The minorities question in South Asia

December 10, 2023

A scholarly discourse on evolving dimensions of secularism

The minorities question in South Asia


ver the past decade, South Asia has experienced a significant political transformation, particularly in India since 2014. The rise of Hindutva’s majoritarian politics has reshaped the political landscape, sparking scholarly debates about the future of religious minorities in the country. Pakistan has also witnessed the emergence of a new strain of populist politics, challenging the democratic evolution since 2008.

In contemporary India, under the dominance of Hindu nationalism led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, an ethno-religious and populist government has taken hold, establishing an exclusionary culture that particularly affects the Muslim community, the largest religious minority in the country. During India’s independence movement, the Indian National Congress and the country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had advocated for an Indian form of secularism.

Recent scholarship has explored rival ideologies to secularism, such as the concept of Hindu Rashtra in India and bids to set up Islamic theocracies. It has provided valuable insights into the trajectory of religious minorities in South Asia. However, a comprehensive comparative analysis of the experiences of religious minorities in the three South Asian nation-states has been notably absent.

Hurt Sentiments: Secularism and Belonging in South Asia by Professor Neeti Nair, a distinguished faculty member in the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia, represents a notable addition to the scholarly discourse on the evolving dimensions of secularism. This intellectual history work delves into the foundational and early years of the South Asian states, providing valuable insights into the complex interplay between secularism, identity and belonging.

Professor Neeti Nair’s previous work, Changing Homelands: Hindu Politics and the Partition of India, explored the dynamics of Hindu politics in British colonial Punjab, culminating in the region’s partition. That work had established Professor Nair as a prominent scholar, focusing on the intricate relationship between religious identity and politics in colonial India.

Professor Neeti Nair also co-edited Ghosts from the Past? Assessing Recent Developments in Religious Freedom in South Asia, showcasing her engagement with contemporary issues surrounding religious freedom in the region.

In Hurt Sentiments, Professor Neeti Nair employs an interdisciplinary approach, combining intellectual, political and constitutional history to offer a nuanced understanding of the three South Asian nation-states. By aligning the discussion of state ideology and constitutional frameworks, particularly secularism in India and Bangladesh and an Islamic state in Pakistan, with the evolving ideological landscape and contextual circumstances, the book seeks to reframe fundamental questions. It probes the pivotal events during the founding moments of these nation-states and examines their lasting impact on political life, with a keen focus on marginalised communities. In doing so, the book contributes significantly to the social history sphere, as highlighted by Christopher Bayly’s assertion that intellectual history should not stand in isolation from social history but rather be deeply intertwined with it. Hurt Sentiments emerges as a thought-provoking exploration that challenges existing narratives and enriches our understanding of constitutional and political histories in the region.

The opening chapter of the book, titled Gandhi’s Assassination, Godse’s Defence, and the Minority Question, intricately examines the communal, political and legal repercussions following the tragic killing of Mahatma Gandhi. Professor Neeti Nair sheds light on how Gandhi’s assassination and Nathuram Godse’s defence during the trial played a pivotal role in shaping the trajectory of post-colonial secularism and influencing the framing of minority rights.

A novel interpretation of Gandhi’s political life during India’s struggle for independence and the aftermath of the nation’s creation is presented. The narrative delves into the circumstances surrounding Gandhi’s recitations of various religious texts in Hindu temples and the increasing restrictions imposed on Hindu right-wing factions, ultimately contributing to his assassination. Nathuram Godse contended that Gandhi bore responsibility for the partition, questioning why he didn’t resort to a hunger strike if he opposed it. Godse’s assertion of hurt sentiments gained momentum when Gandhi incorporated prayers in a Hindu temple located in the Bhangi Colony of Delhi. Despite protests from Hindu worshippers, Gandhi persisted in reading passages from the Quran during these prayers.

The book critically explores Godse’s perspective and that of like-minded Hindu Mahasabhaites who contested the inclusion of the Quran in Gandhi’s prayer meetings. Moreover, it delves into the underlying sentiment that Muslims did not belong to India, echoing through the corridors of contemporary majoritarian politics in present-day India. Professor Neeti Nair’s analysis unveils the historical roots of these sentiments, offering valuable insights into the complex interplay of religion, politics and identity in the post-colonial context.

Professor Neeti’s exploration of the role played by legislative assemblies in India and Pakistan in addressing the concerns of the minorities in 1947, as detailed in her book, is a nuanced examination in line with Jinnah’s pivotal speech to Pakistan’s inaugural constituent assembly. Following Jinnah’s demise, implementing the Objectives Resolution became a significant source of apprehension for both Hindu and Muslim Bengali leadership, marking a critical juncture.

The Objectives Resolution, with its reliance on religious parameters, particularly impacted East Pakistan and played a formative role in shaping Bangladesh’s subsequent commitment to secularism. In contrast, India’s constitutional approach to secularism framed it as neither anti-God nor anti-religion. However, the 1970s witnessed a departure from these secular principles by the Congress party, paving the way for the ascendance of Hindu nationalist politics.

Bangladesh, having endured a period of state-owned Islam from 1947 to 1971, took a distinctive constitutional trajectory. Currently, Islam is the state religion, but the nation also embraces secularism as a guiding principle. The author astutely draws attention to the subtleties within Bangladeshi secularism, highlighting the notable distinctions between Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s concepts of Rabbul Alameen and Rabbul Muslimeen as pivotal in defining the refined contours of Bangladeshi secularism.

In her analysis, the author skillfully employs the concept of Hurt Sentiments to elucidate the justification of Gandhi’s assassination by Godse in the context of India and Pakistan’s efforts to regulate the expression of religious hate speech following the Partition. This term, often wielded in legal contexts, pertains to articulating sentiments harmed by various forms of expression, such as publications, speeches, films and cartoons.

The genesis of Hurt Sentiments can be traced back to TB Macaulay, an East India Company law member, who expounded on it in his draft note on the Indian Penal Code in 1837. A crucial legal instrument in this context is Section 295(A) of the Indian Penal Code, a law instituted in 1927 that criminalised intentional insult to religious beliefs with deliberate and malicious intent. These colonial-era laws, designed to police and control hurt sentiments, served multifaceted purposes.

The concept skillfully reconnects the history of ideals with the trajectory of state policy, drawing on extensive archival evidence from constituent assembly and parliamentary debates. The author’s astute use of historical material illuminates how Hurt Sentiments has been woven into legal frameworks, shedding light on the enduring impact of colonial-era legislation on regulating expression and the delicate balance between individual freedoms and societal harmony.

This book arrives at a crucial juncture as Pakistan is witnessing a shrinking space for non-Muslims, marked by the discrediting of Christian worship places, incidents of forced conversion of Hindu girls, the misuse of blasphemy laws and a disturbing rise in accusations of blasphemy. These instances, at times escalating into mob lynching, underscore the challenging environment in which South Asian secularism is currently navigating. The complexities are deeply rooted in the legacies of colonialism and partition, and the book timely addresses these pressing issues.

The work transcends the confines of nation-state boundaries, offering a penetrating historical analysis of how majoritarian politics has strategically utilised the concept of ‘hurt sentiments’ to marginalise minority communities and reshape state ideologies in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Professor Neeti’s examination extends beyond geographical limitations, providing valuable insights into the intricate dynamics in these nations.

Professor Neeti meticulously evaluates key temporal junctures in colonial and post-colonial South Asia, shedding light on the extensive debates surrounding constitutional guarantees for religious minorities. The book draws connections between historical and recent events, elucidating the roots of the current wave of violent populist sentiments in South Asia. In doing so, it contributes significantly to our understanding of the ongoing challenges minority communities face and the region’s evolving landscape of religious and secular dynamics.

Professor Neeti provides an in-depth analysis of the historical understanding of censorship, disenfranchisement of Muslims in India and religious minorities in South Asia, civil liberties, blasphemy laws and the quest for secularism in South Asia. This is an essential read for all searching in the past to seek answers to how the past continues to shape South Asia after three-quarters of a century of nation-states in South Asia.

Hurt Sentiments: Secularism and Belonging in South Asia

Author: Neeti Nair

Publisher: Harvard

University Press, 2023

Pages: 352

The reviewer is a historian, travel writer and translator. He has extensively written on the non-Muslim history and Pakistan’s heritage

The minorities question in South Asia