The songlines of secularism

In his wonderful novel of aboriginal Australia called The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin talks of how aborigines have a creation myth where each ancestor invents a species by naming it. The ancestor becomes its trustee and sings of its trajectories across Australia. Each ancestor sings of his particular totem scattering a trail of words and notes all over Australia. The whole country becomes a musical score where musical tracts serve as ways of communication between far-flung tribes. The density of song is such that there is hardly a rock, a creek, a tree which has not been sung about.

Different shades

I was reminded of The Songlines when I read and reread the responses to my article in The Hindu, “ >How Modi defeated liberals like me” (May 22, 2014). I saw shades of a different kind of secularism. It was not official but tacit and like the songlines, each secularist sang his own sense of the secular through autobiographies. I remember Lakshmi Subramaniam’s letter about her grandfather, a practising Hindu who had a copy of the Bible in his puja room anointed with a sandalwood tikka and kept with reverence and respect. I recollect a scientist writing to me saying that for him secularism was a form of individual heroism that he would adhere to despite the communal society around him. Another American scholar chided me for being too obsessed with the electoral and the populist claiming that the roots of a moral, vital secularism have to be sought in history.

This idea of The Songlines of the secular fascinated me and I sensed the contrast between this deeply felt pluralistic secularism with that official secularism our intellectuals and the Constitution seek to encourage. I was struck by the difference between the elite group converting secularism into a modernist form of snobbery, a club etiquette verging on political correctness and the affable secularism at the folk level. One sought to keep religion and the rest of life separate; the rest treated it as an affable mix. Yet, I sensed a paradox. The affable secularism seemed a private affair, an autobiographical fragment while the official secularism dominated our public spaces. It is as if the officially secular lacked roots in the same metaphors of creativity. The officially secular projected a sense of intolerance about society in Gujarat. It showed no sense of dialogue, confusing Hinduism with Hindutva. On the other hand, our tacit secularism created private doubt but did not enter the public space. Official secularism met Hindu majoritarianism in Gujarat and was defeated partly because of the failure of imagination. My essay was about this problematic group and their inability to provide a creative critique of Mr. Modi or even be a form of resistance to him.

Language and secularism

Critics like Hasan Suroor ask me not to rubbish secularism but to debate it. Mr. Suroor creates a misreading of the essay. He claims I reduce secularism to an English language patent. I merely said that English language intellectuals had reduced it to snobbery. This does not mean that secularism is an alien creation but it did not dialogue or translate local ideas of tolerance, plurality, syncretism. One is aware that secularism has cultural variants but to say that language has little or nothing to do with it is false. Language articulated the secular vision and in fact needs dialects of secularism providing it with a plurality rather than purity. I agree that secularism is not alien but an unimaginative secularism can be alienating. To say that secularism in India was always in touch with religion is a lazy man’s argument. One has to see what the encounters between religion and secularism lead to.

Two examples related to medicine come to mind. The anthropologist, Charles Leslie cites A.L. Basham to argue that men of medicine from different religious systems debated both their theology and their therapeutics. Another example comes from the philosopher of science, Ziauddin Sardar, a British citizen who argued that as a citizen he had the right of access to the National Health Service. He then added that as a Muslim he also has the right to his own idea of the body, to pain and healing, to his own rituals of dying. One needs a stage of more pluralistic encounters where the cultural idioms of secularism reassert themselves. Unfortunately, critics hint at but do not capture the processes which make these possible.

One can sense this by contrasting one of my heroes, Saadat Hasan Manto, with the debate on the scientific temper. Manto sees the cultural power and creativity of Bombay Talkies as a reply to Partition. It is in the cinema that one sees Urdu and Hindi mix; Islam, Hinduism and Christianity coexist. Religious dialogue in fact creates both the syncretism and the secularism of Bombay Talkies.

Think of diversity

Contrast this with the manifesto of the scientific temper which sees religion as superstitious and contaminating. Science is almost seen like a vaccine which one injects into a people to grant them immunity against superstition. There is an illiteracy to science here. It never understood the creativity of the scientist, Jagadish Chandra Bose, who borrowed ideas from the Shakta tradition or Ramanujan, who claimed that the Goddess of Namakkal came to him in a dream and rolled out her tongue and on it was written a theorem.

What I am arguing for is a more vigorous idea of secularism. To criticise the secularist is not to rubbish the idea of secularism but to challenge him to create a more imaginative framework for dialogue. This the secularists have not done. I want to add here that a secularism as a purist form of heroism is admirable but inadequate. What it needs is not a Samurai-like adherence but a ninja’s inventiveness which creates more possibilities. Think of diversity. The 50,000 varieties of rice cannot be preserved merely by in situ scientific techniques. Mere science cannot save them but a science combined with myth, song, religion, festival, language can protect our diversity. In fact our ecology is an attempt to dialogue between religion and science saving us from both the fundamentalisms. It was in this context that I was speaking of the intolerance of some forms of secularism.

Let me complete the story I began with. The carnage of Gujarat is almost forgotten in its details. I am talking not of an individual but of a society’s responsibility for it. The violence was ghastly but what was even more disturbing was the aftermath. We sought to justify the violence and normalise it. When activists objected, people raised the issue of the Delhi riots or the fate of the Kashmiri Pandits. One action does not justify the other. We are morally and politically responsible for all these events and each diminishes our humanity. The same happened in Muzaffarnagar where inanity and piety still fight against each other. The question is this: Is this a debate between secularists and majoritarian forces or is it becoming a battle between two parochialisms which do not open out to the cultural imagination? I still remember a Muslim survivor who told me that filing an FIR was not just an act of faith but a renewal of her belief in citizenship. I want a secularism that is not defenceless in these moments. To say that India has more places of worship than worshippers does not redeem its secularism. Secularism as an ideology was always intolerant. The fact that our culture inevitably weakens it or blends it says something about the strength of our culture, not about secularism.

For a tolerance of conversation

There are domains, ecologies, where our science, state, our activists are less tolerant. I was thinking of one of the heroic figures of Indian science, Sir Sahib Singh Sokhey who was the head of the Haffkine Institute. Sokhey, a brilliant scientist and a legend immortalised in novels, was reading the work of Erwin Schrödinger, the classic, What Is Life? There is a section where Schrödinger says that some notions of biology echo Hindu ideas of life. Sokhey flung the book across the room in sheer rage dismissing the book as nonsense. It is precisely this kind of modernism that becomes intolerant of conversation. I admire the heroism of many of the secularists who claimed they would go on fighting despite my critique of them. I envy their purism but I wish they would add a bit of dialogue or their grandmother’s view to their own view of the world. We still have not exorcised the memory of Partition or understood its ironies. All I am asking for is a world view that can do that; which does not fragment our world view or our ways of life.

My essay needs one final caveat. Michael Polanyi, the Hungarian philosopher of science, warned that science cannot be understood in terms of its formal principles of method alone. Science, said Polanyi, has to be understood also as tacit knowledge. It refers to the taken for granted, the implicit, the skills ingrained in body language which the scientist may be formally unaware of. I guess one needs a tacit idea of secularism beyond purist formal statements. One needs to show that the tacit language of secularism, and its cultural echoes need to be articulated as deeply as its formal principles. In that sense what we need to do is go beyond definitions which become doctrinal tenets and look for acts of translation which make secularism more of a homecoming, more liveable in a multicultural society like India. The debate generated by the article I believe has been an exemplar of that. As a participant, I am both humbled and yet deeply excited to engage in it. This essay is a small acknowledgement to the argumentative and thoughtful Indian.

(Shiv Visvanathan is a professor at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy.)

This article has been corrected for a typographical error.

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 7:52:47 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/the-songlines-of-secularism/article6148767.ece

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