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Vanya Vaidehi Bhargav, PhD

Senior Research Fellow


Areas of Interest

  • Modern Indian Political thought 
  • Intellectual History
  • Religious and Secular Nationalism
  • Religious and Political thought

The Emergence of Indian Secularism, 1885-1950

The large body of scholarship on Indian secularism is confined the field of political science and political theory and focusses on the post-independence period (post-1947). But secularism as it was enshrined in India’s post-independence constitution was a culmination of a set of political discourses, expressed by many Indian thinker-politicians during the colonial period, around the broad notion that religion must be kept separate from politics. But, astonishingly, the history of these secular ideas has been largely overlooked. Recently, some historians have delved into India’s pre-independence history to argue that Indian secularism, as articulated by the Indian National Congress (INC), was defined against claims made on the state by Muslims, and was complicit in engineering a Hindu political majority. The revelations of my doctoral research complicated this collusion thesis by revealing that the INC continued to house languages of secularism that irked staunch Hindu politicians. Building on these, my new project will contest the monochromatic argument of Indian secularism consisting of little more than Hindu majoritarianism and unearth the multiple languages of secularism emanating from both within and outside the Congress. To do so, I will draw on wide-ranging textual material ranging from books, pamphlets, interviews to the press, published speeches and correspondence to analyse secular ideas as expressed in different forms by six categories of politician-intellectuals. These include ‘moderate’, liberal Congressmen like Gokhale and Ranade who articulated this ideal out of considerations of political inclusion; staunch Hindu Congressmen like Lajpat Rai and Malaviya (later also leaders of the Hindu Mahasabha) who advocated radically secular ideas, criticising Muslims for mixing religion with politics; Muslim Congressmen like who combined their Muslim identity with their vision of a purely secular state and politics; and left-leaning Congressmen like Nehru who, inspired by socialism, dismissed politics as ‘backward’. To these discourses, I add two emerging from outside the Congress: one was exemplified by the likes of Jinnah who envisioned a secular state but also articulated a ‘religious community’-based politics to protect Muslims from Hindu majoritarianism; and the second by radical liberals like B.R. Ambedkar who, due to what he saw as the deep caste hierarchies present in Hinduism, wished its strict separation from the state.

The proposed research will make two major contributions to our understanding of Indian secularism. Firstly, it will contest the dominant scholarly view that majoritarian constitutional manoeuvres by India's Hindu politicians were the only influence on Indian secularism. Highlighting how different political actors sought to variously differentiate the religious and political domains for wide-ranging normative purposes, the project will recover multiple secular discourses, some that got partially embedded in the constitution and others which did not. In unearthing these, I will unveil the broader, complex ideological bases of India’s constitutional secularism, and unleash its future possibilities. Additionally, by highlighting radical variants of secularism, more hostile to community rights, and not enshrined in the constitution, it will provide insight into why India’s secular constitution is threatened today by Hindu nationalists who consider themselves to be proponents of true secularism. I will therefore throw light on why secularism in India remains an essentially contested concept. Second, my work differs from another body of scholarship that focusses on how a single set of political actors – Indian Christians – contributed to the emergence of secular state practices in colonial India. By moving beyond an explanation of the emergence of secular state practices to focus on secular political discourses, my research will lay bare the many meanings, nuances, contradictions and the future possibilities of Indian secularism, at a time when it is threatened by a resurgent and aggressive Hindu nationalism. 



Senior Research Fellow, Humanities Centre for Advanced Studies "Multiple Secularities – Beyond the West, Beyond Modernities", Leipzig University (GER)


M.St Modern South Asian Studies, St Antony’s College, University of Oxford, Oxford (UK)


BA Hons, History and Politics, St Edmund Hall, University of Oxford, Oxford (UK)

Relevant Publications

  • Bhargav, Vanya. “Lala Lajpat Rai’s Ideas on Caste: Conservative or Radical?” Studies in Indian Politics 6, no. 1 (2018): 15–26.