Rejecting Misconceptions: Warring with Words

By Koenraad Elst

The following is an excerpt from Koenraad Elst's book, Decolonizing the Hindu Mind, in which he discusses particularly problematic terms. In Part One of this excerpt, he carefully delineated Hindu Revivalism, Hindu Fundamentalism, Communalism, Hindu Nationalism, the Hindu Right, and Macaulayism. The essay continues with this discussion of Secularism, Pseudo-secularism, Marxism, and Majoritarianism.

Flag of IndiaSecularism

In Europe, its continent of origin, secularism is not an ideology in its own right, it is only a practical arrangement between Church and State, viz. their separation. Secularism means that the State shall not in any way promote any religion, whether by propagating it through official channels, by discriminating in favor of its votaries, or by imposing its commandments through the rule of law. In a broader sense, secularism, as a cultural tendency, means that religion is "kept in its place," if not discarded altogether, in order to let people decide their destinies on the basis of purely human and this-worldly considerations.

In India, the Constitution of 1950 affirms the secular character of the Republic implicitly, but not until 1976 did the Constitution explicitly affirm that India is a "secular" state. Surprisingly, this non-involvement of religion and specifically of Hinduism in the Indian polity is not much of a concern to Hindu revivalists. The reason may simply be that they have more pressing concerns, while some lip-service to Hinduism in the Constitution would not make much difference to the flourishing of Hinduism in civil society anyway. The anger of Hindu revivalists is directed not against "secularism" in its proper meaning but against what it calls "pseudo-secularism" -- the alleged practice of favoritism toward non-Hindus under the cover of "secularism."

European secularists wanted man to be emancipated from the mind control exerted by the dogmatic and irrational belief systems of authoritarian religious establishments, a situation which did not obtain in India at all. To be sure, religion in the sense of belief in supernatural interventions was and is widespread in India. Moreover, a religious conception of political authority also prevailed; kings were enthroned with Brahminical rituals. But Hindu states always supported religious pluralism; Hindu tradition never stifled debate, never stood in the way of science, and in its early stage even incorporated and encouraged it.

Hindu India has had no history of book-burning, of executing heretics, or confining dissidents to lunatic asylums. The Buddha could preach his heterodox doctrine till his old age without ever being persecuted. As Dutch indologist Sjoerd de Vries writes: "In Indian society, an amazing tolerance vis-à-vis people of unusual opinions has existed for ages . . . Only very few instances are known where conflicts have erupted for the sake of religion. Not until the advent of Islam did India get acquainted with religious persecution."

photo courtesy of acdme via C.C. license at FlickrPseudo-Secularism

In their unease about the semantic manipulation of secularism, Hindu revivalists question the very use of this term. Seeing that the policies actually carried out by the secularists are not in conformity with the dictionary meaning of secularism, they allege that India is controlled by "pseudo-secularists." Some of them sum it up in one simplistic sentence: "Secularism means being anti-Hindu." They profess not to reject the principle of secularism, meaning "genuine secularism" or "positive secularism," and accuse the establishment and the other parties of "pseudo-secularism," meaning "discrimination against Hindus justified in the name of secularism."

Ever since Jawaharlal Nehru gave it currency, the term secularism has been very popular in India. Most parties and politicians call themselves secular. Even Muslim activists, whose counterparts in Turkey or Egypt denounce secularism as a demonic betrayal of Islam, call themselves secularists.

This general enthusiasm for secularism in itself should indicate that the meaning of the term has undergone a drastic change in India, and that it is irresponsible to use the term as if it had its established Western meaning (which most India-watchers do). Just as the English word "deception" has a radically different meaning from its French look-alike déception (which means disappointment), the British-English word "secularism" differs radically in meaning from its Indian-English look-alike secularism. A professional interpreter who translates déception as deception is incompetent, and an India-watcher who translates the Indian-English term secularism into standard English as secularism has a similar problem.