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Distilling the muddled-up concepts of Secularism and Communalism

Even with the long running, ‘perceived’ battle between secularism and communalism in the country, the definitions of these concepts are still muddled. One of the reasons is that secularism is a western concept for which Indian discourse is still trying to find its own meaning, definition, application and even justification. Many prominent thinkers and academicians in India have weighed in on the subject.

Besides the academic-intellectual discourse, people in general too still struggle with these definitions in everyday life and often end up struggling with their own self-definitions as secular, communal or plainly religious individuals.
The word ‘secular’ is basically defined as something which is non-religious or non-spiritual. In its political connotations, it has come to mean different things in different societies and nations. While today its application in its basic sense may no longer be in effect, but in its objective sense concerns that are worldly in nature are defined as secular. The antithesis to ‘secular’ in the prevalent Indian socio-political discourse is defined as ‘communal’. However, in its literal sense the word ‘communal’ means that which is shared by all members of a community. ‘Religious’ on the other hand is more appropriately an antithesis to ‘secular’ as it is anything related to religion and in terms of lifestyle can be interpreted as ‘believing in religion’.

Taking these terms in their literal sense there can be n number of permutations and combinations which can define people’s beliefs and political ideologies. For instance, Human A believes in science. It is an ardently scientific person who, as the term ‘scientific’ would suggest, believes in scientific reasoning for all worldly phenomena. Thus, in this capacity ‘A’ is a secular person. But ‘A’ also believes in a god and a religion. It believes in going to the temple and offering prayers. In some ways, it has made a distinction between worldly and other-worldly beliefs. Now this person can be called secular and religious at the same time.

Person ‘B’ is also secular in more than one ways. It believes in science and also has secular concerns of monetary and commercial benefits. It does not believe in any religion and is an atheist but associates itself with an identity that has been accorded to it based on its birth. This identity could be based on religion or even caste (especially upper caste identity, which is the source of pride for many owing to the higher status that it provides them), as is the case in India. Now this person is secular, an atheist and yet communal. Moreover, its concerns for its own community are purely secular since it wants maximum social, political and economic benefits to be garnered by members of its own community.

Person ‘C’ is religious and does not believe in science to the extent that it can afford to (because let’s face it, many situations in life force everyone to believe in benefits of science such as healthcare etc.). It believes in its religious duties and rituals as well. But it does not believe in propagating or publicising its religious belief or communal identity. It is not bothered about its community accruing the maximum benefits. Perhaps its religious bent of mind keeps it too occupied to think about society and politics. Thus, whilst being religious it is not communal and neither is it secular.  

These are some of the many possible combinations that a person can believe themselves to be fitted into. As can be observed, ‘secular’, ‘communal’ and ‘religious’ categories overlap differently in different people. In case of India with the added concern about caste identity this overlapping is even more muddled up. Some people do not believe in their religious identities but strictly adhere to their caste identities. Interestingly what it does in politics is to allow a big leeway to politicians of a certain ideological faction and constrict others in terms of the language of politics that they can use.

Those who openly espouse their political identities to be drawn from their religious or communal identity have the freedom to use appeals based on religion and communal identities.  But at the same time, they can also raise issues secular in nature such as material benefits and economic development of society. Their communal identity does not overtly contradict with their appeals based on secular concerns and therefore, especially in India a politician deriving its politics from religion and community can also bat for issues such as measures against ‘climate change’. This allows them to reach out to many more people of different combinations of socio-political identities. This is especially true for those who are not politicised or politically aware to an extent where they clearly identify with one of the aforementioned identities and have completely forsaken others.

The simplest explanation of this can be found in the ‘frame of reference’ theory in communication studies where overlapping frames are good for communication and incongruent ones pose psychological barriers of communication.

On the other hand, those who make appeals for secularism and are averse to using communal or even religious appeals find themselves limited in narrower frames of reference. This leads them to be cut off from a wide variety of electoral constituencies. They tend to highlight more secular concerns such as human development, infrastructural betterment, gender equality, economic parity etc. Because of concerns for electoral expediencies such parties are very less in number in India and those that still persist have been historically unsuccessful in electoral politics.

That’s why even those parties which claim to unite together every now and then under the garb of secularism are often seen as hypocritical since they too make appeals based on communities and religion. Whilst openly communal parties may pander to a particular religion, these parties try to pander to different religious and caste communities in order to remain relevant.

This phenomenon is not exclusive to India and is prevalent all over the world, where communal appeals are winning people over because communal sentiments are running strong in people as communal solidarity is perhaps being perceived as bargaining chips in an economic order struggling for benefits and resources. Or it could also be because the instinct to otherise people based on identities based on constructed narratives has always been prominent in society and present economic and environmental crises are only catalysing it further.

No matter what the reason is, the significant point is that values of communal identities are inculcated in people from the onset in the name of nation and social solidarity. But in a society with already existing axes of differentiation and discrimination, as people get lesser influenced by structured forms of communication such as formal education and more by the informal socio-cultural ones the communal identity gets more and more solidified in traditional narratives of identities such as caste and religion. That’s why we see even highly educated people who believe in secular ideas such as science and economics can be found absolutely clinging to their communal identities.

Understanding that these identities can be overlapping and there is no neat distinction between all of them is important to understand ways to encounter narrow communal mindsets and weave a more egalitarian and inclusive narrative about self-identification. At the same time by doing so we can also start to un-privilege secularism as the most virtuous value and also un-vilify communalism as the most demonic one. This is important to look at these concepts objectively and help people inculcate these values in their positive sense so that a secular person does not seek economic and other secular benefits based on narrow communal identities and to be a communal person one doesn’t narrowly identify itself with particular communities but rather the larger human community itself. Perhaps there will be newer booby traps in political discourse developed after that, but at least larger public discourse could be rescued from this faux debate of secular-communal binary.


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