Limits to Secularism

Two recent incidents redefined Secularism for me. Would state them as bland as possible so that you can draw your own conclusion.

First was one I was told happened. There was this CEO of an MNC in Bangalore. This man was from a Scandinavian Country running a large Engineering Unit in Bangalore. For two weeks he worked from Dawn to Mid Night. At the end of those two weeks his driver was fed up and on Friday Night the poor man said *I Can’t take it any more. I won’t be coming to work from tomorrow*. Next day being a Saturday was an holiday, the Boss did not bother. But on Sunday Morning he was a little unhappy as he had to go to Mass.

Exactly at the time when he would start for the Church the door bell rang. Opening the door he found his driver there. Boss attended Mass and came back. The driver returned the key and spoke for the first time. The driver said *You always go to Church on Sundays. I did not want to spoil it. I wont be coming tomorrow. Get a new driver* and vanished.

The Second was one I was a part of. A week back we had the Ayudha Pooja. There was a series of Pujas in the company where I work. Typical of our group most seniors were Iyengars (Vaishnavaites). When the Prohit offered the Aarti after the Puja the more Orthodox among them never took the Aarthi. The Iyengars do not take the aarthi. It is something to do with other Gods. Even in the most orthodox vaishnavaite temple we would not do that. That is how we pray.

I was reminded of the huge outcry against Modi on the Topi issue and the later retort on Hamid Ansari not taking Aarthi at Ram Leela Maidan.


My take on Secularism: You see your neighbour kiss his wife? Wave to them and move on. You don’t have to participate.  


4 thoughts on “Limits to Secularism

  1. Sridhar: Truly illuminating (not the aarthi illustration, but the first one, no pun intended). To me, the driver is truly secular – respectful of a norm that he does not subscribe to, but recognizes that the norm may hold some value to the other party involved and even enables it, notwithstanding some discomfort. If he merely tolerated it, that alone would be secularism, but here he enabled it, which, I think goes beyond secularism. One could complicate it further by invoking notions of karma, duty etc., Regardless of how one chooses to interpret it, a great story. I am not sure what to make of the second example, though. As for the neighbor kissing his wife, the “appropriate” response would depend on the cultural context. Waving to them and moving on seems to be the most sensible response almost anywhere in the world, regardless of what one thinks of public displays of affection.

    • The first case of the driver is a as you say is a classic case of how a typical hindu would react. From the heart rather than the brain. It is not *Secularism* it is rather *respect* for religion.

      • A formal definition of secularism (Merriam Webster) is “the belief that religion should not play a role in government, education, or other public parts of society.” From that perspective, you are right – the driver’s actions have nothing to do with secularism. I would even say that the driver’s actions had nothing to do with religion at all, but for the context. If he knew that the CEO regularly attended, say, a piano class, on Sunday mornings and would be inconvenienced by the driver’s absence, he most likely would have reacted similarly – that is, tendered his resignation *after* rather than *before* the piano class. So, the driver’s action is guided by a higher sense of *duty* that transcends religion (good luck finding such a driver (or a CEO)). But you are right, the driver’s action has very little to do with secularism – I would only add that it has very little to do with religion per se except for the context.

        So, now I am intrigued. If the first example has nothing to do with secularism, I cannot see how the second example has anything to do with secularism either. Secularism, however defined, applies at the level of “religion” whereas the unit of analysis in your second example is not “religion”, but caste. So, am I right in assuming that the second example has nothing to do with secularism?

        Or, based on the kissing analogy (I realise it is just an analogy) should I assume that secularism is largely about “minding your own business” and not having strong views about others’ private business (however broadly or narrowly one chooses to define business)?

        I recall the first line of Arun Shourie’s book “A Secular Agenda” where he begins with this clever statement “Indian secularism consists of branding others communal”. That is, of course, clever, but not very helpful in defining what secularism is. Maybe he has a more formal definition in the book – I don’t recall. I would like to know, because the definition in Merriam Webster strikes me as inadequate for the sense in which the term secularism is used in India.

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