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HVK Archives: Modernity & Morality; and comment

Modernity & Morality; and comment - The Times of India

Andre Beteille ()
October 29, 1998

Title: Modernity & Morality; and comment
Author: Andre Beteille
Publication: The Times of India
Date: October 29, 1998

Indians who have set their hearts and minds against secularism
will not fail to take note of the adoption of the Shariat Bill
by the National Assembly of Pakistan. Some of them may envy the
direct and forthright manner in which Prime Minister Nawaz
Sharif has sought to replace secular by religious principles in
governance. Support for such a measure is easier to secure in
Pakistan than in India, for in these matters both history and
demography give a clear advantage to our neighbours over us. It
will require less exertion to base the constitution of Pakistan
on the sharia than to base the Indian Constitution on the
dharmashastra. But should we regard this as a matter for regret
and set Pakistan up as the guide to our future?

Fragile Secularism

India is larger and socially more diverse than Pakistan, and it
has gone further along the road to modernity. Turning back will
be much more difficult for India than for Pakistan. Our secular
legal and constitutional order has not done all the work it was
expected to. But undoing the work that has already been done
will exact incalculable social and political costs.

We should not underestimate the hostility to secularism in
India, and the many sources from which it draws its sustenance.
There is antipathy to secular ways of life and to secular
principles of governance, but the two kinds of antipathy do not
necessarily spring from the same source. Much of the hostility
to secularism is derived from our lack of ease with modernity
and the modern world which is dominated economically,
politically and culturally by the West. It is understandable
that secularism should be viewed with mistrust by the Indian
masses who have made very little progress along the path of
modernisation. But it has also come under attack from persons
whose hostility few had the foresight to anticipate:
cosmopolitan and well-travelled intellectuals who have tasted of
the bitter fruit of what they call ost-Enlightenment

The secularisation that is characteristic of our times is a
diffuse and pervasive process whose consequences are always far-
reaching though often unanticipated. It is not necessarily
destructive of religion in the true sense of the term, although
it is easy to represent it as such. What it does is to bring
about a change in the place of religion in the social order,
particularly in the public domain. The post-modernist opponents
of secularism argue on the other hand that there can be only a
religious morality and no secular morality, and that
secularisation is destructive of both religion and morality.

Poor Performance

What needs to be stressed is that the opposition to secularism
does not arise solely from feelings of religious piety. Some of
the leading intellectual opponents of secularism are in their
own lives remarkably free from any kind of religious
encumbrance. Their opposition has less to do with religion than
with politics and culture. At the same time, their arguments
serve to fuel the passions of those who adhere to established
religious beliefs and practices. In a country like India - or
Pakistan - it does not take much to convince the masses of
impoverished, undernourished and uneducated people that whatever
is modern or of western provenance is godless, immoral and
socially disruptive.

What appears as disingenuous in the intellectual stance
described above is not so much the critique of secularism as the
promise of an alternative social order packaged along with the
critique. Over the last 50 years, there has been growing
disenchantment, particularly among the intelligentsia, over the
poor performance of our secular Constitution, our secular legal
system and our secular public institutions. None can deny the
yawning gap here between expectation and attainment. But to be
disenchanted with all of this is one thing and to put the
responsibility for communalism, casteism and social violence on
the advance of secular ideas and institutions is quite another.
If we have failed to keep religion and politics apart, surely
this has happened despite our secular Constitution and not
because of it.

Disenchantment with the present should not lead to the
construction of an imaginary past and a programme for the future
modelled on that past. It is increasingly argued that our
present form of secularism, based on western ideas of modernity
and progress, is a sham, and that true secularism, based on the
tolerance of diversity, is what prevailed in our own society
before modernisation began its disruptive work. The latter is at
best a half-truth. The tolerance of the past included the
tolerance of a great deal that ought not to be tolerated in a
democratic society based on the rule of law: the indignity,
oppression and violence inflicted on women, Harijans, Adivasis
and many others. The challenge before secularism today is to
create tolerance among communities on the basis of equality and
not on the basis of hierarchy as in the old social order.

Communal Riots

There is no denying the violence and disorder associated with
our modern secular legal and political order. Communal riots and
caste pogroms have become the staple of the print as well as the
electronic media. The forms of violence have changed with
changes in the technology of violence. But we should not delude
ourselves into the belief that there was little or no violence
in pre-modern India. Violence inevitably takes a different form
in a democratic as against a hierarchical society. We will never
be able to reckon the scope and extent of the violence inflicted
on disadvantaged members of society and tolerated by them in
their everyday life in the past.

Mr Nawaz Sharif has said that laws based on the sharia will act
as a bulwark against terrorism, gangrape and other forms of
social and political disorder. He has also said that those laws
will give the fullest protection to women and to the minorities.
Anti-secularist intellectuals will decide for themselves what
they will make of such declarations. The rest of us can only
hope that it will not be argued in our Parliament that recasting
the Constitution of India along the lines of the dharmashastra
will ensure a better future for women, Harijans and Adivasis.


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