“Rethinking Religion in India II: Rethinking Secularism”
New Delhi, India, 10-13 January 2009
In January 2008, the first conference questioned the theoretical framework that is used for the study of religion and tradition in the Indian context. The second conference, which took place from 10 till 13 January in New Delhi, proceeded from the questions raised in the first: If the theoretical framework of religious studies is inadequate in the Indian context, then how should we understand certain conflicts and problems in India that are generally linked to ‘religion’? The different sessions took up questions such as: Is secularism the solution to the problem of communal conflict in India or does it play a role in aggravating these conflicts? What is the relation between secularism and ‘fundamentalism’? How to make sense of the clash over religious conversion in contemporary India?
Today, the ideological struggle between two opposing political positions, viz. secularism and Hindutva has hijacked reflection and debate on the nature of Indian culture and society, making an academic debate on cognitive grounds almost impossible. Rethinking Religion in India II aimed to go beyond these limitations in a theoretical and scholarly way. Two central plenary conference formats – the Platform and Roundtable sessions – provided a forum for rigorous reflection and debate to a number of internationally renowned experts in the study of secularism, religion and culture, mainly from India, Europe and the US.
The Platform sessions consisted of a sustained debate between two opposing camps on the question ‘Is secularism the solution to communal violence?’ In the first two sessions, Prof. Achin Vanaik and Prof. Neera Chandhoke, both from the University of Delhi, India, argued that secularism is at least one of the preconditions to fight communal violence. Contrary to this standpoint, Dr. Jakob De Roover and Prof. S.N. Balagangadhara, both from Ghent University, Belgium, argued that secularism is not a solution to communal violence, but is rather the harbinger of religious conflict in India. The third session brought together a number of respondents in a Roundtable setting to evaluate the previous discussions. One of the main conclusions was that the opposing camps had been unable to enter into a real debate because the two standpoints were incommensurable. One regarded religion as India’s main evil, leading to communal violence, and indicating the need for more of secularism. The other held that the very characterisation of Indian traditions as religion only makes sense within a Western and basically Christian theoretical framework and investigated the impact of such an understanding on the problems among India’s diverse communities.
The Roundtable sessions took up three different sub-themes: (1) Secularism, Freedom of Religion and Religious Conversion; (2) Secularism, Hindutva and the Aryan Invasion Theory; and (3) Secularism and Religious Fundamentalism: Opposites or Alter Egos? Presentations by Ashis Nandy (Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi), Dilip K. Chakrabarti (Cambridge University, UK), Pratap Bhanu Mehta (Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi), and Winnifred Fallers Sullivan (Buffalo Law School, The State University of New York) initiated the sessions. After the presentations, two respondents formulated questions and issues for further discussion, which were then taken up by a group of permanent respondents, consisting of among others Akeel Bilgrami (Columbia University), Geoffrey Oddie (University of Sydney), S.N. Balagangadhara (Ghent University), Timothy Fitzgerald (University of Stirling), and Vivek Dhareshwar (Centre for the Study of Culture and Society, Bangalore).
Besides these central sessions, the Parallel Paper sessions provided the opportunity for young scholars from different parts of the world to share their research findings. A number of ‘How to...?’ workshops on concrete questions such as “How to teach about the Indian religions and traditions?”, provided all conference participants with the opportunity to actively contribute to the discussions.
Footage of the conference as well as interviews with participants and invited speakers can be watched on YouTube: www.youtube.com/cultuurwetenschap. Reflections on the conference and further discussions can be posted on the Rethinking Religion in India Blog: http://rethinkingreligion.wordpress.com/.
The discussions and conclusions of the first conference are being published by Routledge in the edited volume Rethinking Religion in India: The Colonial Construction of Hinduism (Bloch, Keppens and Hegde, December 2009).