Religion and Modernity in India

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Sekhar Bandyopadhyay, Aloka Parasher Sen
  • Oxford, U.K.: 
    Oxford University Press
    , March
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Making no claim for a novel argument, Religion and Modernity in India distinguishes itself from other works in the field by addressing the interface between religion and modernity in India through “specific empirical case studies.” Unmusical about “abstract ethical issues,” it instead studies religion “as a sociological category” focusing on “quotidian social experiences, practices, and political representations.” By incorporating studies of gay, tribal, and female communities (among others), editors Sekhar Bandyopadhyay and Aloka Parasher Sen maintain that the volume ensures “inclusivity.” An important presupposition in this volume is the editors’ contention that the “dualism between religion and modernity” necessitates an interrogation. It is the contention of Religion and Modernity in India that the religious traditions of the subcontinent can no longer be compartmentalized and that they should therefore be analyzed as networks, “each dynamically interacting with the other” (8-10, 17).

The opening chapter by T.K. Oommen, an internationally renowned Indian sociologist, unsettles the received wisdom according to which Indian society and the Indian nation-state are synonymous. In contrast, Oommen suggests that India should be viewed as “a national state which is a conglomeration of several societies that coexist in one sovereign state” (22). He documents a significant chasm between the promises of secularism in India’s Constitution and the practices the state manifests, inter alia, in the denial by the latter of the religious identities of Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs, all of whom are categorized as Hindus in the Hindu Code Bill. Oommen also notes how the pervasive notion that religions of Indian origin are “national,” while religions of non-Indian origin “alien,” “demoralizes and alienates” practitioners of the so-called alien religions (e.g., Christianity and Islam) (30).

In “Possession, Alterity, Modernity”, Aditya Malik begins with an erroneous assumption that modernity “promises us freedom…from religion and its various expressions” (italics original, 39). Attributed to the European enlightenment, this widespread premise is true in relation to neither the German enlightenment nor the French enlightenment, as I have pointed out in my book, Religion As Critique: Islamic Critical Thinking from Mecca to the Marketplace (University of North Carolina Press, 2017, 34-49). Moreover, given that the modernization paradigm of which this premise is an offspring has been rigorously criticized for quite some time, resurrecting such a formulation begs for explanation. By constructing the Hindu self in the frame of non-duality and viewing it as the obverse of the Western notion of self, which is marked by dualism, Malik reinstalls the epistemic dualism that the editors (and also Oommen) aim to transcend. Malik’s conclusion that “to allow possession to represent what it is” “to question the foundation of a modern secular [Indian] state built on the notion of the bounded, separate individual” is questionable for much of Indian state policies, laws, and discourses are already informed by a prior notion of Hindu nation/community with least attention to “separate individuals” (54). In my view, this is true for the Nehruvian secularism as well (see below).

A key element of Nehruvian “secularism,” equally shared by its critics, is the exceptional orthodoxy of Islam and tolerance of Hinduism. In their chapter on Muslim Gujjars, who were traditionally nomadic pastoralists, Alok Kumar Pandey and R. Siva Prasad aptly note how the state policy of development vis-à-vis forested areas—colonial and postcolonial alike—pulverized their modes of living. The rest of the chapter, which outlines the relocation of Gujjars resulting from developmentalism, pays homage to Orientalism by concluding that they “lead an Islamic way of life amidst conflict and solidifying religious fundamentalism” (128). Wearing of skullcaps is furnished as evidence of “fundamentalism.” Pandey and Prasad discuss this fundamentalism with no reference to Hindutva mobilization and Hindu fundamentalism, either among the forest department officials or Indian society writ large. This isolationist analysis betrays the editorial promise of dynamic interaction among traditions.

Examining the contemporary view that Islam is more hostile to different erotic tastes, Pushpesh Kumar discusses practices of same-sex love in three metropolitan cities. Seduced by presentism, Kumar does not ask why in the early twentieth century writers-politicians such as Bechan Sharma Ugr (Chocolate and Other Writings on Male Homoeroticism, Duke University Press, 2009) upheld an opposite view, according to which Muslims introduced homoeroticism to India. Why have these contradictory discourses of Muslims as simultaneously affable and hostile to homoeroticism existed over the longue durée?   

 Without highlighting comparable points from each chapter, let me come to the volume’s core premise. The blurb for Religion and Modernity in India describes modernity as the “relegation of religion firmly to an individual’s private life” in order to examine its difficulty in India. Secularism thus becomes its key analytical grid. Numerous works have shown the fallacy of this reading of modernity in the West itself. As for India, I do not see any relegation of religion into the private realm, empirically or institutionally. On the contrary, the majority Hindu religion has been central to state policies ever since the transfer of power by the British. The so-called Nehruvian era was no exception. If the 1948 takeover of Hyderabad was achieved by killing 50,000-200,000 Indians, in October 1947, 200,000 Muslims were massacred in Jammu.

More importantly, whereas Religion and Modernity in India examines secularism as a constituent of modernity, the examination of democracy as a co-constituent of modernity remains un-thought in the same way that “pseudo-secularism” as a term exists in the Indian vocabulary, but its logical correlate “pseudo-democracy” does not. This is so because Hindu intelligentsia and politicians (including Gandhi) from the second decade of the twentieth century concluded that democracy was wonderful because it ensured Hindu domination through majority rule. This is why barely anyone cites the description of the British Parliament as “prostitute” by Gandhi in Hind Swaraj (1908). As such, the issue of an interface between religion and politics is of a tactical than ideological nature, because the rule of the majority can degrade and elevate whatever it (dis)likes, including the undoing of democracy itself. To conclude, if “inclusivity” is not simply the placement of various social groups within an existing hegemonic framework, but the foregrounding of a multiplicity of frameworks that constitute India, then, Bandyopadhyay and Sen may plan another volume.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Irfan Ahmad is senior research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Göttingen, Germany.

Date of Review: 
September 14, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sekhar Bandyopadhyay is professor of Asian history and director at the New Zealand India Research Institute at Victoria University of Wellington.

Aloka Parasher Sen is professor of history and director of international affairs at the University of Hyderabad.


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