Irena Akbar’s article (‘Secularism is no spectacle’, IE, July 11) responds to the widely divergent — and often hypocritical — media and political responses to the choices made by two young Muslim women, Nusrat Jahan and Zaira Wasim. My response does not seek to comment on the “choices” — saratorial or otherwise — exercised by these two women, rather, it addresses the larger issues raised by the article: The question of religious coexistence — what does it mean to “live well together” — and its entanglement with the concept of secularism in India.
It has become something of a truism to say that secularism in India has been expanded from its traditional concern with emancipation from religion, or the privatisation of religion. Secularism has been called upon to serve different and often contradictory functions in the Indian nation-state, both as an ethical ideal and as a political doctrine guiding the state. Closely aligned with the term nationalism in the years after Partition, the term secularism has since come to connote an ethics of “tolerance” and multi-religious coexistence, as well as the vision of India as a plural nation made up of diverse religions. As a political doctrine underpinning the state, secularism in India has been asked to ensure that individuals are not discriminated against irrespective of their religious allegiances; at the same time, it has also been used to provide state protection and recognition to minority religious communities. Thus, it has been asked to navigate between uniform rights and liberal citizenship on the one hand, and special rights for minority religious groups on the other. As a result, the contemporary secularism discourse is often marked by confusion and by a conceptual slippage between the range of meanings encompassed by the terms secular and secularism.
The notion of secularism as an ethics of multi-religious coexistence underpins Akbar’s article. The term is often used interchangeably with the idea of a genuinely “inclusive” India — for example, when she writes, “Does my non-participation in Hindu rituals reflect my disbelief in ‘inclusive India’, unlike Jahan’s belief in ‘inclusive India’, expressed in her adoption of Hindu symbols/rituals? Do I disrespect Hindusim while Jahan respects it? No. A resounding, unapologetic, and most importantly, secular ‘no’.”
I want to suggest that secularism as a concept is not capacious enough to take on the burden of multi-religious coexistence that it has been asked to achieve in India (despite the way it has travelled), given its fraught and slippery meanings, which leave it open to misappropriation and misreading. To my mind, the substantive issue raised by Akbar’s piece is how might Hindus and Muslims (and by extension other religious communities) “live well together” (whether we call this secularism or by any other name). This, as both philosophy and praxis, deserves attention.
Akbar makes the very important point that as a Muslim, she doesn’t expect or demand a Hindu to fast during Ramzan or offer namaz, nor has any Hindu demanded that she participate in Hindu religious practices. This, to her, is a concrete instance of coexistence. “An undrawn threshold exists,” she says, “which is respected by both sides, or all sides in a multi-faith society like India”. This idea of the threshold is crucial because it asks that we respect the distinctiveness of religious and cultural others, and not seek to subsume them within ourselves. Such restraint is especially called for if we happen to be part of the numerical majority in a liberal democracy. By providing everyday examples of religious coexistence that rest upon a genuine respect for each other’s practices — without necessarily participating in them — Akbar seeks to reanimate what a living well together should entail. She underlines that an inclusive India should be “free of the need to adopt each other’s religious customs”. Hence her impatience with Jahan’s performative politics, which she sees as ingratiating.
Akbar ends by saying “you follow your faith, I mine. Let each be.” While this injunction to live and let live is undoubtedly important as a minimal requirement, this should not mean that we are not open to the merging of religio-cultural traditions that is inevitable through centuries of actual communal co-existence — neighbourliness (as opposed to living in ghettos), for example. This kind of amalgamation of different religio-cultural traditions has often been celebrated in the work of writers such as Qurratulain Hyder, Intizar Husain and Amitav Ghosh.
In his later work, the philosopher Jacques Derrida provided a compelling reflection on the idea of “living well together”. To “live together” well, he says, we must be able to interrogate the cohesiveness of any organism or any social body (family, ethnic group, nation) that has been given to us by blood, birth or belonging. Indeed, Derrida avers, one only lives together well with and as a stranger at home — in all the implications of “home”, including the self, the family, the religious or ethnic community and the nation-state. A truly inclusive and accommodative “home” — or nation — would be one where every one lives as a stranger among strangers, where no one claims ownership or asserts prior claim over the nation. This peace or “ethics of living together” is radically different from the profession of “tolerance”, which, as political theorist Wendy Brown has pointed out can often designate condescension or the overcoming of an attitude of disdain, contempt or enmity towards religious, ethnic, racial or sexual minorities.
Kumar is associate professor, Department of English at Delhi University and author of Limiting Secularism: The Ethics of Coexistence in Indian Literature and Film