Prof. Akeel Bilgrami asserts that Secularism in India is comparable to that in Europe

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Akeel Bilgrami, Sidney Morgenbesser Professor of Philosophy and Professor, Committee on Global Thought, Columbia University, speaking at International Lecture Series ‘Gandhi in his time and Ours: Reflections on Secularism and Multiculturalism’ at Madras Christian College in Tambaram on Friday. Vaishna Roy, Editor, Frontline, looks on.
| Photo Credit: B. Velankanni Raj

Secularism in Europe is just as the same as the one India adopted and the secularism in India is not distinct, said Akeel Bilgrami, the Sidney Morgenbesser Professor of Philosophy and professor, Committee of Global Thought, Columbia University, at a lecture delivered in Madras Christian College in Tambaram on Friday.

Speaking on the topic, ‘Gandhi in his time and ours: Reflections on Secularism and Multiculturalism’, Prof. Bilgrami laid down three commitments of secularism, to a largely young audience.

“Secularism consists of three commitments: freedom of religious belief and practice, principles enshrined in the constitution that make no mention of religion (or opposition to religion) such as equality, freedom of speech, gender equality and third is the meta-commitment, which says if there is a clash between the first and second commitments, the second commitment must get priority,” he said.

Professor Bilgrami said Mahatma Gandhi considered secularism as a doctrine needed to repair the damage caused by religious majoritarianism in Europe. “So, Gandhi said, this damage has not occured in India and this was a European problem. And that it was irrelevant to Indian context. For him, nationalism was nothing but anti-imperialism and in fact, it would repudiate European forms of nationalisms and it would be inclusive,” said Professor Bilgrami.

Key difference

Prof. Bilgrami also sought to distinguish between the idea of secularisation and secularism.

“The word secularisation is a social process…of loss of belief in religious doctrines, ceasing to carry out standard rituals, changing diets and so on and so forth. Secularism is a different idea. It’s a political doctrine and its main idea is that religion should be kept out of the orbits of the politics. So, it’s not the name of a social process, it has nothing to do with religious practices. It’s got to do with keeping religious practice out of direct influence on politics,” he said.

Prof. Bilgrami also rejected the oft-repeated popular notion of ‘Indian’ secularism as ‘acceptance of all religions’, he added that it was pluralism, not secularism. The event was organised by the Department of Philosophy of Madras Christian College, as a part of their Sesquicentennial Distinguished International Lecture series. The chairperson for the event was Vaishna Roy, Editor, Frontline.

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