For those on the left of India’s political spectrum, “secularism” is a rhetorical icon, righteously wielded much as “social justice” or “workers’ rights” is elsewhere. But for those on the political Right, including a great many among India’s majority Hindu community, it is nothing more than a euphemism for reverse discrimination. To these Indians, secularism is a dirty word.
This situation may seem drearily familiar to Westerners, and indeed, the temptation to fit Indian “church vs. state” politics within a European or American template is compelling. But the comparison is superficial. In Europe, secularism is challenged by the antisecular doctrines of a growing Muslim minority; in America, the Christian Right squawks that secularism is “hostile” to faith. Neither of these dynamics applies to India. On the contrary, secularism in India suffers a crisis of credibility precisely because it isn’t—nor has it ever truly been—secular.