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A Battle for the Soul of Postcoloniality?: Arvind Elangovan Reviews Hurt Sentiments

At the time of formal decolonisation in mid-August of 1947, Pakistan and India not only inherited two broken nation-states, but in their Partition both temporally and geographically, perhaps, forever lost the meaning of what it meant to be a postcolonial state and society. Did postcoloniality simply mean forgetting the past and forging a new future or did it mean resolving the issues of the past and guiding the future through that pathway? The meaning of postcoloniality oscillates between these two positions. Of course, around and immediately after the Partition (for instance, the famous speeches by Nehru and by Jinnah) and in time, political leaders, religious leaders, scholars, the courts, international observers, and everyday Indians among others would strive to impart meaning to this moment and articulate their vision for aligning the past with the future. In doing so, however, the spectral absence of the meaning of postcoloniality wrought by Partition continued to haunt these projects. A particularly manifest way in which this absence has persisted lies in the tortured and contested ways in which the newly decolonised nations of South Asia confronted and navigated the question of religion, especially since it became the most visible cause of the Partition of the subcontinent. Religion became both the cause and consequence, a subject of history and a determinant of the future. It forced questions about religious differences of the past (despite the abundant evidence of syncretic living among different religions for centuries in South Asia) and raised questions about the future of living together in a single nation-state (again, despite the evidence that it was going to be inevitable in spite of large-scale, violent migrations of population between partitioned territories). The question of religion, then, went to the heart of postcoloniality. If the idea of religion is meant to provide solace and redemption to the individual soul, in its public, political manifestation, it tore at the soul of postcoloniality.

Postcoloniality and the Quest for the Place of Religion

Neeti Nair, in her book Hurt Sentiments: Secularism and Belonging in South Asia (HUP 2023), provides us critical insights of the ways in which religion has played a role in shaping and reimagining the nations of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Each nation has struggled to define their postcoloniality by positing their views on religion, using the notion of ‘hurt sentiments’ and implementing policies that impacted the socio-political and cultural life of people belonging to all religions, especially, the minorities (p 18). The cumulative effect has been that in the nearly eight decades of postcoloniality for India and Pakistan and a little more than five decades for Bangladesh, religion continues to define, demarcate and enunciate who belongs to the nation-state completely and who does only partially. Of course, this impact of religion has not been an uncontested phenomenon as we learn from Nair – who carefully redraws this genealogy to demonstrate that secularism and belonging is as much a product of contestation as it is of forced imposition by the power of the state. Meanings of postcoloniality, then, will be repeatedly sought, lost, torn apart and sutured on the fabric of sating religious sentiments and in the fabrication of hurt sentiments.

Nair traces this trajectory of loss and contestation from the targeted assassination of Gandhi on January 30th, 1948. She rightly points out that this particular episode has received far less attention than other aspects of Gandhi’s life and his legacy (p 21). By probing the ideological differences between the assassin, Nathuram Godse, who believed in the primacy of Hinduism in defining the political life of the country, and of Gandhi who believed in the ‘equal respect for all religions’, Nair convincingly demonstrates how this monumental episode signposted the ideology of the Hindu nationalists at the heart of the new republic in many ways (pp 46-49). Constitutionally, the framers quickly revoked the guarantee of separate electorates for religious minorities (pp 62-70) and at the same time found a privileged place for one of the signature demands of the Hindu nationalist group by including a provision for cow protection in the Directive Principles of State Policy – a set of ethical guidelines without the promise of legal enforcement or redress. Over the subsequent decades, however, these principles would play as vital a role as the enforceable fundamental rights (see, for instance, Madhav Khosla’s discussion). Legally, the hanging of Godse, the arrest of ideologues Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and M S Golwalkar (p 41, 50), and banning the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) responsible for Gandhi’s killing (p 50) did not achieve the desired result of marginalising the movement. If anything, such prosecution led the RSS to amplify a narrative of victimhood (p 51). The inference of this account becomes clear when we recognise that by the end of the Nehruvian era, the postcolonial state could not convincingly answer the fundamental question posed by an ideological driven assassination of Gandhi – why does religion matter for the state? In other words, it was made abundantly clear that religion matters to the people but why did the state at times favored religion and at other times chose not to? As Nair points out, this question would be revisited vigorously during the Indira Gandhi premiership of the late 60s and much of the 70s and despite many words spoken and written about secularism, a curious silence would begin enveloping the political and constitutional landscape about the meaning of religion in postcolonial India.

In Nair’s account, we witness the ways in which the question of secularism vigorously defended by Indira Gandhi and her supporters were contested by none other than Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Jana Sangh, the precursor to the present-day BJP. The twin sites of Indo-Pak war of 1971 and the associated birth of Bangladesh, along with debates in Parliament on inserting the word “secularism” in the Preamble to the Constitution during the Emergency provided an interesting background in which these debates took place. Nair perceptively highlights one of the striking facets of the debate on secularism during the Emergency, namely, the inability and unwillingness to define the meaning of secularism by the leaders of Indira Gandhi’s Congress (pp 106-110). Strangely, then, an affirmation of secularism by adding it to the Preamble of the Constitution became simultaneously symbolic (since it was devoid of content) but also substantial (because it committed India officially to a secular ethic). In highlighting this aspect, Nair underscores the paradoxical commitment of the postcolonial state which on the one hand believed in the project of secularism, but on the other could not articulate its ideals or principles.

Nair’s book is vital not only because it discusses this trajectory of secularism and belonging in India but also in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Nair documents how Pakistan, like India, began with a commitment to equal respect of all religions despite religion playing a vital role in the making of the state. However, soon after the death of its enigmatic founder Jinnah, the role of religion, especially of Islam’s, assumed political prominence. The debate around the objectives resolution, the Islamic character of the nation and whether or not Pakistan should adopt joint electorates or separate electorates would determine to what extent Islam would be accorded priority and the extent of rights that were to be guaranteed for religious minorities. While this was not uncontested, it soon became clear that the state would privilege Islam with only a passing gesture of recognition of religious minorities (pp 149-197). Likewise, in Bangladesh, efforts to instill a secular ethic faded despite vigorous attempts by opponents to do so. Eventually, Islam was established as the religion of the state (pp 198-241). Again, despite the clear domination of a single religion in the governance of Pakistan and Bangladesh, Nair also notes that this history of the relationship between the state and religion/s is shaped by continuous moments of dissent that existed through the decades. Nair concludes this chapter on an optimistic note, stating that this would provide a normative resource for the future of these two countries. Indeed, Nair also forcefully concludes the book in a similar vein, “To be secular is to belong fearlessly” (p 250, emphasis original).

Decentering Religion?

What, then, do we make of this fascinating account of debates around religion that marks and marred the trajectory of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh in the decades after their independence? Nair’s narrative makes it abundantly clear that political leaders grappling with the public manifestation of religion in India and Pakistan in the 1940s and 50s were not adequately prepared for this moment. In India, the shocking assassination of Gandhi by Godse, the subsequent legitimisation of Hindu interests both in the Constitution and in the courts, and the gradual rise of the BJP in the late 90s and the early 21st century indicate that the political and constitutional arrangement of the 1940s and 50s were remarkably provincial in scope and highly contingent in nature (see, for instance, Shefali Jha’s discussion of minority rights in the Indian constituent assembly). Likewise in Pakistan and Bangladesh, efforts to institute equal respect for all religions quickly failed leading to the establishment of Islam as the state religion – a development that continues to be a source of insecurity for religious minorities in both countries.

For me, one of the important questions that Nair’s thought-provoking book raises is the following: why has religion become the force that is tearing apart the postcolonial states and societies of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh? In both Pakistan and Bangladesh, the assumption that establishing the primacy of a single religion would introduce stability has been severely challenged. In addition to the opposing views that existed as documented by Nair, the splitting of Pakistan and the birth of Bangladesh in 1971 had much to do with religion as seen in the way the issue of whether people of East Pakistan constituted a threat to Islam or not was debated (p 210). Likewise in Bangladesh, Mujibur Rehman’s assassination set the stage for privileging religion in a way that has led to questions about the secular nature of the postcolonial state. While India did not formally establish a state religion, the question of religion nevertheless defines the parameters of politics today. Hence, we have to ask, why has religion become this force of violent disruption and has become a characteristic of postcolonial condition in South Asia?

Answering this question is urgent because we need to decide if we are going to pursue the goal of stability and relative absence of conflict among the citizenry by guaranteeing greater religious freedom or recognise the inevitable plurality of belief systems that includes non-religious aspects, all of which deserves critical attention. In other words, by pursuing the question of belonging through the stipulation of ‘equal respect for all religions’ (while is important as a normative ideal), are we, perhaps sidestepping exploring other ways in which the question of belonging could be addressed?

To be clear, I am not suggesting that we should discard attempts to think about secularism and belonging but rather perhaps more fundamentally, calling for a reflection on the idea that the privileging of religion in the public, political discourse needs to be seriously rethought. If we continue to seek moral virtue for the republic by measuring the extent to which the idea of freedom of religion is secured, then, given Nair’s brilliant account, we have to also accept that such freedoms are going to be forever contested. Belonging will always be contested. How do we imagine a future where belonging is a given? I submit that it cannot be through the idea of secularism due to the role that religion has played in the making of South Asia, but rather by recognising that the battle for the soul of postcoloniality must be fought on grounds that decenters, instead of privileging, religion. Indeed, Nair’s extensive documentation of debates on the question of religion inevitably gestures towards this possibility.  


Arvind Elangovan is a historian at Wright State University. His book, Norms and Politics: Sir Benegal Narsing Rau in the Making of the Indian Constitution, 1935-50 was published in 2019. He is interested in the conceptual and political histories of the Indian constitution and currently working on the ways in which the question of minorities intersected with ideas of constitutionalism in the long twentieth century. 

This post is part of a book round-table on Hurt Sentiments. Read the other posts here.



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