Secularism redux

I haven’t been in the zone to blog for a while, but until that mindset returns, here is an essay I wrote for my course this past term.

A Comparison of Secular Aspirations across India, Pakistan and Bangladesh

Contemplations on secularism in South Asia, from academia to street corners, have alighted on similar questions about how transferable the ‘western’ concept of secularism is to the post-colony; what the role of the state should be in relation to secular policy; and on an elemental level, what the nature is of the triangular relationship between South Asian societies, modernity, and secularism. As secular ideals have come under attack and religious fundamentalisms have gained ground, cynicism has crept into these analyses, and many have concluded that secularism as it was formulated and promulgated through the subcontinent was a hopeless project, doomed by its alien and uncompromisingly modernist roots. The root problem for many with secularism, then, is that it is apparently un-South Asian, and perhaps even anti-South Asian. I strongly disagree. By plumbing the depths of diverse histories– intellectual, political, social, and spiritual– of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, one can uncover a uniquely “South Asian” genealogy of secularism. Moreover, this genealogy is constructed via such a diverse set of philosophies, theologies, and practices that it becomes difficult to dismiss secularism on the uni-dimensional bases that many have done.

I will first lay out a general framework of secularism. Then, to sketch the terms of the debate on secularism in South Asia, I will cite the Indian case, as the questions raised for India open avenues for general exploration. Subsequently, I will include and argue for the importance of Pakistan and Bangladesh in crafting a genealogy of South Asian secularism, and finally return to a specific Indian case-study to re-apply new understandings drawn from this analysis. I have highlighted a mixture of inputs into this genealogy, including intellectuals’ contributions, popular politics, and the role of the state and the law. My hope in including a broad range of examples is to show how considering multiple sites of negotiation with secularism as an idea and ideal across the subcontinent enriches a genealogy of the concept.


Defining Secularism

The most simplistic definition of secularism is a separation of religion from the state, but many take issue with this formulation. Two eminent scholars investigating the meaning of secularism and the relationship of the secular to the polity are Charles Taylor and Talal Asad. They offer more nuanced models of secularism, with a particular focus on its relationship with cultural and religious diversity in the modern era.

Taylor makes it clear that there are multiple meanings of secularism as an ideology of the state.[1] He calls one model the ‘common ground’ approach; here, the secular state does not attempt to exclude religion from the public domain but rather maintains an ‘equidistant’ and even-handed stance towards all religious faiths.[2] However, he notes that as societies become more diverse, the ability of the state to be an ostensibly impartial mediator of religion in the public sphere suffers.[3] Moreover, he notes, functional democratic states require citizen-subjects to identify with the state-promoted identity and common values, and in an ideal situation this means that all alternative allegiances take a back seat.[4] Taylor arrives at what he believes is the most workable model of secularism, the ‘overlapping consensus,’ borrowing the term from John Rawls. He describes this model: ‘The formula means that we converge on some political principles, but not on our background reasons for endorsing these. . . Let people subscribe for whatever reasons they find compelling, only let them subscribe.’[5] Taylor’s model is helpful for its emphasis on citizens’ engagement with each other’s values and debating to reach consensus, but it takes for granted that the state is insulated from religion. Namely, in the ‘overlapping consensus’ there remains an assumption that the values a state promotes meets the citizens’ religious values in the middle rather than emerging from an ongoing, subterranean dialogue with religion itself. This is where Talal Asad’s work becomes of great relevance.

Asad is concerned with the roots of secularism as a state project and with undermining the frameworks of ‘separation of state and religion’ and ‘public vs. private spheres.’ He stresses that both religion and the secular are ‘historically constituted. . . and in modern society the law is crucially involved in defining and defending the distinctiveness of social spaces– especially the legitimate space for religion.’[6] Citing American and French examples, he points out that through engagement with issues of religious freedom in the public sphere, states are continually imbricated with religion and are re-molding the definitions of religion itself. He points out, ‘A state that maintains the basic conditions for the practice of religion in society is itself religious.’[7] However, this does not mean that he dismisses the idea of a secular state; rather, Asad promotes a view of the secular that rejects its own claims of separateness and irreligiosity, as it were.[8] Furthermore, he re-inserts the state as a partial actor in the ‘overlapping consensus’ model, again using France as an example. Discussing the debates over the wearing of Muslim headscarves in public institutions, Asad notes that secularism is also a matter of ‘social cohesion (or integration) within the body politic. . . it is a way of trying to secure the power of a particular kind of state, by pronouncing the illegitimacy of certain kinds of citizen-subject who are thought to be incompatible with it because they do not share fundamental national values’[9]—national values, as Taylor seems to neglect in the ‘overlapping consensus’ model, that are formed and reformed through an engagement with the religions of citizens. As Ayse Polat notes in relation to this point, Asad is also interested in the religion and the secular’s relationship to modernity and how the terms of modern-living are articulated and required of citizen-subjects, some of whom are designated as non-modern by default.[10]

These two scholarly contributions are both resonant and illuminating for South Asian debates on secularism, which engage, often forcefully, with questions of modernity, diversity, consensus, and the role and nature of the state in society. Secularism and the idea of a secular state has been a matter of disagreement and controversy throughout South Asian history, particularly after Independence and perhaps nowhere more vehemently than in India.

Indian Secularism: Disagreement and Controversy

The easiest place to begin when discussing Indian secularism is at the problematic of modernity. While Talal Asad grants the multifarious and disjointed nature of modernity and its constituents, he remains concerned that visions of modernity propagated in non-Western, especially postcolonial, societies, and particularly by self-declared secularist elites, are totalizing projects. As a result, he is struck by how often contested issues, practices and institutions are engulfed by a broader, and often oversimplified, debate over modern vs. unmodern.[11] In the wake of rising Hindutva, certain critiques of the secularism of the Indian state fell squarely into this discourse. One of the most well known diatribes against Nehruvian secularism is Ashish Nandy’s ‘An Anti-Secularist Manifesto.’ Nandy is harshly critical of the Nehruvian secularist project and dismisses it as borrowed from western modernity, with its faith in science, rationality, modern statecraft, and its hope to relegate religion to the private sphere. He condemns the so-called westernized elite for their secularist faith, which in practice amounts to contempt for the majority of the citizenry for whom Nehruvian secularism has little attraction.[12] For Nandy, true Indian secularism is a Gandhian concept, which is not grounded in a rejection of religion or in its spherization. Instead, this secularism comprises anti-modern practices of folk tradition deeply grounded in religion and evolving accommodations of religious difference, leading to ‘tolerance.’[13] Nandy’s approach, therefore, attempts to write a genealogy of Indian secularism that is rooted entirely in indigenous, pre-modern ideals of coexistence, thereby dismissing the Nehruvian model as a project of a distorted westernized modernity.

Such a view is problematic not least because it neglects the ways, as amply noted by Asad, secular states are rarely truly divorced from religious life. Even the Nehruvian state, under the guise of a secularizing project, engaged in a reform of Hindu Personal Law; in that case the state did not banish religion from the public sphere so much as reorient it, since one cannot deny that matters of marriage and inheritance, and their inherent relationship to property ownership, are public matters.[14] Moreover, as William Gould has noted, Nehruvian concepts of science and economic rationality were even employed in the service of the (brahminical) Hindu fixation on cow protection.[15]

The philosopher Akeel Bilgrami criticizes Nandy’s position, cautioning against a wholesale condemnation of modernity and a consequent romanticization of pre-modern faith traditions that facilitated coexistence. Bilgrami has a more interesting critique to posit of Nehruvian secularism, which aligns with Charles Taylor’s positions. For Bilgrami, the issue with Nehruvian secularism was not that it was a somehow foreign and modernist vision, but that it was not entrenched through a process of political engagement and debate—‘it was not a doctrine that was an outcome of a negotiation between different communities.’[16] In other words, the problem with secularism is not that it is ‘westernized’ or too modern for the Indian folk but that it was not the outcome of a broad consensus and critical engagement that could very well have accepted ‘western values.’ William Gould notes that, in regions like Uttar Pradesh, this lack of clarity and commitment to debate meant that in practice ‘secularism’ encompassed all manner of political practices, some of which were obviously tied to religious community.[17]

Analyzing the Indian case in light of the broader philosophical debates explained above, therefore, provides us with a series of compelling questions: To what extent is secularism modern or foreign? Is the secular state removed from religion or intimately connected? What does secularism look like without the state? Is secularism simply synonymous with terms like tolerance, indifference, and co-existence or does it both encompass and contradict them? None of these questions can be answered in a single essay. However, expanding the remit to Bangladesh and Pakistan allows for a nuanced engagement that moves beyond the underlying preoccupation of communal violence of those writing about secularism in the Indian context.[18]

Beginning with Bangladesh

Like India, Bangladesh was founded as a secular state, and it has maintained a wavering commitment to secularism through decades of democracy and military rule. Bangladesh’s complex history as former East Pakistan, and the heterogeneous mix of ideologies that permeated society during the long quest for self-determination, have complexified its relationship to secularism and yielded insights into the divergent paths the secular project may take depending on who directs it.

In the constitution, secularism emerged as one of the four defining principles of the Bangladeshi state. However, unlike India, where even secularism’s strongest proponents saw its importance as somewhat distant from citizens’ general concerns, in Bangladesh the Law Minister was quoted as saying that secularism was a principle ‘on which the people had given a clear mandate.’[19] Given the nature of the Bangladeshi struggle for independence, and the people’s antipathy towards the Muslim nationalism the Pakistani state had used to repress their aspirations, this claim rings true. Nevertheless, it is important to note Samia Huq’s point that ‘secularism’ as a constitutional principle was an expression of hope that with the proper statecraft, a process of secularization would be initiated amongst the populace.[20] Here we have an odd circular tension at the national origin—the people are supposedly giving a popular mandate to the state to help them achieve a way of being in the world that they have chosen, but a way of being that is best understood and cultivated by the state and not the people who have chosen it. Despite idealistic beginnings, Bangladesh slid into periods of authoritarianism and deviated from its early commitment to secularism. In 1977, military general Zia ur Rehman replaced secularism in the Preamble with ‘absolute faith and trust in Almighty Allah’; in a more significant blow, the next military ruler HM Ershad amended the Constitution to include an article declaring Islam to be the state religion.[21] Though these developments damaged Bangladesh’s secular credentials, after the return to democracy Awami League governments have made reviving secularism a point of policy.[22]

Commitment to an ideal in rhetorical terms, though, provides little understanding of the meaning of Bangladeshi secularism. While Samia Huq notes that the impression given by the constitution, with its liberal guarantees of freedom of religion, speech, and thought, was that the state would remain neutral towards all religions, there was an assumption that religion should be a matter of the private sphere.[23] As both Taylor and Asad have noted, this situation of privatization rarely comes to pass organically. For example, the Awami League’s drive to restore secularism has resulted in violent policing of Islamic practices such as urs celebrations in the public sphere.[24] Moreover, the courts have become embroiled in cases brought under the Bangladesh Penal Code, (e.g. 295A) that are used by the religious right to harass intellectuals under the excuse they have insulted the religious sentiments of citizens with ‘malicious intention.’[25]

Even in quotidian matters, the state undermined its stance on the separation of religion from the public sphere; in the 1970s, television broadcasts began with ‘recitations from the Quran, Geeta, Bible and Tripitaka,’[26] and state celebrations of Bengali culture emphasized the religiously diverse roots of Bengaliness.[27] Therefore, the nature of state secularism in Bangladesh is more complex than its rhetoric might suggest—the state has been constantly involved in policing and re-imagining the boundaries of religiosity, but not always in the direction of conventionally defined secularization or strict neutrality.

If the endpoint of religion’s travels from the public to the private is its eventual irrelevance to citizens, one is left with a picture of secular society that is rarely found in the real world.[28] Moreover, without religion, one is left with an impoverished notion of what secularism could entail. In the Bangladeshi context, allowing for a non-adversarial relationship between religion and the secular illuminates more complex genealogies of secularism. To do this one must move beyond state policy, which has historically reified this antagonism. Instead, what is needed is a consideration of the secular self as imagined by those more distant from the state, though admittedly not divorced from it by any means. Two important figures, Abul Hashim and Maulana Bhashani, engaged with questions of the secular-religious self deeply, and their explorations are focused on below.

Abul Hashim headed the Islamic Academy in East Pakistan under the dictatorship of Ayub Khan, implicating him in a state-led project of modernization of which re-interpreting Islam for contemporary times was a component. However, as Samia Huq notes, Abul Hashim was openly critical of the regime even as he occupied its institutions.[29] Moreover, his theological project delved much deeper into the search for Muslim selfhood than the imperatives of a military regime searching out a hegemonic national culture would have required. One of Abul Hashim’s central theses was Rabaniyat, a declaration that man’s purpose on earth was to ‘oversee the sustenance and evolution of creation,’ after Allah’s most important attribute, Rab (creator, evolver).[30] One’s successful emulation of Rabaniyat had very little to do with matters of orthodoxy or orthopraxy, instead hinging entirely on one’s service to humanity. In Rabaniyat, shirk (the highest form of disbelief, equating others with god) was not the Christian trinity or Hindu idol worship but a trinity of worldly evils– desire for power, wealth, and lust.[31] Therefore, Abul Hashim’s interpretation of an ideal religious self was quite compatible with a modern, secular self, and leapt over the requirement that the religious be private– the proper religious subject did not have to tolerate difference in public because it was simply not a concern, and a society made up of such citizen-subjects would necessarily be as disinterested. It is unclear what one would call ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ here, much less what is ‘foreign’ in a philosophy like Abul Hashim’s, which is grounded in a modernist tradition of Islamic reformism dating back to the 19th century, and also touched with socialism and such modern ideas as a Bengali ‘national culture.’[32]

Abul Hashim provided a vision of the self that is both religious and secular. Maulana Bhashani exhorted his countrymen towards politicized ideals through ideologies that combined the religious and the secular. Bhashani was an extremely important figure to the Pakistan movement, the struggle for Bangladeshi independence, the Left, and labour movements. At the same time, as the honorific Maulana suggests, he was a pious, public and popular man of religion.[33] As a result, his politics were expressed in a mixed idiom, which Peter Custers has identified as the philosophy of Rabubiyat: ‘Islam preaches the undivided equality of all people, whatever their caste, nationality or religion,’ paired with an adherence to communist ideals like the abolition of private property.[34] During the Pakistan movement, Bhashani did not shy away from identifying both Hindu and Muslim oppressors of Bengali peasants[35], and he was an early believer in the need for the Awami League to drop all communal affiliations.[36] In addition, he was derisive towards groups like Jamaat e Islami, calling them ‘Islamic fascists’ advancing ‘a capitalist extortionist theory of Islam.’[37] Even in his activism for Bengali autonomy, Bhashani undermined the Muslim nationalism promoted by pro-unity clerics and Islamabad.[38] What is one to make of such a figure—a communist pir who clearly rooted his political beliefs in religion even as he opposed institutionalization of religious divisions in the political realm? Bhashani’s anti-communalism is hardly Gandhian in the way Nandy describes it, despite his religious and folk moorings; he embodies a secularism that cannot be called anti-modern, rooted as it is in both an original religious philosophy, modern leftist class politics and nationalism.

These two visions of the secular, building from the self to society and finally the political, yield a more complex secularism in Bangladesh than is expressed by the constitution or state, both of which find in religion either antagonism or instrumentality. They also illuminate the ways in which an obsessive focus on the modern and a public-private dichotomy often prove unhelpful in understanding South Asian secularism.

Pakistan, the Secular-Islamic homeland?

Pakistan also poses questions that cannot adequately be addressed through the restrictive frameworks mentioned above. At most, an analysis of the state may be possible using these more conventional terminologies.

Many analysts would say Pakistan failed at building a secular state. Ishtiaq Ahmed divides the difference of opinions in Pakistan’s early history into camps of modernist-reformists, secularists, and fundamentalists when it comes to nation-state building.[39] While there is some usefulness to this methodology, it is too simplistic if one is attempting to uncover a genealogy of Pakistani secularism, not least because it assumes these three positions are mutually exclusive. As far as the nature of the state is concerned, there were early gestures toward a secular vision. The most famous of such articulations is the August 11 1947 speech of Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah, in which he stated:

You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the State. . . We are starting with this fundamental principle: that we are all citizens, and equal citizens, of one State.[40]

Jinnah hearkened to an idea of the nation-state steeped in liberal principles of equality, conventional separation of religion and state, and civic engagement. However, as many commentators have noted, this passage has been oft quoted yet seldom acted upon. Yet there have been instances where arms of the state have forcefully made the case for secularism. The most well-known instance is the 1954 Munir report, which inquired into the anti-Ahmadiyya disturbances of 1953 in Punjab. Addressing demands to declare Ahmadiyya non-Muslim by questoning religious figures about what constituted a Muslim, the Supreme Court decided that Pakistan could not possibly be run as an Islamic state given that its ulama could not decide on a single definition of ‘Muslim.’ Asad Ahmed notes that through the Munir Report, the Court expressed a classical secularist hope, that Islam would become ‘modern,’ that is a privatized and individualized faith.[41]

Notwithstanding these early calls for secularism, as well as the ‘Islamic modernism’ of the Ayub Era[42], it would be difficult to identify anything more than a loosely defined secularism in the Pakistani state, particularly post- the Zia regime. True to the Asad-ian model, the state has engaged deeply in a project of re-orienting the citizenry’s relationship with religion in the political and social realms, yet most often towards the most reactionary ends.

Therefore, as was the case with Bangladesh, it is most useful to explore the potentialities of Pakistani secularism at a remove from the state and its imperatives, albeit recognizing that the Pakistani state has relied on expedient linkages with certain social groups. One of the most creative analyses in this mold is Humeira Iqtidar’s work on Jamaat e Islami and Jamaat ud Da’wa Islamists in Lahore. From the outset, Iqtidar explains her intention to de-link secularism as a project from secularization as a process of privatization and minimization of religion in social and political life.[43] She does not claim Islamists ‘are secular in the sense of consciously identifying with the ideology of secularism. . . but that they are secularizing, that is, they are facilitating a process of secularization as rationalization of religion.’[44] She further defines this process as ‘a shift from largely unthinking inherited belief to objectified, critically analyzed belief.’[45] Though Iqtidar grants secularization and denies secularism, I argue that the behavior— critical engagement, objectification—that she identifies can be taken as evidence of a kind of secularism in Pakistani society, albeit a precarious one.

In a place like Pakistan, is it a better measure of secularism’s existence to see how well, openly and enthusiastically people can debate (religious) values and make judgments about how their faith—and not its lack—should direct both public and private life; and to what degree they are able to be skeptical and questioning of their own and others’ constructions of religious selfhood? In this framework, would Pakistanis be more secular if the state was secularized, rather than the other way around?

A positive answer to these questions emerges strikingly if we remove the anti-secularism ideology of the Islamists from the equation and focus on the Pakistani subject more generally, as the anthropologists Naveeda Khan and Magnus Marsden do in their studies of Muslim selfhood in Pakistan. Naveeda Khan’s study of the phenomenon of ‘striving’ among Pakistani Muslims of various sects through the lens of Iqbalian thought, positing an essential trait of ‘striving to an as-yet unattained self without presuming that this next self is the final one.’[46] Coupled with this striving is a sense of skepticism about the faith of oneself and others, which dovetails with disputation, sometimes violent, over theological matters, especially between those of different sects.[47] Crucially, skepticism also manifests in distrust of the ‘mullah’—both in the mohalla and within oneself—who performs religiosity and polices the faith of others, but is inwardly debased and hypocritical.[48] Magnus Marsden, in his study of the intellectual life and play of the mind in Chitral, identifies similar trends of debate for the sake of debate—and not delegitimizing others’ beliefs—and anxieties about personal hypocrisy and the return of young men from ‘down Pakistan’ as transformed ‘little mullahs’ who have lost the proper Chitrali etiquette of theological disputation.[49]

These concerns regarding critical and rational engagement with Muslim selfhood; open theological debate with the hope of no forthcoming retribution (not always realized in a country with blasphemy laws); and a disdain for the hypocrisy of moral policing even as one recognizes the capacity for such negativity in oneself; all hint at a kind of secular-religious life emergent, or perhaps suppressed, in Pakistan, that resonates not only with Iqbalian thought but also Abul Hashim’s theology. Nevertheless, it leaves us with unanswered questions. In a nation-state that, throughout its history, grew more invested in declaring itself allegiant to a particular religious ideology and its protection, secularism can still exist, but may need to be thought about in ways beyond the, no doubt integral, issues of coexistence and tolerance between different religions. In fact, it may need to be thought about entirely outside the typical concerns of models of secularism and secularization that emphasize state behavior and its impact on how the conduct of citizen-subjects are molded.

These engagements with the genealogy of secularism in Bangladesh and Pakistan lead us back to India, where these questions can be considered in a case study that illuminates the commonalities between all three national secularisms.


Tamil-Self Respect, Religion and the Secular

The Tamil-Self Respect, Dravida nationalist, anti-Brahmanism movements that emerged in Tamil Nadu in the early 20th century have been studied in terms of their anti-casteism but also through the extreme rationalist positions of its ideological founder, EVS Ramasamy Periyar. Periyar, his acolytes and his political descendants were and remain harshly critical of ‘superstitious’ beliefs, and their anti-brahman politics were often of a piece with atheism, at least early on.[50] However, a fascinating and comparatively understudied aspect of Tamil-Self Respect was its engagement with Islam.[51] Despite the fact that Periyar was openly atheist, in speeches he celebrated Islam for its ‘principle of one god and one caste. . . such a principle belongs to and [is] needed for the Dravidians. . . Islamic principle is very odious to the brahmins.’[52] Why Periyar saw the need to ally with (idealized) Islam, and therefore local Muslim leaders, in the service of anti-brahmanism is both obvious and inscrutable– obvious given its tactical advantages, but inscrutable given its contradictions with his strident atheism and rationalism. Why did promoting growth of a secular society rely on celebrating the presumably egalitarian qualities of another religion, instead of no religion at all? MSS Pandian notes the imperative of electoral politics when discussing the softened stance of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and its leader CN Annadurai, yet Annadurai’s own statements, cited by Pandian, betray a greater depth:

I have drawn the conclusion. . . too many gods and rituals was not necessary for faith in God. I said true faith in God is to have faith in fellow human beings… Of course, I am a rationalist who wants to end unreason and blind faith in the people. But genuine belief and true faith in God should be there amongst the people so that it helps them to become more and more aware and conscious of their duties and responsibilities to their fellow human beings.[53]

This statement is strikingly similar to the conclusions of Abul Hashim in erstwhile East Pakistan, with its emphasis on the importance of service to humanity as proper Muslim selfhood, before matters of orthodoxy. Yet while Annadurai reaches this conclusion from a rationalist, atheist perspective, Abul Hashim’s philosophy arises from investment in preserving a religious sensibility. Fascinatingly, the DMK also had its very own Maulana Bhashani of sorts, in the form of the Hindu priest known as Kundrakuni Adigalar. Adigalar, in a nod toward Nehruvian modernism, combined his role as a religious popular figure with a developmentalist ethos, not to mention an affinity for Marx, as he tried to promote a “scientific outlook” in the communities he worked with on development. Adigalar promoted communal harmony, and threw in his lot with the DMK in 1982; as Pandian notes, his Arul Neri Thirukootam organization resolved:

‘it should treat organisations like Dravidar Kazhagam, which are involved in the abolition of untouchability and caste, and communist movements, which are involved in establishing a poverty-less society, as allies’ . . . Thus for him, religion, atheism, and communism could be partners in envisioning a world of equality.[54]

What kind of secularism is this—atheistic-rationalism turned tolerant of belief, and anti-brahman, communism-friendly activism of a popular Hindu priest? It is not, broadly speaking, Nehruvian nor Gandhian. It is not a revival of pre-modern India thriving on religious syncretism. It neither finds incoherence in an alliance of the spiritual and communist, nor seems overly concerned with social secularization beyond certain imperatives such as anti-casteism. The secularism of the Tamil-Self Respect movement’s descendants is immersed in modern Tamil identity politics, leftist ideology, a touch of Nehruvian developmentalism, a tolerance of religiosity, and a faith in an Enlightenment liberal principle of rationality. It is neither modern, anti-modern, westernized, nor indigenous in any clear sense. It is simply Indian.



This essay has attempted to construct a South Asian genealogy of secularism by exploring a broad range of thinkers, policies, activists, and everyday practitioners of the secular in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. It is striking the extent to which this genealogy doesn’t rely on unearthing pre-modern, pre-nation, pre-partition traditions of syncretism and mutual tolerance. Instead, South Asian secularism has modern roots, but not purely the westernized, ‘foreign’ modern roots that are assigned to it in disdain. This secularism, across the region, is borne out of a deep intellectual engagement with socialism and communism, a turn towards ‘scientific’ rationalism and heterogeneously embedded forms of aspiration, a critical engagement and debate with the nature of the self and its others, and, perhaps most importantly, a productive commitment to living the religious and the secular, simultaneously.




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Sen, Amartya. “Secularism and its discontents.” In Secularism and its critics, 454–85. Delhi ; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Subramaniam, Banu. “Elisions and erasures: Science, secularism and the state-the         cases of India and Pakistan.” In Making Sense of the Secular: Critical             Perspectives from Europe to Asia. Routledge, 2013.

Taylor, Charles. “Modes of secularism.” In Secularism an its critics, 31–53. Oxford India Paperbacks. Delhi ; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Toor, Saadia. The state of Islam: culture and Cold War politics in Pakistan. London: Pluto, 2011.



[1] Charles Taylor, “Modes of secularism,” in Secularism and its critics, Oxford India Paperbacks (Delhi ; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 35.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 36–37.

[4] Ibid., 37.

[5] Ibid., 52.

[6] Talal Asad, “Responses,” in Powers of the secular modern: Talal Asad and his interlocutors (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2006), 209.

[7] Ibid., 208.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 218.

[10] Ayşe Polat, “A comparison of Charles Taylor and Talal Asad on the issue of secularity,” The Journal of Human & Society 2, no. 4 (January 12, 2012): 225, doi:10.12658/i&t.v2i4.112.

[11] David Scott, “Appendix: The Trouble of Thinking: An Interview with Talal Asad,” in Powers of the secular modern: Talal Asad and his interlocutors (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2006), 291–293.

[12] Ashis Nandy, “An anti-secularist manifesto,” India International Centre Quarterly 22, no. 1 (1995): 35–64.

[13] Ibid., 36, 51.

[14] Rochona Majumdar, “Marriage, family, and property in India: The Hindu Succession Act of 1956,” South Asian History and Culture 1, no. 3 (June 25, 2010): 397–415, doi:10.1080/19472498.2010.485381.

[15] Willliam Gould, “Contesting secularism in colonial and postcolonial North India between the 1930s and 1950s,” Contemporary South Asia 14, no. 4 (2007): 489–490.

[16] Akeel Bilgrami, “Two concepts of secularism: reason, modernity and Archimedean ideal,” Economic and Political Weekly 29, no. 28 (1994): 1754.

[17] Gould, “Contesting secularism in colonial and postcolonial North India between the 1930 and 1950s.”

[18] See, e.g, Rajeev Bhargava, “What Is Secularism For?,” in Secularism and Its Critics (Delhi ; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 487–542; Amartya Sen, “Secularism and Its Discontents,” in Secularism and Its Critics (Delhi ; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 454–85; Nandy, “An Anti-Secularist Manifesto.”

[19] Abul Fazl Huq, “Constitution-Making in Bangladesh,” Pacific Affairs 46, no. 1 (1973): 68, doi:10.2307/2756227.

[20] Samia Huq, “Defining Self and Other: Bangladesh’s secular aspirations and its writing of Islam,” Economic & Political Weekly, December 14, 2013, 53.

[21] Sara Hossain, “‘Apostates’, Ahmadis and advocates: Use and abuse of offences against religion in Bangladesh,” Warning Signs of Fundamentalisms, December 2004, 83,

[22] Huq, “Defining Self and Other,” 54.

[23] Ibid., 53.

[24] Ibid., 54.

[25] Hossain, “‘Apostates’, Ahmadis and advocates: Use and abuse of offences against religion in Bangladesh,” 85–86.

[26] Huq, “Defining Self and Other,” 53.

[27] Rachel Fell McDermott et al., eds., Sources of Indian traditions, Third edition, Introduction to Asian Civilizations (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 882–883.

[28] Humeira Iqtidar and Tanika Sarkar, “Reassessing secularism and secularisation in South Asia,” Economic and Political Weekly 48, no. 50 (December 14, 2013),

[29] Huq, “Defining Self and Other,” 57.

[30] Ibid., 56.

[31] Ibid., 57.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Peter Custers, “Maulana Bhashani and the transition to secular politics in East Bengal,” Indian Economic & Social History Review 47, no. 2 (April 1, 2010): 234, doi:10.1177/001946461004700204.

[34] Ibid., 236.

[35] Ibid., 238.

[36] Ibid., 244.

[37] McDermott et al., Sources of Indian traditions, 883.

[38] Custers, “Maulana Bhashani and the transition to secular politics in East Bengal,” 243–244.

[39] Ishtiaq Ahmed, “Pakistan, democracy, Islam and secularism: A phantasmagoria of conflicting Muslim aspirations,” Oriente Moderno 23 (84), no. 1 (2004): 13–28.

[40] “Mr. Jinnah’s Address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan,” accessed March 25, 2016,

[41] Asad Ahmed, “Advocating a secular Pakistan: The Munir Report of 1954,” in Islam in South Asia in practice (Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2009), 424–37; McDermott et al., Sources of Indian Traditions, 764–767.

[42] See e.g. Saadia Toor, The state of Islam: culture and Cold War politics in Pakistan (London: Pluto, 2011) for explanations of Ayub’s “Islamic modernism.”

[43] Humeira Iqtidar, Secularizing Islamists?: Jama’at-E-Islami and Jama’at-Ud-Da’wa in urban Pakistan, South Asia across the Disciplines (Chicago ; London: The University of Chicago Press, 2011), 17–22.

[44] Ibid., 22.

[45] Ibid., 54.

[46] Naveeda Ahmed Khan, Muslim becoming: aspiration and skepticism in Pakistan (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012), 55.

[47] Ibid., 3–6, 12–13.

[48] Ibid., 147–148.

[49] Magnus Marsden, Living Islam: Muslim religious experience in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

[50] Paula Richman and V. Geetha, “A View from the South: Ramasami’s public critique of religion,” in The crisis of secularism in India (Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2009), 66–88; Christophe Jaffrelot, “Hindu Nationalism and the (not so easy) art of being outraged: The Ram Setu controversy,” South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal 2 (2008).

[51] For one study on the subject, see J. B. P. More, “Tamil Muslims and Non-Brahmin Atheists, 1925-1940,” Contributions to Indian Sociology 27, no. 1 (January 1, 1993): 83–104, doi:10.1177/006996693027001004.

[52] M. S. S. Pandian, “Being ‘Hindu’ and being ‘secular’: Tamil ‘secularism’ and caste politics,” Economic & Political Weekly 47, no. 31 (August 4, 2012): 62.

[53] Ibid., 63.

[54] Ibid., 65–66.


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