Earlier this year, Dr. Narendra Dabholkar, president of a prominent Indian rationalist organization, the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS), or Committee for the Eradication of Blind Faith, was killed for his efforts to get an anti-superstition law passed.
Like other movements of organized rationalism in India, MANS sought to promote scientific knowledge and combat the influence of black-magic practitioners and self-styled godmen.
Although his assailants have not yet been apprehended, Dr. Dabholkar (b. 1945) received significant threats from hard-right groups, who claimed to be defending religious sensibilities.
A New York Times article covering Dr. Dabholkar’s death blames his murder on the clash between “religious/traditional” and “secular/modern” visions of the world, a purportedly “timeless” conflict that exemplifies the contradictions at the heart of modern India.
But is this the narrative that best explains the circumstances of Dr. Dabholkar’s death and honors his memory?
Almost every time I read a New York Times story on India, its tone reminds me of the way the North looks at the South in the United States: as its embarrassingly retrograde sibling, tied to a past it has all but exorcised from its own cultural memory, and from which it has absolved itself of responsibility.
If only Southerners (like Indians) were able to liberate themselves from ancient prejudices, the South could at last become like other modern, democratic societies: secular, progressive and welcoming of pluralism.
During the 1940s, India, led by the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, sought to liberate itself from Britain’s colonial rule and become a modern, democratic society.
In Europe, a long history of internecine religious and political violence (for example: the wars of religion in early modern Europe and subsequently the fractures wrought by nationalism) gave rise to its principles of secular democracy.
But, given India’s much different past and its everyday practice of religious pluralism, Gandhi, whose picture hung poignantly on Dr. Dabholkar’s wall, expected that Indian democracy would avoid Europe’s trajectory of violence and take its own shape.
For Gandhi, secular citizenship was not a precondition for a successful democratic society in India.
There was no need, as in Europe, to protect its democratic society by separating the “secular” and “religious” into public and private spheres.
Gandhi understood that Hindutva (the right-wing political ideology evoking a religious majoritarianism to justify what is today called “Hindu nationalism”) represented the Indian equivalent of European nationalism.
He rejected the very notion of Hindutva, which, for him, had nothing to do with religion since it promoted, not Hinduism, but an ethnic nationalism predicated on the myth of an eternal racial, linguistic and territorial unity.
On this basis, he strongly opposed Hindutva’s most infamous advocate, V. Savarkar, an avowed atheist who was tried but never convicted for his complicity in Gandhi’s assassination.
Today, the far-right groups that reject the work of Dr. Dabholkar and of other rationalist activists owe far greater allegiance to Savarkar, this quintessentially modern ideologue of politicized Hinduism, than to any “millenniums-old” conflict between religious traditionalists and reformers.
Dr. Dabholkar’s murderers are not representatives of a reactionary tradition coming to terms with a secularizing modernity; they are the sinister, illegitimate children of India’s colonial past.
Religious disenchantment and tensions between traditionalists and reformers have long existed on the Indian subcontinent: from the Buddhist rejection of Hindu Vedic rituals to the bhakti (devotional Hinduism) poets’ critique of orthodox Brahmanism (priestly Hinduism).
The distinctions at the core of India’s religious disenchantment have shifted over the course of its history.
Though the New York Times article portrays the binary between religious/traditionalist and secular/reformist as one that extends unchanged into India’s past, this history is characterized by several different ruptures and contingencies.
In particular, disenchantment as a political force can be traced to the new forms of social organization introduced by the British imperial presence.
The colonial history of India, moreover, complicates the one-to-one relationship between the secular and the “modern.” Robert Yelle has recently demonstrated the link between Protestant literalism and secularizing reforms in British India.
His book, “The Language of Disenchantment: Protestant Literalism and Colonial Discourse in British India,” contributes to the broader scholarly attempt to rethink the boundaries between the “religious” and the “secular” as the product of historical processes of power and knowledge rather than as distinct analytical categories.
Given Yelle’s findings, we must ask ourselves whether blurring the distinctions between “religious” and “secular” is merely an academic exercise or whether our rootedness in our own time has bewitched us into believing that the ways we have been conditioned to think about these concepts must be the ways of thinking about them.
It is important to remain attentive to the language we use to describe the world (in scholarship and journalism alike) as well as to the agents of violence who oppose democratic aspirations.
Given the alarming rise of such political forces in the Indian subcontinent (despite Dr. Dabholkar’s best efforts) and in the United States, we moderns have more superstitions than we care to admit.
Anand Venkatkrishnan is a Ph.D. student in religion at Columbia University in New York City. His doctoral work focuses on the impact of the “bhakti” traditions of religious devotion on orthodox systems of Sanskrit scriptural hermeneutics in medieval and early modern India. This article first appeared on Sightings, a publication of the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and is used with permission.