A Battle of the Books: Linguistic Antagonisms and the Crisis of Postcolonial Secularism

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In his contribution to a timely collection of essays entitled The Crisis of Secularism in India, Partha Chatterjee identifies a new element in what is increasingly being considered legitimate politics in contemporary South Asian contexts. This is the idea, he writes, "being voiced, not from the extremist fringes but from the very center of representative institutions, that the constitutionally guaranteed rights of minorities must be negotiated afresh in the political domain" (142). I will return momentarily to an elaboration of what exactly has led to this need to renegotiate minority rights and what theoretical responses it requires from the critical minds of our times. For now, let it suffice to say that in so far as his essay goes on to identify the matters of minorities at the very center of a process of modern secularization, Chatterjee suggests that, in the contemporary context he is examining, a new brand of secularism likewise involves new means of recognizing and managing (minority) difference at a time during which the national body is reconfiguring itself under the widening auspices of neo-liberal globalization. As several scholars have noted, Indian secularism has always involved neither simply a separation of political from religious institutions, nor merely a calling into being of an everyday ethics of this-worldliness. Rather, as Shabnum Tejani succinctly puts it, secularism in the South Asian situation emerged in an intimate alliance with "formulations of nationalism that involved dovetailing liberal discourses around individual representation with definitions of the democratic majority as broadly Hindu" (14). It was precisely in this democratic imperative toward the formation of a Hindu majority— accompanied by an entire dynamic of fitful inclusions and exclusions—that secular nationalism in India appeared most visibly as an instrument for regularizing difference. However, the question is: how and in what ways has the the form of the majority-minority structure (and therefore, the discourse of secularism) changed in the contemporary Indian scenario, and what does this have to do with the issue of what I am calling linguistic antagonisms?
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)105-121
JournalThe Comparatist
Issue numberMay 2013
StatePublished - 2013


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