Secularism: An Ambiguous Concept

The recent debate over the proposed destruction of the Ram Sethu to build a shipping canal and the associated affidavit filed by the UPA Government, which was later withdrawn, has enraged the people of India and caused a lot of anguish and debate because of religious sentiments being hurt.

Keeping the project of destroying Ram Sethu aside, it is interesting to focus on how the people of India are responding to the Government supported affidavit (later withdrawn) by the Archeological Institute of India, which stated that: “the mythological texts of Ramayana formed an important part of ancient Indian literature, but cannot be said to be historical record to incontrovertibly prove the existence of the characters, or the occurrence of the events, depicted therein.”

While political parties are obviously milking it for what it’s worth, the debate has spread among the educated intellectuals as well. Hence we have different viewpoints like The Rational Fool on one hand, who says that the affidavit is one step closer to a secular democracy, and Nita, with a Wide Angle View of India, who thinks that the government did a wrong thing in (supporting) filing of such an affidavit. The core issue being debated is: should a democratically elected government meddle with the religious sentiments of the public that elected it? And in the course of this debate, the word ‘secular’ is being used often, without anyone actually defining what it means. And that, I think, is (one of) the roots of the problem.

What is meant by a “secular democracy”?

Interestingly, such a term does not have a definition in Wikipedia. Instead, Wikipedia defines “secularism”:

Secularism is generally the assertion or belief that certain practices or institutions should exist separately from religion or religious belief…In the extreme, it is an ideology that holds that religion has no place in public life.

In one sense, secularism may assert the freedom of religion, and freedom from the government imposition of religion upon the people, within a state that is neutral on matters of belief, and gives no state privileges or subsidies to religions. In another sense, it refers to a belief that human activities and decisions, especially political ones, should be based on evidence and fact rather than religious influence.

The country of the United States was founded on the principle of separation of the Church and the State. What was the founding principle of secular democratic India? Nehru says:

We talk about a secular India…some people think it means opposed to religion. That obviously is not correct. What it means is that it is a State which honors all faiths equally and gives them equal opportunities; India has a long history of religious tolerance…In a country like India, which has many faiths and religions, no real nationalism can be built up except on the basis of secularity.

My Merriam Websters Collegiate Dictionary defines secularism as: “indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations”.

Some commentators on this topic prefer to define secularism as being neutral to religious beliefs. A review of Jeffrey Stout’s “Democracy and Tradition” interestingly expresses his opinion thus: “A secular democracy recognizes that people differ in their religious commitments; secularism, on the other hand, requires them to pretend that they don’t have those commitments.” The concept of secular democracy has even been used to propagate religious beliefs!

Thus, there is a lot of ambiguity in the concept of secularism itself. Does Nehru’s “honor” entail respect and acknowledgment? Are the dictionary definitions of the term wrong? Wikipedia’s entry epitomizes the ambiguity involved: secularism means different things to different people.

In a country with a one billion plus population founded on an ambiguous concept that is not well defined, the resulting chaos in this instance is not going to be one of a kind. This is one of the great lessons of Epistemology: if we do not define our concepts and leave them ambiguous to random interpretations, conflict ensues. The current uproar over Ram Sethu is just another epidemic of this viral root cause, that began with Nehru in India.

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  • Good angle to take – on the meaning of secularism, with so many people writing on the Ram Setu!Thanks for mention btw.
    But ofcourse if secularism means treating all religions equally, India has certainly failed, hasn’t it? There are different laws for different people! But even this can be interpreted to mean that people are being treated equally, as they are all being treated according to their own religion. Anyone can argue this way too…but at least for me true equality is the same law for all people. Everything has to apply equally. If loud music from mosques is banned, it has to be banned for ganesh chaurthi too and so on…

  • Speaking of the Ram Setu, I wrote this comment a long time back. But I think it fits this post better.

    If one literally interprets the vedas and puranas, the duration of a kalpa is around 4 million years. So in the Treta yuga, all of us would have looked like this:

    Since that looks uncannily like a member of the Vaanara sena (or Bajrang dal, as we know them today) I am in total agreement with you. They must have built the Ram setu. The co-incidence is too powerful.

    Air Deccan is also India’s resurrection of the Treta yuga’s pushpakavimaan, and therefore, I propose that VHP and RSS take up an agitation to put a stop to all those anti-hindu newspapers that criticize its constantly delayed flights.

    It is also the accumulated bad karma (as per original Vedic laplace transform and hyperformula) of Sri Lanka due to Ravan’s follies that it still suffers today. Perhaps, we should send a new IPKF (Indian Priest Keeping Force) to vedically purify that install Ram Rajya there.

    I therefore propose the following list of heritage sites
    1. ram setu
    2. Jaffna (clearly, this is where the Ramayana battle’s blood would have been split)
    3. Air Decccan
    4. All trees and fruits along the path Ram took. Clearly, that is punyabhumi.
    5. All of UP (since we are totally clear on where the original Ayodhya really was)

    I also further propose that we build a “World’s first Divorce” monument at the place where the just Ram dumped the constantly nagging Sita who was causing all sorts of reputation problems for Ram by being pregnant, with twins no less.

    Om That’s That
    Ashok

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  • Mahendra:

    Thanks for linking back to my post.

    I’d like to clarify that I did not write that “refuting the existence of a Hindu God is being one step closer to a secular democracy”. Neither did ASI, nor did I assert that Rama did not exist. I don’t believe that Rama was god-incarnate, because I don’t believe that god (defined as an omnipotent, omniscient, creator of this universe and other universes) exists. Whether Rama existed or not, I don’t know, and I don’t care.

    What ASI said in its affidavit was reasonable: “[Ramayana] cannot be said to be historical record to incontrovertibly prove the existence of [Rama]”. This, imo, is a carefully worded statement that simply highlights the limitation of Ramayana as sufficient proof for the existence of Rama. As much as I know, it doesn’t say anything about the existence of Rama per se here or elsewhere. And, I agree with the statement.

    That reason, and not religious considerations, prevailed in an affidavit submitted by the Government of India, brought it closer to a secular democracy. That the affidavit was withdrawn subsequently, has thrown that nation state back to where it was, probably worse.

  • Nita: //if secularism means treating all religions equally, India has certainly failed, hasn’t it?//
    My point is, no one knows and everyone certainly doesn’t agree on what secularism means. Regarding treating all religions equally: when a country passes a legislation such as the “Hindu Marriage Act”, it is no longer secular, by any of the various definitions at hand.

    For example, the Hindu Marriage Act, passed in 1955, and still in existence, says that a Hindu cannot file for divorce until one year has passed after marriage. Now, if a Hindu woman is maltreated by her husband and relatives, she would have to suffer torture for one year before becoming eligible for applying for divorce! I’m not sure if a Christian or a Muslim woman has to endure suffering for one year.

    So, you are right, India is definitely not a secular nation, by any widest stretch of the definition.

    What I’m surprised and aghast about, is the fact that no one from India has opposed such governmental interference in religion before. When it affects personal lives, no one is concerned; when it is regarding the existence of a Hindu god, everyone is up in arms. That is what appalls me.

  • Ashok: Why don’t you write a book? Really, seriously. Your comment caused pain in my stomach due to laughter. I was reminded of Dave Barry! Thanks for making me laugh so much!

  • Of course, Ashok’s brilliant humor does not deflect from the fact that there should be no confusion or ambivalence about the secularism word, and its concept. You have rightly pointed out that the Nehrus have distorted this enough to mean an all-embracing religiosity. This is veritable disaster. The truth is just the reverse (as mentioned by you).

  • RTF: My apologies regarding the incorrect statement, I’ve corrected it in the post now.

    //That reason, and not religious considerations, prevailed in an affidavit submitted by the Government of India, brought it closer to a secular democracy.//
    My point is that, only a certain section of people think so. And the reason is because “secular democracy” means different things to different people.

    I would be happy if reason prevails over faith in a country, however, I would hesitate before terming it as “secular”, because of the ambiguous nature of the concept. Would you found a country on a constitution that defines it as a ‘rational democracy’? No, you wouldn’t. The clever use of the ambiguous concept ‘secular’ is nothing but an undefined, and dangerous, political euphemism.

  • Rambodoc: //there should be no confusion or ambivalence about the secularism word, and its concept.//
    Ah! How I agree with you…but “should be” is a wish, a dream. The truth is that there is indeed ambiguity about the concept since a long time ago, and that’s (partially) responsible for what we’re seeing today.

    Again, when you refer to ‘all-embracing religiosity’ – you are right, it does invite disaster, as we’re seeing today. However, I did not understand it when you said that “The truth is just the reverse (as mentioned by you)”. I do not know which “truth” I referred to.

    The “truth” for me is still ambiguous: should a democratic government, elected by the people, respect the faith of its people? Or should it abandon the people’s faith, and embrace reason as it’s only guiding motive?

    The answer to me, as often, seems like this: a country gets the government it deserves! Secularism is just a fancy political concept that has little meaning and significance in reality, and whose ambiguity is exploited to the maximum by everyone concerned – each with their own interpretation of the term.

  • The objection is not whether Ram Setu was there or not but I object to the statement- there is no historical evidence that Ram existed. Nobody can prove religious beliefs but it is the business of the people who believe in them and not of the state, as long as they don’t harm anybody.
    I agree with Nita on the definition of secularism.
    Karunanidhi is proposing reservation for Muslims and Christians in a secular country? Any comments on that?

  • Prerna: // I object to the statement – there is no historical evidence that Ram existed.//
    I did not make any such statement that you’ve objected to.

    //as long as they don’t harm anybody.//
    This again, is very ambiguous. Like the comments in Nita’s blog show: does the inability to widen roads or extend runways mean harm to others?

    //I agree with Nita on the definition of secularism.//
    I fail to see where Nita has provided a definition of secularism. And my point is, you may agree with one interpretation of it, but not necessarily everyone’s.

    //Karunanidhi is proposing reservation for Muslims and Christians in a secular country? Any comments on that?//
    Where did I say India was a secular country? My point is, it is not, by any widest stretch of imagination!

  • // Nita, with a Wide Angle View of India, who thinks that the government did a wrong thing in (supporting) filing of such an affidavit.// This is what I was responding to…The affidavit says that there is no historical evidence that Ram existed.
    When I mean harm anybody I mean bothering people by their religious acts like using microphones late at night or blocking traffic etc.
    Our constitution guarantees secularism and that makes me wish- maybe someday..

  • Here are some more points to ponder:

    How about gender secularism? Does anyone fight or argue for it? No. Women can be trampled upon since “secularism” doesn’t apply to them.

    How about caste secularism? Does it matter to anyone? Reservations in the highest educational institutions is fundamentally against “secularism”, if you look at it from an “equal opportunity for all” perspective.

  • mahendra:
    Thanks for correction.

    I agree that “secularism” is an ambiguous concept and can mean different things to different people. So is the word democracy. How else can one explain North Korea describing itself as “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”? I used the adjective secular to mean what the Establishment Clause from the Constitution of the United States implies. As Humpty Dumpty says in Alice in Wonderland, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” 🙂

    pr3rna:
    Please read the quoted portion of the affidavit (in my comment above, or in the Tribune story that Mahendra has provided a link to) carefully. It does not say that “there is no historical evidence that Ram existed”. It simply says that Ramayana cannot be construed as historical evidence to incontrovertibly prove that Ram existed. To paraphrase, Ramayana, taken in isolation, is not sufficient historical evidence for proving the existence of Ram beyond doubt. What precisely in that statement that you object to?

  • Mahendra,
    I meant that the Nehruvian concept of secularism is a ‘straw man’. It is unreal. Real secularism is when the State disregards religion in its dealings. Religion is a personal and private issue of an individual, and the State should have nothing to do with it.
    This is the ‘truth’ I was talking of. Alternative words like ‘areligious’ should be applied if the ambiguity persists.

  • Prerna, thank you for terming me as Nita with a wide angle view of India. I am indeed flattered. When I wrote that as a title of my blog, I sort of did it on impulse as I always (even at work, when I was working full-time)had this habit of looking at everything from a wide, often global, perspective, and people used to roll their eyes, but this is just my opinion of myself. At first when few people read my blog it didn’t matter…but now with so many reading it, I sometimes feel embarrassed.
    Anyway, thank you. 🙂

  • India has of course failed on multiple secular fronts… absence of Uniform Civil Code is one. But even mention of these three words gaurantees uproars from the Muslim community because this proposal has always been raised by the Hindutva brigade. Reason for resistance – Plain Suspicion.
    I am neither a fan nor a basher of mainstream media, but I dont like certain ways in which they report incidents. Specially the vernacular press… instead of saying “man beaten to death”, the report in bold will say “hindu/muslim beaten to death….”… and of course it is bound to create tension in the masses which is yet to mature as far as open minded religious sentiments are concerned.
    From the govt’s side, giving Haj subsidy to pilgrims when none of the Muslim countries are giving it is another pseudo secularism issue that needs to be dealt with.
    To conclude, unfortunately Secularism is a word/concept that can be twisted and customized to suit any person and ideology. Atheists can claim it there’s and so can the religious liberal masses. There is no easy way to point out that yes, he/she is right and the other is wrong….. (I think I went a little bit off the topic)

  • Prerna: I’m not very knowledgeable about the Indian constitution, but am completely with you regarding what you wish! Yes, maybe, someday…

    RTF: Yes, the concept of democracy is also under the same threat of epistemological confusion! While there were clear distinguishing and defining elements of Democracy in the past, they’ve been ridiculed by various countries claiming to be democracies.

    Rambodoc: Thanks for clarifying, I now understand. BTW, you used a term “straw man” that I had almost used myself in the original post, before editing it!

    Nita: (I think) Prerna was quoting from my post using copy-paste!

    Oemar: Thanks for listing other examples of the failure of secularism – I wasn’t aware about Haj subsidy! And no, far from being off the topic – you’re bang on it. A word/concept that can be twisted to suit any person and has no clear definition, is a sure path to disaster.

  • Now I am even more embarrassed. 🙂

  • RTF: I’m not very knowledgeable about the US constitution hence am curious: do you think the “Seal of Confession”, which guarantees absolute confidentiality to Catholic priests, is a secular practice in line with the US constitution?

  • Nita: Please let go of your propensity to become embarrassed! You very much live up to the title of your blog…:-)

  • mahendra:
    I am not very knowledgeable about the U.S. Constitution either. I wish I am – would have made me rich 🙂 Otoh, I am glad I am not – would have made me live in Washington, D.C. 🙁 Having said that, I am reading up on it – thanks to google, wikipedia, and the local library. Whatever that I say below, however, is based on my rather neophytic understanding of the weighty issues involved in the “Seal of Confession”, and I reserve the right to correct, withdraw, or refute any parts of it in future discussions 🙂

    The “Seal of Confession” that guarantees absolute confidentiality to the Catholic priests is among several such privileged communication rights guaranteed to doctor-patient, lawyer-client, journalist-source, husband-wife etc. It is an exemption to the Establishment Clause granted under the Free Exercise of Religion Clause, both part of the First Amendment. The constitutionality of the exemption of certain religious practices, including confession, can be challenged under the Establishment Clause, and can be overturned if it did not pass the Lemon Test. To pass, the action/law (1) must have a legitimate secular purpose, (2) must not have the primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion, and (3)must not result in an “excessive government entanglement” with religion.

    All fifty states in the U.S, have granted confessional privileges, but I understand that several states have infringed upon them too, for example, by compelling the clergy to report on child abuse. Here is an article that I came across on this issue: Karen Ross, “Revealing Confidential Secrets: Will It Save Our Children?”, Seton Hall Law Review, Vol. 28:963. I haven’t read it thoroughly, but I thought that I’d pass it along to others more interested in this than I am.

    My personal view is that the Establishment Clause should prevail under all circumstances, and no exemption to any religious practice that may involve the infringement of the rights of others should be granted under the Free Expression of Religion Clause [the Lemon Test may have accomplished this to a large extent]. Such a blanket prohibition may not have been required [Jefferson and Madison may have wanted it] in the practically mono-religious 18th century U.S.A., but it’s a must in a multi-religious society such as India, imo.

  • RTF: Thanks for taking the time to elaborate and throw more light on this. In simple English, this does seem to me that the Priest-penitent privilege is not secular. 🙂

    When the source you chose as the definition of the word ‘secular’ is itself mired with controversy because of multiple interpretations, it simply ratifies my post!

    None of the other communication privileges (doctor-patient, lawyer-client, etc.) have anything to do with religion. The PDF you’ve linked to is unfortunately not available (one can read it ‘as HTML’), but Wikipedia does state: “In twenty-five states, the clergyman-communicant statutory privilege does not clearly indicate who holds the privilege. In seventeen states, the penitent’s right to hold the privilege is clearly stated. In only six states, both a penitent and a member of the clergy are expressly allowed by the statute to hold the privilege.” If I was a Catholic living in the US, I would surely know which state to go for confession! 🙂

    Of course, my personal view is very much in line with yours.

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