Why secularism isn’t happening in India: An alternative perspective

Fernande-smallFernande Pool presents findings from her fieldwork that suggests Bengali Muslims place the failure of secularism within the broader experiences of public life and through her research combats a series of misunderstood arguments about secularism and India.


‘Secularism isn’t happening’, sighed a Bengali Muslim man, dressed in meticulous white Islamic dress, with a wild beard and an Islamic cap. With these words he encapsulated what so many rural Muslims in West Bengal conveyed to me over two years of field research. Their political, social and economic marginalisation demonstrates that secularism isn’t working properly in India. Whenever I asked why secularism isn’t happening, they’d answer that the problem is a lack of dharma (usually translated as religion) in both private and public life.

A lack of religion as the cause of a lack of ‘proper’ secularism will sound contradictory to those assuming secularism denotes a proper separation of religiously neutral, public politics versus politically neutral, private religion. Yet this view places religion and secularism into a binary relationship with each other, despite the scholarly efforts to demonstrate that this binary is the result of a particular Christian cultural-historical trajectory.[1] The religion/secular binary is subsequently reflected in a series of related modern binaries, such as religion/politics; private/public, which are primarily ideological rather than having a basis in lived experience.[2] The lived experience of Bengali Muslims revolves around dharma, a vernacular category that pushes through a religious/secular binary. My ethnographic exploration of Bengali Muslims’ understanding of dharma therefore provokes an alternative way of thinking about the relationship between religion, secularism and politics.

My Muslim interlocutors consider Islam a dharma. Dharma is not best translated to religion because religion tends to denote a particular domain in life that does not fit the holistic lived experience of most Indian people. It is therefore better understood as an all-encompassing, holistic ethics – an embodied ethical potential as well as a macrocosmic ideal, including both local ideas of sociality as well as the Islamic normativity. The observation that dharma is an embodied ethical potential, rather than a set of rules external to a person, is important because it means that dharma is a visceral, integral part of the person: dharma is what allows any human being to act morally. Muslims have an Islamic dharma, and others are expected to have their own dharma with similar ethical potential.

In Western ideology it is commonly thought that the biological human precedes the socialised moral person. But in the local ideology of Bengali Muslims, there is no distinction between the human and the person.[3] Instead, the ‘human person’ (manush) is generated from within moral exchange relationships, first with Allah, and thereafter with other people: within the Muslim community, between Muslim and other communities, and between citizens and the state. There is no human being before the social-moral person with embodied ethical potential. It is thus inconceivable to think of any human person or human sphere without dharma.

The example of the Islamic dharma demonstrates the irreducibility of dharma to religion. In theory, this irreducibility is encapsulated in the intention of ‘Nehruvian’ secularism (sarvadharma samabhav) as the fostering of harmonious religious plurality by ensuring equality of all religions before the law.[4] This intention is echoed in the vernacular Bengali term dharmaniropekkota, which my interlocutors consider to mean the equal inclusion of all religions. All Muslims in West Bengal I spoke to, understand and support Nehruvian secularism. Secularity, in this sense, is not so much an ideological separation of spheres, but an ethical disposition, as it denotes the value of equality of all Indian citizens irrespective of religious affiliation or identity. Then, why are my Muslim interlocutors still experiencing the secularism is not happening?

My field research suggests that Bengali Muslims place the particular failure of secularism (the particular marginalisation of Muslims) within the broader experience that public life and political practice is deeply unethical, due to everyday experiences of corruption and various forms of structural inequality. The problem, they feel, is that Indian politics operate with a religious/politics binary, which reduces the political sphere to a morally empty sphere. They explain corrupt politics with reference to the ideological containment of dharma set apart from politics; and their marginalization with reference to dharma set apart from secular politics in particular.

Because for Bengali Muslims the Islamic dharma is the ground for their ethical personhood, it is impossible to avoid carrying their dharma across artificial boundaries set by modern categories such as religion and politics, unless one is to be amoral (and thus barely human) in the designated nonreligious spheres. As one of my interlocutors put it, ‘politics is taking care of people, isn’t it? And that is dharma’. From this perspective, if politics is to be ethical, it has to be rooted in dharma, and as such, perhaps paradoxically to Western ears, dharma is actually the source of the secular.

Given the observation that a religiously neutral political sphere is problematic, it might be considered that Islam is indeed incompatible with secularism. However, firstly, this would be to misunderstand the critique of my interlocutors. They specifically do not blame the pervasive immorality in public life on Nehruvian secularism. However, the everyday experience of Muslims in West Bengal is that secularity, as an ethical disposition, is absent: they are facing inequalities on the basis of their Muslim identity. The problem is the poor implementation of Nehruvian secularism due to an absence of ethics.

Secondly, it is to misunderstand the nature of dharma in relation to Islam. In the view of my Muslim interlocutors, every person has dharma (otherwise one would not be human). The dharma of Muslims has an Islamic character, but can incorporate other ethical dispositions and values, such as secular liberal values, though complex processes of vernacularisation. So when they say that politics needs to be informed by dharma, they do not mean that politics would have to be Islamic. It just means that politics should be ethical. In turn, whereas the secular ideology could be incorporated into the larger ethical framework of dharma, dharma cannot be limited to the category religion, lest other spheres of life are left devoid of ethics. Bengali Muslims indeed experience an ethical void in public life, which is why, in their view, ‘secularism isn’t happening’.


[1] Asad, T. (2003). Formations of the secular: Christianity, Islam, modernity. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

[2] See e.g. Hansen, T. B. (2000). Predicaments of secularism: Muslim identities and politics in Mumbai. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 6(2), 255-272.

[3] See e.g. Bear, L. (2007). Lines of the nation: Indian Railway workers, bureaucracy, and the intimate historical self. New York: Columbia University Press; Inden, R. B., & Nicholas, R. W. (1977). Kinship in Bengali culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[4] Bhargava, R. (2010). The promise of India’s secular democracy. Delhi: Oxford University Press.


Fernande first completed a BA in Cultural Studies and a BA in Spanish language and literature at the Universiteit van Amsterdam, before proceeding with the MSc in Social Anthropology at the London School of Economics and Political Sciences (LSE). She has recently submitted her PhD thesis to the Anthropology Department at the LSE, with the title The ethical life of Muslims in secular India: Islamic reformism in West Bengal. The thesis seeks to explore the nature of ethical life of a marginalised minority. It focuses in particular on the everyday experiences and vernacular conceptualisations of secularism, and their relationship to the contemporary transformations in Islamic belief and practice. For more information, visit her Academica.edu page.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s