Navigating the polarizing discourse of secularism


By Gautam Bisht

As part of my research interests in language and online literacies, I try to study how people construct arguments on Twitter. One very basic feature about political arguments on Twitter is the constant battle between opposing camps, that try to out-tweet and out-trend each other. Both groups try to build arguments in favor of their narrative and generate opposing hashtags. Sometimes, as part of making their arguments, words become site of political struggle. The phenomenon of using the same word, in two different, often opposed ways, has implications for the political participation of many people who are not committed to any camp. In this article I explore the usage of ‘secular’ as one such concept.

Given its complicated legal and socio-political history, secularism has been a highly debated concept. The openness and flexibility of its meaning has often served to respond to the tensions and contradictions of Indian society. A more European usage of the term, which is to separate religion and State, is rarely evoked in India, and thus I will not go into that aspect of its meaning.  I will also not delve into secularism from a legal or sociological perspective. I will rather approach the usage of secular from the perspective of analytic philosophy of language. In this perspective, I will use two technical terms – metalinguistic negotiation and linguistic hijacking, both of which I will explain when I invoke them. As we are more interested in the popular usage of this concept, I first provide some randomly selected tweets, by common and influential people, who evoke the concept of secular on twitter in different and often opposing ways.image001






Camp 1







Camp 2

If we work with just the top two tweets, it will help us clarify, that these people are using the concept of ‘secular’ differently. Ashok Swain holds that not allowing Muslim women to enter a government college wearing a hijab is against secularism. Suhel Seth, interestingly, also claims that India is not a secular state, because it mostly allows other religions to have ‘cultural moorings’ except for Hindus. This is a classic case of metalinguistic negotiation. Metalinguistics negotiation occurs when two camps, sometimes explicitly, but often tacitly, try to persuade the other over its usage of a concept. In that sense, there is not much disagreement about some nonlinguistic first order truth.

In an illustration of this offered by Plunkett and Sundell, two parties are arguing if a champion horse can be considered an athlete. Now the facts of the matter, like the number of races won and all other first order truths, are common to both parties, they are just debating about the veridical application of the word ‘athlete’. So, when one camp says, “The horse is not an athlete’ and the other camp says, “The horse is an athlete”, both are speaking truly in their own ways. Now let’s bring it back to our example. When Suhel Seth uses the word secular, his underlying theory of the concept, takes it to an approach that treats all religions equally (either equal interference or equal non-interference). When Ashok Swain uses the word secular, his underlying theory of the concept takes it to an approach that works on principled distance, and not equidistance. This theory of secularism is best articulated by the scholar Rajeev Bhargava.

Therefore, the underlying theory of secularism allows Camp 1, to look at differential treatments to different religions as viable. They are okay in making ‘special space’ for minorities to affirm themselves religiously or putting extra sanctions on the majority religion if it is seen to be assimilating others through popular or institutional practices. This camp, with tweets made by people like Kapil and Onir, invoke the concept of secular to imply the pluralism and diversity as entrenched in the social and constitutional ethos. Their theory of secularism is in direct response to potential oppression and institutionalized domination which may result from majoritarianism.

The theory of secularism, as characterized by Camp 2, is mentioned above is based on equal distance or equal interference with all religions. Within this definition, people of all faith can argue about inequitable treatment, like Suhel can give you a lot of data on how Hindus have not been allowed their religious expression. Maybe someone can argue that Muslims and Christians have been unfairly treated and the State has given a lot of implicit support to Hindu culture as an alibi for national culture. Anyhow, the ‘special space’ view of the Camp 1 is the very thing that is criticized by Camp 2. They recount how the parties, have abused ‘principled distance’ in an unprincipled manner, often referred to as appeasement and in Twitter world referred to as pseudoscalar or sickular.

The model of metalinguistic negotiation proposes that even though the two camps are speaking what seems to be a common language (English), in effect they are using two different languages, using its own distinct veridical applications. If this holds, then one can at best choose which conceptual usage and camp you want to be a part of. And within this model, different communities can then try to enroll as many people as possible within its own group and fight over the control over the meaning of secular. But there are severe implications of this, since some political vocabulary is developed precisely to act against oppression, and it should not be co-opted to mean the opposite of it. This is referred to as linguistic hijacking by Anderson.

Linguistic hijackings obfuscate and alter politically significant terminology, in place to serve marginalized communities, such that it is unable to maintain its original function – which is promote knowledge about oppression. One can start using secular to oppress those that were to be helped by its usage. The abuse of such a terminology can create misinformation and active ignorance. It allows people from dominant communities to distance themselves from marginalized discourse and indulge in whataboutery instead of engaging with systematic oppression. Even though this political misuse may not be intentionally controversial, its eventual function is to exert political domination. Secular is one example; you can find many examples from the feminist discourse, that are hijacked and eventually used against women.

But what counts as hijacking will run into a similar problem, with which we started. Camp 1 can say that Camp 2 is hijacking the concept of secular to change its meaning from principled distance to equidistance and vice versa. Such a model is poststructuralist, in the sense that for it, truth and meaning is stipulated through politics. I propose that not looking for an objective ground, will reduce the debate around secularism to mere semantics, rather than concerning itself with social justice and equality in the real world. Even though language can be manipulated through metalinguistic negotiation, ontology itself cannot be simply manipulated. This means that there is difference between what secularism means and what it is, although they may influence each other. The existential truth about whether marginalized communities feel less or more oppressed within different versions of secularism is more crucial than a semantic debate.

Thus, instead of fighting and negotiating over the meaning of ‘secularism’, we should begin by asking: what is the point of having the concept of secularism? By extension we must ask, what do we want the concept of secularism to do for us? In my view, even though it is contested across the camps, we must constantly strive to move our secularism towards the principled distance view of Bhargava. I feel as a theory it is existentially true, in the sense that it best works against institutionalized oppression. It captures the constitutional ethos of working against communalism and majoritarianism much better. Even though we must acknowledge that this principle has been abused, to give it up and undertake the theory of secularism by Camp 2 will be reductive and only perpetuate structural domination. However, one must call out cases and instances when the State indeed derides and unnecessarily controls Hindu religion, and when it turns towards appeasement for vote bank politics. If the Congress is accused of appeasing Muslims, then today all political parties are guilty of appeasing the majority. Appeasement is counterproductive, and the long delay in dismantling triple talak is a simple example of it.


Anderson, D. (2020). Linguistic Hijacking. Feminist Philosophy Quarterly, 6(3), Article 3.

BHARGAVA, R. (2013). Reimagining Secularism: Respect, Domination and Principled Distance. Economic and Political Weekly, 48(50), 79–92.

Plunkett, D., & Sundell, T. (2021). Metalinguistic negotiation and speaker error. Inquiry, 64(1–2), 142–167.

Gautam Bisht is the founder of Sinchan Education and Rural Entrepreneurship Foundation and is currently pursuing his PhD in Learning Sciences from Northwestern University. He is interested in language education, design-based research and writing short stories.


Like Cafe Dissensus on Facebook. Follow Cafe Dissensus on Twitter.

Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, born in New York City and currently based in India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.


Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Exploring Motherly Instincts: Representation of Mothers in Indian Cinema”, edited by Srija Sanyal, Ronin Institute, USA.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s