Book Summary Europe, India, and the Limits of Secularism by Jakob de Roover-III
Book Summary: Europe, India, and the Limits of Secularism by Jakob de Roover-III

The contemporary debate on secularism takes a very asymmetrical form: either a polity takes the norms of liberal toleration, or embodies its negation. This asymmetry of only two options of either/or is a sprouting from the religious soil of Western discourses on Indian culture.

In the previous parts (1) and (2), we saw the evolution of secularism in the Western world and how it came for inappropriate and dangerous application to Asian cultures, especially India. For over a millennium, we had our own effective mechanisms for dealing with pluralism and multi-cultural diversity. Instead of studying that and offering alternative solutions, peculiarly our own intellectuals wore Western lenses and saw India in a distorted framework, effectively continuing the Western themes. The result of this is that even ‘Hindu revivalism’ speaks in the same conceptual language of secularism, when it should go away completely. This part looks at the debates in post-colonial Independent India where colonial consciousness stays firmly intact amongst our leaders and intellectuals.


 The contemporary debate on secularism takes a very asymmetrical form: either a polity takes the norms of liberal toleration, or embodies its negation. This asymmetry of only two options of either/or is a sprouting from the religious soil of Western discourses on Indian culture. The same discourse pervades amongst Indian thinkers in post-Independent India too as a classic case of ‘colonial consciousness.’

Advocates in India and abroad produce accounts of secularism which show Indian society as a deficient variety of Europe. The latter could successfully steer its way out of religious conflicts. The popular story is that, without secularism, India will collapse. Even the critics of secularism unfortunately use the same conceptual language which prevents them from developing alternatives.


Liberal secularism is a ‘normative’ principle, an idealistic ‘ought to’ proposition, based on the principles of toleration, state neutrality, and religious freedom. Liberal secularism put forward unconditional principles for a harmonious society based on these moral principles. Hence, any polity of the government is either respecting these principles or rejecting it. Any rejection of these core principles implies that the polity is dangerously mixing religion and politics. This is the contemporary discourse which the author says has failed brilliantly.

The simple fact of history has been that Indian and Greco-Roman societies were far more tolerant and liberal than any society so far. The Greco-Roman societies and the Indian society had a pluralistic culture; and it showed a tolerance (an indifference to the differences) in a way that is unimaginable either in the past or the present Western world. Critics however quote that egalitarianism did not truly exist In Greco-Roman or Indian societies because some groups had an oppression. The problematic issues of the accommodative pluralistic societies become a proof for the absence of liberal values in these societies. Because intolerance to certain groups would mean automatically that these societies did not have principles of liberal secularism, we cannot learn from them.

This reasoning is faulty, says the author. The past societies could have been pluralistic because they had principles other than liberal secularism which held the societies together; and there may have been intolerance due to factors other than the absence of liberal values. The entire reasoning of contemporary thinkers’ is that the absence of liberal secularism implies a negation of liberal secularism which leads up to religious politics, religious intolerance, and sacred hierarchy. There are absolutely no alternatives to this model of liberal secularism either now or in the past. This approach closes the mind to all alternative modes of coexistence. The acceptance of the liberal secular model as the only model makes any deviations of non-Western society as inherently faulty and in need of improvement.


Europeans had two versions of India; the dominant being a tradition which is an inferior variant of Christianity; and the minor- not dominant- was that of a country with great insight. The Protestant theological critique of false religion formed a template to give shape to early modern descriptions of Indian culture and guided the dominant understanding of Hinduism. Charles Grant (746-1823), a champion of missionary activity who later became the chairperson of the East India Company argued that missionary work provided the only means for India to advance morally and socially. For him, the flawed Hindu character evolved by despotism entrenched in Hindu society. This despotism was mainly due to the Brahmin priests.

The criticism of Hindu society, its people and its priests by Grant typically followed the theological arguments of Protestant problems with the Catholic Church and other false religions. Today’s secularism talks about the same deficiency of Hindu character, but without the background references to Christian religion. Hence, superstitions, rituals, and the caste system are responsible for our degradation, allowing us to be intolerant.

Mill wrote a polemical history of India which unfortunately was a manual for the civil servants coming to India. He loathed the ‘Hindu system of sacred law’ which failed to distinguish between the public political sphere and the private religious sphere. For him, this mixing generated the worst system of priestcraft and despotism ever witnessed on Earth and transformed the Hindus into the most enslaved portion of humanity.

An asymmetry of cultures established in the face of such consistent writings on Indian culture and traditions, making them into expressions of a false religion. Hinduism became a negation of certain normative standards. These normative doctrines derived from the opposition between true and false religion; opposition of clerical tyranny to spiritual freedom; and a fixed hierarchy denying equality to all believers.

The liberal secular model is a transformation of this old theological model. However, there is a problem in application. In the theology model, absence of a true religion implied a false religion. The similar transition has happened in the secular model. Absence of secular liberal model implies intolerance and tyranny. This is wrong, says the author. Hinduism thus became an embodiment of tyranny and hierarchy. The discourses on Hinduism and caste revolves around the alleged negations of the norms of Christian freedom and equality, either in theological or secularized form.


The colonial rule insisted on the model of liberal secularism leading to ‘British liberties’ in contrast to ‘Hindu despotisms.’ Indian intelligentsia of the 19th century like Raja Rammohun Roy and Jyoti Phule continued with the theme of priestly deception, evils of the caste system, and a system of Hindu slavery abetted by the wily Brahmins.

Post-Independence, Nehru continued with the same colonial framework of secularism where scientific progress and temper would be an answer to the superstition ridden society. The answer to deal with a variety of religious superstitions and prejudices is development of a ‘scientific temper.’ This would break the spell of the organized religion. Nehru had a cultural disconnect with India and he totally absorbed the Enlightenment values of the 19th century through his exclusive colonial education. Nehru’s assessment of religions as dogmatic beliefs and unscientific practices was the result of this education unfortunately. Nehru’s reasoning was clear and straight: either there is a progressive secular state or it becomes a backwards religious one. The public sphere of politics needs a separation to the private sphere of religion.

Dr Ambedkar was no different in his conception of Hinduism and caste. It was clearly a distortion of evil priests messing up the Indian society and the only answer lay in the annihilation of caste. For Dr Ambedkar, like the colonial narrative, the central flaw of Hinduism was its representation of caste as a divine order. This sacredness and divinity attached to the caste system needed a breaking. He thought Hinduism is nothing but a multitude of commands and prohibitions. This critique is a straight inheritance from the orientalist discourse on the nature of true and false religions. Dr Ambedkar presented his views as a rational critique of Hinduism, but they were scraps of a theology of false religion now presented as facts of the world. Neither Nehru or Ambedkar presented Christianity or colonialism as a way out, but they argued on the principles of secularism, liberty, and equality to take the place of communal oppression and caste tyranny.


Colonial education gave a scientific status to the colonizer’s account of the culture and society of the colonized. The all-pervasive Hindu religion, evil Brahmins, tyranny of caste became the epistemic equivalents of Newtons laws of gravitation: true descriptions of the world. This happened without showing the cognitive superiority of its orientalist discourse over the existing Indian modes of thought. The superiority of Western culture and the deficiency of other cultures was a pre-supposition which went about proving its stand on indoctrination and violence rather than cogent arguments. The beginning and end of civilization were the Western liberal values.

Colonial consciousness generates through three steps. The first step presupposes a narrative from the West to be normative-the correct and the ideal for everyone. Its tenets become axiomatic. The second step describes the factual descriptions of the non-Western society as deficient with respect to these normative principles. The third step leads to a conclusion that they should have an implementation in the non-Western society to reform the factual situation into the normative model.

The conclusion? Either the normative model or its negations. This colonial consciousness of using the colonial models pervades in the colonized too and rarely questioned. These three steps have been responsible for generating the liberal secularism model in India. The first step was the normative premises shared by the first set of Christian missionaries, European orientalists, and colonial officials. The second set of Indian reformers and the secularists in post-colonial India joined the chorus. The liberalism-secularism model is the only model, they all claimed, for a harmonious society.

In the next step, the descriptions of Indian culture are the grips of religious tyranny, caste violence, communalism, Dalit atrocities, and so on. The first set would be purely talking in terms of theology to support its stand. The second set would forget the theological background of the arguments, but the conclusion remains the same of a deficient society. The conclusions now based on ‘historical-scientific’ researches draw on modern European theorists from Marx to Foucault.

The third step involves each group trying to reform the Indian society: missionaries by trying to replace the false with the true religion; colonials trying to replace native superstitions and corruption with scientific education and liberal values; and the Indian reformers and post-Independence secularists superimposing the framework of secularism and scientific temper to address the evils in our society.


Indians looked at themselves through Western lenses. Educated Indians adopted theories and ideas of Western cultural experiences and used them to describe themselves. The Western cultural experience structured on a cluster of ideas, attitudes and heuristics derived from the secularization of Christianity. This language traps our social sciences.

This resulted that Asian intellectuals could never develop alternatives to the Western frameworks based on their own experiences. In the absence of any other framework or language, at best the Asian and Indian intellectuals described their own cultures as deficient variants of the West. The education system and intellectual analysis of the colonized societies lost access to their own cultural experience. They tried to make an alien world their own, while their own world became alien to them.

This is the situation for secularism in India today, because unfortunately, the language of anti-secularists stays in the language of secularism. We do not seem to be investing in developing alternative theories of harmony forgetting the fact that the pluralism and mutual respect existed for thousands of years in our country without any large-scale persecutions and genocides. There must be another approach which was in our DNA which we need to discover. This is different certainly from the secularism given by the West.


In Europe, the separation of politics from religion resulted from a particular understanding of confessional strife: sinful men abusing religion for worldly ends caused it; for this they invented human doctrines and sold it as religious truth; this divided Christendom into various factions, each claiming to be the true religion; this led to conflicts and aggressions between competing religions and confessions. After ridding it of the theological features, the same conceptual framework shaped the colonial account of communalism in India. And the solution for these conflicts remains secularism as in the West.

However, it is pre-supposed that all conflicts are in support of the ‘ultimate ideals’ and the ‘truth value’ of individual groups. This is brilliantly wrong, says the author. The nature of Hindu-Muslim conflicts is completely different to the nature of religious conflicts in the West-past or present. There has rarely been an attempt to study the nature of these conflicts which are more socio-economic or political. Mutual clashes of ‘truth claims’ are never the cause of Hindu-Muslim encounters. This is not so the case with the conflicts between Christian confessions or between Islam and Christianity.

In such a scenario, all conflicts do not share the same ground grounds; and thus, do not have the same solution. A serious attempt to understand the Hindu-Muslim conflicts in the Indian scenario perhaps would give alternatives to the secularism model of the West. How can one argue that secularism is necessary because of conflicts in Indian society, if one has not systematically studied the nature of these conflicts and its relation to the principles of secularism?

There are some scholars who look at secularism a s the ultimate solution to deal with all diversity where there is a constant clash of ‘ultimate ideals.’ This is ambiguous, says the author because these scholars do not address what properties are characteristic of the conflicts solved by secularism. These scholars who derive political secularism as all non-violent compromises preventing barbarism between groups holding different ultimate ideals make ‘secularism’ so broad and all-encompassing that the word loses its meaning.

The conceptual framework of religious conflicts had unfortunately a still broader application in the Indian context. Colonial frameworks carved Indian society into distinct communities of believers or practitioners -Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, and so on. These were competing religions as per their deficient understanding. The conflicts between Hindus and Muslims had nothing to do with religious principles; yet they became ‘religious conflicts.’

Hence, secularism as a concept transferred from the European context to the Indian context quite inappropriately without understanding the different traditions of India. As SN Balagangadhara says emphatically, confusing traditions for religions is the source of all troubles in our country.


There are scholars who fight the secularism model as inapplicable in India. They want us to look at India as a society which evolved its own pattern of tolerance, and it is the West which should learn from us. The tragedy of the anti-secularism is that it fails to draw upon the resources of Indian culture even when it explicitly aims to do so. Colonial consciousness stays intact in the anti-secularist’s understanding of their own society.

They assume that Christianity and Islam on the one hand; and Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, and Jain traditions on the other hand are manifestations of religion and involve clerics, doctrines, sacred texts, and faith. The isomorphism with two conflicting tendencies of ‘religion as a faith’ and ‘religion as an ideology’ exists in all of them in equal measures. Similarly, the Hindu nationalists fighting secularism are also prisoners of colonial consciousness.

Religion is different from traditions. Religion needs to demarcate the community of believers, and identify the true doctrine and correct interpretation of God’s will expressed in scripture. Traditions are plural and flexible since they involve the inherited practices of the community rather than doctrines. For reasons we cannot grasp now, Christianity and Islam took the character of traditions like other traditions in India; they lost the fixation on distinguishing between the true and the false and the resulting proselytizing drive. The religious framework which the secular state has inherited cannot cope with traditions without converting them into religions. In this process, secularism has created conflicting religious communities rather than solving problems in India.

Because of the background conceptual framework, Indian thinkers lose access to the intellectual traditions and experiential world of their own culture. Unfortunately, even Hindu nationalism suffers from intellectual poverty. The derision of secularism as ‘pseudo-secularism’ benefitting the minorities and disadvantaging the Hindu communities suffers from the same dichotomy of either secularism or its absence. Now, Hindu nationalism becomes anti-secular. The intellectual debates surrounding Hindu nationalism stays firmly trapped in colonial consciousness.

Hindu nationalists have thus confirmed to the prefabricated template of a struggle between secular nationalism versus religious nationalism. They have succumbed to the very discourse they sought to challenge and failed to develop any sound alternative. We have reached a dead end today. The framework of ‘religion’, ‘communalism’, or ‘caste’ are the theories causing problems in Indian society. These are inherited narratives of Europe, a secularized version of Protestant Christianity. This narrative now firmly embeds so much so that refutation is impossible at all cost, says the author.

We today have a model of either secularism with separation of religion and politics; or its normative negation- communal violence, and caste discrimination. It is unthinkable that the framework of secularism is flawed to the core. The allowance of Opposition is only within the trapping of theoretical constraints where colonial consciousness stays intact.


What are the alternatives? We need alternative theories of pluralism for coping with cultural diversity. These perhaps may involve study of Indian cultures and other Asian cultures independently without the framework of Western secularism. The limitations of the Western model need a deep understanding followed by a dismantling.

No political or legal theory has succeeded yet at developing sound criteria to systematically distinguish between the private sphere of religion and the public political sphere in jurisprudence and policymaking. The liberal political theory is no exception. The liberal model of toleration and the secular state is deeply metaphysical which depends on the conception of the person and human social life that secularizes the Protestant-Christian ideas by transforming them into political thought.

Transferring this to explain or handle the pluralism of other cultures is bound to fail, as is the situation in India now. This dominant thought has in fact prevented people to take other avenues for peaceful co-existence between different cultures. We need new ideas accessible to all cultural groups living in today’s liberal democracies instead of the well-entrenched inappropriate models of religious freedom, liberty of conscience, and the religious-political separation.


In the discourse of the ideal, normal, moral, ethical, ‘ought to’ framework of liberal toleration, the deep dimension of intolerance stays intact, says the author. For a long time, Judaism and Catholicism became ‘Jewry’ and ‘popery,’ by way of intolerance. Enlightenment transferred the intolerance to all ‘religions of the priest.’ All religions became secondary to the secular state or the constitution. Today, in Europe and in India, liberal secularism continues to reject vehemently certain traditions and groups as negations to its principles. So, standing opposite to the correct liberal secularism is the incorrect political religion- ‘political Islam’ and ‘Hindu nationalism.’

In India, colonial consciousness traps both the secularists and the Hindu nationalists in the same language and framework. The basic ideas are the same but the value judgements may differ. The social sciences and humanities along with the secularists see ‘Hindu fascists’ all around; and the Hindu nationalists attack the secularists as ‘pseudo-seculars’ or ‘sickulars.’ An alternative model cannot take the similar form as the liberal-secularism model since inherently intolerance would become a part of its dynamic.

It would be far better to study a society factually to see how well it has dealt with pluralism. India is perhaps the best example. Then we develop heuristics of instructions for action that aim to incrementally improve the situation for a peaceful co-existence. This is better than the approach of building first a model on normative axioms and principles, and then implementing it forcefully on society.


The search for doctrinal and scriptural proof for all practices had the effect of transforming traditions into religions inappropriately. Hindu nationalists fell into the same trap and they searched the scriptures to find the ‘Hindu principle of tolerance’ or the equality of religions. Other religions do not accept this and this hence breeds intolerance towards Islam and Christianity.

The Hindu nationalist would now say that the normative tolerance needs acceptance or they should leave India. This doctrine of Hindu tolerance conflicts with the Indian cultural modes of pluralism existing for centuries. Indian culture has the striking capacity to accommodate diversity, but to attribute this to some doctrine of Hindu tolerance is to miss the power of its pluralism. SNB’s theory of cultural difference comes into play here. Human coexistence is the domain of practical knowledge and there is no foundation on reason, theoretical knowledge, and doctrines. Reason plays the role of reflecting on human practice and improving it where possible. We should adopt this method rather than making some top-down approaches based on theories and doctrines.

The world is in crisis today. Cultures need to meet on an equal footing where there is a mutual give and take. Each one must learn from the other. The moral, intellectual, and ethical sense of superiority while dealing with other cultures and civilizations must go. It caused havoc for a long time; and only if we dismantle the previous paradigms and develop alternative themes and dialogues can we hope for a better future for humanity.

FINAL WORDS This ends the series summarizing the wonderful book by Jakob De Roover. This book is a compulsory reading for our academia, media, intellectuals, and political leaders to understand how secularism has failed brilliantly in our country and will continue to do so. It is important at this stage to invest some resources on developing alternative models to deal with the cultural diversity in the ever-shrinking world. The diversity is going to pack in smaller areas. Secularism is not the answer for peace and harmony. There are other mechanisms; and there is no better place than India to discover that. As a first step, the whole book should have a reading. Hence, buy the book. Dear reader, if you stop at the summary, then Jakob De Roover is a tall man with possibly long hands, and I would not like him to throttle me!

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