Sites of conflict in the Indian secular state: secularism, caste and religious conversion.

Author:Stephens, Robert J.

When the British left India in 1947, two new nations were created. The division of the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan and again later in 1955, with the division of East Pakistan, which in 1971 became Bangladesh, resulted in mass migrations of people among the new nations. Since then, Pakistan has struggled to define itself as an Islamic republic. In contrast, India currently defines itself constitutionally as a "secular" republic. Nonetheless, with a population that is over 80 percent Hindu, but also includes the world's second largest Muslim population (e.g. more Muslims currently live in India than in all Middle Eastern countries combined), the role of "religion" in political and public life has been central, and conflicts among religious groups continue in many areas. One of the main sites for religious conflict in modern India involves the issue of religious conversion.

Debates about religious conversion have often centered on the issue of caste identity. Conversion from one religious tradition or identity to another indicate a change in caste status and, if so, what kind? Furthermore, what should the role of the self-described "secular" government be in deciding issues of caste affiliation vis-a-vis the legality or illegality of conversion? And most important, what is the government's responsibility in determining the always thorny issue of definitions: who counts as a "Hindu," who counts as a "non-Hindu," who should receive affirmative action benefits from the government, and who, due to religious conversion or to loss of caste status should lose affirmative action, economic, or maintenance privileges?

This essay explores important historical issues relevant to the ongoing debates about "Hinduism," caste, and religious conversion within the modern, secular state of India. (1) Highlighted and analyzed will be those concerns that Indian courts have consistently upheld in their adherence to what has been identified as the "constitutional religious model," (2) and will focus on the history of both the maintenance of--and the loss of--significant rights and privileges afforded to persons deemed to be members of the Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST), or Other Backward Castes (OBC), upon conversion to religions other than "Hinduism." (3)

In light of India's modern, secular state Constitution, issues involving caste status and religious and legal identity remain a vexing problem. An explicit goal of the Indian Constitution is to ensure "equality of status and opportunity" among all citizens. Article 15 (1) maintains that "The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on the grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them." (4) Discrimination on the basis of "religion" and "caste" is then declared to be illegal in Article 15. Yet "Hinduism," as it has been variously defined in the courts and by certain scholars of religion, including self-identifying Hindus and non-Hindus alike, has been said to affirm and uphold the "caste system" as one of its "essential" defining characteristics.

It is necessary at the outset to address the issue of secular law and some of the legal implications of religious conversion in modern India as a part of the ongoing discussion of the ways in which Indian lawmakers and judges have handled the juridical aspects of religious conversion. On 7 April 2006, the Rajasthan Assembly became the latest Indian political body to pass legislation barring religious conversion. Defending the provisions of the Rajasthan Swatantrya Act (or the "Bill for Religious Freedom"), Home Minister G.C. Kataria stated that Rajasthan would be the sixth state after Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, and Chattisgarh to prevent "forced" religious conversion. (5) Several states throughout India, including Madhya Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh, currently have legislation place that bans conversion without conversion "permits"-both the convert and those facilitating the conversion must have signed documentation from the district magistrate to ensure the legality of the conversion process. Similar bans on religious conversion are found elsewhere in South Asia including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. (6) The presence of reserved seats in state and federal parliaments and in educational and medical facilities for traditionally underprivileged and underrepresented groups further complicates the legal issue surrounding conversion. Numerous cases have been heard before state High Courts and the Supreme Court that involve the loss of maintenance or reserved privileges due to the change in caste status that often accompanies religious conversion. (7)

Precisely at this point of change--in terms of religious and legal identity--the conversion event (or process) reaches the apex of social significance in the eyes of the secular state. It is important, therefore, to note the ways in which conversion as a socially significant rhetorical act openly challenges the secular state's welfare schemes and the maintenance of religious and caste identities. (8) This essay seeks to contextualize the issues of caste reservations and religious conversion as seen from the perspective of the secularist "master narrative" (i.e., the overarching ideological and rhetorical system of thought) of the Indian legal community. To that end, it is necessary to introduce briefly the concept of "secularism" and its proponents in modern India.


The category of "secularism" has been deployed in India by a variety of persons ill a variety of ways. Though a widely used category in recent Indian political discourse, "secularism" is a newly developed ideology with roots in the modern world. the meaning of "secularism" in India remains ambiguous and, as has been argued elsewhere, there is a functional utility in this ambiguity; it allows a variety of persons with diverse viewpoints either to praise or to condemn its influence (9) For example, when candidates for political office in India praise the "secular" virtues of the Constitution (a common political strategy deployed regularly in campaigns throughout the Indian subcontinent by politicians of every political ilk), they may be lauding the fundamental right "freely to profess practice and propagate religion," found in Article 25(1). Equally possible, the aspiring politician may intend to point out the Hindu spirit of tolerance toward all religions that some claim is enshrined in the Indian Constitution. Alternatively, the candidate may merely appreciate what she or he construes to be the equal treatment of religions by the state or the careful non-involvement with religions on the part of the state. On the other hand, the "secular virtues" favored by the candidate may refer to the direct involvement with religion by the government in terms of reserved seats and "affirmative action" quotas in educational or political institutions based upon caste status and religious affiliation. Put succinctly, "secularism in India is a multi-vocal word: what it means depends upon who uses the word and in what context." (10)

In 1846, George Jacob Holyoake (d. 1906)--the last British citizen to be convicted for "blasphemy in a public lecture" and a self-described "agitator"--coined the term "secularism" as a way of describing his controversial opinions. Holyoake sought to identify an increasingly popular doctrine in which, "morality should be based solely in regard to the well-being of mankind in the present life to the exclusion of all considerations drama from belief in God or in a future state." (11) While the term "secularism" is of fairly recent vintage, historians and sociologists have traced the broader process of "secularization" somewhat further back in Western history. (12) The historical origins of the secularization process can be seen in Europe with the Protestant Reformation and in the subsequent rise of nation-states that sought to establish governments outside of the jurisdiction of religious authorities.

Sociologist Peter Berger proposes a brief definition of the process whereby early-modern European societies grew increasingly secular: "By secularization we mean the process by which sectors of society and culture are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols." (13) Likewise, Berger lists several "carriers" of the secularization process in the modern period: the spread of Western civilization, the rise of Communism, modern nationalism, and the modern economic process or the "dynamic of industrial capitalism." Berger argues that-profound social changes have resulted from the process of secularization in the modern world:

Probably for the first time in history, the religious legitimations of the world have lost their plausibility not only for a few intellectuals and other marginal individuals but for broad masses of entire societies. This opened up an acute crisis not only for the nomization of the large social institutions but for that of individual biographies. In other words, there has arisen a problem of "meaningfulness" not only for such institutions as the state or the economy but for the ordinary routines of everyday life. (14)

How then has secularism confronted traditional religious legitimizations in the Indian context? Is there a one-to-one correspondence between Western models of secularism and Indian secularism? "Secularism' has become a word much brandished about the modern Indian political context. (15) Legal historian J.D.M. Derrett in his now standard work on religion and (law in India, noted that as "secularism" became increasingly fashionable, indeed axiomatic among certain elite quarters of Indian society in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, virtually everything in the Hindu past, from ancient ruling dynasties to classical religious texts, came to be called "secular": "'Secularism' being in favor, naturally all Hindu culture, including the Vedas are said...

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