Three moments in the history of Indian secularism

HSS Occasional Seminar
Neeti Nair
Date and Time: 
Wed, 18/12/2019 - 3:30pm to 5:00pm
03:30 PM to 05:00 PM
HSS Committee Room


Indian secularism did not collapse overnight. There was no one event, not even the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992, that led to its sudden and irrevocable end. Instead, it hung around, intermittently invoked in banners, slogans, parliamentary debates, for some decades. Rumours suggest it has reappeared on the eve of India’s most recent election, but furtively, barely.

What ails Indian secularism? To answer this question, I trace the shifting meanings of secularism through a close reading of three foundational moments in Indian history. The first moment is at the time of the last All India Congress Committee session of 1947, when the indefatigable Gandhi pushed through a resolution proclaiming secularism as integral to the character of the Congress. The second moment is at the time of the passage of the 42nd constitution amendment bill during the Emergency, when the word ‘secular’ was added to the Preamble to India’s Constitution. The third moment is when the BJP attacks a festival for secularism, Hum Sab Ayodhya, that was organized by SAHMAT following the destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in 1992. The corresponding debates in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha in 1993 offer us a remarkable view of the long distance traversed since Gandhi’s considered intervention at the time of the partition. I argue that these three moments reflect substantive changes in the burdens of secularism. In so doing, I write a history of Indian secularism as a narrative of resilience and, later, of pragmatic and unscrupulous flexibility.


Neeti Nair is an associate professor of history at the University of Virginia, Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington D.C. She is the author of Changing Homelands: Hindu Politics and the Partition of India (Harvard University Press and Permanent Black 2011). Her current book project is tentatively titled ‘Hurt Sentiments and Blasphemy in South Asia’.

She received her BA from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University, and her MA and PhD in History from Tufts University in the US. Her articles have appeared in leading journals including Modern Asian Studies, Indian Economic and Social History Review, Current History, and the Economic and Political Weekly, as well as in media outlets such as The Print. Nair has held fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Institute of Indian Studies, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Andrew Mellon Foundation.