Hurt Sentiments. Secularism and Belonging in South Asia

Nair, Neeti
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Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Vanya Vaidehi Bhargav, Kolleg-Forschungsgruppe "Multiple Secularities - Beyond the West, Beyond Modernities", Humanities Centre for Advanced Studies, University of Leipzig

Neeti Nair’s Hurt Sentiments compares the trajectories of the state ideologies of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh to evaluate how far each has accommodated minority concerns. It also aims to explore how debates around hurt sentiments shaped and were shaped by rival ideologies of secular or religious nationalism.

Regarding India, Chapter 1 persuasively demonstrates that Gandhian secularism met post-partition calls for a Hindu nation with strong assertions of the equal citizenship and belonging of India’s Muslims. This Gandhian secularism was spun by Hindu nationalists like Godse as Muslim appeasement, which hurt Hindu sentiments. Chapter 2 convincingly highlights that India’s state ideology of secularism as equal respect was strongly defended in parliamentary debates in the late 1960s and 1970s against the Sangh Parivar’s Hindu assimilationist “Indianisation” ideology. Yet the Indian National Congress dismissed Muslim demands such as proportional representation in legislatures, and civil and military services, and failed to ban communal paramilitary organisations. Despite criminalising the imputation of disloyalty to the constitution due to belonging to a particular identity-group, M.S. Golwalkar’s Bunch of Thoughts, which charged Indian Muslims with disloyalty, was not banned. Chapter 2 also shows that the 1976 insertion of the word “secular” into the Indian constitution’s Preamble was accompanied by rich parliamentary debates on the meanings of secularism but also the Congress’s refusal to define secularism or concede Muslims demands for reservations and other safeguards. Nair argues that the Emergency frittered away support gathering for secularism after India’s victory in the 1971 Bangladesh war. Finally, Nair persuasively shows how space for secularism had shrunk by the 1990s. After the Babri Masjid’s demolition, the Congress government initiated legal action against SAHMAT, an organisation defending secular pluralism, for hurting Hindu sentiments through their exhibition on Ramayana’s diversity. Secularism was now weakly defended by the Congress and Janata Dal parties, which relented to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s hurt Hindu discourse. Nair traces a history of this erosion to the 1950s when Indian governments intermittently curbed free expression regarding diverse interpretations of the Ramayana to protect Hindu sentiments. Thus, from protecting Muslims from Hindutva hate in 1948–1950, Section 295A is now used to appease Hindu majoritarianism and erode secularism.

Dealing with Pakistan, Chapter 3 convincingly highlights that despite its clause promising “provisions for minorities to freely profess [...] their religions and develop their cultures”, Pakistan’s 1949 Objectives Resolution (OR) contained the “enabling clause” promising to enable Pakistan’s Muslim citizens to live according to Islam. This sparked fears about minorities being reduced to second-class citizens. Measures in the early 1950s to execute the OR saw the government treat Islam as state ideology while reassuring minorities of their secure status in an Islamic state. Then, in 1956, the West Pakistan-led government drafted an Islamic constitution, whose “Islamic provisions” sought to change Pakistan’s name to the “Islamic Republic of Pakistan” and required that Pakistan’s head of state had to be Muslim. In Chapter 3, Nair unearths the strong challenge East Bengali politicians posed to the West Pakistani government in the 1950s and 1960s by criticising its exclusions of non-Muslims and misuse of Islam. They similarly opposed West Pakistani insistence on political adherence to Pakistan’s Islamic ideology, raising concerns about the rights of minorities. Indeed, one of Nair’s aims is to excavate an alternative East Bengali vision of an Islamic state based on toleration of non-Muslims. Touching on Pakistan again, the latter half of Chapter 4 briefly argues that Bangladesh’s loss had Pakistan further entrench its exclusionary Islamic ideology, evident in its criminalisation of Ahmadis and the “blasphemy laws” of the 1980s.

The bulk of Chapter 4, however, traces Bangladesh’s shifting approach to secularism and Islam. Nair persuasively shows that despite East Bengali articulations of a more tolerant Islamic state in 1956, some argued for Islamicisation in 1966, disregarding non-Muslims. In 1970, Sheikh Mujib’s Awami League accepted the OR’s “enabling clause”, which privileged Islam and Muslims. However, atrocities in Islam’s name during the 1971 war tilted the Bangladeshi leadership towards secularism, which was elaborated by its founders, and enshrined in Bangladesh’s 1973 constitution as a defined fundamental state principle which remained nevertheless non-enforceable. Noting that Bangladeshi constitutional secularism tilted towards Islam, Nair argues that it was unable to take root due to the assassination of Bangladesh’s founder and replaced post-1975 by a strongly Islamic state. Nair rightly notes that Bangladesh’s 2011 constitution restores secularism as a state principle but retains Islam as state religion. Collectively, Hurt Sentiments reflects Nair’s nuanced recognition of the shifting nature of politics and ideas, seen in her brilliant first book on Hindu politics in colonial Punjab.1

However, important questions remain. Nair’s claim that rather than Partition, Gandhi’s murder trial and Godse’s defence statement resulted in the denial of Muslim political safeguards in India’s constitution is interesting (p. 6) but requires more substantiation than provided (pp. 71–74), particularly as Pakistan surfaces as a reason for such denials in some debates Nair quotes (p. 68). Indian constitutional secularism is seen as reflecting Hindu majoritarian Muslim abandonment and violating Gandhian secularism, which strongly safeguarded minority rights (pp. 69, 70–75). But are we sure Gandhi unquestioningly supported Muslim separate electorates, weightages or reservations? And if Gandhi supported only socio-cultural minority rights (which India’s constitution granted), does this also make Gandhian secularism, despite its assertions of equal citizenship and belonging, an instance of Hindu majoritarian Muslim abandonment (as argued about the constitution)? Like much of revisionist scholarship, Nair sometimes assumes that a lack of political safeguards reflects a “lack of minority safeguards” (pp. 5–6, 69–71), and views Indian secularism as largely only bolstering Hindu majoritarianism rather than limiting it meaningfully to benefit minorities. But since these have not been granted by any Western secular country, is the argument that secularism has never curbed majoritarianism to benefit minorities? Why does the Indian constitution’s refusal to privilege Hinduism as the official religion and assertion of equal citizenship not count as aligning with Gandhian secularism and protecting minorities from Hindutva designs of a Hindu theocracy or nation-state?

Additionally, if Gandhian secularism of equal citizenship and belonging died with him (p. 34), why did “support take root for secularism”, and Nehruvian secularism counter Hindutva to protect Muslims (pp. 54, 75)? Legitimate critique of the refusal to address Muslim under-representation notwithstanding (pp. 92–93, 113, 116–117), is it possible that Indian secularism’s contestation of the Sangh’s Indianisation ideology materially checked Hindu majoritarianism to benefit minorities? Why was this not secularism with an “inclusive meaning of equality and respect for all religions” (p. 94) in action (p. 119) even before the 1971 war? Moreover, what might a clear definition of secularism look like, and how might it have helped? Or was the real problem the poor implementation of the Secularism-related articles in India’s constitution?2 If the problem is the design itself (as Chapter 1 suggests), why did secular ideology remain robust into the 1970s? Or is the problem, not faulty design or lack of clear definition but gradual erosion and poor implementation (pp. 112, 116–117, 144), particularly with the 1980s success of Hindutva (as occasionally suggested by Chapter 2)?

Nair concludes that India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have sometimes followed a “South Asian variant of secularism” – represented best by Gandhi, Jinnah, and Mujib – which does not require religion-state separation, is not anti-religion, respects all religions equally (p. 247), and stands for equal citizenship and strong minority safeguards (pp. 247, 250). But how far is Gandhian secularism comparable to the “secularism” found in one speech of Jinnah, who had demanded a Muslim homeland (p. 3)? Or to Mujib’s secularism that respected all religions but “especially Islam” (p. 249)? Was not Gandhian secularism’s basic insistence on equal citizenship enshrined in India’s constitution and relatively, if irregularly, effective as a state ideology that could tangibly protect minorities (while fighting off the Sangh’s “Indianisation” attempts, for instance)? Do differences remain between Gandhian secularism, whose core was concretised more effectively in India’s constitution and state (and then eroded by poor implementation), and Jinnah’s secularism-in-a-Muslim-homeland, which made the quick realisation of a non-secular Pakistani state (which “established” Islam and treated non-Muslims as second-class citizens) less surprising?3 Is it not the case that even the 1960 court judgement defending Christian preaching (p. 193) and alternative East Pakistani visions are qualitatively distinct from the secularism of Gandhi and India’s constitution, constituting visions not of a “more secular Islamic state” (p. 240) but a more minority-tolerant but still non-secular Islamic state which privileged Islam and Muslims (p. 166)? Similarly, was not Gandhian secularism’s basic thrust enforceable through India’s constitution, while Mujib’s remained unenforceable even in Bangladesh’s 1973 constitution? Thus, while Indian secularists can revive Gandhian secularism through better constitutional enforcement and turn to times when secularism was more robustly politically defended and even implemented (however irregularly), Pakistani and Bangladeshi secularists face the more herculean task of finding and utilising scattered, non-enforceable ideological sources outside their constitutions and long-term state ideologies.

Furthermore, is there a difference between Gandhian and Indian constitutional secularisms, which are not anti-religion, respect all religions but officially de-link the state from Hinduism, and Jinnah and Mujib’s secularisms that spoke of religious freedom and equal citizenship but whose non-anti-religion position translated into accepting the state’s official tilt towards Islam and Muslims?4 Did not the first dis-establish the majority religion and grant equal citizenship, and the other two accept the state’s tilt towards the majority religion and subtly reinforce notions of hierarchical citizenship? In short, substantial religion-state separation as non-establishment was sought and constitutionally realised in India, but not in Pakistan and not as strongly in Bangladesh. Finally, what must we conclude about the “hurt sentiments” discourse and laws which, as Nair convincingly highlights, have aided both majoritarian religious extremism (pp. 6–8, 10, 14, 147–148, 231) and secularism (p. 8, 75, 147)? Would Nair agree with J. Barton Scott, who views Section 295A as one historical attempt by secularism to solve the intractable problem of injury caused by free speech?5

Nevertheless, because of such questions it opens up, Hurt Sentiments is a contribution sure to provoke much discussion on the chequered trajectories of state ideologies in South Asia. It must be engaged with by anyone interested in the post-colonial trajectory, successes and failures of secularism in India and the evolving religion-state relationship in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

1 Neeti Nair, Changing Homelands. Hindu Politics and the Partition of India, Harvard 2011.
2 Rajeev Bhargava, The Promise of India’s Secular Democracy, Oxford 2010, p. 81.
3 For why non-theocratic “established” states are not secular, see Bhargava, Promise, pp. 69–75.
4 Nair herself mentions Mujib’s slight tilt. For Jinnah, see Farzana Shaikh, Making Sense of Pakistan, Columbia 2009, p. 83. Also see Jinnah’s speeches directly quoted in Ishtiaq Ahmed, Jinnah. His Successes, Failures and Role in History, Penguin 2020, chapter 16.
5 J. Barton Scott, Slandering the Sacred. Blasphemy Law and Religious Affect in Colonial India, Chicago 2023.

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