Book Review; The secular States, Religious Politics: India, Turkey and the Future of Secularism

The secular States, Religious Politics: India, Turkey and the Future of Secularism by Sumantra Bose, 2018; pp 380. US$ 32.11

Paperback: 388 pages
Publisher: Cambridge University Press; 1 edition (May 7, 2018)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1108454860
ISBN-13: 978-1108454865
Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.9 x 8.9 inches
Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)

by Zaboor Ahmad 20 May 2019

India and Turkey are the two leading examples of secular states in the non-secular world. Both are constitutionally secular as there is no official religion in them. However, it is different from the western conception of state-religion dichotomy. Indeed the state has acted as intrusive and regulating authority in matters related to religion. The state is legally and constitutionally empowered to do so, and it has been the salient feature of the secular model in both countries. However, the secular state has failed in both states to live up to the criterion of impartiality towards different sects and religions. Therefore, it has attracted criticism in India from the Hindu nationalists who lament that the core identity of the nationhood is Hinduism and that secular state is against the majority community. So has been the case with Alevi and Kurds in Turkey who see Turkish state in favor of majority Sunni-Turkish people. These anomalies and contradictions have allowed anti-secular forces to gain ascendency in both countries.
Parallels with contextual differences between Indian and Turkish secularism.

The formation of the secular state in India and Turkey are marked by significant similarities as well as, of course, contextual differences. Both are characterized by certain paradoxes, anomalies, and contradictions. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India and Mustafa Kemal, the chief architect of the modern secular Turkish state, had a broadly same skeptical view of religion and also shared a robust modernizing vision of their societies. The common denominator was their belief in the potential of science and technology to transform traditional organizations and believed religion checked the tendency to change and progress in every society. It is not surprising that both states adopted an emphatically state-led paradigm of economic development, with extensive state control and regulation of the economy. Both began to dismantle it in favor of a deregulated system. It reflects the founding belief of the elite class in both countries that the state has to be intrusive if society has to make a transition from poverty to prosperity. The origin of the activist, interventionist state that regulates every aspect of practices of religion lies in the same shared emphasis of the elite class on rationality and scientific temper in all matters with the state as the embodiment of reason and the engine of progress.

The intriguing paradox is that the states remain constitutionally secular, while leaders and parties who lead them are anti-secular. Secularism has been a core element in Kemalist and Nehruvian concept of national identity and modernity. In those frameworks, it was impossible to be modern without being secular. This concept is under attack; it is argued that anti-secular arguments and their alternative conception of nationhood are legitimate and more culturally authentic, and it is possible to be modern without secular. This conception has moved to Centre stage. The fallout has been polarization in society over the legitimate form of nationalism.

Differences in the secularism of India and Turkey.

The genealogy of the secular state in both states has two notable differences. The first is the reason for the adoption of secularism. The desire of the Kemal’s regime to copy and make Turkey a part of Europe was the major motivation for the espousal and promotion of Turkey as a secular state. In his view, Turkey could never hope to join the civilized and cultured people of the west if its polity was to be based on and defined by Islam. This westernization to use the term of Ahmad-I- Jalal has its fundamental roots in the failure of a series of neteenth century modernizing reforms in the Ottoman Empire to enable effective competition with the empires European rivals. Once the efforts ailed the last ffort was to join them. Amel’s modernist secularist group imposed secularism by taking advantage of special historical circumstances between 1919 and 1923 which had discredited the Caliph. It was enforced through a draconian approach that routinized harsh repression and episodes of brutal violence in the 1920s and 1930s. Thus, from the beginning, Turkish secularism became identified with authoritarianism. By the turn of the twenty-first century, the two major weaknesses of the project began to unfold, first was the primary deficiency of cultural and national authenticity and second being the limited social base among an elite minority of the society caught up with the secular state.

India secular elite drew their inspiration not from inferiority complex syndrome and fascination with Europe but from a commitment made during freedom struggle by Indian national Congress that all religions would enjoy equality in free India. Therefore it has indigenous roots. The other salient difference between the contexts of the secular states is that while Turkish secularism was from the outset promoted by a profoundly authoritarian state. However, Indian secularism has not been free from the authoritarian streak. The extreme repression and violence against Kashmiri have been justified based on secularism.

On the contrary, India’s secular state grew out as an aspect of Indian tradition- mutual tolerance and coexistence of the subcontinents diverse religious communities and sought to continue that aspect of culture in a free society. In fact, the constitution, which established a secular state, has been the outcome of democratic deliberation and debate. Therefore, the foundations of state secularism in India is not just indigenously rooted but democratically crafted, both in contrast to the Turkish case. In fact, Nehru believed that a secular state was essential to rebuild national unity in a multi-religious country in the wake of partition and not national unity at any cost as Turkey did but in a framework of pluralism. This has been the blind spot of the author, as the book seems to undervalue instead fails to account for the role played by the violence in crafting a nation-state. The desire to distinguish from Pakistan, explains the absolute centrality given to secularism in India, in contrast to the rare use of the term in official discourse. However, the paradoxes, anomalies in the nature and functioning of two secular states are remarkably similar.

Anti-secular ascendency in India

Debating the question, whether the Indian concept of state secularism, ever since freedom from British rule has been based on the virtue of tolerance said to be inherent in the nation’s majority faith, rather than on a genuine neutral view of religions. The author argues that the republic has been a soft Hindu state. The author quotes profusely to prove his thesis. In 1955, an Indian Cattle Protection bill was introduced in Parliament to ban the cow slaughter the staple of the Hindutva forces, although the bill was defeated, yet many of the Congress members of the Parliament in spite of the whip to vote against the bill, voted in favor of the law. Some of the big states like Utter Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan made acts which prohibited cow slaughter immediately after independence, were ruled by Congress party. In M.H Quereshi vs. the State of Bihar the apex court banned the slaughter of cow on Bakre-eid, on the ground, it was non-essential part of religion, and it violated the religious sentiments of the majority. These state laws reinforced by judicial verdicts were initial attempts to impose these taboos of one religion on all citizens. It has been a symptom of the assertion of Hindu dominance. On 16 January 1999, Indian National Congress passed a resolution that stated it was the fundamental truth that Hinduism is the most effective guarantee of secularism in India. The fact is that the state is seen as the institutional embodiment of Hinduism’s ethos of tolerance of other religion. In Jammu and Kashmir state election held in mid-1983, Indira Gandhi in a bid to prevent the division of votes in Jammu, campaigned while appropriating the significant themes of Hindu nationalist politics by stating that Hindu dharma was under attack p131.
The prime legacy of the last decade 1980-89 of the Congress hegemonic rule of India was the opening up of political space for the rise and advance of the Hindutva forces through the complicity and connivance of the avowedly secular Indira and Rajiv Gandhi with majoritarianism p144. During Rajiv Gandhi’s time, the complicity of police and other state officials in violence became a stark reality. The canny strategy of deflecting the caste conflict by stoking the Hindu-Muslim riots has been a recent phenomenon, and Ramjanam boomi campaign was instrumental in turning the Hindutva movement from periphery to center stage. The future of the secular state in India hangs in the balance.

Similarities between Kemalism and Hindu nationalism

Despite the differences, the anti-secular forces in Turkey and India subscribe to the same type of the political creed of authoritarian and majoritarian nationalism. The example of Turkey during the twentieth century shows there is no intrinsic connection between secularism and democracy. Contrary to what many secularists in India reflexively believe. The similarities between Kemalism and Hindu nationalism are overwhelming. They share the same obsession with the homogeneity of the nation. The Hindu nationalist politics cannot function without the presence of the Muslims as others in India. The political regimes headed by Modi in India since 2014 and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey since 2003 have two faces. One face is represented by the agenda of progress, development, and modernization. In India, the emergence of Modi as a commanding leader is at variance with the norms of Hindu national movement which in the pre-Modi era always underscored the need for the pursuit of the ideological aims over the role of the individual p 302.

The BJP’s evolution towards a leader based model is similar to that of the Congress in the 1970s. The use of the development face plus the othering of Muslims is an essential element of the strategy to realize its goals, and it has enabled to broaden the appeal beyond the geographical and social limits of its erstwhile core base. The author asserts that the slogan of cooperative federalism represents a smart strategy of adjustment to India’s diverse political landscape in the early 21 century and not the deviation from its core agenda. The single order (Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) promulgated from the New Delhi in mid-2017 is utterly incongruous with the cooperative federalism. The second face of the Hindutva Janus is the emergence of cow vigilantes which have sprouted throughout India ever since the coming of BJP into power.

The Turkish secular state, as established by Ataturk, is dead. It has been replaced in all but name by a state based on an overtly religious Sunni-Hanafi majoritarian conception of Turkish national identity. The perennial problem with the Turkish secularism has been its symbiosis with authoritarianism bereft of the democratic language in which to contest the rise of anti-secular forces. It allowed the anti-secularist to appropriate the righteous mantle of a just struggle against the tyranny.
During the last two decades of Kemalist Turkey, the military-led secular establishment alternated between the appeasement of the Islamic forces and repression. This combination has proved fatal for the cause of secularism in Turkey. The bitter war of attrition over the headscarf represents the dominant symbolic terrain of the secularist and anti-secularist conflict, which has ended with the victory of AKP. It has been self-inflicted but inevitable debacle as the Turkish secularism could not free itself from the authoritarian framework.

Future of secularism in India

The future of Indian secularism is indeterminate by comparison because of the following reason. First, given the sheer diversity of the Indian society, the implementation of the majoritarian recipe of homogeneity is inherently difficult to achieve in India. Secondly, Turkey which has a rigid unitary and centralized state, therefore it became easy for elite to impose its agenda without any difficulty and used repressive apparatus to curb dissent, and this has not been the case with India which has a less centralized federal system. Third, India’s democratic traditions and political culture have been active in India than Turkey. Again the book seems to underplay the role that the emergence of a populist leader like Modi can play by using the same constitutional machinery through which he has come to power. One of the salient features of the authoritarianism in our age has been the ease with which democratic institutions has been occupied through democratic means and stuffed with brainwashed authoritarian ideology unlike the desire to subvert and capture power through a military putsch.

The rejection of secularism not just existing flawed secular state but also of the secular ethic of peaceful coexistence and tolerance is the heart and soul of its political agenda p338. The future of Indian secularism depends on how far the BJP can expand its political base and consolidate its grip on the Indian state because state power is essential to realize its objectives.
Indian secular state has been mostly comprised and damaged by the elite and leaders who swear by the principle of secularism like Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, who reduced it to parallel appeasement of demands of militant Hindu nationalists and conservative Muslims. It enabled Hindu nationalists to attack not just a secular state but also the ethics of secularism. There is another feature of state secular discourse which has fed into the politics of Hindu nationalist politics. This is the tendency of promotion of secular state since the 1960s to identify the state with a romanticized notion of Hinduism, the habit of invoking this purported catholic spirit of Hinduism as stepping stone of the state. It has its roots in Hindutva project which asserts the innate virtuousness of Hindus and the inherent supremacy to other intolerant religions like Islam. This has led to the view that there is no need for secular state in India. The best guarantee of the Indian secular state is the formidable diversity, and its future lies in addressing its real contradictions. Indian secularism can be eliminated if the political ideology of Hindutva, which is at variance with Indian society can provide an alternative democratic formula for a state with legitimacy, which is unlikely.

There is no denying the fact that the book is cogently argued and pithy and chronicles the parallel evolution and slow death of secularism in India and Turkey.