Eleanor Newbigin

Funding India’s Secular Democracy: The Relationship Between Religious Law and Income Tax

Both in scholarly and popular debate, democracy is presented as the political panacea for modern times. It is largely understood as a political system that can heal religious tension and remove social inequality. This notion has particular resonance in India. Since the late 1980s, and particularly after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, academics and social commentators have argued that the Indian nation is caught in a battle between secular democracy and Hindu nationalism. This is often presented in terms of a
breakdown or ‘crisis’ of the independent Indian state. This assumes that the transfer of power established a very stable secular democracy that has somehow become ‘corrupted’ by religion. This paper challenges this view. Looking at the development of representative politics under late-colonial rule, it argues that, far from undermining the political significance of religious identity, the emergence of a democratic, welfare-orientated Indian state was made possible through policies that rested on religious
discrimination and differentiation. It shows how, in seeking to draw up new and sustainable funding sources to pay for devolution and state expansion after World War I, colonial officials focused particularly on taxation of the Hindu family and traces the way in which this drew the state into a unique financial relationship with, and dependency on, this social unit. Looking at the legacy of these developments for tax structures in modern day India, this paper calls for us to consider not only secular ideology but also the economic structures that support representative politics in order to understand better the relationship between religious identity and democracy, in South Asia and beyond.

Eleanor Newbigin is a Junior Research Fellow at Trinity College, University of Cambridge, UK but is currently based at NYU for a three month stretch as a visiting scholar. Focusing on the Hindu Code Bill, her doctoral thesis examined family law and social reform in the first half of the twentieth century, exploring the way in which religious identity and gender relations informed debates about citizenship rights, democracy, and secularism. She is preparing a manuscript based on this research while also beginning to develop its findings for a second research project on the relationship between economic consumption and citizenship in early post-colonial India.