The Golden Jubilee Distinguished Lecture series organised by the School of Social Sciences, University of Hyderabad, with support from the Institution of Eminence programme, has served as an enriching experience of academic rigour with lectures from many acclaimed academics on a plethora of topics. The lecture on 26 February was no different, with an enlightening lecture by Prof. Nivedita Menon (Jawaharlal Nehru University) on the topic “Secularism as Misdirection: Critical Thought from the Global South”. The event was chaired by Prof. Jyotirmaya Sharma, Dean, School of Social Sciences, who also delivered the welcome address. He also introduced the speaker with mentions of her academic career as well as her written works, highlighting her latest work which shares its title with the lecture.

Prof. Nivedita Menon set a very jovial mood for the lecture with some jokes from the outset and expressed her delight at being invited. Right at the start, she drew the audience’s attention to the subtitle of the lecture, expressing her desire to consider the issue at hand from the Global South perspective in order to then build outwards and theorise about larger processes. She went on to clarify her use of the word ‘misdirection’ in the title, alluding to it being something akin to the misdirections used by magicians. Thus, the understanding of the title amounted to the use of the term secularism to distract from the implications of the actions of those in power, and in turn, guising their actions within the ‘master discourse of secularism’ by making certain elements ‘hyper-visible’ while obscuring others. Prof. Menon has discussed five such elements in her book, namely: religion, women, caste, capitalism and the non-individuated self, of which she outlined the first two in her lecture.

The speaker encapsulated her lecture in the framework of two arguments: firstly, that state and religion co-constitute each other, and thus, religion is not a self-standing entity and secondly, she argued that secularism is not a value in itself but rather, it is merely a strategy of rule that could be utilised in many contexts such as majoritarian rule just as much as in democratic politics. She went on to apply these arguments to the two elements mentioned beforehand in order to substantiate her point. With reference to this, she drew on the example of the “Islamic veil”, contrasting the conception of the veils being touted as a symbol for lack of secularism and modern values with it being hailed as a marker of violence when used by armed Algerian women in protest to French interventions. This lends to the assertion that women’s bodies, as well as religion, become arenas of political assertions. Further, drawing on the 2022 Hijab case in Karnataka, she asserted that secularization was used as a vehicle for facilitating ‘Hindu supremacists.

The state-religion interdependence was elaborated by bringing attention to the role of the judiciary as an organ of the state in their interventions in religious matters. The example of the liberty of the courts to determine what is essential and what is not through the ‘Essential Religious Practices test’ cemented the conception of the co-constitution between the state and religion since the state essentially holds the power in this case to determine the boundaries of a religion. Prof. Menon invoked the similarities between French secularism and secularism under ‘Hindu supremacism’, essentially regarding them both as a farce, being partial to their own interests. The concept of secularism itself was broken down, indicating that secularism had varied meanings and was not an ideal or a ‘substantive category’ but rather a tool that could be moulded to suit the agenda of the power wielders rendering the separation of religion and state to be nothing but a fable.

An interesting dimension that was illuminated by the speaker was the way in which Hindu identity is articulated. The idea that everyone other than Muslims, Christians, Parsees and Jews come under the fold of Hinduism not only subsumes minority identities like Sikhs but also serves as the subconscious assertion of the nation being originally Hindu by the othering of some minority religions. In this way, Hindu communalism has over time, occupied the space of nationalism, becoming synonymous with National identity. Drawing to the end of the lecture, she used the example of the Sabrimala case as an apt description of the two prongs of the lecture. It clarified the understanding of women and religion as means, becoming the foreground of political intervention to the personal ends of the state. These means are facilitated by the co-constitution of the state and religion alongside the use of the term ‘secularism’ in an attempt to hoodwink the masses.

Prof. Menon concluded her lecture by emphasising that the talk of decolonisation by the Hindutva ideologues is in reality an attempt at recolonisation of the heterogeneous, non-Brahamanical practices. She remarked that a true project of decolonisation would instead recognise permanent heterogeneity and that it was important for India to be recognised as a collection of minorities rather than a Hindu-majority country.

This very informative lecture was followed by a question-and-answer session, which shed light on the flipside of the co-constitution wherein the religion turns to the state for legitimacy and, in this very process, ends up acknowledging and legitimizing the state as a source of legitimacy. To the question of principled distance, she articulated that complete separation of spheres would be unwise. Further, she emphasised the need to take away the special status often assigned to religion in order to maintain the state’s function as a facilitator and agent of social justice.


The vote of thanks was delivered by Dr Sneha Banerjee. She reminisced on having once been a student of Prof. Menon and thanked her for demystifying the ‘spectacular’ to bring into focus the ‘particular’. She went on to express her gratitude to the Dean, School of Social Sciences for the initiative, the supporting staff of the School of Social Sciences and CV Raman auditorium, the student volunteers who have been working day and night to make this series a success, and the audience for actively engaging with the lecture. The session ended with some jovial, informal and enriching discussions over refreshments.

Report by:Ann Elza Varughese, M.A. Political Science