Secularism in India is a strange word. It is almost a costume ball of identities, conveying political correctness and an unease about religion. In fact, at the grassroots level, secularism is a dirty word: we almost label all that is difficult about the modern as secular. The Congress was defeated because it was secular; intellectuals are treated with contempt because they are secular. The fate of the word in India goes far beyond the narrow Protestant-Catholic battles of the 16th century. The word secularism is a word we do not know how to tackle.

Now, a committee set up by the University Grants Commission, India’s higher education regulator, has shown the same ineptness in confronting secularism. In an effort to secularise the character of Central universities, it has suggested that the words Muslim and Hindu be dropped from Aligarh Muslim University and Banaras Hindu University, media reports said on Monday.

It is an act of political correctness that makes little sense. A university, like any institution, acquires character and colour from its various associations. Its history hardly follows the character of its labels. Take Aligarh Muslim University. It was in the mathematics department here that Andre Weil, the French mathematician from the legendary Bourbaki group, taught. One of Weil’s first recruits was the mathematician and historian DD Kosambi, a man who could hardly be labelled as religious. The university should be understood in terms of the availability of eccentricity and originality rather than some empty label.

Similarly, Banaras Hindu University was home to one of India’s great metallurgical departments under Tanjore Ramachandra Anantharaman. Anantharaman was a Rhodes scholar who translated the Bhagavad Gita into German. No one ever asked whether his metallurgy was secular, only whether it was professional and creative.

One can say this about Banaras Hindu University founder Madan Mohan Malaviya, who also founded the Hindu Mahasabha, a Hindu nationalist political party. Malaviya was a member of the Indian Industrial Commission, set up in 1916 to examine avenues for India’s industrial development. His reading of British industrial policy is brilliant. He shows how Britain lagged behind Germany and Japan. He did not contaminate his reading by quoting religion, disturbing two separate registers. One wishes the University Grants Commission committee would learn from him.

Banaras Hindu University. (Credit: via

Going after labels

The committee does not seem to have understood that universities outgrow their labels. The Hindu in Banaras Hindu University and the Muslim in Aligarh Muslim University are more a tribute to their foundations, their origins, than a statement of growth. Words, as they grow, acquire a polysemy of meanings and secular, unfortunately, has a problematic, uneasy connotation. Secular empties out character and colour from a university. A sense of history and its origins adds colour to the university. The real strength of both universities is their plurality of styles, their search for excellence. At Aligarh Muslim University, Irfan Habib created a great department of history around the medieval period of India. His claim to excellence was his creativity. He was secular, but it was not his secularism that defined his excellence. Secularism is one style in a plural world of scholarship. By making it official, we are destroying the cultural polysemy and plurality of the university.

I wish the University Grants Commission committee would look at the work of the theologian Raimundo Panikkar, who spent years in Banaras. He offered the idea of the university and of religion as dialogic entities. Dialogic universities initiate a conversation of knowledges. They sense that secularism itself is an outgrowth of religion. Panikkar argued that the separation of religion and the state is often confused with the separation of religion and life. In fact, one of the tragedies of today is in officialising the secular as an ideology. We have lost our sense of the sacred. Secularism offers little understanding of evil. As a university, one has to go over the discourse of the secular from Panikkar to the philosopher Isabelle Stengers. There is a debate, a dissent around official secularism that the committee is oblivious of. In fact, our scientists too have been equally illiterate, demanding a scientific temper without realising science’s debt to religious cosmologies.

Missing the objective

There is a second form of naiveté. The University Grants Committee committee, and four other panels also set up by the higher education regulator, were all appointed to investigate irregularities, corruption and nepotism at 10 Central universities. By talking secularism, they have failed to understand that corruption breeds in any soil, religious or secular. There is little possibility of genuine institutional reform when clerks take over intellectual and institutional life.

The committee argues that the auditing function demands that the institutions be called Aligarh University and Banaras University. The argument is that both are centrally funded and, therefore, should be secular. To raise a bureaucratic argument to make an ideological point is cowardice. To make that argument when Hindutva dominates school syllabi and the regime is majoritarian makes one wonder about the objectivity of the court. One never asks whether the distinctive styles of Aligarh Muslim University and Banaras Hindu University add to their sense of tradition. The word secular is whitewash, seeking to empty out these traditions.

The words secular and communal and the opposition of secular and religious work in different frameworks. To challenge communalism, one does not have to wish away religion. In fact, the opposition of science and religion posited in the 1850s in the Western university was a red herring. It was more a battle between the church and the emerging science for control of the emerging university. Unfortunately, a current quarrel was projected back into history with disastrous consequences. The University Grants Commission committee is guilty of a similar crime. There is no need to invoke the secular as one examines audits. It is a way of diverting from the real problems of a university. But the University Grants Commission has never been a representative of the intellectual idea of a university.

It shows little sense of the creativity of universities. The committee’s more valid critique about feudalism and inbreeding (former students making up most of its faculty) at Aligarh Muslim University can be made without any reference to secularism and would still be valid. Secondly, there is a confusion over financial and intellectual audits. The University Grants Commission panels have little sense of the creative character of these universities. Today, religion is a deep part of every knowledge system and society. We need new innovations in ethics, new ideas of freedom beyond rights. A lot of it will come from the cosmologies that religion provides. To confuse a bureaucratic discussion with an intellectual discussion shows that the panels have not been doing their homework. It is time they went back to school.

In fact, for an audit of a university to be truly secular, the word should not have been invoked. It should have worked in a technical fashion and listed the cries of commission and omission. By challenging labels, it is not going to bring reform. That needs a change in mindsets, which the University Grants Commission committees are incompetent to assess.