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Hurt Sentiments: An Interview with Neeti Nair

Updated: Jun 6


SLR seeks to encourage interdisciplinary research that critically enquires into the intersections between the law and the social sciences, especially in the South Asian context. This year, one of our key areas of focus is legal history and historical analyses of the law and legal institutions. Thus, we recently organised a book discussion on Prof. (Dr.) Neeti Nair’s second book Hurt Sentiments: Secularism and Belonging in South Asia (Harvard University Press, 2023).

Through a history of foundational moments such as the Gandhi Murder Trial, the lawsuits against secular forces during the mobilisation in Ayodhya, and debates on the meaning of ‘Islamic state’ and ‘secularism’ in Pakistan and Bangladesh, the book examines the shaping of state ideologies by “hurt sentiments” in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. In the process, the book asks what it has meant for India to be a secular republic, for Pakistan to be an Islamic republic, and for Bangladesh to be a secular republic that simultaneously enshrines Islam as the state religion.

In order to delve deeper into some of the arguments made in the book, SLR organised a Book Discussion with Prof. Nair on 24 December 2023. The panel comprised Dr. Karthick Ram Manoharan (Assistant Professor, Social Sciences, NLSIU), and Divya Sethuraman and Siddhant Mishra (Members of the SLR Editorial Board). An edited transcript of the interview, with additional inputs, follows.


Siddhant Mishra: If we may begin with asking a few questions about methods. Your book engages with archives from across the subcontinent. As a historian, could you shed some light on the experience of working in the archives and any issues that an early career scholar must be concerned about while beginning their forays into the archives? 

That’s an excellent question. I was fortunate that many of the archives I consulted for Hurt Sentiments were digitised, like the Lok Sabha debates, the Rajya Sabha debates, and the debates at the National Assembly in Pakistan. All I needed was a good Internet connection. When I first started reading these debates at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., I had access to the hard copies. I found it easier to turn the pages but the fact is that they were all digitised. I searched keywords to home in on topics especially to navigate the National Assembly debates in Pakistan.

For my first book, Changing Homelands: Hindu Politics and the Partition of India (Harvard University Press and Permanent Black, 2011), I spent more than a year and a half in the archives in Delhi, Chandigarh, Patiala, and Haridwar. However, for the present book, I was mostly in the United States where publications like Mainstream and the Organiser were available in the Library of Congress and also in my university library. In Delhi, I did manage to get a hold of files from the Sahmat archives but that was fortuitous. I walked into their office and met Sahmat representative, Mr. Rajendra Prasad. He was so kind to spare time to be interviewed and permitted me to photograph relevant materials with my phone. That took two afternoons, if memory serves right, and that archive, when I eventually began writing, turned out to be very helpful.

Some of the legal archives that I consulted were the papers of the Gandhi Murder Trial housed in the Law Library of Congress in Washington DC, copies of court judgements available in bound volumes of the Pakistan Law Digest, and the Supreme Court Cases (SCC) online. I also went through cases listed in Manupatra and Indian Kanoon and was helped enormously by Mr. Tariq Ahmad, Foreign Law Specialist at the Law Library of Congress, who helped me navigate some of these legal databases. I also interviewed Mr Kamal Hossain, Bangladesh’s first law minister, and former Chief Justice of Pakistan Tassaduq Hussain Jillani (on Skype) and kept rereading these interviews while trying to make sense of my material. To early career scholars, I would reiterate that the richness of the archive that you put together in the course of your research will transform the quality of your dissertation/book.

Divya Sethuraman: Each chapter in the book elucidates its argument with a discussion on a particular case from the period in focus. In legal scholarship, there is a tendency to read cases for their decisions and holdings, and we often forget that cases are also so much about a clash of narratives. Something I observed in your book was the great detail in which the parties’ arguments are examined. So, from a methods perspective, could you tell us a little bit more about your process when you engage with case law?

Thank you for this question. Before embarking on this book, I wrote an article on Section 295A IPC in 2013. That was my first foray into legal history and it took me some time to understand how lawyers write. However, the reception of that article was very positive and that gave me a little bit of confidence to continue in legal history. That article laid out the overall context and the give and take that transpired during the debates to shed light on the eventual decision to institute a new law.

I employ similar methods for this book. I am very interested in the process of debate: this is as true of my analysis of parliamentary debates as it is of case law. I treat each of them (a vignette of a debate or a case law) as pieces of evidence to be analysed and mined for what they reveal about the political opinions in that particular moment, that historical time. So, for instance, I examine certain arguments made by the defence that Gandhi “hurt sentiments” when he interspersed words like ‘Karim’ and ‘Rahim’ in his prayer songs. I consider the response of witnesses to these prayer meetings to explain how witnesses for the prosecution engaged with these types of allegations at the time. What does this debate in the courtroom reveal about the arguments of the Hindu Right on hurt Hindu sentiments and on Gandhian politics, secularism and belonging, at the time of his assassination? Or, to take another example, what does the verdict in Punjab Religious Book Society of Lahore v The State [(1960) 12 PLD (Lahore) 629 (Pak.)] tell us about the potential for religious freedom in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan? How and why is this contested only two years later? Can we then conclude that this progressive landmark judgment had a lasting impact on Pakistan’s jurisprudence?

Dr. Manoharan: Thank you, SLR for organising this event and Neeti for being here. Today is quite symbolic because it’s the remembrance day for Periyar Ramaswamy who is known for hurting a lot of sentiments with his words. Neeti, in the book, you draw a binary between Godse’s thinking and the Gandhian way of thinking about religion. To some extent, the Godse idea of religion, nation, and state appears to be dominating our contemporary discourse, especially in the past decade or so.  In this context, I have been reflecting on Ashish Nandy’s anti-secular manifesto where he expresses disdain for a certain Westernised Indian performance and promotion of secularism that is disconnected from ‘Indian’ foundations. If secularism, thus understood, is a disconnected imagination from the life of an average Indian, what are ways of (re)imagining secularism that are unique to the average Indian? 

I’m afraid I don’t see secularism as a westernised Indian performance and as disconnected from the life of the average Indian. The first two chapters of my book, which examine cases from India, revolve around understanding the evolution of secularism, from the 1940s to the early 2000s, definitionally and in practice. These definitions emerge from Indians’ lived experience of secularism, from their demands that secularism be concretized, and better defined, in practice. These demands are articulated by members of parliament from all political parties, representing all sections of society, and every region of India. To equate secularism with a westernised Indian, as Nandy does, is to be blissfully ignorant of this rich history of Indian secularism.

Siddhant Mishra: Your discussion on the Constituent Assembly juxtaposes the proceedings of the committees with the Gandhi assassination and its aftermath.  This is an interesting approach to studying the Constituent Assembly, situating it in and around events happening outside the assembly itself. Aditya Nigam has focused on the other events such as the political alliances that shaped membership of the assembly. So, why did you decide to focus your approach on the defence presented by Godse in the aftermath of the Gandhi assassination? Could you share some insights that this focus brought to the understanding of the functioning of the Indian Constituent Assembly?

Originally, I was interested in book bans and censorship. I began reading Godse because I was intrigued by the ban on his defence statement. Among other things, Godse discusses Gandhi’s prayer meetings and his sentiments being hurt by the inclusion of Muslim prayers in his defence statement. I found it disturbing that although we are not in the middle of a partition or partition-style violence, Godse’s accusations about so-called “Muslim appeasement” are now very much  a part of today’s mainstream Hindu common sense.

I was reading articles from the Times of India (through Proquest) that were reporting, day by day, on the course of the Gandhi Murder Trial in the Red Fort at the same time that I was reading the Constituent Assembly debates. It seemed obvious to me that when Patel asked the minority community representatives to go forth and gauge public opinion in their communities, he was referring to the effect of the Godse trial happening only two miles away. How can we treat these historical occurrences as silos that do not affect each other? Godse’s arguments on Urdu, on Hyderabad, on separate electorates, were subjects that also vexed CA members at the same time, and on which they, too, were presenting their arguments. Scholars such as Gyan Prakash, in Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy’s Turning Point (Penguin Viking, 2018), have also argued that it is important to reckon with the weight of what was happening outside the Constituent Assembly to understand the debates themselves.

Dr. Manoharan: Generally, we see that debates on hurt sentiments in popular discourse pertain to religious morality, offensive speeches, or films hurting religious sentiments. But should it only relate to religion or can “hurt sentiments” be extended to other issues like language too? Why does religion take centre stage when we talk about hurt sentiments?

In Hurt Sentiments, I also have examples from the neglect of (Bengali) language causing hurt sentiments in east Pakistan, and the sidelining of Urdu causing hurt to Indian Muslims during the Constituent Assembly debates in India. But from the point of view of the law, it is true that most First Information Reports (‘FIRs’) are filed for cases alleging hurt to (presumably deeply felt) religious sentiments. At the same time, an intrepid scholar of such FIRs will be able to point to cases where certain castes have also declared their sentiments were hurt by the lyrics of a particular film song, or a dream sequence in a particular film. There have been so many cases filed that I have not been able to keep track of them all.

This book, a work of history, traces hurt sentiments back to the time of Partition, widely believed to have been orchestrated along religious lines (though that story, as narrated in my first book, is a lot more complicated). But I think it is useful to see the particular context in which section 295A of the Indian Penal Code was applied at the time of Partition, so I begin with that in chapter one. As I show in this chapter, section 295A rose to the defence of Muslim hurt sentiments at a time of extreme hate speech in an overall context of what I term “Muslim abandonment.”

Siddhant Mishra: The book discusses the various forms of legalities which attempted to manage and control hurt sentiments that developed through colonial-era laws. The book presents hurt sentiments as a category of laws devised and imposed through a British view of the supposed ‘sentimentality of the native’. However, their quick adoption throughout the country and the gravity that was accorded to such laws makes one wonder if such legalities existed in the pre-colonial period. How can we think of “hurt sentiments” in the pre-colonial, if at all?  

A historical figure like Akbar did not regard Muslims and non-Muslims as continually warring communities to perpetuate his rule. It is the British who took on the mantle of being arbiters of Hindu-Muslim disputes; they invested, first, in classifying and counting Hindus and Muslims as all-India categories and communities, and, second, in portraying Hindus and Muslims as perennially warring communities in order to make themselves relevant. That framing and sequestering of India’s diversity into those specific columns in the census, a colonial invention, is unique to the colonial period.

In precolonial India, law was fragmented - by region, by custom, by religion, by sect – and because it was not codified and written down, it was more amenable to being negotiated. There were prescriptive texts and codes, to be sure, but historians are not yet clear to what extent these prescriptive codes and manuals were put into practice; the evidence on this point is not uniform across India. We now have detailed, quite granular histories of specific parts of India such as Divya Cherian’s new book Merchants of Virtue: Hindus, Muslims, and Untouchables in Eighteenth-Century South Asia (University of California Press, 2022), that looks at the kingdom of Marwar. But much more historical research needs to be done before we can remark with certainty on what kind of legalities existed in the pre-colonial period for this or that part of India.

Siddhant Mishra: The book has an interesting discussion on how the multiplicities in interpreting the word ‘secularism’ in different languages (English-Hindi) contributed to a vertical split in the perspectives of the English and Hindi media toward secularism. Do you see the debates over a North-South divide in our present polity as a continuation of the same patterns? Or do you think there is a possibility that the vernacular language and English media spaces have begun to overlap in their interpretations of secularism?

Great question. I do agree that there is a convergence between mainstream Hindi and English media. However, there has been a rise in critical commentary in vernacular languages like Bhojpuri on alternative media like YouTube (I am thinking of the rap song “UP Me Ka Ba” that went viral) as well as in new and critical news media, such as Newslaundry.

On the North-South divide, I did travel through urban cities in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and West Bengal this winter and in the course of my visit, I saw zero public enthusiasm for the new temple in Ayodhya. No flags or signs, but plenty of evidence of everyday religiosity displayed through visits to roadside shrines or bigger religious structures. However Delhi, close to January 22, had turned almost completely saffron, with saffron flags, buntings and diyas strung across shopping malls.

Divya Sethuraman: In your book, it is interesting to see how consistently, public performances of secularism come under attack and become the subject of litigation - for instance, the Hum Sab Ayodhya exhibition and the subsequent legal action in Sahmat v The Government. What do you make of this? Do you think that the omnipresence of the state and the judiciary in regulating the public performance of secularism has critically impacted the call to be secular?

Yes, as I argue in the book, the 1990s witnessed a proliferation of cases of hurt sentiments. This meant that the secularists had to be prepared to defend books and paintings and films and songs and installations every time these were attacked on grounds of hurt religious sentiments. The defence had to be constant because the attacks were constant. Have the judiciary and the state been consistent and prompt in defending constitutional principles when these cases have come to court? Evidently not.

What I find interesting is that in contrast to the confusion on display in Parliament during the Sahmat controversy in August 1993 (that I discuss in the book), there was complete unanimity in the official  line taken by the government of India in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of the Babri Masjid, that this was an unforeseen tragedy.

Lakshmi Mall Singhvi, India’s High commissioner to the UK when the Babri Masjid was demolished, gave numerous interviews to the media in the UK to ensure that India’s point of view was put forward. In an interview to Blitz a month later, Singhvi recalled that after December 6th, the British media gave him 40 slots on television and radio to present India’s point of view, its commitment to secularism and the resilience of its institutions. Singhvi argued that given the constraints of the Indian federal system, it was not possible for the government of India to take pre-emptive action.

He also noted that Jim Lester, who was the leader of a parliamentary delegation from the UK that had just returned from a visit to India, was very sympathetic to the Indian situation. Singhvi quoted Lester, “In the best-managed systems, catastrophes do happen, calamities do come. But India should be judged not by the calamity but the skilful manner in which the Government of India and the institutions of India rose in defence of principles.” [Interview of the Week, Blitz, January 23, 1993]

Singhvi’s commitment to secularism in the immediate aftermath of 6 December 1992 in faraway London is very different from the lack of clarity in Parliament at the height of the Sahmat controversy only eight months later. When faced with the oratory of an Atal Bihari Vajpayee in Parliament, the Congress becomes defensive. As I quote LK Advani in the book, it is the BJP that is “setting the agenda”, the Congress is only responding to it. And Sahmat is only the beginning of a slew of cases where the Hindu Right is on the ascendant, nurturing a narrative of Hindu “hurt,” allegedly accumulated over the centuries, whereas those in-charge of upholding constitutional values are on the backfoot, sometimes upholding the constitution and an ethic of secularism, sometimes filing cases against NGOs like Sahmat for hurting religious sentiments. Who owns the narrative and takes the effort to file case after case of “hurt sentiment”? The Hindu Right does, while the Congress plays catch-up, and so it has been since 1992.

Divya Sethuraman: While the book is about secularism in South Asia, it focuses only on India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. In these countries, secularism is associated primarily with religion. In other countries of the subcontinent, for instance, Sri Lanka, and even Pakistan (prior to the independence of Bangladesh), questions on secularism are as much about religion, as they are about language. How much of the discussion in the book accounts for these manifestations of the secularism debate?

Political thinkers and activists in smaller countries in the South Asian region have held India up to very high standards, a country where minorities (used to) feel secure. That is why in one of the debates in Parliament, Subhadra Joshi says that communalism (sampradayikta) did not defeat the idea of Pakistan in 1971; only Indian secularism could defeat the idea of Pakistan. In the book, I discuss how language plays a key role in the formation of Bengali politics in East Pakistan in the 1950s. Other scholars have worked on the language question in Sri Lanka.

Dr. Manoharan: You conclude your book by saying that “to be secular is to belong fearlessly.” In the imagination of Phule, Periyar and others, there was criticism of the conception of secularism because of a sense of not belonging. Can we thus also see secularism as a defence of fearlessly not belonging but still being able to critique religion?

The questions raised by Phule and Periyar were critical in the contexts in which they were being raised. I am asking a very different set of questions of secularism at a time when Muslim belonging, in India, is being hotly debated once more. The debates discussed in Hurt Sentiments speak directly to the question of Muslim belonging in post-partition India, and to Hindu, Christian and Buddhist belonging in post-partition Pakistan (and later Bangladesh). Even so, in the penultimate page of the book, I write: “An explicit definition of South Asian secularism as respect for all religions does not necessitate a separation of matters of religion from the state. Instead, it stems from South Asia’s own history of battling communal demons; it stands for respecting all religious traditions, individuals and communities if they do no harm – to each other or to those who are atheists or agnostic.” The allusion to atheists and those who are agnostic speaks to your question of “not belonging” and of being able to simultaneously critique religion.

Still, I should concede the obvious - that another scholar reading these debates with a different set of concerns will make a different critique of secularism as well as religion. Thank you.


This interview will be followed by a book round-table comprising other scholars responding to Hurt Sentiments. The links to their responses will be updated here as and when these are published.

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