Scholars have abandoned classic accounts of secularization as we have come to appreciate that religion is not a fixed category. We now understand secularism to be a politics of line drawing, or efforts to demarcate the religious from the secular that are contested and never final. To study secularism, we must study the politics of translation: we must ask how phenomena have been translated into the language of religious or secular, and with what consequences. When studying non-Western secularisms, this may require that we radically suspend received classifications of phenomena as religious. It may also require us to suspend our certainties about secular, scientific facts. The history of cow protection in India illustrates this point.
‘Cow protectionist’ pressure to prevent the slaughter of cattle has been a central feature of Indian politics from the 1880s, and continues today. During the 1950s, the first prime minister of the independent Republic of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, treated cow protection as a Hindu religious concern – a preoccupation with the Hindu ‘sacred cow’ – at odds with the scientific development in agriculture and food production that was pursued by the secular state. Historians of the cow protection movement have generally followed suit, treating the cow as a religious symbol mobilized for political ends. Material concerns with the cow have not entered into their accounts. But casting the cow issue in terms of an opposition between the scientific, secular state and religious society has obscured the actual intermingling of institutions across this divide.