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An Ideology Under Siege


Krishna Swamy Dara

THE PROMISE OF INDIA'S SECULAR DEMOCRACY
Edited by Rajeev Bhargava
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2010, pp. 346, Rs. 750.00

VOLUME XXXIV NUMBER 9 September 2010

Democracy and its accompanying value of secularism has been a target of heavy criticism for both academic and non-academic sections of India. Along with their practice, the very ideals are now questioned as undesirable and deeply flawed. Scholars like Ashis Nandy, T.N. Madan and Partha Chatterjee have come with some intuitive and well informed criticism of the idea of secularism. Put simply, they argue that the idea of separating religion from politics has a western, modernist origin and has been forcibly introduced by the western educated Indian elite like Nehru and Ambedkar. They accuse these elite of having a negative understanding of religion. Therefore, secularism as an idea has an inherent, invisible and negative bias towards religion, which is bound to fail in an essentially religious society like India. In a similar vein, liberal democracy and its institutions have been attacked, largely by the leftists, in intellectual circles across India. The author has in mind scholars like Sunil Khilnani and Sudipta Kaviraj. They argue that liberalism and its institutions in India, in Bhargava’s words, ‘came along with British ruling elite, rubbed off on to the skin of Indian imitators who came into contact with it, but shed soon after because it remained skin deep’. The author reacts to this kind of criticism in this volume of essays written over a period of two decades. He aims to defend the ideas of secularism and liberal democracy against the above criticism, while showing the inextricable link between the two. The author employs his analytical skills and learning for this purpose. Bringing some clarity and consistency into the debates over these issues is his motto. He also manages to achieve this in these essays but nevertheless, one gets a feeling that he becomes a bit pedantic when he is shredding his opponents’ arguments. Bhargava also touches upon philosophical issues that are at the heart of some of these debates. An example of this would be the debate between ‘Holism’ and various forms of Individualism like ‘Ontological Individualism’ and ‘Value Individualism’, which he introduces in the essay titled, ‘Muslim Personal Law and the Majority-Minority Syndrome’. Holism, in this context, is the view that groups matter more than the individuals who constitute those groups. Individualism is its opposite, which argues that only individuals matter. Society is nothing more than a collection of individuals. The author introduces this debate in order to explicate the ...


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