On Meera Nanda’s The Wrongs of the Religious Right: Reflections on Science, Secularism and Hindutva

NandaRalph Dumain in Logos:

Secular government in the U.S. resulted from an alliance between politically disadvantaged churches and the supporters of the Enlightenment they otherwise disdained. American Protestantism was split. Those with a modernist bent gravitated toward more liberal, deistic, rationalist and scientific thinking. This tendency had political impact; however, it tended to be limited to highbrow, well-educated, and well-off congregations. Today, the fundamentalist Right leads a backlash against them.

Indian secularism was born of the need to keep the peace among rival religious groups, neutralize the caste system, and reform barbaric social practices associated with a variety of religious practices. The state took on the role of religious reform. The downside is that state interference in religion has made religion a battleground for political manipulation and power plays.

Hindu revivalism outmaneuvered the secular forces within the Indian independence movement. Hindu ideologues sanitized the past, proffering a ‘purified’ Hinduism as consistent with modern needs. This is reactionary modernism: the incorporation of modernizing impulses into an atavistic anti-modernist ideology. Secularization amounted to an endorsement of Hinduism, compounded by the hypocritical claim of essential Hindu ‘tolerance’. As in the United States, a rupture with the past was passed off as continuity with the past. India’s trajectory was far worse. The secularist, deistical, naturalistic and scientific tendencies of the American Enlightenment at least had some institutional impact, but there was no counterpart in India. No ‘disenchantment of nature’ took root among a decisive contingent of Indian intellectuals; instead, modern science was incorporated into Vedic superstition.

Nanda argues that the pragmatic maneuvers establishing secular states prior to the formation of secular cultures created the conditions for the right-wing religious populism that menaces both countries today. Secular states cannot ultimately survive without the secularization of their inhabitants.