By Yanis Iqbal – Jun 14, 2023
Under the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India, there has been a concerted religiocization of the entire society. Since national politics has come to revolve around the Hindu-Muslim binary, religious identities have undergone a hardening of boundaries. The demarcation of the “insider” from the “outsider” is carried out on the bodies of women. In the Hindutva camp, we have the ideological notion of “love jihad,” which accuses Muslim men of forcing Hindu women to convert to Islam. This conspiracy theory is mirrored by Islamist spokesperson in the construct of “Bhagwa love trap,” which refers to the ill-founded assumption that Hindu boys are attempting to lure Muslim girls and ultimately convert them to Hinduism. These mutually reinforcing protectionist assumptions about women have led to increasing instances of gender-based moral policing and vigilantism.
The common patriarchal character of religious reactions in India underscores the fundamental weakness of the secularism that has been practiced in the country. Instead of promoting the civic equality of different denominational communities, Indian secularism restricted itself to the cultural practice of inter-religious tolerance. This meant that religion was invariably interpreted as a neutral process of meaning-making that contributed to the stability of the self and society. Rajeev Bhargava uses a complex theoretical system to emphasize the symbolic value of religion. He distinguishes between “Religion A,” which consists of “teachings of self-development,” and “Religion B,” which is “institutionalised, power-laden, status-ridden and doctrine-oriented.” This is linked to his understanding of secularism “as an attempt to emancipate the production of symbolic goods, values and services from inter-and intra-religious domination,” which is supposed to give birth to undistorted religious goods.
Bhargava’s analytical recuperation of religion is built upon an idealist foundation. He believes that each religion contains an untainted core that expresses the “inner development of the individual.” By peeling off the layers of false ideas, we can reach this stable source of human subjectivity. Even though he likens his conception of secularism to Karl Marx’s idea of liberating the “production process from distorted human relations,” he forgets that productive activity is not reflective of an unchanging human essence. On the contrary, Marx considered the human essence to be “the ensemble of the social relations.” Capitalism is charged not with the loss of humanity’s productive subjectivity but with the obscuration of our socio-historic objectivity. Under capitalist modernity, human beings rule over human beings using things—commodities, money, ownership and property. Marx thus said that the relations of domination appear “disguised as social relations between things.” Thus, the market mediations of capitalism cause us to misrecognize the social relations that determine us.
Insofar as Bhargava considers the human essence to be a set of substantive properties relating to individual development, he is unable to analyze the structural mechanisms whereby the historicity of capitalist social relations is concealed. He can only posit historical objectivity as a distorted expression of a natural subjectivity that lies beneath it. That’s why secularism comes to be configured as the recovery of the abstract religiosity concealed by the concrete surface of human domination. In terms of political generativity, this essentialist conception of secularism forecloses any novelty: the policy agenda of the secular state is already inscribed in the basic human values expressed by the inner nucleus of every religion. This accords a conceptual obesity to religious traditions, which become a venerable source of philosophical reflection and cultural progress.
The subject that corresponds to Bhargava’s secular politics is the transcendental faculty of the enlightened individual, whose grasp of the religious heritage allows them to embark upon the theological discovery of the human essence. Those who are unable to accomplish this discovery fall prey to the biases of institutionalized oppression. This gives rise to a psychologistic concept of politics wherein the separation of healthy “communitarianism” from unhealthy “communalism” depends upon the educational and moral fiber of the citizen. In other words, the secular retrieval of religion bases itself upon the metaphysical myth of the unified subject that embodies a set of humanist ideals.
Politics of Anti-Essentialism
A secularism defined by the imperatives of religious essentialism and communitarianism will always freeze social and political dynamics in favor of a specific idea of unity, identity, and security. Instead of trying to uncritically align religion with secularism, we need to delink the latter from all forms of fixed abstraction. The positing of a stable human essence is a theological maneuver that preserves the supposed autonomy of the “soul.” Periyar pointed out that the “soul” performs “no work in the body.” As such, it is “something unnatural, unwanted and unrelated to the human body.” This denaturalization of a coherent and transparent subjectivity is replaced by a combinatorial concept of individuality: “we realize that any object or article is merely the combination of many things…a man is able to speak, think, see, hear, command, laugh, cry, sing, jump, quarrel, beat and invent, on account of the setup of the various parts in his body. Such an arrangement found in the human body is able to function together for various functions.”
By displacing the theoretical priority of cognitive subjectivity, Periyar is able to inaugurate an anti-essentialist schema wherein the actions of human beings are dependent upon “the mode of functioning of his parts of the body.” An individual “does things according to the abilities of his body and development,” which, in turn, is determined by “the combination of different parts in the body.” This paradigm is consistent with the incessant interrogation of any structure that mystifies its historical materiality by taking recourse to metaphysical abstractions. For example, Periyar criticizes the sentimental inflation of love for its idealist deficiencies:
“[W]e consider that there is nothing called love which is different from desire, affection and friendship; that desire, affection and friendship are nothing but the same whether they are directed by human beings towards non-living objects or other living creatures, and that these feelings arise because of familiarity, behavior, character, temperament, need and desire; and is subject to change when there is change in that intelligence, behavior, character, temperament, need and desire; and when there is such change, affection and friendship too have to change and they are prone to change.”
This is similar to Spinoza’s conception of the subject as a historically situated articulation of activity and passivity. For him, the useful is that which “renders the human body capable of being affected in the greatest number of ways or what allow it to affect external bodies in the greatest number of ways” and the harmful, in comparison, is that which “diminishes this aptitude of the body.” Seen from this perspective, religion works to decrease the power of the body. While Indian secularism considers religiosity to be expressive of an ahistorical essence, materialist rationalism discards such an idealist approach to focus on the socio-epistemic effects of religious formations. Religion is an anthropomorphic projection that invests human properties in something beyond humans. As Periyar says, “the very thought of god is merely the outcome of one’s ignorance.” Since theological principles are characterized by a relation of dependency and reverence, religion is inseparable from apparatuses and practices that institute asymmetrical relations of power between people.
The inextricability of religious faith and religious ideology subverts any neat distinction between “communitarianism” and “communalism.” A religious community is built on the ontological distinction between heaven and earth, which is normatively translated in everyday socialization as the difference between the mind and the body. The truth of human essence is believed to be found within the religiously sanctioned sovereignty of spiritual subjectivity. This construction of a theological normality leads to the reduction of certain individuals to mere corporeality. As a result, Indian women are currently experiencing a religious framework that categorizes their bodies as a volatile threat to religio-communitarian purity. This classification subordinates them to the male gaze of clerical authority. Thus, it is evident that the anthropomorphic design of religion delegitimizes the contestation of normative standards and consequently weakens our symbolic capacities. This paves the way for the authoritarian stasis of communalism, which is founded upon the organized repression of any dialogical flux.
In opposition to religious communitarianism, we need to practice a form of secularism that destroys any essentialist reification of human relationality. Once we consider ourselves not as self-identical monads but as a composition of social relations, any recourse to the abstraction of God becomes evident as a tool for the hierarchical sedimentation of our social constitution. Acknowledging the relational nature of our being entails the recognition of the myriad ways in which our singularity is intimately tied to the differential web of singularities that form the human world. Secularism no longer denotes the desire for communitarian security and identity; it comes to represent the destabilization of all fixed identities and the creation of a public space of multiple, fluid, and ever-shifting differences. Instead of proclaiming any common substance among people, queer secularism wages a war against the naturalization of any autochthonous consanguinity. The identity of the people is to be constituted not through the homogeneity of identifiable characteristics but through the heterogeneity of our transindividual constitution. Otherwise, we will end up with what Jacques Derrida calls the “political dictatorship of fraternocracy,” which uses the metaphysical absolutism of birth, filiation and genealogy to establish a metaphysical “fraternity” of self-same identities. The present-day incidents of patriarchal hooliganism are a display of this fraternocratic power, in which self-styled religious “brothers” preserve the integrity of their community by protecting their “sisters” from the Other.
By subverting all arrangements of hierarchical symbolization, queer secularism strengthens the autonomy of the political subject. The absolutist certainty of historically sedimented meanings gives way to the rationalist criticism of the status quo. Here, it is worth quoting Bhagat Singh at length:
“‘Belief’ softens the hardships, and can even make them pleasant. In God, man can find consolation and support. Without Him, man has to depend upon himself. To stand upon one’s own legs amid storms and hurricanes is not a child’s play…Any man who stands for progress has to criticize, disbelieve and challenge every item of the old faith. Item by item he has to reason out every nook and corner of the prevailing faith. If after considerable reasoning one is led to believe in any theory or philosophy, his faith is welcomed. His reasoning can be mistaken, wrong, misled, and sometimes fallacious. But he is liable to correction because reason is the guiding star of his life. But mere belief and blind faith are dangerous: they dull the brain and make a man reactionary. A man who claims to be a realist has to challenge the whole of the ancient faith. If it does not stand the onslaught of reason it crumbles down. Then the first thing for him is to shatter the whole down and clear a space for the erection of a new philosophy.”
Whereas Indian secularism relies on the sovereign reflexive subject to recover the essence of religion, queer secularism breaks that repetitive loop to advance a non-linear and processual concept of political subjectivity. Instead of mechanically returning to the religious past to discover shards of human essence, materialist rationalism brings to our attention the implication of religious ideas with violent inequalities. This makes the national past politically unusable. Insofar as the past has been denationalized, we can’t contemplatively look upon it to search for a hidden human essence. Rather, politics has to be geared towards the militant anticipation of the future, in which secularism is organized according to all the relational encounters that are potential or not yet actualized. Evaluating a practice according to the potentiality of its encounters entails going beyond “the habitual repetitions which organise a body – ‘this is what I do’ – and beyond the repetitions that constitute a self – ‘I am who I am by being the same through time’”. This beyond is constituted by the “power to create relations, to make a difference, to repeat a power beyond its actual and already constituted forms”.
Queer secularism “would not be the representation or formation of identities but the attempt to present pure intensities in matter, allowing matter to stand alone or be liberated from its habitual and human series of recognition.” The sensations presented in such a politics “are not those of the lived subject but are powers to be lived for all time, allowing us to think the power of perception beyond the selves we already are.” These sensations and pure intensities of relations exist in what Gilles Deleuze called the “pure past” – “a virtual, eternal, intense, pre-individual and positive series which each actualized present repeats”. Like the denationalized past, pure past severs our dependence upon the repetitive logic of history. It treats the past as pure potentiality – the past not as a reflection of what actually happened and how it is remembered, but as a realm of possibilities that were never realized but had the potential to occur, “in a splendour which was never lived, like a pure past which finally reveals its double irreducibility to the two presents which it telescopes together: the present that it was, but also the present which it could be”.
In strategic terms, the project of queer secularism has to begin with a feminist revolution. This is because of the status occupied by women in the discursive economy of religious communitarianism: they are the bearers of collective “honor,” whose bodies have to be regulated for the demarcation of clear-cut boundaries. Since women are the nodal points of religious ideology, the political mobilization of feminist autonomy serves to disrupt the foundations of communalism. If this disruption is to be sustained, it has to be structured within a left-democratic framework that subjectifies women as militants of “communism” – a distinct political identity that is neither primordial nor bioligistic but collectively chosen and democratically affirmed for the revolutionization of the entire society. Communist politics is based on “love-comradeship,” in which people are motivated by their own needs and desires rather than the expectations and ascribed roles of their birth-based communities. Communal fascism can be combated only through such radical narratives of secular modernity.
Yanis Iqbal is an independent researcher and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His articles have been published in the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Turkey and several countries of Latin America.
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