Enshrined in law

Secularism became a vital part of the Indian constitution after independence, but it is now under th

The French writer André Malraux once asked Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, what his greatest challenge had been since independence. "Creating a just state by just means," he replied. Then, after a pause, he added: "Perhaps, too, creating a secular state in a religious country."

India has always been a deeply religious ­nation. Four of the world's major faiths - Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism - emerged there. Today, it has the third-largest Muslim population on earth, at roughly 150 million, and there are also about 30 million Christians. Though four out of five Indians are Hindus, each of the other major faiths constitutes a majority in one or more of the country's provinces: for example, the Sikhs in Punjab, the Christians in Nagaland and the Muslims in Jammu and Kashmir.

But more than six decades on from independence, India remains an avowedly secular nation state. The preamble to its constitution says: "We, the people of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a sovereign, socialist, secular democratic republic . . .'' The word "secular" was inserted in a 1976 constitutional amendment, in order to make the position explicit.

The constitution does not, however, define what it means by "secular", and nor have the judges of the country's Supreme Court ever settled on an official definition. The Hindi word that is commonly used for secularism in India is dharmanirapekshata, which means "indifference towards religion".In the words of the political scientist Ashutosh Varney, this indifference translates - in theory, if not in practice - "into religious equidistance, not non-involvement". Religions are cherished and valued, and are part of public life, but they have no claims over one another, nor to state or political power.

“In the Indian context, secularism means something quite different from what it does in Europe," Soumya Bhattacharya, editor of the Mumbai-based Hindustan Times, tells me. "Over here, it connotes a tolerance of all religions and actively working towards the coexistence of different religions. In India, a religious person can, and should, be secular."

Divide and rule

Such a view might seem odd in Europe, where the French model of laïcité, for example - often described as the most extreme interpretation of western secularism - is based on a strict separation between state and organised religion. In contrast, the Indian model does not see a wall of separation between politics and faith but, instead, insists on the neutrality of the state towards religion. Indian secularism does not require the state to be irreligious or anti-religious; nor does it ban religion from the public sphere, as is the case in France.

But does such a model of secularism work in practice? "India shows that it is possible, warts and all, to have a functioning, secular judiciary and legal system and to refuse the idea that one religion or sect - be it Hinduism in India or Anglicanism in the UK - gets to set the terms of debate," says Priyamvada Gopal, the Indian-born author and Cambridge University lecturer.

Some in the west assume that the British bequeathed to India its secular fabric, along with democracy, the rule of law and the railways. But this simplistic view ignores the Raj's "divide-and-rule" strategies, which tended to exacerbate rather than reduce tensions between faiths, particularly Hindus and Muslims. The reality, Gopal argues, is that India's state-­sponsored secularism "found subcontinental resources to draw on in the form of an existing heterogeneity and traditions of tolerant, everyday coexistence" between communities.

Separation between faith and state is an ancient feature of Indian society. According to Hindu tradition, there is a split in authority between priest and ruler, the Brahmin and the Kshatriya. "It is an undoubted fact that in India, religions and philosophical thinkers were able to enjoy perfect, nearly absolute freedom for a long period," wrote the sociologist Max Weber in The Religion of India in 1915. "The freedom of thought in ancient India was so considerable as to find no parallel in the west before the most recent age."

Secularism, as leaders of the Indian independence movement such as Mahatma Gandhi, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Nehru recognised in the 1930s and 1940s, was not an alien ideology, but "an inextricable part of the nationalist self-conception at independence", says Shabnum Tejani, lecturer in south Asian history at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. But while Gandhi (a Hindu) and Azad (a Muslim) embraced secularism from their respective religious perspectives, the atheist Nehru was the first to accept it in a political sense. On 3 April 1948, he declared in the Constituent Assembly that: "The alliance of religion and politics . . . is a most dangerous alliance, and it yields the most abnormal kind of illegitimate brood."

In the years after independence in 1947, the idea of India as an inclusive, secular, democratic state became an article of faith among the country's political and cultural elite. Supporters of secularism point to the success that the country has had in enshrining the rights of minorities in law, while also allowing faith communities the freedom to opt for a (voluntary) system of "personal law" on certain family issues, such as marriage and divorce, governed by their respective religious laws. Meanwhile, religious diversity in the public sphere has flourished. The former president of India A P J Abdul Ka­lam is a Muslim, as have been two other former heads of state; the current prime minister, Manmohan Singh, is a Sikh; the head of the Congress Party (and arguably the most powerful person in the country), Sonia Gandhi, is a Roman Catholic.

End of an era

It is important not to romanticise modern, secular India, however. Muslims are among the most deprived communities in the country, with lower-than-average life expectancies and literacy rates. The ghettoisation of Muslim and Christian communities is growing. India's secularism is also riddled with contradictions. Religious festivals, such as Diwali, Eid and Christmas, may not have been granted the status of national holidays, but the state offers various perks to faith communities. The government subsidises air fares for Muslim passengers travelling to Saudi Arabia for the annual hajj pilgrimage (to the tune of roughly 50,000 rupees, or £700, per passenger). "India has evolved to a situation where secularism means treating individual religious communities, especially the Muslims, as requiring special treatment," says Meghnad Desai, the Indian-born Labour peer and author of The Rediscovery of India.

This has long been the challenge from the Hindu right, which alleges that the Indian secular model as advanced by Nehru and his heirs is "western" and "anti-Hindu", "appeases minorities" and is, therefore, "pseudo-secular". One main complaint of right-wing Hindu politicians is the lack of a uniform civil code for all citizens. They point to the anomaly of Muslims being allowed up to four wives under their "personal law", while non-Muslim Indians are legally bound to be monogamous.

Secularism, warns Bhattacharya, is "under threat" - from the rise of Hindu nationalism and militant Islam. The former is heightened by the presence in the political mainstream of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is affiliated to the Hindu far right, and the latter by the worrying emergence of home-grown Muslim jihadist groups such as the Indian Mujahideen. Bhattacharya points to the Hindu-Muslim riots of the early 1990s, in which approximately 1,000 people were killed in Mumbai after the demolition of a mosque in the Hindu holy city of Ayodhya, and the pogrom against Muslims in the state of Gujarat in 2002, which led to the deaths of an estimated 2,000 people.

So, is the era of Indian secularism over? On the contrary: the Indian public reaffirmed its commitment to secularism in the general election of 2009, which brought resounding victory to the Congress Party and its secular allies and a crushing defeat for the BJP. Even critics, including Desai, acknowledge that it has virtues worth emulating here in the west. "The Indian stance of empowering communities as having some autonomy within the law could be copied by Europeans - as long as we are sure that the basis of human rights as individualistic is retained," he tells me. Others are more sympathetic. "It's not perfect and perhaps it should be regarded as a work in progress," Gopal says, "but the basic model is worth defending."

Ultimately, a diverse polity such as India can prosper only if it has faith in the inclusive and religiously neutral model of governance established by its founders in 1947. As Gopal says, this model of secularism is "integral to the survival of a nation cobbled together from such a diverse range of faiths, practices, beliefs, identities and languages".

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 19 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Godless Britain

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times