Ideas·Us & Them

What happens when we stop asking questions: Why India must be secular

Political scientist Neera Chandhoke makes a heartfelt argument for a secular India at a talk delivered in Mumbai. Against the growing tide of Hindu nationalism and India's history of inter-religious strife, she draws on Western and Indian thinkers to make the case for diversity — not simply a social nicety, but as a condition for civilization itself.
Neera Chandhoke

Political scientist Neera Chandhoke makes a heartfelt argument for a secular India at a talk delivered in Mumbai. Against the growing tide of Hindu nationalism and India's history of inter-religious strife, she draws on Western and Indian thinkers to make the case for diversity — not simply a social nicety, but as a condition for civilization itself. According to Neera, diversity means that a society is continually questioning itself. Those that don't embrace diversity cease to grow and eventually ossify. Yet Neera isn't against religious worldviews. In her vision of a secular state, all religions have a legitimate place. Because all religions seek the truth, none can fully lay claim to having all of it, and therefore there is space left for all: "The opposite of secularism is not communalism. It is theocracy". And theocratic states are both violent and stifling, dull places to live -- or as she concludes: "monochromatic."

**This episode is Part 4 of the Us & Them: Diversity, Division, and a World of Difference series of talks. It originally aired June 28, 2017. 


5 years ago
Duration 3:18
Why India must be secular

"We see with great unease, groups of vigilantes running amuck telling us what to eat and what not to eat, what to read, what movie to watch, and who to love. In India, public intellectuals, philosophers, social and religious reformers, and national leaders began to ask crucial questions of society since the beginning of the 19th century. These questions escalated until the middle of the 20th century. But no more. Today, Hindu society is complicit in massive crimes perpetrated against Dalits, Muslims, and women, because it is silent in the face of atrocities practiced by vigilantes who single-handedly define what they consider 'morality', and who punish people merely on suspicion that they violate codes of Hinduism. Backed by powerful political patrons and a compliant police force, vigilantes are legislators, prosecutors, juries and executioners rolled into one. Reports in our daily newspapers bring stories of horrific violence perpetrated by vigilantes masquerading as the keeper of the keys to the Hindu kingdom. Intolerance in our political life has become a normal way of doing politics." 

"You should tolerate people because they have good reasons for doing what they wish to do. Tolerance is: 'I don't like you, but I still tolerate you.' Toleration would be actually a positive attitude in saying: 'I don't agree with you, but you have very good reasons for doing what you want to do. So I respect you for that.' It is basically based upon an epistemological lack. I don't have knowledge so I cannot judge you. We respect other ways of being because we are aware that our knowledge is imperfect and inescapably partial. We are simply not in a position to judge which belief system is right and which is wrong, because we do not know why people believe what they believe in. The simple act of 'listening' to opposing points of view will allow us to re-examine our own beliefs. An unexamined life, as Socrates had reminded us, is really not worth living."

"How can people who speak different languages, worship different gods, and subscribe to different conceptions of the good live together in a degree of civility, with dignity and with mutual respect? This question has bothered political thinkers in India since the early 20th century, and we have still not found an answer. And it is not easy to find one. Every fundamental right guaranteed by international covenants and national constitutions, proves incapable of protecting citizens from harm, if the group of which they are a member is harmed. Unless a society learns to respect different ways of life, individual members will always be vulnerable to hate speech to acts that maim and take away innocent lives." 

"If you look epics, Greek epics or even the Indian epics, the Mahabharata, you come to realize that the human condition is too complex to be solved by one man. It doesn't happen. You see, there are no easy solutions to the human condition and this you have to understand, you have to live in dilemmas, with dilemmas. And you'd better accept that. [That] doesn't mean that if you're faced with a dilemma you become helpless. You use inventiveness and you figure it out, because politics doesn't offer you the solution. Those days are over."

"The term 'secular' embodied the spirit of the Enlightenment reason, science, universality and, more importantly, free choice. Notably, the term 'secular' is not synonymous with atheism. Nor does it stand in opposition to religion. Atheists are non-believers; people who sport a secular attitude can be religious, but also hold that their conversations with God are a personal matter, and religion should not be used to discriminate between people, or mixed up with politics. Above all, secularisation is a social process that entails the privatization of religion. Political secularism, or simply secularism on the other hand, is a normative concept: it is an attribute of a democratic state."

Neera Chandhoke is a political scientist and Professor Emeritus of the University of Delhi, as well as former Director of the Developing Countries Research Centre, University of Delhi. She received her MA (1968) and her PhD (1984) from the University of Delhi. Her research has centred on secularism, political theory, comparative politics, and the politics of developing societies with special focus on India. She is the author of many newspaper articles and academic essays, as well as books including Democracy and Revolutionary Politics, (2015, Bloomsbury Academic), Beyond Secularism: The Rights of Religious Minorities, (1999, Oxford University Press); and State and Civil Society: Explorations in Political Theory (1995, Sage).


For each of the stops on the whirlwind-worldwide 'US & THEM' tour, I tried to make a (perhaps silly) point of wearing something distinctly 'local', while introducing the lecturer. For South Africa, I bought a peasant-style dashiki shirt from a street-seller in Soweto. The woman who sold it to me had set up her shop just outside of Nelson Mandela's house.  In Berlin -- where the lecture was delivered in the much more formal setting of the new Canadian embassy -- I stuffed a small German flag into the pocket of my jacket, so that tiny patches of gold, red, and black were clearly visible. 

I had no idea what to wear in India. A Nehru jacket seemed completely anachronistic, not to mention the fact that such sleek and slim South-Asian lines would prove to be anything but flattering on my ever-expanding North American physique. While watching a televised cricket match between the Mumbai Indians and the Delhi Daredevils, I momentarily flirted with the possibility of acquiring an official Indian Premier League jersey.

The day before the lecture, after visiting some of the standard tourist sights -- like the historic Gateway of India, and the futuristic Bandra-Worli Sea Link -- our driver, Mr. Santos, suggested that we visit a famous tailor shop, to have some suits made. Videographer James Cooper and Farid Rohani (from the Laurier Institution, and our indispensable partner on this project) expressed immediate interest. Since I hate wearing even a tie and jacket, let alone a fitted formal suit, I was less enthusiastic, although happy to tag along for the ride, and to absorb the experience. 

During our drive to the tailors, Mr. Santos pointed out the bizarre building that currently ranks -- at more than a billion dollars! -- as the most expensive residential real estate in the world. It's got twenty-seven floors, although it looks more like forty, since several of those floors are two stories tall. The occupant is the richest man in India. He lives there with his wife and three kids, although two of those children are currently attending American universities. There are a 168 luxury vehicles in the garage, and three heliports on the roof. Obviously, diversity can be identified and measured using many and various criteria.  READ MORE...

Us and Them: Diversity, Division, and a World of Difference is a five-part series featuring talks presented in South Africa, Israel, India, Germany, and Canada -- all countries dealing with the reality of a diverse population. The series is produced by CBC IDEAS in partnership with The Laurier Institution

**This episode was produced by Lisa Godfrey, Greg Kelly and Paul Kennedy. Video by James Cooper.


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