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The Nation State and the Secular

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Indian Society and the Secular                        

By Romila Thapar

Published: 2016


ISBN No: 978-93-83968-16-9

Pages: 285

Publisher: Three Essays Collective

What the Nation Really Wants to Know: The JNU Nationalism Lectures

Edited b Rohit Azad, Janaki Nair, Mohinder Singh, Mallarika Sinha Roy

Published 2016

ISBN No: 978-93-5264-025-6

Pages: 337

Publisher: Harper Collins Publisher India

Benedict Anderson described nation states as imagined communities. It requires an imagination to gather around a single historic territory, a homeland and sharing a single common culture and language. Imaginations of sovereignty and fraternity demand homogenization of culture tradition religion and history, thus, nation states have exclusionary origins. The relationship of politics and religion has been a contested theme in political theories. Liberal versions of nation state have argued for its separation while several theorists (especially in the context of Indian post colonial nationalism) have emphasized on its inseparable relationship. This issue is important to address as its intersection continues to affect most of world and Indian politics today.

The collection of essays(that were presented as prestigious public and academic gatherings) by renowned academician Romila Thapar in Indian Society and the Secular revolve around the different aspects of the issues, perceptions, and challenges of secularism in Indian society. In the preface she explains the inadequacy of the definition of secularism given during the nationalist struggle, Thappar emphatically states that co existence and tolerance towards all religions is not an adequate. The state can only call itself secular when it can ensure basic human rights such as food, health care, education, employment and social justice. The recent lynching of Dalits, Adivasis, religious minorities and raping of women does not allow the Indian state to be called secular. In the introduction of the book she explains the colonial reconstructions of Indian history, tradition and religious ideologies that suited the imperialist agendas. Unfortunately the distortions and manipulations have become the homogenizing force and the cause of much violence that we see today. Thus, monolithic and communal versions of religion have played a major role in political conflicts of the country. In her essay on Indian society and the secular she details the plurality in the articulation of religion in India. The history is not a simple binary of Hindu Muslim, infact they were collectives of various sects and castes and not monolithic communities. The variety of their practices that intersect with economics and politics of the times explains a complexity that resists all definitions. Thus, Thapar argues that a truly secular society must be that which ensures that this pluralism is kept alive in education and civil laws.  She further argues for a version of secularism based on humanistic principles of sensitivity, care and a thoroughness that nourishes rationalism and a spirit of social welfare. The essay also argues that secularism is not antithetical to religion nor is it alien to Indian tradition. In the context of the Bhakti, Sufi, Upanishadic, Islamic, Buddhism and Jaina tradition the essay illustrates the interface between religion and society and an alternate version of Euro centric secularism understood in the Indian context. The essays emphasizes on the need for secularization of the Indian society through an empowered civil society that is strengthened by social ethics, legal order, political freedom, individual autonomy and material well being.

The second part of the book consists of essays on understanding the value of secularism. In explaining the role of state and legal sanctions, Thapar acknowledges that secularism cannot be merely ensured by state protection , yet there must be mechanisms by which forces of capitalism must be resisted so that issues of subordinated groups are not coerced by forces of global capitalism. She also outlines the details of contemporary politics in India characterized by Hindutva that occurs as a concept referring both to a Hindu-ness or as a political slogan that emphasizes the idea of a Hindu Rashtra. The book also deflaties all claims of its secular nature as it also strongly condemns the cultural nationalism it propagates. In an extremely interesting analysis the essays outline the formation of the identities of the “we/us(nation)” and the “other(foreign)”. It explains the process of exclusions created internally by caste and religious discrimination and externally by waging wars. Through a historical journey the book takes us to the historical facets that have caused power hierarchies and distortions such as superiority of Aryan race, depiction of Muslims as invaders in the context of the Ram Janmabhumi issue and issue of conversion. The book details this kind of research that continues even in the field of genetics and studies of DNA that attempt  to track the superiority of one race over another, failing to acknowledge that they are “imagined” groups; not biological groups. Here the book makes an interesting claim that though the current political organizations claiming to be devoted to Indian culture unpolluted by western ideas actually support the misinterpreted history written by the colonizers and continue to circulate the same in the name of nationalism and patriotism.

The third part of the book takes us through the historical journey of the politics of the religious communities from the partition of India to the Gujarat genocide and explores the prospects of meaningful history in creating a just and inclusive secular society. Recognizing the centrality of history that shapes not only contemporary politics but also the morality of times, Romila Thapar argues for a re evaluation of the conceptual historical categories that does justice to the idea of a nation as a multiplicity of cultures (rather that civilizational blocks identified by territory)

In this context, universities and spaces of education become important sites of activism. The compilation of the teach in lecture series at the JNU campus collated in the form of book What the Nation Really Needs to Know: The JNU Nationalism Lectures. Provoked by the arrest of the JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar (and two other students), physical attacks on teachers and students (very often in the presence of the police) and unconstitutional policing of campus activities, the JNU Teachers Association resisted the assault on critical thinking and freedom through this lecture series. The campaign to “Save JNU” found supporters from its alumni, politicians, police officers, academicians, journalists, writers and intellectuals from all over the country. The book is an attempt to propagate the need for independent, critical thinking as crucial to democracy greatly threatened by dominating Fascist forces. It also claims an insight into the imagination of a truly public university that is “relatively equal, inclusive, based, however incompletely, on ideas of equality and justice for castes, genders, sexualities…thoughts, and ideas”. Gopal Guru’s essay brings out the paradoxical, fractured nature of the nation state from the caste and Dalit perspective, Ari Sitas’ essay highlights the alternate post colonial versions of nationalisms in Asia and Africa and the issues of freedom it raises, G. Arunima’s essay critiques the assimilative tendency of the ‘unity in diversity’ principle that forms the basis of nationalism and Ayesha Kidwai traces the implications of the linguistic diversities of India. In a bold scathing attack on the practice of nationalism Nivedita Menon criticizes the state politics that deprives people of fundamental rights(a in case of enforcement of AFSPA and border issue of Kashmir, Mridula Mukherjee emphasizes on the need for civil liberties drawing comparisons of the JNU struggle with the Indian nationalist movement. Apurvananda and Tanika Sarkar’s essay explores the problematics of the Gandhian version of nationalism and its relevance in the context of contemporary politics, Achin Vanaik’s essay exposes the power hierarchies inherent in the formations of nation states, Lawrence Lian argues for public rationality and reason as crucial to countering forces of democracy, Ranbir Chakravarti, and Makrand Paranjape’s essay suggest the Tagorian alternative, the latter also explores the role the leftist ideologies have been playing in contemporary politics. Through a critique of Tamil nationalism, A. Mangai explores the exclusionary origins of nationalism. Jayati Ghosh on anti national economics is a critique of capitalist domination and Romila Thappar’s and Harbans Mukhia’s essay deconstructs the colonial historical ideologies that make a claim on nationalism. Prabhat Patnaik’s and Badri Narayan’s contributions aim at exposing the aggrandizing nationalisms and defend a critical tradition against the political culture of fascisim vivdly described by Jairus Banaji. Satish Deshpande, Satyajit Rath, B.S. Batola, Anand Kumar and Suvvir Kauls articles highlight the perils and the compromise of humanitarian values to further a violent version of contemporary nationalism. The book contains essays in Hindi and English and makes an interesting read with several photographs of the JNU campus campaigns.

Both the books are examples of political activism(important for lively democracies) as they are bold in their reinterpretations as well as in their attack on current politics. Nationalism is a contested theme in political philosophy, the books are an urgent contribution to the engagement against the forces of oppression that plagues Indian democracy. Though they may seem to be an academic exercise, the books are perfectly accessible in content and make an enriching read for anyone interested in the debates on freedom, tolerance, secularism, equality, and fraternity.