Sanjay Subrahmanyam on Nandy: secularism, convivencia, millet system...

Read this Sanjay Subrahmanyam piece on Ashis Nandy. It's yet another rejoinder to Nandy, who didn't help his case much with his recent rejoinder to the rejoinders.

It should be no surprise that I place myself on the pro-secularism side of the fence, and I agree here with Subrahmanyam that Nandy has been essentially repeating the same idea for 15 years, without much increase in depth or breadth. I also feel strongly, contra Nandy, that "secularism" is very much an essential Indian word, and an essential Indian political strategy. The use of the term is by no means a sell-out to British colonialism. If anything, it is a bow to the reality of modern India.

That said, there are a couple of moments in Subrahmanyam's essay that raise questions for me. The first problem comes with Subrahmanyam's characterization of secularism in the west:

In point of fact, the term 'secularism' has very little purchase in most European or indeed other western societies as a part of normal political vocabulary. Even today, no one in the political sphere much talks about 'secularism' in the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, France, Spain or Portugal or in the United States, Argentina, or Brazil. Neither Tony Blair nor Mrs Thatcher has ever used the word in a speech that I can remember. The only Europeans who use some sort of term like that are the French, with their idea of laïcité. But the French did not mean this term to be one that mediated between religious groups. Rather, it had to do with separating the state from one particular religion, Catholicism, in the French Revolution and its aftermath, leading up to the well-known Separation Act of 1905. This is not quite the same thing as 'secularism'.

Here Subrahamnyam is attempting to question Nandy's alignment of "secularism" with Europe. To begin with, I have a quibble with his characterization of laicité in France, which was undoubtedly implemented in its final form in the 1905 Constitution as a way of reducing the influence of the Catholic Church. But it occured as a result of Catholic anti-Semitism -- the Dreyfuss Affair -- and as such, ought to be understood as the state's recognition of the rights of non-Catholics. It is, after all, a way of "mediating" between religious groups.

Secondly and more substantially, while it may be true that western leaders today don't use the word "secularism" that often in their speeches, it's simply untrue that the concept is irrelevant to western politics. In fact, secularism (specifically understood as separation of church and state) is one of the hot-button political issues here in the U.S., with the Supreme Court's recent "Under God" ruling as the most prominent recent example. Also, the Hijab ban in France -- where a different definition of secularism is operative -- is spreading. Similar bans are being introduced in the Netherlands and Germany; the Hijab is likely to become a pan-European issue. And secularism has been an issue in the E.U. debates about whether there should be a reference to God in the E.U. Constitution.

Subrahmanyam's basic point that Nandy is oversimplifying secularism in the West is certainly correct, but his support for that claim is misplaced. Secularism in the West is still being ironed out. For new religious minorities, it is in fact still in the process of emerging. Therefore, the real reason to de-link the west from "secularism" is that the concept is constantly being revised, and the new meanings of the term have very little in common with the meaning of the term in India.

Secondly, I have a question about Subrahmanyam's rejection of Nandy's idea that India substitute the Spanish convivencia for "secularism":

Nandy appears at his worst when he wishes pompously to hand out lessons. He wants others to learn from "the concept of convivencia that apparently existed in medieval Islamic Spain. Did anybody in Islamic Spain ever use this "concept"? So far as I know—and I have studied the history of Spain in that period unlike him—no one did. This idea was imposed on the Spain of that period by romantic modern historians, and it is no more indigenous to it than 'secularism' is to Mughal India.

While I can't claim to be as knowledgeable about this as Subrahmanyam, I have seen references to religious tolerance in medieval Spain in many different books. (A good, lay introdution to the topic is Maria Rosa Menocal's The Ornament of the World. It's a pleasure to read.) Again, while Subrahmanyam may be right that substituting "convivencia" (living together) for "secularism" is absurd, he doesn't need to bother with Nandy's terminological speculations, which are irrelevant.

The real reason the medieval Islamic model of tolerance isn't sufficient is that the Umayyad dynasty in Spain and the Ottoman empire's millet system were not designed to rule democratic nation-states. "Tolerance" might work in a loosely organized empire, where the rulers care mainly about tax and tribute. But secularism is necessary for a nation-state, where there is a requirement that the state protect the civil rights of its citizens. (This argument is made in Michael Walzer's book On Toleration.)