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Secularism and the Maintenance of Caste Hierarchies: Notes from Sikh Studies

Secularism and the Maintenance of Caste Hierarchies: Notes from Sikh Studies

Pritam Photo


Pritam Singh Tinna

Pritam Photo(This paper was presented at Young Researchers’ Conference, Beyond the Icon: Ambedkar’s Legacy for Our Times held at Ambedkar University Delhi on the 23rd of February 2018)

In an opinion article published in the Hindu dated September 3, 2001, Andre Beteille, taking notes from M.N Srinivas writes: “It would be unthinkable for any political leader, whether of the Left or the right, to speak openly against secularism, just as it would be unthinkable for him to speak openly against equality.” (Beteille, 2001) The views expressed in this opinion article are not very different from the views expressed in his scholarly article published in the Economic and Political Weekly where he opens the article by saying “The idea of secularism, like the idea of equality, is equivocal and at the same time inexhaustible.” (Beteille, 1994) Like any other proponent of secularism, Beteille defines secularism in two ways, one being, its scope of “religious pluralism,” and the other being, the personalisation of religion. Beteille writes “Secularisation does not mean that religious institutions will cease to exist; it only means that they will cease to encompass or regulate all the other institutions of society.” (Beteille, 2001) In the same article called “rethinking secularism,” Beteille says: “nobody understood the value of a secular conception of citizenship better than Dr. Ambedkar.” (Beteille, 2001)

Since it is an opinion article, Beteille is not really required to provide citations in an academic style, had he only been asked to do so he would have terribly failed. For, to the first part of the definition of secularism, that is “religious pluralism,” Dr. B.R Ambedkar, while responding to the similar queries by Gandhi, in his essay Away from the Hindus, writes: “Religions may be alike in that they all teach that the meaning of life is to be found in the pursuit of ‘good.’ But religions are not alike in their answers to the question ‘What is good?’ In this they certainly differ. One religion holds that brotherhood is good, another caste and untouchability is good.” (Ambedkar, 2014). As to the other part of Beteille’s definition, i.e., the idea of personalisation of religion, Dr. B.R Ambedkar in the same essay writes: “[IT] proceeds on the assumption that religion is a purely personal matter between man and God. It is supernatural. It has nothing to do with social. The argument is no doubt sensible. But its foundations are quite false. At any rate, it is a one-sided view of religion and that too based on aspects of religion which are purely historical and not fundamental.” Babasaheb continues, “To overlook the fact that the primary content of religion is social is to make nonsense of religion.” (Ambedkar, 2014)

Similarly, in the constituent assembly debates of 15 November, 1948, while responding to Prof. K.T Shah’s idea of introducing the words “secular and socialist” in the constitution of India, Babasaheb says: “What should be the policy of the State, how the Society should be organised in its social and economic side are matters which must be decided by the people themselves according to time and circumstances. It cannot be laid down in the Constitution itself, because that is destroying democracy altogether.” (constituent assembly debates) The doubts regarding Dr. BR Ambedkar’s belief in secularism can for time being be left with Andre Beteille and he must be given some time now to ponder over the issue. The rest of us can be assured that he did not believe in it.

What secularism does is that it brings every religion on the same plane of parity, the religion of the oppressed is placed beside the religion of the oppressors; to reject and choose one over the other, becomes only an act of fanaticism and “fundamentalism,” or more of a kind of “narrow-mindedness.” That is what W.H McLeod. a pioneer of Sikh Studies has to say in case of the Sikhs who do not adhere to the principles of “diversity” and reject the sects which they think are brahminical. In his article “Sikh Fundamentalism” he writes: “Why are they fundamentalist? Why do they adhere so rigorously to a particular doctrine of the inspiration of Holy Scripture? The answer is that they have a singularly narrow view of life, one which enables them to shut out a vast range of belief and experience which inevitably presents a considerable degree of uncertainty. Or (to put the situation in rather different terms) they do not listen to other people with other experiences.” (McLeod, 1998)

Religion in the secular sense is hollowed down to the individual experience, which is no different from the other, which has no sociological value whatsoever. The ritual of eating together is to be put alongside the ritual of untouchability, the ritual of bathing together in the non flowing water (Sikh ritual) is to be kept on the same plane with the ritual of bathing in the flowing water (Hindu ritual). To say more, the secular understanding of religion makes it that the rituals, the myths and the taboos of all religions are similar in that they all are present only in the domain of the individual, and exist merely for the psychological experience, which a sociologist can neither reach nor investigate. It provides the very ‘shelter’ that Babasaheb refers to here, “The Hindu is merely taking shelter under the attitude generated by the science of comparative religion.” He only continues by saying: “But it must be said to the discredit of that science that it has created the general impression that all religions are good and there is no use and purpose in discriminating them.” (Ambedkar, 2014)

What lies underneath this debate of “secular” and the “religious,” “private” and the “public” is the entire equation of power. Russell T McCutcheon, for instance, says: “between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries a change occurred, such that a concept/word that was once reserved for naming behaviours and membership within institutions (e.g., a member of a monastic order was once known as “religious”) comes to be universalized, interiorized, and thus privatized.” (McCutcheon, 2004), he argues that “privatisation” of religion is a technique “for taking practical and potentially explosive political differences and making them into mere opinions, choices, flavours, tastes, viewpoints, worldviews, feelings, and beliefs.” (McCutcheon, 2003)

What is to be safely secured with these “opinions, choices, flavours, tastes, viewpoints, worldviews, feelings, and beliefs” is diversity and religious pluralism; a diversity that does not allow any right to discriminate between religions; diversity that only helps maintain the status quo, a diversity that even the critics of secularism in Indian seem to cherish and sustain. T.N Madan, for instance, who says “From the point of view of the majority, “secularism” is a vacuous word, a phantom concept, for such people do not know whether it is desirable to privatize religion, and if it is, how this may be done, unless they be Protestant Christians but not if they are Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, or Sikhs” (Madan, 1987). And about this cherished diversity, he says: “In India, religion is like an axis that transforms as it turns, propelling society through history. Religion’s many expressions-the Sikh, Jain, Hindu, Buddhist, Sant, and Muslim traditions- radiate like spokes, connecting with the social in one great wheel of the universe. The ways of dharma, karma, and bhakti enact its movement in everyday life; with secularism and pluralism, both evolving from these principles, Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi built the nation.” (Madan, 1989)

It seems that in the polemical exchanges between Andre Beteille (Beteille, 1994) and T.N Madan (Madan, 1994) which went under the title “Secularism and the Intellectuals” what is safely secured is this “diversity” itself. What is demolished by T.N Madan and what is protected by Andre Beteille is only a chimera that contributes nothing to the demolition of the caste structure, the issue of caste, it seems, has been very subtly extricated from the issue of religion. The sociology of religion that does not at all appear in Andre Beteille’s idea is too thin in T.N Madan’s idea of it to even encounter caste. This diversity has to be sustained and maintained even at the expense of the maintenance of caste hierarchies.

In the end, secularism- if one has to put forth in crude words- is not only the greatest generalisation that one can still find in the scholarly accounts of religion, but it also takes away the last right of the Dalit-Bahujans to convert and to choose one religion over the other; it leaves no option for them to save their own chosen religions from brahminical religious invasions, any act of saving seems to be only an act against diversity and religious pluralism, an act that can only be termed either as “fanatic” or “fundamentalist.” It shuts the very last door that can ensure emancipation, the door that was opened by Dr. BR Ambedkar. It criminalises them.



Ambedkar, B. R. (2014). Away From the Hindus. In B. R. Ambedkar, Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches (Vol. 5, p. 407). New Delhi: Dr Ambedkar Foundation.

Beteille, A. (2001, September 3). Secularism Re-examined. The Hindu.

Beteille, A. (1994). Secularism and the Intellectuals. Economic and Political Weekly, 559-566.

Debates, C. A. (n.d.). Retrieved from

 Madan, T. N. (1989). Religion in India. Daedalus, 114-146.

Madan, T. N. (1994). Secularism and The Intellectuals. Economic and Political Weekly, 1095-1096.

Madan, T. N. (1987). Secularism in Its Place. The Journal of Asian Studies, 747-759.

McCutcheon, R. T. (2004). Dispatches from the “Religion” Wars. In T. Lght, & B. C. Wilson (Eds.), Religion as a Human Capacity: a Festschrift in Honour of E. Thomas Lawson (p. 169). Leiden: Brill.

McCutcheon, R. T. (2003). The Discipline of Religion: Structure, meaning, rhetoric. London: Routledge.

 McLeod, W. H. (1998). Sikh Fundamentalism. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 15-27.



Pritam Singh Tinna is currently pursuing his Master’s degree in sociology from Ambedkar University, Delhi. His dissertation focusses on secularism and sociology of religion in the context of the Sikhs.