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Secularism Revisited


B.G. Verghese

INDIAN SECULARISM: A SOCIAL AND INTELLECTUAL HISTORY, 1890-1950
By Shabnum Tejani
Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2007, pp. 302, Rs. 695.00

VOLUME XXXII NUMBER 8 August 2008

Secularism and communalism have long been a staple of Indian politics, certainly after Independence, and have been fiercely debated in recent times with the rise of a variety of fundamentalisms and accusations of “minority appeasement”. The content of what was meant by secularism was embodied in the provisions of the Constitution but the term “secular” did not figure until added to the Preamble by a constitutional amendment during the Emergency in 1976. It is now an established part of what are listed as the “basic features” of the Constitution, which are considered sacrosanct and unamendable.   Communalism did not suddenly become an issue in 1947, though Partition gave it a sharper edge with what seemed to be the triumph of the so-called “two-nation theory” that was anathema for the Congress and all Indian nationalists. It is something that has surfaced in the histories of peoples around the world from time to time. But its more contemporary antecedents in India can be traced back to a hundred years before Indian Independence. It is this aspect and phase that Shabnum Tejani unpacks for us with scholarly insights, contextualizing the present in the past.   Though rulers and conquerors of many faiths established kingdoms and empires in India over the centuries, the mass of the people lived together, sharing their joys and sorrows largely unmindful of tensions and rivalries at the top. Muslim invaders from the 11th century onwards settled in the country and were culturally and politically assimilated over time. Urdu, for example, was a fine amalgam of Persian and Braj and, later, Hindustani grew out of cross-fertilization between Hindi and Urdu. The same could be said for architecture, dress, literature, music, cuisine, customs and even popular faith as exemplified by the sufi and bhakti movements. There was much mingling and participation in festivals and ceremonies and inter-faith marriage was not unknown.   This persisted during the early phase of Western intervention as the East India Company’s prime interest was trade. The Great Uprising of 1857 saw Hindus and Muslims rally spontaneously around the decrepit throne of Bahadur Shah Zafar, “their” Emperor in Delhi. But the transition from Commerce to Raj introduced elements of competition among communities who now increasingly jostled for favours, representation and advancement at each stage of political reforms and self-government. A wounded Muslim community hung back, resentful and unable to come to terms with new social, economic and political realities and with the ...


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