CEE General Seminar of the 20th of April 2021 with Cécile Labord (Sciences Po CEE, France)

In Europe and North America, secularism is understood as a principle of separation between the state and religions. This definition, however, does not fully capture the constitutional and political logic at work in many non-Western secular states. In India, the state actively intervenes in the religious sphere and officially recognizes religious groups. Do these interventionist tendencies condemn India to being an imperfectly secular state, as Donald Smith judged in India as a Secular State?

In this lecture, the author shows that Indian secularism cannot be measured by a simple principle of separation. Indian secularism aspires to broader progressive ideals: personal freedom (for women and Dalits) and equal status (for religious minorities). It is compatible, in principle, with targeted state intervention in the religious sphere in the name of these ideals. Understanding this secularism is useful both from a comparative political theory perspective (global secularism) and to grasp the profound originality of Indian constitutionalism.

But it also sheds light on crucial contemporary issues, around the deployment of the rhetoric of secularism by the Hindu nationalists in power. It is because the BJP adheres to a separationist rather than a progressive vision that it succeeds in presenting its nationalist ideology as the restoration of genuine secularism. This is what the author intends to demonstrate by analyzing the Hindu nationalist discourse on minority rights, women’s rights, and its defense of Hinduism as a culture rather than a religion.

Listen to the podcast here.