Nearly twenty years ago, in a village in the western Indian state of Rajasthan, a young woman called Roop Kanwar was burned to death at her husband’s funeral pyre. Kanwar, according to her in-laws and neighbors, had committed a voluntary act of “sati,” demonstrating her loyalty as a Hindu wife by following her husband beyond death. Sati has been illegal since colonial times, when Hindu reformers took the lead in convincing the British to ban the practice. Nevertheless, a shrine to Kanwar was set up in the village, and money began pouring in from people making pilgrimages.
In the near unanimous condemnation that followed from urban India, there was, however, one dissenting voice, charging critics of the sati incident with self-righteousness and ignorance. The voice belonged to Ashis Nandy, an intellectual notorious for his unconventional and often abrasive approach to prevailing opinion in India. In a series of provocative essays and articles since the 1970s, he has assailed every category of thought influencing his contemporaries–modernity, development, science, nationalism, history. Nandy is particularly scathing when it comes to secularism, and those who saw Kanwar’s death as a symptom of religious fervor seemed to confirm his understanding of secularism as a form of deracinated hubris that missed everything significant about India’s traditions.
Although the intervention earned Nandy a reputation as a covert right-wing Hindu ideologue, he is in fact a Christian, and his writings demonstrate unequivocally that he did not support Kanwar’s immolation. Having studied sati as a historical phenomenon, he was challenging the interpretation imposed upon it by the urban elites. His essay “Sati: A Nineteenth-Century Tale of Women, Violence and Protest”–included in Bonfire of Creeds, a recent collection of essays brought out by Oxford–makes the case that sati was an intermittent phenomenon, surfacing in discrete and fairly traumatic historical periods as in colonial Bengal, and related to a range of disruptions from food shortages to changes in property ownership. There was no single, homogeneous religious impulse behind sati, Nandy argued, and those who saw traditional village attitudes behind Kanwar’s death had a limited understanding of both tradition and modernity.
At the time, Nandy’s tirade against secularism found few followers among India’s intelligentsia. That secularism’s provenance was urban and elite was indisputable, but this was what made secularism the very basis of modern Indian identity. If modernity was desirable, so was secularism. Enshrined in the preamble to the Constitution and embodied by India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, secularism was central to India’s idea of itself as a democracy, providing a vital point of difference from its theocratic neighbor Pakistan. Moreover, what gave Indian secularism its moral gravitas was not the Enlightenment idea of church-state separation but its role as guarantor of the equality of all Indian religions. Like multiculturalism in the United States, secularism in India was often more image than reality, but it insured a steady dissemination of the idea of national harmony.