Faisal Devji, Karthick Ram Manoharan

Scholars in Conversation | Prof. Faisal Devji with Dr. Karthick Ram Manoharan

The NLS Blog Team is thrilled to announce a new blog series titled ‘Scholars in Conversation’. Here we will feature interviews with academics across diverse disciplines and geographies. Anchored by NLSIU faculty members, these conversations explore the work of leading voices in their fields in order to bring academic insights to bear on public discourse.

In this first post in the series, Dr. Karthick Ram Manoharan speaks to Prof. Faisal Devji about the contemporary politics of religious nationalism in India. Commenting on the recent Ram Temple consecration, Prof. Devji proceeds to discuss issues of secularism and how religion-based politics responds to the same. The interview concludes with Prof. Devji’s observations on Muslim politics in post-Independence India. 

What does the Ram Temple consecration mean for the politics of secularism in India?

The building and consecration of the Ayodhya temple has been on the cards for many years and holds no more consequences for Indian secularism. The last time a temple’s consecration possessed such symbolic resonance was when a famous one, destroyed several times by Muslim kings, was rebuilt at Somnath in 1951. Occurring soon after India’s partition and independence, this rebuilding was managed by K.M. Munshi with the temple inaugurated by Rajendra Prasad, who was president of India at the time. While Somnath’s reconstruction did not follow upon riots, a mosque’s destruction (though one was moved to make way for it), and decades of bitter political and legal wrangling, as was the case with Ayodhya, it, too, was undertaken if not financed by the government and served as a symbol of Hindu resurgence after centuries of Muslim rather than colonial rule.

The Ayodhya temple, in other words, has its precedent in Nehru’s India. Unlike Somnath, however, which never became a major site of pilgrimage, it is meant to change the religious geography of India. From a sleepy town which didn’t see much pilgrim traffic even after it became the great cause bringing the BJP to power, Ayodhya is being made into a new ritual centre as part of a massive construction project very much like many others taking place throughout the country to build roads, bridges, airports, and subway systems. The centrepiece of India’s infrastructure boom, Ayodhya’s temple and the redeveloped town coming up around it, no longer has much meaning left for Muslims and is less and less about them. It is meant to transform Hinduism just as Nehru’s ‘temples of modern India’, including not only dams but also new townships and cities like Chandigarh, were meant to do for India.

This is to be done not only by designing a pilgrimage site from the ground up with every modern amenity, but by redefining Hinduism in Islamic or monotheistic terms.

What is specifically new or different about Ayodhya politics?

To build a shrine on the site of a sacred figure’s birthplace is not part of any Hindu tradition but common to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. This is why there are, as far as I know, no other temples in India marking the birthplace of any deity. The proto-archaeological imagination required to reclaim such sites is also familiar to monotheism. Muslims miraculously discover saintly remains under the ground while Hindus find swayambhu lingams above it. In Ayodhya itself, the first modern instance of religious conflict took place in 1855 and had to do not with the Babri Masjid but a Sunni claim that the Hanuman Garhi temple was built on the site of a mosque. The Shia government of Awadh decided against them and in favour of the bairagis who occupied it.

The monotheistic example is much invoked by those who supported the building of a grand new temple in Ayodhya. They frequently refer to it as the Mecca or Vatican of Hinduism, thus seeking to create a single religious centre for all believers. And the temple’s pan-Hindu character was reinforced not only by the early funding it received from all over the country but also in its design. Thus, a South Indian idol of Rama was installed in the sanctum. The great irony of reclaiming a Muslim site for Hinduism has been that the temple built upon it has taken over a number of Islamic and more generally monotheistic practices. And these have, at the same time, been twinned with the modernising impulses of Nehruvian secularism to serve as a legacy for both. Hindutva is thus locked in a mimetic relationship with both its enemies and must literally replace them.

Is there a global crisis in the defence of secularism? How do you view the post-secularist argument?

Post-secular critics hold that religion, conceived of as a distinct field of experience, is itself a product of secularism, and that there is no going back to any pre-secular understanding of it. They argue that trying to manage social and political relations by distinguishing between what is religious and what is not tends to be an unhelpful and even counterproductive exercise, one that marginalises some people and issues in favour of others. Not only is separating the lifeworld in this way artificial and unworkable, definitions of what religion is also change over time and cannot easily be segregated from politics. Post-secularists, then, urge us to make political decisions not by dividing people’s lives up into irreconcilable camps but treating all their views equally and in the same way under the law.

Another way of thinking about secularism is provided by political theology, for which our political categories are secularised versions of theological concepts. The German jurist and sometime Nazi, Carl Schmitt, was the most important advocate of this theory, with sovereignty his chief example of a theological idea become a political concept. The Indian philosopher Muhammad Iqbal mounted a similar argument. He described the secular distinction of religion and politics as being drawn from Christian theology, in particular the relationship between the spiritual and material realms whose link the Reformation broke. And this meant that secularism was itself based on a metaphysical separation of spheres, one which Iqbal thought sequestered all ideals and morality in private life while leaving the public open to instrumentality and exploitation.

If, for the post-secularist religion is a product of secularism, for the analyst of political theology secularism is as metaphysical as religion. In both cases it is the similarities rather than differences between the apparently distinct spheres envisaged by secularism that come to the fore. The problem of religion, therefore, is not that it differs from politics but that it can no longer be differentiated from it or any other department of life. However genuine many of its supporters might be in their religious beliefs, for example, Hindutva does not depend on theological or metaphysical arguments. It justifies its project by appealing to the culture and sentiments of a national majority rather than referring to scripture or divine commandments. It is in this sense that religion can be said not only to be a product of secularism in its differentiation from politics, but also to have been secularised within it.

How are religion-based politics, like Islamism or Hindutva, responding to secularism?

Islamic politics is more likely to refer to theological texts and arguments, but even so it tends to interpret their prescriptions in functionalist ways as serving some social end which is itself not a metaphysical one. If anything, the theological element in Islam’s public life is meant to set a limit to political instrumentality and interference in the private lives of Muslims. In this way it serves an eminently secular goal. For Islamism is in some sense anti-political or at least deeply suspicious of the state which it associates with colonial rule. And yet like Hinduism, modern Islam, too, was freed from traditional forms of political authority by colonialism to organise the social lives of its adherents undisturbed. Liberated from kingship, caste came to constitute the way in which Hindu society organised itself, while personal law played the same role for Muslims, both groups being defined in social rather than political terms.

The efforts of Hindutva and Islamism to challenge the secular state seen as a neutral third party adjudicating between rival interests must be understood as the struggle of the social against the political sphere. Having been deprived of political institutions and confined to their social and especially religious life during colonial rule, Indians continue to vest sovereignty in this realm of authenticity where it can be harnessed by national and other movements. This is why Islamism and Hindutva conflate social and political majorities, though democracy requires their separation. The kind of liberty proposed by such movements is also social, residing in the freedom to humiliate those who do not belong to the social majority. It is a displacement of political freedom and cannot usefully be analysed in terms of secularism.

What were the changes in Muslim politics in India after independence?

Muslim politics died with India’s independence. The dissolution of the Muslim League after partition left only a remnant in Kerala and the National Conference in Kashmir to represent Muslims as regional constituencies. But Kashmir was soon deprived of political autonomy, and the Indian Union Muslim League aspires only to play a kingmaker’s role in throwing its weight behind one or another dominant party in Kerala. Yet South India is also the only part of the country in which small Muslim-dominated parties routinely emerge, among them the now-banned Popular Front of India and the All-India Majlis-e Ittehadul Muslimeen. In most of the country Muslims have to struggle for their interests to be represented, either by national parties with a diversity of constituencies, or by regional ones dominated by certain castes.

Apart from their large regional majorities in colonial times, what had shaped Muslim politics then was the system of differential representation these numbers had made possible in the form of separate electorates and weightage. These were meant to protect Muslims as well as Hindus and Sikhs in areas where each community was a minority from majoritarian discrimination, and to ensure they gained more than crumbs from the fruits of electoral politics. Congress had always accepted this system with ill grace as part of a British policy of divide and rule. It was justified not only by the existence of religious competition and conflict, but in order to alleviate the educational and economic backwardness of most Muslims. This was the reasoning that would eventually come to define low caste politics as well.

With independence, however, the political reasoning that had been pioneered by the Muslim League was institutionalised for Hindu lower castes but denied to the Muslims on the grounds that they had achieved their political aim in Pakistan and could not be allowed to divide the country again. At the very moment when they most needed protection and advancement, then, India’s much-reduced Muslim community was deprived of both in the name of secularism. Shut out from political representation, they were confined to the category of a religious group. Their entry into political life, therefore, was only possible in good secular fashion to demand the state’s protection of their religious lives. The political argument of Muslim backwardness was replaced by the secular one of ensuring the sanctities of personal law, Islamic endowments, religious rituals, and cultural markers like language.

What were some of the major demands around which Muslim politics revolved?

While there were occasional demands made to increase Muslim representation in the services or advance their educational opportunities and economic wellbeing, all the great public debates in which Muslims were involved from the time of independence were attached to explicitly religious markers. These included the Hazratbal protests of 1963 over a relic’s disappearance in Kashmir, the Shah Bano case of 1985 over the state’s interference in personal law to award maintenance for a divorced woman, and the demonstrations followed by a long-running legal dispute over the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992. And this turned religious leaders as well as the elite Muslims in secular parties who were capable of serving as their interlocutors into the great figures of what can be called Muslim politics.

All these debates and controversies were in fact about protecting rather than advancing Muslim rights over some property or practice. But they were also about defending Muslims against violence. The former motive was to be achieved by refusing to set a precedent in acceding to any perceived threat to Muslim sanctities no matter how minor or irrational it appeared to be. Such, for instance, was the case with Shah Bano, though the Babri Masjid, too, was often seen as a minor monument which did not merit the passion that Muslims invested in it. But their emotion had little to do with the mosque itself and was more about the fear of setting a precedent for what Muslims saw as further depredations on their rights. It was a legalistic and so entirely secular anxiety. But it turned out that relying on the law and its secular character was a mistake.

As for Muslim efforts to ensure their physical safety, largely by trading votes for protection, it cannot be described as politics so much as a pay-off. And it stopped working for the most part from at least the early 1990s. That is perhaps why the destruction of the Babri Masjid saw the last mobilisation of Muslims for nearly three decades. When attacked in riots Muslims continued to fight back, but no longer initiated mass protests and violence themselves. Instead, we saw the emergence of terrorism by small numbers of people, starting in Kashmir as part of a politics of regional secession in the 1990s, and moving to the rest of the country with outfits like the short-lived Indian Mujahideen of the early 2000s. Other attacks had little to do with Indian Muslims and were carried out by Pakistani militants to destabilise the country.

The shutting down of Muslim politics, both in Kashmir and the rest of India, led from the 1990s to the contradictory if related consequences of quiescence on the one hand and militancy on the other. But with the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019, Muslim politics returned to the national stage after a thirty-year absence. This time, however, it was not as a religious community protecting its properties and practices that Muslims mobilised, but as Indian citizens defending the constitutional principle of equality. Rather than asking for the protection of a secular state, they were now defending secularism itself. Quickly gaining support across India and from many non-Muslim individuals and groups, the anti-CAA protests were also not led by religious authorities or elite Muslim interlocutors. Instead, it was women who served to represent the cause. While it appears to have failed, this cause heralded a new kind of Muslim politics divested of religious markers for the first time since independence.

About the Authors

Faisal Devji is Professor of Intellectual History and Political Thought at the University of Oxford and Director of the Asian Studies Centre at St. Antony’s College. He has authored four important books on globalisation, militancy, non-violence, and the history of nationalism, including Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea (Hurst & Co 2013) and The Impossible Indian: Gandhi and the Temptation of Violence (Harvard University Press 2012).

Karthick Ram Manoharan is Assistant Professor, Social Sciences, at NLSIU.