Archive for Democracy

Political Secularism, Religion, and the State

“Political Secularism, Religion, and the State: A Time Series Analysis of Worldwide Data” by Jonathan Fox. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. 285pp.


What role does religion play in government? What is the relationship between political secularism and religion? And, is the role of religion declining in the public and political sphere and the world becoming more secular? Jonathan Fox addresses these questions in his new book, Political Secularism, Religion, and the State. Drawing on from large-scale quantitative survey data from the round 2 of the Religion and State (RAS2) Project between 1990 and 2008 period, Fox argues that secular and religious institutions and actors are competing with each other for influence and it is in this competition that the religious forces are making significant inroads into the public and political life.

The book begins with Fox’s critical engagement with the much celebrated secularization theory of the 1960s, which predicted the decline and eventual death of religion in modern societies. According to Fox, while much of the debate has centred on either “for or against” the secularization theory, it has blinded us from a “third option” i.e. “whether it is possible to use elements of secularization theory to understand religion’s role in politics and society without accepting all aspects of the theory, especially the prediction of religion’s decline (p.16).” It is in this context, Fox introduces the concept of “political secularism” – defined “as an ideology or set of beliefs advocating that religion ought to be separate from all or some aspects of politics of public life (or both) (p.2)” – and discusses the competition between political secularism and religious actors – referred to as the competition perspective – to influence state-religion policy. Fox argues that understanding a state’s religion policy is vital as it demonstrates how a state deals with its religion. He identifies 110 religion policies through which states support, regulate and restrict religious practices and institutions. Based on a time series analysis of worldwide data, Fox concludes that state support for religion around the world is on the rise. Though this by itself does not disprove secularization theory, it shows that in the competition between secularism and religion, it is the latter one that is gaining significant influence in the public and political sphere.

The book provides innovative empirical and theoretical insights on the relationship between secularism, religion and the state. Readers will benefit greatly from the author’s skills on how to analyse large-scale datasets. The book has successfully combined empirical data with theoretical interpretations and will be useful to students and scholars of sociology of religion and comparative politics.


Reviewed by Sarbeswar Sahoo (Indian Institute of Technology Delhi), Political Studies Review, Vol.15, Issue.2, pp.301-302.


Talking Politics

Bhikhu Parekh in conversation with Ramin Jahanbegloo (2011) Talking Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 129pp, £18.99, ISBN 9780198071549

Talking Politics is the outcome of a series of Ramin Jahanbegloo’s interviews with Bhikhu Parekh, a prominent British-Indian political philosopher and theorist who has made significant contributions to the understanding of modern Indian culture and political thought. In his conversation, Jahanbegloo explores Parekh’s personal as well as academic life, and discusses a range of issues, including his early experience in India, his perspectives on liberalism and cultural diversity and his contribution to political philosophy.


The book is divided into five sections. Part I deals with Parekh’s personal life and his journey from a small town in Gujarat to his current academic prominence and entry into the House of Lords. Parekh interestingly discusses about his adventurous marriage and experiences with the caste system as well as his impressions of England and association with Isaiah Berlin. In Part II, Parekh talks about his views on political philosophy and his critique of liberalism. To him, liberalism, which is grounded on reason and individualism, is a narrow concept; it does not consider individual’s “social embeddeness” (p. 59) and is incapable to “engage in intercultural dialogue” (p.58). The limits of liberalism are further explored in Part III where Parekh discusses about cultural pluralism, multiculturalism and the immigrant communities in Europe. According to him, although “all societies display some [cultural] diversity” (p.65) all of them are not multicultural. Multiculturalism represents a unique way to manage this diversity and pluralism in society. He also distinguishes between cultural and moral diversity and argues that liberalism is hospitable only to the former. The latter “is viewed with suspicion, even pathologized, and the cultural minorities are pressured to adopt dominant liberal values” (p.66). Apart from this liberal imposition/homogenization, Parekh argues that the lack of recognition of “the other” contributes as well to identity and integration-related problems. As a way forward, Parekh, drawing inspirations from Gandhi, advocates for intercultural and intercivilizational dialogue (Part IV). Specifically, in the Indian context, Parekh believes that a sense of “shared citizenship” (p. 117) and “inclusiveness” can not only address the existing intolerance between communities but could also strengthen the Indian identity as well as its democracy (Part V).

This book is unique in structure and style. The conversational mode presents a lively content that is quite interesting to read.This slender volume has gone beyond expectation to present coherently Parekh’s life and thought for which Jahanbegloo must be congratulated.



Max-Weber-Kolleg (Erfurt) and Indian Institute of Technology (Delhi)


@Reviewed by Sarbeswar Sahoo, Political Studies Review, Vol.11, Issue.1, January.


REVIEW: Civil Society and Democratization in India

Civil society and democratization in India: institutions, ideologies and interests, by Sarbeswar Sahoo, Abingdon, Routledge, 2013, xvii + 199 pp., £85 (hardback), ISBN 978041565291

India is rightly celebrated for the depth and diversity of its civil society. While debate persists over the precise nature of civil society’s links to democratisation, few dispute that civil society in India, as elsewhere, exercises a useful, if imperfect, check on the abuse of state power. Sarbeswar Sahoo focuses not on civil society’s watchdog or policy-advocacy functions, but, instead, on the capacity of associational life to deepen democracy by creating avenues for meaningful participation and collective action by poor and marginalised people. This is an area of even greater controversy, with its own scholarly subgenre, to which Sahoo’s book makes an important contribution.


Sahoo’s underlying concern is whether, how, and under what conditions civil society can pursue a politically transformative agenda. Sahoo’s empirical material consists of organisational case studies of three ‘well-established NGOs’ from Rajasthan, all working in the state’s ‘tribal belt’. They are Seva Mandir, which focuses on implementing rural development projects and programmes; Astha Sanstha, ‘which represents a unique mix of Left and Gandhian ideology and is involved in a variety of indigenous people’s movement[s]’ (p. 10); and the Rajasthan Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad (RVKP), which is affiliated with (and propagates the Hindu nationalist ideology of) the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, while engaging in direct service provision in adivasi communities.

These are well-chosen case studies, conforming as they do to three recognisable ‘types’ of civil society. There is a sense, however, that perhaps these categories were too firmly entrenched in the author’s mind before he began his field research, thus allowing a certain degree of ‘confirmation bias’ to creep into his analysis. This is evident in the support that Sahoo expresses for the two key elements of the Left critique of India’s ‘NGO sector’. First, he accepts with few qualms the widely held position that NGOs are ‘agents of the broader project of neoliberalism’ (p. 9). Evidence for this generalisation is sorely lacking. Certainly, NGOs perform some functions formerly monopolised by government, and thus contribute indirectly to a kind of shrinking of the state. But this is hardly an indication of neoliberal intent, let alone adherence to the market fundamentalism that afflicts some extreme neoliberals. Besides, there are plenty of NGOs working to build resistance to the adverse consequences of a less-regulated economy, including rapid environmental degradation. Indeed, a (leaked) 2014 report prepared for the Prime Minister’s Office by the Government of India’s (domestic) Intelligence Bureau identified many professionally managed NGOs – that is, not just ‘movement’ groups – as enemies of India’s development, because they dared protest against questionable industrial and infrastructure projects in many parts of the country.

Sahoo seems equally taken with the second part of the Left critique – that service-delivery NGOs pre-empt the radicalisation of subaltern groups. According to one of the sources Sahoo quotes, NGOs working in Rajasthan’s tribal areas had ‘pacified the fire with people and depoliticized development at the local level’ (p. 9). Such an accusation grants NGOs far too much credit for being able to accomplish something as complex as ‘depoliticising’ anything. The stereotype of the overly professionalised, out-of-touch NGO is badly out of date. These days, even staid project-implementing NGOs can end up doing genuinely political work. Mainstream NGOs, including Seva Mandir, that worked as implementing partners on the United Progressive Alliance’s flagship social protection initiative – the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) 2005 – were, whether they liked it or not, participating in something fairly revolutionary: assisting labourers to demand their wages, and encouraging villagers to demand answers from local officials about development expenditures. This did not require NGOs to pursue a radical agenda of their own devising; their course of action was spelled out in the procedural requirements found in NREGA. Some did this with more vigour than others. The effects were also highly variable. But apolitical the process was not.

By the same token, even excellent NGOs such as Astha, which sees itself at the movement end of the organisational continuum, are sometimes less radical than they might seem, which may well represent a pragmatic adjustment to prevailing political conditions. Astha too must produce reports for its funders and for government regulators; it too works with public-sector entities, and in any case benefits from the pool of experienced development professionals working in and around its home district of Udaipur, where over the past four decades, a cluster of small and large NGOs has grown up around Seva Mandir, one of the first organisations founded in the area.

While the line separating mainstream and movement-oriented civil society formations may be more blurred than Sahoo is willing to concede, he is justified in drawing a sharp distinction between the patently communal RVKP and the other two associations. This is true with respect to all three analytical categories Sahoo invokes in the book’s subtitle: institutions, interests, and ideologies. Through its links to the Bharatiya Janata Party, the RVKP is institutionally different from the resolutely non-partisan Astha and Seva Mandir. It also represents, and is controlled by, a very different set of interests, including those for whom social change is something to be resisted rather than fostered. Even if one were to grant that the RVKP shares a culture of managerial competence with Seva Mandir, and a strong sense of mission with the activist-inclined Astha, these parallels are dwarfed by the stark gap in terms of political ideas that separates ideological chasm separating this Hindu chauvinist organisation from the other two groups.

Readers will benefit greatly from the author’s sensitive interpretation of the case material, even if some of the book’s conceptual and theoretical foundations receive more reverence than perhaps they deserve. Sahoo’s book will be a stimulating read for anyone attempting to understand the political significance of civil society groups, in India and beyond.


Rob Jenkins

Hunter College & The Graduate Center, The City University of New York

# 2015, Rob Jenkins


Rob Jenkins (2015) “Civil society and democratization in India: institutions, ideologies and interests,” Commonwealth & Comparative Politics, 53:2, 226-228

Confronting Secularism in Europe and India

Brian Black, Gavin Hyman and Graham M. Smith (eds) (2014) Confronting Secularism in Europe and India: Legitimacy and Disenchantment in Contemporary Times. London: Bloomsbury Academic. 208pp.


Confronting Secularism in Europe and India emerged out of two international conferences held in 2011 by the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at the University of Lancaster. The central questions in this book are: How is secularism understood in Europe and India and what is its relationship with religion, state, democracy and violence? How has secularism managed religious and cultural diversity and what challenges have it faced? Can secularism continue to provide a foundation for political legitimacy or is there something beyond secularism? Addressing these questions, the editors have structured the book in relation to four sets of issues: (1) political secularism, (2) secularism and religion, (3) secularism, religion and violence, and (4) beyond secularism. A comprehensive introduction by Brian Black sets the tone of the book and critically outlines the debate.


The issue of political secularism is addressed by Bajpai and Bhargava. Bajpai argues that in contrast to Europe Indian secularism is not hostile to religion; it recognises the rights of groups as an extension of ‘values of liberal citizenship’ (p.26). Bhargava similarly argues that Europe has a lot to learn from Indian secularism and the way it has managed religious diversity. He advocates for ‘contextual secularism’ that emphasizes ‘multi-value doctrine’ (p.56). In second section, discussing the relationship between secularism and religion Hyman argues that Anglo American secularism did not emerge out of an opposition to religion as it has been perceived. For him, ‘modern secularism had a closer relationship with early modern states, which had an established religion’ (p.7). Similarly Chatterjee argues that Indian secularism was infused with religious values.

In the third section, Wenman criticizes liberal secularism and discusses the way in which violence, particularly terrorism, is associated with religion. Sutton similarly criticises the secular Indian state of not being neutral or protective of minority groups and being responsible for many religious riots in India. Given this crisis of secularism and in finding ways to deal with religious diversity, the last two chapters by van der Zweede and Pecora try to go beyond secularism to look for answers in Habermas’s ‘post-secular society’ and in Nandy’s ‘critical traditionalism’. In order to over this crisis, the authors broadly agree that secularism must reinvent itself to deal with differences, reengage religious politics and appreciate the deep pluralities of social and cultural life.

The essays in this book provide innovative theoretical and comparative insights on the relationship between secularism, religion, democracy and violence in Europe and India. Taken together they make an invaluable contribution to literature and must be recommended to students of politics, religious studies and sociology.


Sarbeswar Sahoo

Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, India


@ Political Studies Review, Feb 2016, 14: 1, p. 94

The State of India’s Elementary and Higher Education

This paper seeks to examine the state of India’s education system and the various problems it is facing in the present context. The paper is divided into two parts. In part one, the paper examines the state of elementary education and argues that while the government has played a major role and taken several steps to universalize elementary education, such as expanding the school system, building new class rooms, hiring more teachers and providing incentives like free text books, uniforms and mid-day meals, it has not been successful in addressing the low quality of learning in our schools. In the second part, the paper discusses the various problems that our higher education system suffers from. It argues that except a few institutions like the IITs and IIMs, the quality of education in our public and private institutions is very poor. The funding constraint and the inability of the state on the one hand and the policies of neo-liberalism on the other have led to the mushrooming of private self-financing higher educational institutions who consider education as a saleable commodity rather than a social good. The requisite to generate revenue has forced these self-financing institutions to offer programmes in areas that have higher demand. As a consequence, only certain subjects like engineering, medicine and commerce have flourished whereas humanities, social sciences and the basic sciences have suffered; ultimately, as Tilak has pointed out, this has produced “a distorted, unbalanced and unsustainable higher education system”. Not just commercialization and commodification, the higher education has also been affected by declining autonomy and academic freedom. Given these trends, the challenge before us today is how to meet the increasing demands for education, ensure its quality, restrict profit-making in education and restore the autonomy and integrity of our education system.

Patronage as Politics in South Asia

Patronage as Politics in South Asia by Anastasia Piliavsky (ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 469pp., £75.00 (h/b), ISBN 9781107056084

Anastasia Piliavsky’s Patronage as Politics in South Asia, which grew out of a colloquium held in 2011 at Kings College, Cambridge, investigates the nature and importance of patronage in the socio-historical context of South Asia. Piliavsky asks: is patronage necessarily a bad thing? What are the ways in which patronage is understood and exercised in South Asia? Most importantly, what is the relationship between patronage and democracy? Does patronage undermine or complement the functioning of democratic political order? Drawing on theoretical literature from political science and anthropology and extensive ethnographic fieldwork in South Asia, the essays in this volume argue that patronage is not necessarily always a bad thing as it is often characterised in the Western political imagination; in the South Asian context, it is an inherently plural concept, which has a contingent relationship with democracy.


Piliavsky’s comprehensive introduction provides an extensive review of the literature on patronage politics around the world and sets the tone for the book. The sixteen essays by eminent scholars are organised under three sections: the idea of patronage, democracy as patronage, and prospects and perils of patronage. The first section looks at the nature of the patron-client relationship in South Asia. The essays in this section demonstrate how wealthy patrons use their wealth to establish religious and educational institutions to influence the lives of their clients and structure their sense of history and belonging. In the second section, the authors examine how patronage influences electoral decisions and vote bank politics. They show that patronage is not merely an instrument of exchange; it is rather a system of relationship in which patrons are expected to show their munificence through gifts, feasts, developmental provisions and bureaucratic help, and the clients reciprocate with their loyalty.

The final section discusses the perils of patronage and shows how clients (i.e. voters, migrants and subaltern masses) are trapped in a cycle of chronic bondage due to criminalised political ecologies and ineffective legislation. The essays conclude that in South Asia „“patronage” does not apply to a narrowly defined set of political relations; it encompasses the fundamental principle of social life far beyond the political‟ (p.29). „Political patronage is an expression of the broad moral sense that shapes the ways in which people relate across social levels and contexts. The essence of this moral formulation is the idea that in South Asia differences of rank do not prevent relations, but promote intimacy between parties in distinct and complementary roles‟ (pp.29-30).

Broadly, the book provides an excellent comparative ethnographic account of patronage politics in South Asia. The essays are empirically sound and theoretically sophisticated; they are also written in a lucid and coherent manner. Taken together, the essays will be immensely useful to students and scholars of anthropology, political science and South Asian Studies.



Indian Institute of Technology Delhi


© Forthcoming in Political Studies Review, Vol.14, No.3, August 2016.

Religion and Society in India

The Centre for the Study of Social Systems at JNU (New Delhi) organized a panel on “Religion and Society in India” on November 3, 2015. The panellists included Prof. T.N. Madan, Prof. T.K. Oommen, and Prof. Shail Mayaram.

Prof. Madan began his talk by discussing the idea of Kantian “Enlightenment” and argued that the idea of an “individual” is a Christian idea. According to him, there is a tension between ideology and practice, and religion and politics in India today. Prof. Madan discussed how this tension is explained in the works of classical sociologists such as Marx, Weber and Durkheim.


For Marx, religion is the ideological superstructure. As you change the material foundations of society, the nature of superstructure will change. While Weber spoke about the dis-enchantment of the world, Durkheim saw religion as moral foundation of society. Despite this, Marx, Weber and Durkheim subscribed to the inevitable decline of religion in society.

Prof. Madan also argued that secularization is internal to all religions of the world. There is tolerance and compassion in all of them. Citing His Holiness Dalai Lama, Prof. Madan noted, “If Buddha were born in today’s context, he would not teach Buddhism, he would teach secularism”.

In his talk, Prof. Oommen asked, what is the real issue that confronts us in India today? According to him, the real issue is the mismatch between the “Hindu Society” and the “Secular State”. Prof. Oommen argued that while the Indian Constitution mentioned the term “secular” only once, Ambedkar argued that terms like “secular” and “socialism” are very value-loaded. It was only in 1976 during the 42nd Amendment that Indira Gandhi introduced the term “secular” into Indian Constitution.


Prof. Oommen argued that secularism in India may to refer to: (1) equal respect for all religions; and (2) the state keeps equal distance from all religions. Equal distance from all religions refers to separation between religion and state (non-intervention) or equal intervention in all religions. However, instead of accepting all religions as equals or “religious pluralism”, we started appeasing all religions.

According to Prof. Oommen, “unity in diversity” is the Indian collective conscience. The term was coined by British historian Vincent Smith in the 1920s and Nehru adopted it. However, in practice, it has been not unity in diversity but the dominance of majoritarianism. Finally, Prof. Oommen spoke about the notion of “composite culture” – the centrality of which is mutual respect, not one culture dissolving into another.

The last speaker of the Panel, Prof. Mayaram, began her talk with a discussion of the binaries such as religious and secular, sacred and profane, transcendent and immanent, and ratio (reason) and religio. She also talked how the beginning of the Axial age occurred with the Abrahamic religions.


Prof. Mayaram then spoke about some theses on religion and society: (1) the idea of Axiality does not apply to the Hindu-Buddhist religions; (2) India as we know should be understood as inter-connected network of diverse communities; (3) before the coming of modernity, we had multiple ways of belonging; (4) modernity is thought as an assemblage of capitalism and industrialism – however, we must think of multiple modernities and multiple temporalities; (5) two genealogies of nationalism in India – inclusive nationalism of Gandhi and Ambedkar and exclusive nationalism of Savarkar; (6) from inter-connected “religious pluralism” we have moved to “bounded nationalism” in India; and (7) we must revisit dis-enchantment and distinguish between religion as sect/belief and religion as ideology.


All three pictures were taken from google images.