Secularism in a Philosopher’s View

by Shaikh Mujibur Rehman – April 13, 2015

The Hindu

In a recent conference on minorities in India in Punjab University, I tried hard to highlight the need to correct our collective intellectual failure to put forward the obvious connection between secularism and democracy in India’s public discourse. A connection that should be apparent to everyone has become almost non-existent in India’s public debate; consequently creating enough space for the Hindu right in India and religious right elsewhere to argue that secularism is trivial and as an ideology is electorally motivated. During the 2014 elections, Narendra Modi literally left no stone unturned to convince voters that secularism is all about vote bank politics, and has harmed Indian Muslims. For decades, the Hindu right has been quite aggressive in contending that secularism is a Muslim agenda, and has been quite successful in creating a distorted image of India’s Muslim community as a pampered one. Philosopher Bilgrami’s book is a valuable resource to further our understanding about this all-important theme of secularism, together with many other ideas about law, multi-culturalism, identity, Gandhi, Marx — and most importantly — Edward Said.

This book has been in the making for several years. Some of its essays were already published but have been revised for this publication. The chapter on secularism offers very rich insights. Relevance of secularism, we learn, is contextual in very specific ways. He further explains three particular aspects about the discussion on secularism: firstly, it is a stance to be taken about religion; secondly; it is a political doctrine; and thirdly; secularism being restricted to polity as part of its contextual relations with religion is not a good in itself. But then the essay on secularism stands out because of its engagement with the works of other philosophers such as John Rawls, and Charles Taylor in particular and also at length. He uses much of his personal communication with Taylor to further his argument. Unlike other writings on secularism that revolve around political events and personalities in India, this chapter makes restricted use of such resources of India — but does a very persuasive job in articulating the argument in the realm of political philosophy and political theory.

The chapter is on secularism, multi-culturalism and the concept of law pushes the boundary of the debate further. In his words, “It is no small irony that multi-culturalism as a special form of attentiveness to the needs and demands of minority cultures came to be seen as a necessity because secularism was insensitive to those needs — for it was secularism that was initially intended to repair the damage of majoritarianism in Europe’s nation-building exercises.” He then proceeds further in engaging the idea of law, and largely deliberates with various arguments presented by philosophers, and finally, concludes by calling for the need to grasp the complex relationship of law with secularism and multi-culturalism in order to address the misgivings arising out of the political practice of these two ideas.

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