gesture of identification also commits one to a view of the historical dialectic as a sort of Manichaean theme. What is more: such a view is constantly running against the limits of its own historical standpoint and its unreflected context of emergence. It may not be necessary to attempt an elaboration here, but some suggestions can be had in my (2000).10

More frontally, I suspect the ground – Nandy included – is confusing principles of ‘secular rationale’ with those of ‘secular motivation’; indeed that requiring people to have (or be prepared to offer) an adequate secular reason for their proposals (the principle of secular rationale) can be separated from a motivational possibility that people would abstain from supporting policies which restrict freedom unless their motives are sufficiently governed by some set of secular reasons (the principle of secular motivation).11 A decisive step is presupposed in T N Madan, when he asserts, with reference to the ‘difficulties’ into which Indian secularism has run, that three basic assumptions are implicit to this pose: “(one) that secularism as an anti-religious or, at any rate, non-religious ideology has universal applicability, but that it has culturally specific expressions ... (two) that secularism will be welcomed by all right-thinking persons ... (three) that, with appropriate corrective measures, ideological secularism can still be made to succeed in India” (1997, pp 233-34). According to him, all these assumptions are problematic and “should be subjected to critical scrutiny, without conflating on-going processes of secularisation with the ideology of secularism” (ibid, p 234).

Explaining what is at stake here would entail coming to terms with the command that this procedure encloses. One might approach the issue from the perspective of the theoretical space occupied by Madan himself. A preliminary sounding of this space suggests that, for him, it is less a question of a jettisoning of the secular state or of modernity/secularism per se than of a recognition that “whatever exists empirically (e g, processes of secularisation), and not also ideologically, exists but precariously” (ibid, p 278). Contrary to what has been suggested – by Bhargava, for instance12 – this is not quite a statement about ‘cultural inadaptability’, not even of ‘difficulty’ (although this is a word that recurs in Madan’s discourse); rather, what is being gestured towards is a “need for greater effort on the part of Indian intellectuals to clarify the meanings of secularisation (as process and as thesis) in a context-sensitive manner” (ibid, p 278). As Madan observes:

The virtues claimed for ideological secularism are not unquestionable nor does it provide answers to all questions about life and living. It has not been a complete success anywhere, and we do not know of any wholly secularised societies. Our times are witness to both secularisation and fundamentalism (ibid, p 234).

There cannot be a more direct embodiment of an extant state of affairs than this; but the key is less these concretisations themselves than the intuitions that guide their design. I suspect that Madan’s critical procedure – that of antisecularism generally – indicates fuzziness about the precise character of what is in need of grounding/recontextualisation: Indian secularism/constitutionalism, secularisation/religion in modernity, hierarchy/pluralism. Behind it is an urge, not to clarify, but only to remove from canonical notation. And yet, if there has to be a modicum of clarity about the issues developed therein, then the series of preconditions necessary for an idea to take root (or that made possible a development) would have to be distinguished from the history of effects through which that idea (or any given development) effectively took shape. Antisecularism’s measure – and ultimately, its illegitimacy – has consisted in an overt emphasis upon the latter, and a consequent blurring of the divide between these two orders of historical calculation and representation.

Mark the shift of register, an argument really, implicating both the procedure as well as the historical horizon of antisecularism. Of this procedure/horizon, one can, in effect, ask whether it is possible or not, although that question seems unimportant or, rather, needs to be debunked.13 From this, there derives, in turn, an indecisiveness as to how the validity claim of the various diagnoses offered should be understood. Indeed, as Habermas has remarked elsewhere, “an analytical procedure which demands sensitivity to context need not itself be context-dependent and lead to context-dependent results” (1992, p 267). The important point, for us, therefore is not so much knowing whether something – a norm, an idea, even a process – is possible or not, but grasping what can (or must) transpire once it has been decided upon either way. To carry this calculus further: one need admit that any public avowal of a programme of belief or disbelief about either secularism or secularisation (or again, any effort at conceptualising secularisation/secularism) cannot really be a decision about it. Pressing home questions of belief, as indeed of religion, is important, I should think. But the statement of its concept usurps their very space, thereby supposing the idea – haunting historical secularisation, as process, as project – of whether any faith, however profound, is anywhere near adequate to its ends.14 The form of this complication induces a further thought about the ground of antisecularism. An argument could be made that it is concerned to foreground something processual, a point (say) about the historical production of secular culture and the vicissitudes of belief in this theatre. To take this step, yet, is to breach the logic of its own approach. For, having transposed from a religious into a cultural register and noted that historically this translation has failed to take place – that modernity and its institutions have defined themselves more in reaction against religious ideology than in relation to religious belief – antisecularism then simply re-translates the conclusion into the terms of belief, as if the failure of the religious and the cultural to interpenetrate could be equated with a failure of the right to belief. Programmatically, I think this aporia translates into an opposition between ‘culture’ and ‘religion’, that although neither ‘culture’ nor ‘religion’ need possess any fixed or invariable meaning, to blur the line separating them or to conflate the ‘religious’ and ‘cultural’ change is to preclude the possibility of understanding a range of experience. Matters, I realise, are only made denser when we are reminded – vide Balagangadhara (1994) – that in the non-Christian world, something called ‘religion’ touched everything, and that a distinction between sacred and secular is essentially a Christian one which we impose on a culture to which it is foreign. But this is a line of analysis that I am not quite prepared to undertake, even would implore that we actively resist the parameters of this construal. What this opens up is a locus from which to be bearing upon the secular-communal question as a whole, as well as mediating some measure of public recognition about secularism today. It is towards a thought about these possibilities that I shall now turn.

Going Public about Secularism

The foregoing, in a sense, constitutes the dynamic under which to generate our hypotheses about the secular-communal question as a whole. One is still left baffled however as to the hypotheses themselves: what can they amount to and how should they be understood? Let me take up the latter question first – this first of all since it bears upon our dynamic about how a norm (an idea, an ideal) could be extended (as separate, say, from being universally applied) – before graduating, without necessarily specifying so, into the former.

A deep source of interest in the arguments condensed above is the help they provide in opening up the space of the secular-communal question to a normative reading or rendering. It was not that we began with an alternative between which one had to decide; and yet, everything that I have just discussed seems to me to lead in only one direction, namely, the recuperation of secularism. It is important to be quite clear about what is in question here? If the warrant for any kind of judgment about secularism is the carrying out of an elaborate argument for it (or against it), then this simply cannot be so: one cannot decide about its normativity tout court, from a mere thought about its contents and contexts. That indeed was the whole problem in the first place, although, in the course of deliberating it, we were also concerned to mediate a position on the secular-communal question that would emphasise methodical ways of working with it; within recognitions, that is, which belong properly to the formation and application of socio-political concepts. The basic form of this mediation was of course derived from Wittgenstein, but then an ambiguity seems to attach itself to our procedure here. It is far from clear whether, in foregrounding a thought given over to recuperating secularism, one is seeking after an alternative to it or an alternative for it. We need some firmer hold on this contrast, before coming to resolve it either way. The philosopher Bernard Williams (1981a) has, in fact, read this indeterminacy back into the very heart of the Wittgensteinian corpus; and, to be sure, it can be seen to underlie all proposals of, for or against secularism. Allow me a staging, preparatory to a determination.

The question has traditionally been whether, in thinking the ground of our concepts as well as conceptualising divergent outlooks, we have to think in a relativistic way, in a way which argues, for instance, that ‘truth-claims’ and ‘value-claims’ are to be relativised to the culture within which they are made. The aim of relativism, so conceived, is to resolve disagreement, “to take views, outlooks, or beliefs that apparently conflict and treat them in such a way that they do not conflict: each of them turn out to be acceptable in its own place” [Williams 1985: 156]. The problem however, as Williams himself avers, “is to find a way of doing this, in particular by finding for each belief or outlook something that will be its own place” (ibid). It is important, for our purposes, to see what Williams is getting at here. According to him, “social practices could never come forward with a certificate saying that they belonged to a genuinely different culture, so that they were guaranteed immunity to alien judgments and reactions” (ibid, p 158). This claim, however, in our multicultural times, characterised by the self-assertion of groups and shifting identities, all seeking to entrench themselves more fully into the political system, might well have to be qualified. More particularly, Williams thought here is being directed at a heuristic which, while accommodating the relativist’s concerns about divergent outlooks, of viewing others as “at varying distances from us”, also confronts “the relativist suspension of assessment” (ibid, pp 160-62 passim). The possibility he inscribes – what is termed a ‘relativism of distance’ – would consist in rendering the confrontation between divergent outlooks notional rather than real:

We should distinguish between real and notional confrontations. A real confrontation between two divergent outlooks occurs at a given time if there is a group of people for whom each of the outlooks is a real option. A notional confrontation, by contrast, occurs when some people know about two divergent outlooks, but at least one of these outlooks does not present a real option (ibid, p 160).

The concept of ‘notional confrontation’ is significant. For one, it saves the relativistic standpoint from the charge of inconsistency or confusion. For if, in keeping with relativism, ‘truth claims’ and ‘value claims’ are to be relativised to the culture within which they are made, then there hardly can be a disagreement between them or a confrontation to settle across them. There is the gravest difficulty in both positing the independent existence of culturally distinct groups with different world-views, and also of holding that any access we have to them is inescapably conditioned by our world-view. What is more, the concept of the ‘notional’ allows us to think the moral/conceptual concerns of another culture, even to use a language of appraisal across cultural boundaries, without necessarily implying a substantive relationship between ‘our’ moral and conceptual concerns and ‘theirs’. According to Williams, it is the presence of some substantive relation between the various concerns of different cultures which alone can give any point or substance to the appraisal. As long as this is avoided, the evaluation of norms and practices, even ‘alien’ ones, could proceed without invoking charges of ‘moral absolutism’ or ‘conceptual dogmatism’.

There is a sort of crossroads here – of an understanding without ethnocentricity? – which one must acknowledge, if we are to accommodate aspects of the above discussion to the notion of secularism. It should also be made clear that our advocacy of notional confrontation has nothing to do, as it seems to be in Williams, with asserting a ‘truth in relativism’, or, even the plausibility of a relativistic standpoint defined in terms of a ‘distance that makes confrontation notional’ (ibid, p 162). Nor is it meant, strictly, to ward off a criticism about our procedure of appraisal here, in the thought implicating all our pages above, which seems to presuppose some form of an appeal to universally accepted criteria as the ground from which to negotiate the secular-communal question per se. The issue clearly is not one of universalism versus particularism, where the ‘versus’ often translates into a jettisoning of one side of the divide for the other. Indeed, this very divide would need unpacking, for one, because the very idea of a ‘particular’ gains its force, so to say, from a ‘universal’ (or, better still, is being raised to the possibility of a universal). What is important is that the universalism-particularism divide, in terms of its competing imperatives, can also be an argument between different forms of the universal perspective. I do not for all that have any intention to push the concept of notional confrontation to its extreme; and besides, as Matilal has tried to emphasise, the distinction between ‘real confrontation’ and ‘notional confrontation’ can remain a delicate matter (1994, p 146). Nevertheless, in offering a way of gathering together the many problems that surround the direction of the treatment of the secular-communal question, the concept seems to me essential to any procedure – ours included – given to explaining what it is that substantive disagreement over a norm and/or the application of a concept could consist in. The latter must always already presuppose some agreement – indeed, that one cannot even say, of a norm or a concept, that it is ‘alien’ or ‘other’, unless one could also identify something tantamount to it. Or, again, that any apparent disagreement over a substantive issue could disappear if the parties concerned are, after all, arguing over the application of different concepts. Williams himself has formulated this elsewhere (1981b) as the need for an element in conflicting claims which can be identified as the locus of exclusivity.

How is one to approach this formula? What does it allow us to formulate regarding the secular-communal question as a whole? Also, how does it settle what it is we are referring to when imploring the recuperation of secularism – an alternative to it or an alternative for it? I will address the issue from the perspective imposed on us by what Charles Taylor (1998) has articulated on the subject of the proper place of secularism today. To begin with, there is the place occupied by secularism which would consist in recognition of its ‘Christian roots’, but as Taylor’s discussion admirably demonstrates “it is wrong to think that this limits the application of its formulae to post-Christian societies” (ibid, p 31). According to him, the “secularisms of today” build on the original (largely medieval) distinction between Church and state – being concerned to separate and specify the functions proper to these greatly overlapping and greatly conflicting spheres – but also ‘involve a transformation in it’ (ibid, p 32). What he formulates as ‘approaches… ancestral to rather different understandings of secularism today’ – namely, the common ground strategy and the independent ethic approach – mark the two prongs of a strategy aimed at articulating the meanings of this separation, as well as laying the basis for the coexistence between “people of different faiths, or different fundamental commitments” (ibid, pp 33, 34). For Taylor, significantly, while the independent ethic approach would seem to support an “extrusion of religion altogether from the public domain”, this need not be so with the common ground strategy: “Here the goal... is a state which is even-handed between religious communities, equidistant from them, as it were, rather than one where religious reasons play no overt role” (ibid, p 35). He further notes that the charge often levelled against secularism by many non-European societies, that it is an alien imposition from a Christian west, although plausible for a secularism conceived on the independent ethic model, “is not at all true of the other model (the common ground strategy), which whatever its Christian origins, can be re-adapted to ever new contexts” (ibid, p 37). The latter, however, ‘runs into more and more trouble as society diversifies’ (ibid), a recognition that pushes Taylor to define a third model (the overlapping consensus approach).

There is also, in all this act of critical rectification, the force of the secular to which the account appeals. But more frontally, in the course of a long excursus into the nature of modern democracies, Taylor urges “how the modern democratic age makes secular regimes necessary, just in virtue of the requirements of democratic legitimacy itself” (ibid, p 47). The logic of “non-secular or exclusionary regimes in the democratic age” can be frightening because, as he poignantly observes:

In the absence of inclusionary definitions of the people, of modes of coexistence around accessible identities – which secularism among other contemporary forms tries to facilitate – the logic of democracy can become that of ethnic cleansing. The end of hierarchy is not of itself the dawn of liberalism (ibid, p 48).

The account thus is noteworthy, for the clarifications that it succeeds in effecting upon the conceptuality surrounding secularism, as well as for its attempt to locate a deeper, even structural, sense of inexorability for secularism today.

One could of course take issue with the attempt as a whole; query especially the point of insertion of secularism conceived on the model of an “overlapping consensus” and in accordance with which Taylor believes secular regimes today would have to structure themselves. It may not be necessary to get into these details but, as a moment’s reflection will show, the importance of preserving the place of secularism necessitates that one should orientate this space in relation to the effects of the demand for recuperation. It seems to me significant that Bhargava (1998), even as he institutes protocols of understanding secularism in India which are strikingly reminiscent of Taylor, remains non-committal about the latter’s ‘overlapping consensus’ model.15 Schematising to the extreme, nevertheless, one can perhaps discern two paths of thought crossing under Taylor’s step. One of the paths would lead back to the thought that the idea of secularism is decisive for secularism itself. Its trail can be followed in Taylor’s juxtaposition of the three ‘modes’, and which, in constituting the ground of his appraisal, are also (I take it) a work primarily of elaboration and transformation (and not simply of extraction in the empirical sense). It follows that to believe that the juxtaposition is merely a matter of identifying a certain content for secularism, in order subsequently to provide it (that is, secularism) with an appropriate form, is insufficient. The other path, folding into the first and deflecting off it, has to do with the axis on which this entire work of elaboration and transformation ought to turn, namely, the level of narrative rather than only that of justifying theory. By distinguishing the series of preconditions necessary for an idea to take root from the history of effects through which that idea took shape, Taylor’s practice here conjoins two operations – the critical rectification of the old and the production of the new – in one and the same process of thematisation.

One perhaps need not stress too much how this topography marks a shift of emphasis.16 The important thing to grasp here is that this schematisation is not imposed from without, on a conceptuality held to represent secularism, but results from an application of secularism’s concept to itself. Without doubt, Taylor’s long foray into the nature of modern democratic legitimacy – and in the context of which is inscribed the lesson that ‘secularism in some form is a necessity for the democratic life of religiously diverse societies’ – records a development outside this space of application. Nonetheless, if one were to examine the relations constituted by this crossing, one cannot fail to be struck by its resonance, especially by its capacity to define the limits within which to mediate some measure of public recognition about secularism today. They even have the effect of rendering ‘notional’ (in the sense noted earlier) the many disagreements that could underwrite any such attempt at mediation.

Now that Taylor’s discussion has shown the way, let me anticipate my conclusion. The immediate inferences to be drawn are obvious. A theory of secularism in the sense of a theory about possessing the concept ‘secular’ is quite distinct from a theory about how the concept secular represents. Much of the debate on the secular-communal question has been concerned to press on the latter issue, on the presumption either that this must necessarily entail a focus on the former or that the former is not pertinent to the study of the ‘facts’ that the concept secular orders or classifies. There is, however, no indication that this must be so; and, to judge by our claims thus far, there are even no grounds to so presume. It follows that in the matter of deciding what it is that one is seeking after in foregrounding a thought given over to recuperating secularism – an alternative to it or an alternative for it – clearly the direction of the treatment of the secular-communal question ought to be orientated towards the place of secularism: towards, in a word, the articulation of an alternative for secularism. Indeed, one cannot hide the fact that the issue is (and ought to remain) much more than a settling of account with relativism. I think this debate distorts what is really a complex matter – about ethical particularism, about the translatability of concepts, and the kinds of necessity that bind previous (or parallel) instances of a concept with a new one. Even more so, in respect of the cultural inadaptability thesis that we have been concerned to inhabit here, I should think that the irreducibility of one normative vocabulary to another is no guarantee that we are dealing with two distinct sets of objects.

These conclusions might seem somewhat formulaic, the work of our foregoing pages notwithstanding. But at least they indicate an order of research which must find a place in our agendas for the future.

Coda: Thinning Out Religion?

In all this commentary and justification that has been lent to the secular-communal question, it should be discernible that we have been running several lines of investigation – meta-ethical, practical, normative-sociological, and even historical – together. Many would doubt whether it is possible in practice for one to be so resolutely immoderate about both secularisation and secularism, and/or that it may be impossible to communicate secular values without, at the same time, implying something about secularism. The standpoint that this criticism countenances is that ‘religion’ may prove to be less thin than one would like: politics may, of necessity, involve religion, and religion politics. Indeed, it is in acknowledgment of such a possibility that, I think, Bhargava, for instance, is concerned to articulate a ‘contextual’ and ‘rights-based’ secularism issuing from more precise coordinates than an unadulterated discourse of rights would permit. Condensing to the extreme what is a fairly intricate and involved, even if totalising, formulation, this conception of secularism envisages the political participation of people “who are constitutively attached to traditional and modern religious practices”, while abjuring “any intermingling of religion in whatever form with politics that violates the basis of equal participation in the democratic process” (1998: 537).17

However, alternatively, it can also be argued that, even if possible, the ‘thin’ form of religion which secularists of various hues propose will be inadequate to the task set for it. Consider for instance – and here I return to the promised axis of deliberation vide note 11 – Robert Audi (2000) who, centering on the question of the ethics of citizenship, annunciates the principles that should guide the actions of citizens when they turn to advocating public policy measures that may restrict the freedom of others. The first he has called the ‘principle of secular rationale’: this requires citizens to have, and to be prepared to offer, an adequate secular reason for their proposals, that is, a reason whose justification does not depend on a religious grounding. It is to this that he adds a motivational constraint, namely, people should abstain from supporting policies which restrict freedom unless their motives are sufficiently governed by some set of secular reasons; this he names the ‘principle of secular motivation’. Besides, so that religious citizens should not feel that membership of a liberal democracy is demanding more of them than it should, Audi elaborates the idea of ‘theo-ethical equilibrium’, the conception that believers should recognise the possibility of integrating their religious commitments and their secularly grounded principles. Starkly put, the claim is that if religious commitment can obtain or remain as distinctively political, it will fail to serve the function required of it, but if it must include something more than the political it will contravene secular reason. So either religious commitment fails to remain within its own territory, and smuggles in its own values under the guise of the political, or it does remain within its own territory, but then fails even to discharge its political task. Either way, the aspiration to separate the religious from the political is compromised or threatened.

It is important to see what I am getting at here. Neither Audi nor Bhargava, for that matter, are unsympathetic to religion as many liberals. They have no intention of excluding it from the public sphere, or are they demanding that religious citizens be schizophrenic, split themselves into religious and secular halves. Within certain minimal protocols, both seem to be quite happy for religious language to be used in public debate and for religious considerations to motivate people in public affairs. Even so, there is the question of the extent to which their intended audiences, particularly the fundamentalists, are likely to listen. Indeed, it seems to me a striking feature of the treatments accorded of the secular-communal question as a whole that there is a lack of dialogue with any actual theologians or historical religions, except in a highly abstracted manner.18 Consequently, the discourse gives the impression of laying down the rules without having consulted anybody on the opposite side. But let me get back to Bhargava and Audi. No doubt the principles they are enunciating are conceived as neutral between all parties. But, while their enunciations are well designed to lessen the resentment people may feel if they are coerced on the grounds of religious convictions they do not share, they betray no appreciation of how deeply disadvantaged religious people can feel when secularism is smuggled in under the guise of ethics or neutrality.

There is bound to be much dispute about the stability of this position, either secularism is hopelessly compromised or, in keeping with the Rawlsian ‘method of avoidance’ (which, I suspect, is not limited to the graft of both Audi and Bhargava) must ultimately collapse into scepticism. For, claims to secularism must, on our register, be more than simply claims about what we in fact agree upon, or what will produce stability. They must be advanced on the grounds that they are true, and it is bizarre for anybody to advance his or her theory of secularism without making any claim about its truth.19 Of course, most of us now are more conscious of the sheer power of discourse, even in societies like ours where communication as a rule is either poor or extremely structured. For this reason too, many are liable to be suspicious of a conception of the secular that provides the organising categories by which religion is to be understood. Moreover, it has already been indicated in the paragraph preceding this one that a discussion of religion cannot be proceeding in abstraction from any particular religion’s own interpretation either of itself or of its relation to the public domain; and there are peculiar construals of the secular to be retrieved from here as well. All of this must undoubtedly raise questions for the idea of the secular as a self-contained sphere of neutral reason, from which religion is thinned out by definition, yes; but the issues, surely, are not to be settled by a conception of the secular as a fundamentally contested realm either. That something obtains as a contested ‘factual object’ does not mean that it is not valuable in the light of a normative principle.

Profiling the matter in this way is more likely to illuminate the intractability of the secular-communal question, and hardly point the way of achieving as much resolution as is ever likely to be had.20 I do not, for all that, believe that the issue for secularism is only one of separating religion and politics, and instead encounters a larger realm of representation and value. On the specific question of separating religion and politics, I am on the side of Gandhi, who both intuitively and in political praxis recognised that any attempt to define religion (in his case, Hinduism, and I guess a peculiar case at that) would only yield its political translation. Similarly, the process of the religious is not solely a matter of appeals to putative canons of rationality or faith (or even tolerance); it is also a question of the embodied disputation of historical communities whose commitments sometimes overlap, sometimes diverge.21 Of course, it is by no means clear from all this that the battles over the meanings of secularity and the secularisation process are not entirely pointless. But as with every question of religion and culture in which a political charge is concealed – the qualification, I reiterate, is important – it makes sense to pursue a history conceived in terms oblivious of social and political theory.

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