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The intellectual and philosophical movement which dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the eighteenth century came to be known as Enlightenment. While responding to the question ‘What is Enlightenment’, Immanuel Kant argued that Enlightenment was ‘a way out or, or exit from, immaturity’ for ‘mankind’. He highlighted that Enlightenment would offer the possibility whereby man could philosophically acquire the status and capacities of a ‘rational’ and adult being (Gandhi 1998). From this very reply given by Kant, we can trace the immense importance that was given to reason in Enlightenment.  Hence, it was noted that the ones who already possessed the rationality were ‘ethically obligated’ to “cultivate, enlighten and ennoble the human race”.  Reason thus, became the embodiment of Enlightenment thought (Gandhi 1998). This paper argues that in creating a distinction between ‘rational’ and ‘immature’ or ‘irrational’ based on Enlightenment philosophy, the colonial power’s ‘civilizing mission’ secularized the public sphere and the indigenous elites failed to recognize the religious agency among the masses in the colonies.

Enlightenment sought to liberate human beings from fear and wanted to install them as masters. But in doing so it tabooed any thought which fell out of the purview of ‘facts’ and of the prevailing modes of thought thereby making them obscure (Horkheimer and Adorno 2002). Secularism emerges from the belief in scientific materialism which attributes value to human actions and orientations to the world and does not acknowledge the notion of transcendental meaning or eternal time (Calhoun 2012). Political secularism is thus characterized by a distinction between the public and private and relegation of religion to the ‘private’. Hence, the ‘rational’ view of Enlightenment looks at religion as mere superstition and tradition that was inherited from the past and did not belong in modernity (Calhoun 2012).  The movement of the ‘Occident’ to the ‘modern’ phase can be attributed to Enlightenment and the stagnation of the ‘Orient’ in ‘pre-modernity’ was the justification for the ‘civilizing mission’.

While the colonial regime was redrawing the boundaries between the public and private in the colonized societies, the elites in these societies acceded to the conditions of the secular public sphere to renegotiate their authority and leadership roles within the project of colonial modernity (Ismail 2008). This dichotomy between the public and private sphere is also reflected in the thoughts of ‘cosmopolitan’ Indian leaders. Jawaharlal Nehru, a prominent leader of the Indian Independence struggle and the first Prime Minister of independent India, emphasized that in a subject country like India, what bound the people together was a common national interest. He was the opinion that when the people would start thinking about such ‘common interest, the myth of communalism and the ‘pseudo-religious’ mentality would disappear (Hasan 1997). Such categorizations, according to Nonica Datta, created a dichotomy between secular (which she uses as equivalent to national) and communal and created the politics of labels, stereotyping, and castigation in narratives of nationalism (Datta 2002). Nehru’s argument that religious solidarity should not be the basis for political activism has to be contested.

While Nehru was talking about the ‘people’ was he taking into account the masses whose consciousness was tinged, if not shaped by religion? The Subaltern Collective[1] have characterized the historiography of India as an unsuccessful project which represented the “failure of the nation to come into its own’ and expand beyond the explorations of the past as centered on the activities and concerns of the elites (Guha 1982).  Although as Christian Lee Novetzke opines, the Collective has been unable to explore the subjectivity of religion, they have largely been successful in bringing out the versions that were marginalized and unrepresented in history, public culture, and economic spheres (Novetzke 2006). By challenging the ‘secret’ realm of culture they provide an alternative history and mode of reason through religion. As Ranajit Guha demonstrates from the Santhal Rebellion led by Birsa Munda who mobilized the Santhals, against the British, in the name of ‘God’, religious consciousness was very much a part of this insurgency. Similarly Partha Chatterjee regards religion as not only the sign and code of domination and subordination but also the medium through which domination is enacted and resisted (Novetzke 2006). As Shahid Amin also brings out how a deified image of Gandhi was created among the masses in Gorakhpur district of Eastern Uttar Pradesh through rumours, abetted by the local elites, about instances of punishment, miracles, etc. for defying ‘Gandhi’. He enumerates how crowds would assemble whenever Gandhi’s train would pass through regions and how ‘lathi-weilding, torch bearing enthusiasts’ would demand darshan at the most unearthly hours (Amin 1984). This further substantiates how religion was used during the nationalist movement to mobilize the masses. Such mobilization tactic were not only used by the masses abd the local elites but also by national elites like Nehru who initiated the Muslim Mass Contact Programme.

From the above discussion we can conclude that religion was very much a part of the subaltern’s consciousness and when ‘irrational’ religion was relegated to the private sphere after the Age of Reason, the subalterns were also relegated to the sidelines. Since their consciousness was not influenced by what was characterized as ‘rational’ by the elites they were excluded from ‘popular’ history. Hence, as Nonica Datta formulates, the ones who did not fit within the ‘nationalist’ frames were marginalized from both sides (Datta 2002). Like Nehru, Syed Ahmad Khan, Mohammad Iqbal, and Mohammad Ali Jinnah also excluded such people who did not conform to their ‘rationality’ of instrumentalizing religion for political ends[2]. Their thoughts and histories have overshadowed the ones who expounded their idea of ‘composite nationalism’ which challenged both sides of the spectrum i.e. insular ideas of territorial and political nationalisms (Datta 2002). The respective ‘rationalities’ thus not only failed to include the subaltern rationale but also failed to represent them or be their spokesmen as they claimed to be. This understanding of ‘secularism’ as the absence of religion from the public sphere or as a metonym of scientific rationality in the postindependence Indian state elevated religion to an apolitical level which provided a moral high ground to ‘antipolitical activism’ (Hansen 1999). This ‘antipolitics’ and ‘religious activism’ as a discursive field became the breeding ground for the Hindu nationalist movement which always nursed a complex ambivalence about democracy and an apprehension towards the ‘political vocation’. Hence, the ‘private’ and ‘secret’ sphere that was allocated to religion stimulated the rise of Hindu nationalist movements, a resurgence of which has been seen in contemporary times.


Amin, Shahid. "Gandhi as Mahatma: Gorakhpur District, Eastern UP, 1921-22." In Subaltern Studies III, by Ranajit Guha, 1-61. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Calhoun, Craig. Secularism, Citizenship, and the Public Sphere. London, September 5th, 2012.

Datta, Nonica. "Partition and Many Nationalisms." Economic and Political Weekly, 2002: 3000-3002.

Gandhi, Leela. Postcolonial Theory: A critical Introduction. New South Wales: Allen & Unwin, 1998.

Guha, Ranajit. "On Some Aspects of the Historiography of Colonial India." In Subaltern Studies I, 7. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Hansen, Thomas Blom. The Saffron Wave. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Hasan, Mushirul. Legacy of a Divided Nation: India's Muslims since Independence. London: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Horkheimer, Max, and W. Theodor Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002.

Ismail, Salwa. "Muslim Self-Presentation: Interrogating the Liberal Public Sphere." PS: Political Science and Politics, Vol. 41, No. 1, 2008: 25-29.

Novetzke, Christian Lee. "The Subaltern Numen: Making History in the Name of God." History of Religions, Vol. 46, No. 2, 2006: 99-126.

Image Credit: http://moderndeist.org/


[1] The Subaltern Collective refers to the scholars associated with Subaltern Studies like Dipesh Chakrabarty, Ranajit Guha, Gyanendra Pandey, Partha Chatterjee, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Gyan Prakash, Shahid Amin, etc.

[2] This phrase has been used by Salwa Ismail in her article to denote the Islamist movements which have agitated for the forms of politics that were anchored in certain constructions of religion as captured by the idea of Islamic state and Islamic government.

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Written By Suvasree Dutta

M.A. in Political Science (Pursuing)

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