“Rubber-band” Secularism: How Islamic and Hindu majoritarianism repurpose colonial legal governance

(In this conclusion to our blog round-table book discussion, Professor Julia Stephens writes a response to the reviews for “Governing Islam: Law, Empire and Secularism in South Asia”, previously published on this blog.)

First, I want to thank Zubair Abbasi, Jeffrey A. Redding, Jhuma Sen, and Geetanjali Srikantan for their thought-provoking readings of my book Governing Islam: Law, Empire, and Secularism in Modern South Asia. It is a great pleasure to watch one’s work take on a life of its own through engagement with scholars and practitioners spread across four countries.

I am particularly pleased that the commentators bring a contemporary perspective to my book, providing welcome extensions to my more historical expertise. Abbasi points to the significant continuities between Islamic governance in post-colonial Pakistan and the patterns I attribute to colonial secularism, including internal contradictions and ambiguities. Sen provocatively asks how judicial confrontations between “community elites, Muslim women’s networks and the state,” which I explore in colonial contexts, are now playing out as the BJP pushes forward Hindu majoritarian rule in India. In drawing out this comparison, she points to two recent decisions of the Supreme Court of India, the Shayara Bano case, in which the court declared instantaneous talaq unconstitutional, and the Sabarimala case, in which it ruled against a ban that prohibited women of menstruating age from entering a Hindu temple in the southern state of Kerala. Both cases might be read as marking seismic shifts in which the judiciary pushed back against Muslim and Hindu conservatives in support of women’s rights. Yet the intersection between the Supreme Court’s decisions and Hindu majoritarian politics has proven far more complex. Thus Sen argues that recent events prove that “the ghosts of colonialism, past and present are ridiculously difficult to exorcise.” Tying together different global contexts, Redding provides a fitting coda to these observations, noting that, “it seems we are all suffering through an enduring sort of post-traumatic secularism disorder.”

Last week, as I read these thoughtful responses, I also followed the news as the Indian Parliament passed the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, after two failed attempts in 2017 and 2018. The bill, while ostensibly a response to the SC ruling in the Shayara Bano case, weaponizes the decision by making it a crime for a Muslim husband to pronounce a divorce by uttering talaq three times (also known as instantaneous talaq), punishable by up to three years in prison. Given that under the SC decision such a divorce is already invalid in law, the determination of the BJP government to “protect” Muslim women by imposing heavy, and arguably unnecessary, criminal sanctions on Muslim men is suspect. It feels uncomfortably close to a post-colonial reformulation of the colonial claim of “white men saving brown women from brown men” (in Gayatri Spivak’s famous words). Or, to borrow Sen’s phrasing, the “ghosts of colonialism” have struck again, albeit in the service of Hindu majoritarian rule.

The fact that colonial secularism continues to haunt post-colonial India and Pakistan, not just in spite of, but in service of, the Islamization and Hinduization of post-colonial politics, might at first seem counter-intuitive. While South Asian historians often debate whether the transition from the colonial to post-colonial period has been dominated by continuity or change, current events suggest that this is a false dichotomy. Instead colonial patterns of governance are being reshaped to serve new purposes, including in the case of colonial secularism, ideological projects that are outwardly antithetical to secularism’s core commitments. In explaining this perverse adaptability, some of the observations I make in Governing Islam about the nineteenth and early twentieth century might illuminate recent events. I use the metaphor of a rubber band to invoke the idea that the strength of colonial secularism came not from its rigidity but from its flexibility. In other words, colonialism secularism possessed what architects call “ductility” – an elasticity which allows a structure to undergo deformations, often during earthquakes, without significant weakening or rupture. Extending this metaphor, the elasticity of colonial secularism has allowed it to persist through the various “earthquakes” of post-colonial transformations, albeit with varying degrees of deformation.

For those of us who are critical of both the lingering impacts of colonialism, and the rise of Islamization and “Hindu-ization,” this ductility is undeniably troubling. As Redding suggests, my book does not offer “easy answers” about how to escape this trap. As a counterpoint to this pessimism, however, I would point to Srikantan’s comments about how my book might contribute to critical pedagogies. In my own teaching I encourage students to see how contemporary political discourse deploys false dichotomies between Islam and secularism, pitting Muslim patriarchy against Western feminism, and Muslim piety against liberal free speech. By introducing students to comparative legal histories, which bridge the divide between Western, colonial, and post-colonial contexts, I encourage students to instead see the significant overlap between secular, Islamic, and Hindu majoritarianism. This global approach to legal history gives them new tools to critically engage all three ideologies—preparing them, at least in part, to grapple with the significant political crises roiling South Asia, Europe, and the United States. I hope that others might find my book useful in furthering such conversation, in their own classrooms and beyond.

Julia Stephens is an Assistant Professor of History at Rutgers and has a specialty in Colonial and Post-Colonial South Asia: Legal History.

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