This is a timely study undertaken, in the author’s words ‘in an environment of deep desolation at insistent and deliberate violations of secularism, tolerance and democracy.’ It sets out to clarify and re-conceptualize the idea of secularism.
Professor Neera Chandhoke has written a good deal on the principles and values that influence the civic and political discourse in contemporary Indian society. She is a powerful advocate of civil society initiatives and draws upon a life long experience of academic and public debates on terms that have been used and abused in these discussions. Above all, her perceptions are backed up by some diligent field work in situations that tested them in practice.
The four ideas that form the core of the book – Pluralism, Secularism, Tolerance and Coexistence – need to be examined to determine their nature ontologically and to ascertain whether they represent a fact (true or false) or an idea or a value (desirable or otherwise). Such a framework propels us to regard the first as an existential reality emanating from acknowledged diversity and heterogeneity of our society, the second as a desirable and unavoidable value, the third a drifting condition on a receding horizon that can be both a reality and a value, and the fourth as expressive of the tensions that the process generates.
These concepts are not mere abstractions and need to be posited in space and time. In an earlier essay, Prof. Chandhoke has argued that the debate should be shifted from secularism per se to the antecedent moral principles from which secularism derives its specific meaning; she accordingly asserted that it has to be relocated in its constitutive context of equality, democracy, rights and freedom.
The historical context lends relevance to it. On the morrow of Independence, it was perceived that the greatest danger to unity and integration emanating from ‘casteism’, communalism, ‘linguism’ and regionalism and these were, as Granville Austin put it, ‘frequently compounded and named ‘communalism’ and thus ‘secularism’ became its antidote.
Prof. Chandoke takes a wider view and initiates her quest with the purpose for which the state exists as an institution of society. Justice is the first virtue of social institutions and all citizens therefore have to be treated equally, protected equally and ensured freedom from discrimination. This necessitates civility and harmony leading to fraternity. Thus pluralism in practice in a religiously diverse society like ours compels its acceptance as a normative virtue and propels it in the direction of non-discriminatory practices premised on calibrated equidistance to ensure equality and freedom of religion. Such an approach necessitates not merely tolerance and avoidance of bigotry but conscious cultivation of acceptance as a civic virtue.
The author has rightly concluded that secularism is not a stand-alone concept and is intrinsically linked to democracy since a secular deficit in a plural society results in denial of the democratic right to equality and equal share in its benefits. It would also help reverse the trend indicated in the 2017 the Global Democracy Index.
New Delhi M. Hamid Ansari