Andrew W. Mellon Penn Faculty Fellow in the Humanities
2009—2010 Forum on Connections
Asst Professor of South Asia Studies
The Historical Foundations of Indian Secularism: the Administration of “Untouchables” in Colonial Madras
Recent debate on Indian secularism treats its alleged Western provenance as posing a problem: between Indian society and secularism, there is a gap that must be closed either by jettisoning secularism or by determining how it can be accommodated to fit Indian society. The assumption on both sides is thus that secularism and Indian society are entirely distinct, and that the concepts through which secularism operates in India today were forged elsewhere. I intervene in this debate by taking up the theme of connections; where the current impasse assumes difference, I uncover the ways in which key categories of secular governance, such as “religion”, were not first imported and only subsequently “applied” in Indian contexts, but decisively shaped in India, in the conflicts among diverse historical actors over the reform of “untouchables,” bonded laborers of the lowest castes. The problem that confronts Indian secularism today is not, I argue, its Western provenance, but the fact that it silently encodes high caste prerogatives.