Global Extremes

In India: secularism or multiculturalism?

What can we make of the ‘return’ of secularism to the centre of political debate in India?

Gurpreet Mahajan
3 February 2020
Indian women take part in a protest against India's controversial new citizenship law in New Delhi, India, on Jan. 29, 2020.
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Picture by Javed Dar/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images. All rights reserved.
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India is currently witnessing widespread protests against the recently passed Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the anticipated NRC (National Population Register). Although the Prime Minister has said that no decision has as yet been taken on an all-India NRC, and that citizenship will not be taken away from any person, there has been one common refrain: namely, CAA is “anti-secular”.

These protests began immediately after the Indian Parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Bill in December 2019. The new Act makes it easier and quicker for “persecuted religious minorities” from the neighboring countries of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan to obtain Indian citizenship. However, In effect the new Act fast tracks citizenship for Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Paris and Christians from these countries who had entered India before 31 December 2014. Since Muslims constitute the majority in the identified countries, migrants from this community are not to benefit from this amendment.

The Indian government has explained this decision as a measure to protect religious minorities in this region – minorities whose numbers are steadily decreasing in the identified countries. Yet, this explanation has not satisfied the protesters who maintain that claims of citizenship should be delinked from considerations of religion and religious identity. For them CAA contravenes the secular character of the Indian constitution.

The ‘return’ of secularism to the centre of political debate is both interesting and intriguing, and it calls for careful reflection. First, in India secularism has been on the backfoot for sometime now as the Bhartiya Janata Party (which has emerged as the single largest party in the last two general elections) identified it with 'minority appeasement’, thereby making it a suspect doctrine, at least in the eyes of the majority. Second, in recent times, appeal to the principle of multiculturalism has been more effective in challenging the rhetoric and policies of majoritarianism.

In India, when the government prohibited sale and consumption of beef, or some states disallowed animal sacrifice in open spaces on Bakr-Id, or renamed streets that bore names of Muslim rulers, or asked for re-writing history textbooks to include all those ‘great’ men who fought against the Muslim ‘invaders’, it is the constitutional commitment to religious diversity and the plural fabric of India that was invariably invoked. A similar trend can be seen in Europe and other parts of the world which have witnessed the rise of majoritarian nationalism.

Expressions of majoritarianism vary but almost everywhere it has pushed forward by capturing the public domain and proclaiming what is not acceptable in these spaces, and identifying 'outsiders' who pose a threat to the security of the nation and its settled way of life. Whether it is the question of wearing a full or partial veil, religious headgear in schools, constructing minarets on buildings or pointing a finger at immigrants who resist integration, it is multiculturalism that has countered these assertions head on.

By arguing that integration is best achieved by accommodating minorities so that they develop a sense of belonging, it has checked the urge to seek assimilation and adherence to what the majority considers acceptable. At the same time, it has analysed concrete policies, such as, public holidays, or food served in hospitals (which appear to be neutral) to show that these are not ‘neutral’ decisions and they invariably impact minority communities adversely.

At times the insistence of secularism on making religion irrelevant in the public domain, has even helped to sustain minority vulnerability.

Even as multiculturalism has unrelentingly exposed the subtle ways in which majority culture prevails in liberal democracies and disadvantages minorities, secularism lies frayed and somewhat exhausted. At times its insistence on making religion irrelevant in the public domain, it has even helped to sustain minority vulnerability. From the perspective of secularism, religious symbols should have no space in the public domain; not only should state officials not don any religious symbols, such practices as polygamy and covering of the face cannot be accepted in a liberal democracy as they violate the principle of gender equality.

Historically, secularism had played a pivotal role in ensuring religious liberty to persons of different faiths, but today it is unable to check the expressions of majoritarianism in the public sphere. To a considerable extent this is because secularism considers religious identities as inconsequential in matters of citizenship. It speaks of a common culture and does not make a distinction between majority and minorities. Multiculturalism, on the other hand, begins with the idea that citizens belong to different communities and the same policies and laws may affect them differently. It makes space for religious reasoning and sensibilities to enter the public domain and participate in collectively deciding what is acceptable. In other words, it cautions us against pre-judging the other, and this has helped to nurture an environment in which majoritarian expressions can be checked.

It is this difference that has, in the contemporary context, juxtaposed secularism and multiculturalism. While there are still several analysts who collapse the two concepts and speak of them interchangeably, the manner in which secularism has been used to reinforce the dominant liberal ethic compel us to ask if, in the context of majoritarian regimes, multiculturalism should trump secularism; and what value should be attached to secularism.

Political theory may need recognize that secularism and multiculturalism are different but necessary

The ongoing protests against the CAA in India, particularly the manner in which they have invoked the principle of secularism, offer important clues as to how we might understand and relate secularism and multiculturalism. If we reflect on the logic embedded in the ongoing protests, secularism surfaces as the first unassailable principle, determining who will, at any given time, be eligible for citizenship and the benefits that accrue from it. But after that initial constitutive moment, where state and citizenship are dissociated from religion, multiculturalism becomes relevant. It addresses the anxieties of the minorities and provides checks against the possible domination of the majority culture in the public domain. On a more positive note, multiculturalism suggests the formal and informal arrangements (such as, representation, accommodation of cultural codes) that may be necessary to ensure equality for citizens who belong to minority communities.

Both secularism and multiculturalism are, it seems, necessary as they address two different sites of religion-related disadvantage and discrimination. While the former ensures the initial conditions for equality of membership the latter extends the commitment to equality by making space for the practices of minority communities alongside that of the majority community.

This distinction, and differentiated responsibility of the principles of secularism and multiculturalism seems to be understood instinctively by the political actors, particularly those who are currently protesting in India. Political theory may need to take a cue from this experience and recognize that secularism and multiculturalism are different but necessary; and in the absence of either of them majoritarianism cannot be checked effectively.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, under the GREASE project (grant no. 770640) and the BRaVE project (grant no. 822189).

The opinions expressed in these blog posts are the sole responsibility of the authors. The European Union is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information or opinions contained herein.

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