The Role of Religion and Secularism in a Plural Society

Professor Rajeev Barghava in his talk about the roles of religion and secularism in a plural society focuses mainly on the subcontinent or rather the Indian conception of political secularism. He outlines the general assumptions that exist around secularism and goes on to trace how the debate over it sprang up.

The background conditions of ancient India are important in this context and he uses it to depict how the subcontinent’s conception of political secularism was designed for a plural society as there were a myriad of diverse faiths living in coexistence in the country. It was only after colonialism that inter-religious domination came into play and many disturbances were created and a lack of harmony emerged. The idea that everyone should live in peace found political translation again only after India regained independence.

Professor Barghava claims that the roots of these ideas traces back in time to Emperor Ashoka’s era when he governed a deeply diverse society. Ashoka told his people, “You shouldn’t be living isolated from one another, you should all be living together,” and he claimed that the common foundation for this coexistence lay in self restraint, and the artful control of one’s tongue. Ashoka was an example of a leader who put forward a political perspective, the idea to live together with one another well. This idea was revived time and time again; it was embedded in the cultural memory of the Indian people. The idea has been contested over and over again, but it remains as a very important and distinctive conceptual resource that can be deployed when the need arises.

(Professor Barghava’s complete lecture can be found here).

Professor Charles Taylor’s take on the roles of religion and secularism in a plural society is portrayed through the Western point of view, which is the fact that throughout the ages the place of religion in political life has been central to Latin Christendom. In the name of political stability people fell back on a unitary religious view. The policy was and for a long time has been one of having a single religion in a kingdom in order to maintain public order. It was an inconceivable idea therefore, to have society divided by religion. This paved the way for a long and bumpy road ahead, for the West to reach a stage of political secularism of the kind Emperor Ashoka envisioned.

Overtime however, as diversity became more pronounced and unavoidable, it was important to establish a system that would look at these differences in faith not as a threat but more as a positive solution. Thus a legal ideal of coexistence between different groups characterized by an equality of rights emerged; the right to freely practice and proclaim one’s religious views. However, a level of understanding that surpasses mere tolerance is still required in order to positively accept and welcome a coexistence with others. We have reached a stage where each side recognizes that there is something profound and humanly interesting on the other side that they want to learn about. However, it is still a struggle because religious or non religious positions become identity markers and this is extremely powerful in the modern world.
The final goal is to reach the last stage, which constitutes achieving positive life stances and positive motivations to live together in an atmosphere of mutual respect and learning. For the West however, this road remains a long and bumpy one.

(Professor Taylor’s complete lecture can be found here).



These were some of the questions asked at the discussion that followed;

Q: I’ve always been puzzled by Dr. Ambedkar’s constitution. It was a secular constitution and I believe that he made it believing in secularism. But ultimately to take the Dalits out of this picture he got the Dalits to convert to Buddhism. I can’t fathom how that came about and I’d like to have your take on that.


A (Professor Barghava): First of all there is absolutely no contradiction between the constitution being secular, Ambedkar played an important role in making the constitution secular, and his conversion to Buddhism. It is only because the constitution was secular in the sense in which I’ve talked about it, that it permits people to move from one religion to another or to exit from religion altogether. So it is only because this kind of freedom is protected by a secular constitution; to proselytize, to propagate to move from one religion to another, to exit from religion altogether, that it is possible for people like Ambedkar to say we don’t want to be Hindus anymore, we want to be Buddhists.

But there is another way of reading your question. In his constitution, Ambedkar talked about methods you can adopt to destroy the class structure and there were lots of provisions which were introduced into the constitution as a result. Affirmative action programs, bans on untouchability, opening temples which were earlier frequented by only the upper class and so on. So for somebody who was moving in this direction, how does he suddenly decide to drop all of it and convert to Buddhism? First of all I think Ambedkar had a right to do this and he probably had good reason for it.

To my view, if he thought that this class system is permanent and indestructible and therefore it will always be to the detriment of the former untouchables, if that was the reason for his conversion to Buddhism, then perhaps Ambedkar was too impatient and too prematurely pessimistic about it. The constitution was instituted in 1950 and this move to convert was in 1956, these things take time. The fruits of all the provisions would take at least 50 years to be borne and that too would occur imperfectly. And for Ambedkar to expect that this would happen in very quick time and because it didn’t happen, he just left everything and moved to something else, if that was the reason then I think Ambedkar reacted prematurely and too hastily. But as I said there may have been other reasons for his move because he had been thinking deeply about these issues for a long time. It wasn’t as if this happened only in those 6 or 7 years. His disposition was such that he was always against the caste structure.

As an untouchable he had experienced it and he always wanted to reject it. He had identified the caste structure within Hinduism for a long time and if he felt that for untouchables there was no redemption within the religion, he viewed the only way out as exiting from it. This is something that is a product of thirty years of thinking it seems to me, and regardless of whether he was right or wrong he had some very good grounds for thinking like that. So there is no puzzle here from the constitutional point of view and there is no incompatibility between secularism and the so called switch, and conversion from one religion to the other.


Q. By moving away from being Dalits to being Buddhists, wouldn’t they be automatically disqualified from these aforementioned affirmative programs/actions?

A (Professor Barghava): This is something we can say worldwide, that people who move from one religion to another don’t manage to remove the stigma that was attached to the previous religion, within the religion or due to the religion. People just don’t get rid of it. Muslim Dalits are Dalits and Christian Dalits are Dalits. It has become a problem for them that they are Muslim Dalits because they cannot take advantage of these affirmative action programs reserved only for Hindu Dalits. This is because the Dalit was supposed to be only within Hinduism and not formally in Islam and in Christianity. So the move away from it hasn’t really helped their cause. The fact that they became Muslims means they are now doubly othered; they are called Dalits and Muslims. In a secular society where there is freedom of religion this is one of the rights that people have- to move from one religion to the other. So from that point of view you absolutely uphold that right and you say that this is something terrific about the secular constitution. But if as I said the reason is we leave Hinduism to get rid of all the problems, Ambedkar’s judgement is mistaken.


Q: With regards to the identity you mentioned that is being developed in the West, is it trying to identify the identity of human beings? Is it to define what it is to be human? Is it human values they are trying to identify?

A (Professor Charles Taylor): No, it isn’t the general human identity. It is group identity. Now why is this important? Well because a great deal of our political life is organized around that. We can’t have a functioning democracy without having some sense of what really unites us as this people. And very often what unites us is of course a set of principles, but there is also always some particular element, historical or otherwise. For instance we are French speakers or we are German speakers. So these notions of common identity play a very important role in an age of democracy, or if you like in an age of mobilization. People have mobilized to become part of a particular political entity. And these elements of identity can be used, turned against various people who come in from outside, or who already are inside but haven’t conformed, they aren’t part of us.


Q: Is economic prosperity a prerequisite to secularism? I am referring to secularism not as state driven secularism but as secularism where we find value addition in other’s differences and in turn is identity politics a prerequisite to economic prosperity?

A (Professor Barghava): My view is that economic prosperity can lead to secularism but it doesn’t necessarily have to. It can even lead to what we call in India communalism and to a great deal of fixity of identities, a whole lot of polarization, identity politics and so on. I don’t think there is any kind of necessary link between economic prosperity and secularism. In other words I think societies which are not economically prosperous could have various conceptual and cultural resources to be secular and those resources can be upset as people become economically more prosperous. They could become communally selfish and greedy and fight with one another. But on the other hand it could go the other way as well, provided other conditions are met.


Q: Make a clear distinction between your conception of secularism and pluralism. How exactly would you differentiate between the two ideas?

A (Professor Taylor): I think we are using pluralism to indicate a situation of fact that society contains people who are of very different life stances. Secularism is a normative view of how the society should be organized in order to deal with or take account of this state of fact.

If secularism is used in a normative sense as something that you endorse and that has got some value then that could be an additional source of the strengthening of the normative doctrine of secularism, although it is not necessary that there be a normatively endorsed pluralism for there to be secularism.


Q: Can you expand on that, what is it that secularism contains that goes beyond pluralism normatively and are there parts of pluralism that are not necessary to secularism, speaking normatively again?

A (Professor Barghava): There does seem to be an internal link between secularism and pluralism in the sense that this kind of secularism would implicitly endorse that there is some value in there being diversity. And some of the points that Charles made about people learning from one another and none of the conceptions of good on their own is complete unless there is some other thing which is present which would in a way either by challenging it or by complementing it could make it more adequate and those assumptions, although they weren’t spelt out, are in essence present in this secularism. So although they are distinct there is quite an interesting and important link between the two even as normative doctrines.


Q: I’d like to bring out the point that professor Taylor made on positive attitudes and the same thing comes up with Professor Barghava- the Ashokan attitude was based on positive things. I find that in today’s news channels it isn’t quite positive and I am wondering to what degree these channels influence society in the wrong direction.

A (Professor Taylor): Yes, I think very often they do. In my society there are a number working in the wrong direction and there are a few working in the right direction. And unfortunately some of the ones working in the wrong direction have a wider readership or listener ship. But if you think of the struggle in our kind of society, between identity politics and their role in narrow kind and this other aspiration to a better way of living together; I think you can see that there is always going to be some success involved in printing in your newspaper, mobilizing identity or having your radio program, call-in shows, one where people can call in and mouth off about those other people etc. There is going to be something to be gained in modern media if you think the name of the game is having a large listener ship, having a large reader ship and so on. So it is inevitably going to be some element of that. There are other forces at work that can try to shame those people; they can look like they are subverting the unity of the society. It’s not a totally bleak picture.


Q: People who believe in religion, people who advocate for religion, talk about this whole idea that there is no religion that they believe is a control mechanism, to control us human beings. If there is no religion humans would end up being barbarians. That is their definition. My question then is, what would the world look like if there is no religion?

A (Professor Taylor): It is absolutely unimaginable. I’m not saying we can’t imagine a world in which a lot of people do not believe. We live in one so that isn’t hard to imagine. But this option wouldn’t even be taken up by anybody. It’s like imagining a world in which people don’t want to paint pictures anymore, nobody wants to write music anymore. Some people are tone deaf and they aren’t interested in music, but the idea that nobody would want to do this is mind boggling. What would happen? We would have to be lobotomized in some way to have a world without that. I don’t think anyone can really imagine the conditions for that to be so. It is too much beyond our present predicament.

Professor Barghava: I think a lot of what goes into religions is what makes us human beings, what makes us what we are, whether or not we recognize it. I think we can imagine a world without religions but it won’t be a human world. It would be something else. We would be very different people. There was another dimension, another thing that I thought when the question was raised – my response to that was we know that there are religious barbarians but equally there are secular barbarians. To put it very crudely and simply, there is good and evil on both sides. The fact is that neither Hitler nor Stalin were particularly religious people nor did they use religious ideologies. And they were the greatest destroyers of civility and civilization in the 20th century. So you can’t really put all the evil at the door of religion and put all the good at the door of secularism. That is factually wrong. So we have got to come to terms with it.


Q: I’m wondering if there are any safeguards you see within this philosophic understanding of secularism, to prevent the kind of violent clinging to the idea of unity at all costs, taking Kashmir as an example.

A (Professor Barghava): I think there are some very good reasons for Kashmir to be part of India. Particularly after India was declared a federal state and Article 370 was made part of the constitution which gave Kashmir a lot of autonomy, more autonomy than any other state in India. Given the nature of the Indian constitution and given the commitment to democracy and to pluralism which was there in the Indian constitution, certain self-government rights and certain cultural rights that were given to minorities and given the other options available at the time for Kashmir, I think there were some very good reasons for Kashmir to remain a part of India.

However, things haven’t gone quite the way they should have. Mistakes have been made on both sides. I would talk about the mistakes on the side of the Indian state. There is a certain mentality that force alone or the carrot and stick policy where you give rewards and concessions, would be sufficient to somehow maintain the status quo and to contain the problem. But that is not the way the people’s minds work. A lot more needs to be done. Far less repression than was done and far more understanding of the real grievances of the people there, and a greater effort to restore trust, far more reluctance to manipulate things politically in Kashmir. I think on the part of the state a lot of these things needed to be done which were not done. So it is a big problem and it continues to be one.

I think the best bet for Kashnir people is to remain in India, not for some preconceived notion of what Indian territory is or what Indian unity should be in terms of that territory and so on. I don’t believe that that should be a good reason. Nor do I think that the current belief of the majority of the people is sufficient to decide whether they will stay in the country or not. This is a historical matter which should be decided over by thinking in the long run. It is not something that can be decided even by one generation. This is a historical connection over a very long period of time, but if things don’t work out over two to three generations, I think regretfully there is reason to believe that people can’t stay together. But I haven’t reached that point myself, personally, yet. I think for all sorts of very good political and moral reasons, Kashmir should be a part of India. That is my position.


Q: How were Ashoka’s edicts actually played out? He makes this argument about criticism without restraint, moderation and so on. How does this actually get negotiated and the idea of not imposing one’s religious convictions on another play out in the same time he was sending missionaries, the Buddhist monks to different parts of the world, to Sri Lanka for example.

A (Professor Barghava): There is very little historical evidence of how it was actually played out. One can only conjecture and build plausible pictures of what things might have been like which is very very close to what we call fiction. We have got to imagine these worlds. The kind of argument we need is what possibly could a society be like, or the conceptual and normative resources of a society be like, for someone like Ashoka to actually be able to imagine a solution like that. That is the only way in which we can come to some sort of vague and tentative picture of that society.

The historical evidence is so poor and the need to have historical evidence was so rarely felt that there are no records of what things really were like. These are normative statements. We can only infer from the fact that somebody could think of these statements, what the general intellectual and moral climate of the place must have been like. That is the most that we can say and that also very tentatively because these connections are very difficult to establish. Unfortunately, I don’t think this can ever be demonstrated historically, because I don’t think people find very much evidence.

On the missionary activity, one of the great comparative religionists, Wilfred Canterbell Smith, said something very interesting about Buddhism. He said Buddhism is a missionary religion or was a missionary religion, but when it went out to China and the whole of South East Asia, it didn’t say leave your religion and become Buddhists. It said keep your religion but also become Buddhists. And that is certainly the case in the whole of that world; you are simultaneously many many things. You don’t give up one thing in order to embrace the other; you embrace one adding it onto something that you already have. And that is the kind of missionary activity that I imagine was the Buddhist missionary activity in that time. So you find, for example in China or in Japan, people who claim to be both Buddhist and Taoists, Shinto and Buddhists. And you find that if you add the population of the people in Japan counting them from the perspective of religion, the total would always be 150% or 200%, because there are 80% who are claiming they are Buddhist and 70% claiming they are Confusions and so on. That is because they have no hassles in claiming that they are both Buddhists and Confusion.

I think that would be a wonderful world to live in. I always believe that if we could reach a stage where, just as we political philosophers admire a whole lot of people and we admire their teachings, but we don’t say we are this to the exclusion of that. We just use all of their teachings all the time. And if we were able to do that, although this sounds like a frivolous thought to many people, but if we can do that even for religious teachings that would be great. Many people I believe do it anyway. People simultaneously learn from the Bible, the Qur’an, the Gita.

This is linked to the identity issue; if you really are seeking a religion of truth rather than a religion of identity then you would have no problems in being open to everything which you find is the great wisdom literature of the world. But if you are really after identity then you will only do this to the exclusion of everything else. And I think that if religion is all about a journey, a quest for truth, then there is no bar on any teaching.


Q. In countries like India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, in these South Asian countries there is a majority of one religion. In such a context the notion of secularism has been massively debated and contested. Some of them have also said that the notion of secularism is only the political agenda. So my question is, is the notion of secularism, the principle of secularism, only the political agenda?

A (Professor Barghava): I agree that it is a challenge. It would be less of a challenge if societies were not only multi religious but different religious groups were more or less the same in number and strength. I think the conditions for secularism in those societies would be a little more conducive to it. So in societies in which majorities own up to one particular religion, secularism becomes more of a challenge. But I think that it is possible for us to effectively beat that challenge and societies have devised political principles and they have had a prior ethos where even in those societies where there is a majority religion, secularism can work.



Read 19392 times Last modified on Thursday, 27 March 2014 10:48

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