Dr. Vanya Vaidehi Bhargav

Indian Secularism: A Contested Concept

1 November 2022 to 31 May 2023

Research Description:

My research project combines intellectual and concept history approaches with comparative political theory to explore the overlaps and differences between the secular thought of three Indian politician-thinkers: Lala Lajpat Rai, M.K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. While secularism requires separation between religion and the state at the level of ends and institutions, it can permit religion to mix with the state at the level of law and public policy, and allow for a religious politics as long as both are guided by the normative ends of equality, liberty, and respect for diversity. The different forms in which separation is unpacked, differences in how normative ends are defined and prioritised, and the different political means by which secular visions are sought to be established, produce multiple secularisms that are not only in normative conflict with religion but also with each other. My project examines the thought of Rai, Gandhi and Nehru to throw into relief the diverse, often-conflicting ways in which political secularism was imagined in colonial India. Apart from exploring how these individuals diverged in conceiving the separation of religion and politics and the ends for which separation was deemed desirable, I will pay close attention to attitudes towards communal representation, communal organisation, violence and nonviolence, and constitutionalism and democracy. Challenging revisionist scholarship that sees Indian secularism as historically complicit with, and virtually reducible to, Hindu majoritarianism, I seek to unearth the diverse internal structures and values constituting the secularisms articulated by different influential Hindu actors, and illuminate the essentially contested, internally differentiated nature of Indian secularism. Integral to the project is to highlight that staunch Hindu politicians like Rai, claimed as an icon by the Hindu right, historically contributed to shaping the secularism eventually enshrined in India’s constitution — contrary to the Hindu right’s efforts to portray itself as historical defenders of India against an alien secularism imposed by westernised Congress elites. At the same time, I reveal the distinctions between this Hindu communal articulation of Indian secularism, and exclusionary and assimilationist Hindu nationalisms which, seeking religion-based domination, severely compromise secularism.


Vanya Vaidehi Bhargav is an intellectual historian of modern India, with interests in Hindu and secular nationalism. Her D.Phil research at the University of Oxford, soon to be published as a monograph, undertook the first systematic intellectual history of the nationalist thought of Lala Lajpat Rai (1865-1928).  It challenges reductionist evaluations of Hindu political thinking, and highlights internal differentiation within it. Bhargav’s research has been published in The Journal of Asian Studies, Global Intellectual History, and Studies in Indian Politics. She has been a Senior Research Fellow with the Multiple Secularities Research Group, Humanities Centre for Advanced Studies, University of Leipzig, to which she continues to be affiliated. Her post-doctoral project seeks to unearth the diverse languages of secularism circulating in colonial-era India, challenge the notion of Indian secular complicity with Hindu majoritarianism, and more deeply explore the relationship between secularism and the Hindu right.

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