Book Review: Romila Thapar, Indian Society and the Secular: Essays

Date01 March 2018
AuthorDhananjay Rai
Published date01 March 2018
Subject MatterBook Reviews
Book Reviews 135
Romila Thapar, Indian Society and the Secular: Essays. Gurgaon: Three
Essays Collective, 2016, xiv + 286 pp., `500.
Romila Thapar exhibits an immaculate defence of secularism and secularisation
by way of explaining history and plurality therein. The book contains her essays
and lectures of the period (1990–2016) in which secularism was made anathema
by the organised mossbacks for arrival of monotheism. Besides Introduction,
there are three sections in the book. The first section (Secularism and Secularisation)
contains five chapters. The second section (Historical Perspectives) has four
chapters. The third section (Religion and Contemporary Politics) has three
chapters. Thapar argues that the definition of secularism is only meaningful when
human rights (food, health care, education, employment and social justice) are
ensured by the state. The schematic binary of religion and the state is not suffi-
cient apropos secularism. There must be a continuous movement of evolving
public reasoning and removal of innumerable hierarchies. History informs us
about numerous stumbling blocks against secular and secularisation. The underly-
ing terrain of the book is to unravel the history for democratisation of contempo-
rary India. The distortion in texts or about history has serious ramifications for
democratic praxis.
Secularism and Secularisation
In India, unlike Semitic religions, indigenous religions were pluralistic. A slew
of religions can be mentioned as Vedic Brahmanism, the Shramana religions
(Buddhism and Jainism), Shaiva devotionalism and Vaishnava Bhagavatism
(Puranic Hinduism). Religions were not monolithic blocks but fragmented in both
nature and function. There was absence of intense religious intolerance and
presence of untouchability simultaneously. Hinduism was a mosaic of numerous
articulations which were related one way or another. The nature of religions
concerning Hinduism and Islam is a narration of diverse pluralism and practices.
There was not the Hinduism or the Islam. Therefore, relations between the two
were also ‘neither uniformly confrontational nor uniformly conciliatory’ (p. 8).
The British Empire by way of Orientalism constructed the notion of two
monolithic religions: the Hindu and the Muslim. The Orientalist avoided taking
cognisance of preference for orthopraxy over orthodoxy in the indigenous reli-
gions. During the colonial period, popularisation of Semitic practices, along with
Census, paved the way for ‘arrival of the monolith’. The development of Arya
Samaj made Vedas as a scriptural authority of all Hindus. The consolidation of
religion became imminent.
Numerous colonial policies interpreted India as societies of Hindus and
Muslims. In fact, identity of the Indian was construed in terms of religious com-
munities. Colonial power reinforced this through separate electorate. Indian
nationalism for India’s Independence was secular nationalism while using even
religious symbols. At the same time, Indian communalists (Hindu and Muslim)

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