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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 11, New Delhi, February 27, 2021

Interpreting Contemporary India | Arup Kumar Sen

Saturday 27 February 2021, by Arup Kumar Sen

The eminent anthropologist, Talal Asad, in his published interview in 2007, made some seminal arguments. He argued:

It is precisely in a secular state - which is supposed to be totally separated from religion — that it is essential for state law to define, again and again, what genuine religion is, and where its boundaries should properly be...The state (a political entity/realm) has the function of defining the acceptable public face of “religion”.

Asad further observed how religion could be an organic part of secular statecraft: “There are clear rules in the United States about the separation of state and religion, but that doesn’t prevent “nonsecular” interventions in the politics of the present regime. As we all know, the Christian Right is at the heart of the Bush government”. (See Nermeen Shaikh, The Present as History: Critical Perspectives on Global Power, Columbia University Press, 2007)

Talal Asad’s critique of secular statecraft is very much relevant in the present context of India. We have a secular Constitution, which categorically denied discrimination of citizens on the basis of religion. However, it is the State Power which is defining the “genuine religion” in contemporary India.

Dr. B. R. Ambedkar is the chief architect of the Constitution of India. However, he had no illusion that the Constitution itself would guarantee our liberty and freedom of expression. In his last speech in the Constituent Assembly (November 25, 1949), Ambedkar said: “...The Constitution can provide only the organs of State such as the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary. The factors on which the working of those organs of the State depend are the people and the political parties they will set up as their instruments to carry out their wishes and their politics”.

Reading Dr. B. R. Ambedkar together with Talal Asad clarifies our understanding of what is happening in contemporary India under BJP rule. Moreover, it enlightens us about the interface between religion and politics.

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