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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 7 February 17, 2024

The question of moral injury and theoretical aporia in the framework of Secular governance | Sana Shah and Misbah Reshi

Saturday 17 February 2024


On 22 January 2024, the Prime Minister of India, Narender Modi, joined the Pran Pratishtha or the consecration ceremony, held in the newly constructed Ram Mandir in Ayodhya city of Uttar Pradesh. This ceremony marks the placement of an idol of Lord Ram in the inner sanctum of the temple. He was joined by all the leaders from the ruling party, BJP, along with leaders from other political parties, to celebrate the consecration and symbolic return of Lord Ram.

The celebration of civilisation and the empty symbolism of Indianness

Along with the leaders, celebrities, sportspersons, and major industrialists were present among the approximately 11,000 people [1] to join the ceremony from across the country. States led by the BJP announced public holidays [2] or a whole celebratory week [3] to mark the inauguration. Various parts of the country were being lit up and decorated to prepare for the ceremony and its celebration, as though not just Ayodhya but all parts of the country must celebrate the return of Lord Ram. Internationally, Indian embassies screened [4] the consecration ceremony in their countries as did the Times Square in New York. The resultant symbolism is that the celebration is not exclusively of and for Hindus, but all Indians should [5] participate in such festivities. Further, this is employed to frame the celebration as not simply of a religious majority but as a show of communal harmony reflecting the values central to the idea of India, arguably, to override the memories of the demolition.

This is not the first time [6] that Times Square in New York was used to celebrate the Ram Mandir. On 5 August 2020, a digital photograph of the Ram Mandir with Lord Rama was screened, to mark the foundation laying ceremony of the temple. This is also not the first time that the Prime Minister of the country immersed himself in the celebrations of this temple.

Because of secular framework, not in spite of it

In August 2020, after the Supreme Court of India delivered its verdict on the Ram Janmbhoomi Case [7], a religious ceremony to lay the foundation stone for the Ram Mandir (Bhoomi Pujan [8]) was organised which was presided over by the Prime Minister. Held amidst a raging global pandemic, this performative cum devotional gesture was perceived differently by different sections of the society.

Many argued that the Prime Minister, in his individual capacity, can attend the functions related to his faith and belief. But these distinctions between personal and official are bound to be blurred when the words in the formal invitation cards refer to Modi’s official designation and he is invited in his capacity of his office. Unless he makes an unequivocal declaration that he is attending the event in his individual capacity, his visits are bound to be treated as official. However, certain sections of the population were visibly offended. While many perceived this as a humiliation of sorts, for others the attendance by the Prime Minister was symbolically reflective of the overarching character that the Indian state had assumed over a period of time in the guise of secular governance.

The Nation dressed in secular-liberal democracy: Contradiction of terms

While some considered this to be the final nail on the coffin of secular governance [9], an integral foundation for the pillars the country stood on, others sounded appreciative of this step as it was the first step in the long-awaited return of Lord Ram to its birthplace.

The response in defence [10] of this move mostly blanketed the solemn attendance of the head of the government, in the individual capacity as a citizen, exercising his right to freedom of religion and belief, a constitutional right [11]. The government used a liberal understanding of constitutional rights, using secular vocabulary to justify the act, without engaging with the nuances and limitations of public offices.

This has opened a can of bigger questions that relate to the blurred lines between state and religion, and how there has been an ebb of secular governance, if not its outright collapse. We argue that the framework of secular governance in India enables such performances by political actors, and is far from its collapse.

The question of moral injury and the legal monochrome

Taking up these series of performative gestures that are linked to the return of Lord Ram as the reference for this discussion, and the larger project of temple-building as the point of focus, we say that the framework of secular governance, as one of the foundational principles of the Indian state does not create space for redressal of ‘moral injury’. We use moral injury as a term widely used in relation to minority rights, which does not find remedy in law, but ties intricately to the way minorities interact and exist within majoritarian states.

The redressal seems difficult to materialize within the same framework that enabled the injury in the first place. As Saba Mahmood [12] has argued, secular governance [13] actually hinges upon a particular conception of religiosity (e.g., as a private and individual experience), distinct patterns of political belonging (e.g., as a national minority), and specific configurations of gender relationships (e.g., organized around the model of the nuclear family). This mode of secular governance had not only failed to check the tendency of religious majoritarianism but also acted as an enabler of the same, given the inability to anticipate or translate this sense of potential hurt, humiliation, and injury [14] inflicted upon the religious minorities of the country.

Presiding over a religious ceremony in a secular nation is not in itself a problematic act. This has been a frequent practice in India that boasts of a secular fabric and accords equal respect to all religions while maintaining a principled distance [15] from all religions. The first President of India, Dr. Rajendra Prasad accepted [16] an invitation to inaugurate the Somnath Temple, although the then prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, expressed his disagreement [17] with the acceptance of such an invitation. However, prima facie, there were no constitutional violations in such acceptances of invites associated with religious events. Many years later, a Prime Minister, who also happened to be the daughter of the first Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi [18] inaugurated the Bharat Mata Mandir, constructed in 1983 with the support of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

But what has now escalated with the consecration ceremony is much more than an individual leader attending an explicitly religious event. This inauguration is being celebrated like a national festival, political leaders in their official capacities are not just attending the event but also declaring holidays, completely blurring the distinction between a personal religious function and a secular public act.

History, memory and the minority in law

The juridical language of secular governance does not provide any remedy to such injuries to minorities, there are no secular provisions that could be employed by the liberal sensibilities to make sense of this moral injury or to gauge the degree of this intangible hurt. Now the question arises, when there is no constitutional violation in such performative gestures and when it subscribes to the cultural ethos of the nation, what justifies the kind of anger that was expressed by a section of the population and where does the question of moral injury feature in the entire debate?

India as a postcolonial nation was born in the aftermath of a partition that was coloured by religious prejudice and resulted in mass killings, rapes, and numerous incidents of torture and brutality. It is thus equally important to situate the celebrations surrounding the temple within the long historical trajectory of Indian politics as well as the violent history of the demolition of the masjid that stood prior to the newly inaugurated temple. Both are studded with communal tensions and secular complexities, reminiscent of partition-memories, that build on the sentiments of cultural and religious majoritarianism.

Despite this, the Indian state had managed, albeit not ideally, to govern through the secular fabric and liberal values, relegating majoritarian elements out of public institutions. Consequently, those with majoritarian ideologies mobilised collectives, outsourcing violence from structural institutions to mobs, creating faceless and nameless entities. Thus, such majoritarian forces have proven adept at being able to advance their ideological agendas in and through the values of secular governance [19], equality, and tolerance.

In law even as the minority is reckoned as an equal citizen, this structural configuration of secular governance neglects the power inequalities that have produced the very category of minority through privileging majoritarian norms. The celebrations surrounding the Ram Mandir, are just an overzealous example of these norms. These norms however remain clouded from view by political secularism’s claims to neutrality and minority empowerment in India.


At this juncture, scrutinizing the framework of secular governance helps one understand this as a global project that seeks to ensure civic equality among citizens by appointing the nation-state as the arbiter of religious difference. Inherent to this framework, though, is the fact that rather than alleviating religious tensions and inequalities, secular governance actually exacerbates them. Hence the celebration of the consecration of the Ram Mandir within the politics of the country is not merely a question of law and the limits of religious freedom in India. It is a moral question that speaks to the capabilities of a secular governance framework in addressing moral injuries on minorities.

(Authors: Sana Shah is doing her PhD in History at University of Oxford and Misbah Reshi is doing her PhD in Law at University of Oxford)

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