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Secularism In India: An Evaluation


The Preamble to the Constitution of India declares India to be a ‘Sovereign, Socialist, Secular, Democratic Republic’. Notice that the word secularism has been emphasized in this line. What is Secularism? Why do we need secularism? How did secularism emerge in the first place? Are there different notions of secularism? Which notion does India follow? How far would it be correct for anybody to label India as being secular? If India is indeed secular now, was there a phase when India was not secular? These are some questions which might intrigue any curious mind.

Any inquiry or research, especially in political thought or political philosophy, attempts to decipher the meaning of the concept and understand where, when, and how did the concept emerge. In short, any study aims at understanding different notions of a concept, and the relevance of the concept in contemporary times. What prompted, or inspired me to write a piece on such a topic is that the concept of secularism is very often mired in controversy, especially in India’s context. It occurred to me that if secularism is such a controversial topic, why not focus more on another important term, fraternity, also mentioned in the Constitution, though abandoned by the political class, allegedly because secularism gives richer dividend than fraternity.

The term ‘Secular’ itself has a Christian root, i.e. a word that finds its original meaning in a Christian context. This English word is derived from the Latin ‘saeculum’, which means century or, more generally, ‘an age’ or ‘the spirit of an age’. The Oxford Dictionary defines secularism as the belief that religion should not interfere, or be involved in the organization of a society,  education, government, etc. It is the principle of separation of government institutions and persons mandated to represent the state from religious institutions and religious dignitaries. Giving a wider meaning to secularism, Donald E. Smith, in his study India as a Secular State (1963), defines a secular State as “a state which guarantees individual and corporate freedom of religion is not constitutionally connected to a particular religion nor does it seek either to promote or interfere with religion.”

The importance of secularism lies in the need for a secular state in modern times. Individuals in any state may have a very strong sense of religious identity. It is only natural that these individuals want to be protected against those who are intolerant towards their religious beliefs. Moreover, religious freedom is a very important feature of a civilized society, so that everyone can follow their own religion freely. A secular would also tolerate atheists, and give them a right to be what they are. Without religious tolerance, the world would be full of hatred, violence and vengeance.  This appears to be very close to the Hobbessian conception of the state of nature, where there is war of all against all, and life would be nasty, short and brutish.

It is generally perceived that a secular state guarantees political stability. Some might argue, however, that political stability may exist without the state being secular also. They give the example of Saudi Arabia. Though Saudi Arabia may from the outside appear to be politically stable, it is very unstable domestically. The recent shuffle in the Monarchial ranks is indicative of the political turbulence Saudi Arabia is going through. As a counter argument, others give France’s example  France is a secular state, and it is politically stable as far as transfer of governments is concerned. On the other hand we have the example of Italy, a secular state, but politically unstable. This political instability can be deciphered by the fact that since 1946, Italy hasn’t had a single government lasting five years in office. This instability, however, has nothing to do with it being secular, factors of instability being unimportant for this piece.

Origins In The Western Context

The intellectual roots  of secularism can be traced back to Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers like Epicurus and Marcus Aurelius, from enlightenment thinkers like John Locke, Voltaire and Thomas Paine, and from recent thinkers like Bertand Russell and Christopher Hitchens. To understand the concept of secularism in its entirety, it  becomes necessary to understand the political thought of the intellectual forefathers of secularism. The following paragraphs seek to throw some light on the teachings of each of these political thinkers.

Epicurus taught an ancient form of secular ethics called consequentialism. He preached altruism over self interest. He called upon his fellow humans to lead a happy life. According to him, the best life of an individual is one that is lived with other people for the benefit of all. The idea of a modern tolerant society of all religions coexisting in a pluralistic environment, except those that are politically influencing, is traceable to Marcus Aurelius’ attitude towards all religions, versus his attitude towards Christianity. Aristotle too,  developing upon his denunciation of religion, backed secularism as it was a progress towards civilization. Similarly, Locke too, was in favor of toleration (which may well be viewed as a synonym for secularism) in wake of the Catholic takeover of Great Britain.

Thomas Paine has argued and vouched for a rejection of religion. His contribution was to popularize and explain his ideas in terms which ordinary men could comprehend and relate to. Everything he wrote was deeply embedded with the ideas of republicanism, liberty, anti slavery, democracy, human rights, women rights, separation of state from religion, and the idea that government should serve the interests of ordinary people. Critics, however, have often denigrated him for failing to understand the subtle difference in being secular, and being an atheist. Being secular does not mean that one questions the existence of god or religion. It simply means that the state will either have nothing to do with all religion and keep an arms distance from it, or that the state will treat all religions equally.

In the mid-nineteenth-century England, George Holyoake coined the term “secularism” to name an orientation to life designed to attract both theists and atheists under its banner. He advocated a secularism accommodative of religion, a secularism that would emphasize diversities and co-existences in matters of faith. Holyoake believed that human enlightenment will be accompanied by a rational form of religious knowledge and experience, and will not be fractured by earlier divisions (Cady & Hurd, 2010). Writing in the 1850s, Bradlaugh, a contemporary of Holyoake, believed in a secularism which rejected religion and made science his deity.

Origins And Evolution Of Secularism In The Indian Context

The earliest traces of secularism in India date back to the Bhakti- Sufi Period (8th Century AD – 15th Century AD). It was based on respect for different religions. The poorer and lower caste Hindus and Muslims were greatly influenced by the Bhakti movement. Unlike the religious orthodoxy in Hinduism and Islam, Bhakti and Sufi saints were highly tolerant and open to truths in other faiths. They never adopted sectarian attitudes and were never involved in power struggles. This was the first phase of secularisation of the masses. Another phase emerged around 1857 when the revolutionaries enforced secular laws like ban on cow slaughter in rebel held territory. Ironically, the British who incidentally came to India under a Civilizing Mission and should have acted as catalysts of change, instead transformed into catalysts for precipitating communal tensions by codifying laws for each community, even though the Crown had assured Indians of non-interference in their personal lives.

Secularism in India’s context was never clearly defined by either our constitutional experts or political ideology. There are several problems in defining secularism in the Indian context. Both during colonial and post-colonial periods, the Indian society has been a traditional society dominated by various customs and tradition with deep religious orientation. For the liberal and progressive intellectuals, on the other hand, secularism meant total exclusion of religion from political arena.

A question may arise here – is there an Indian notion of secularism: and if yes, how is it different from the Western notion? Bhargava argues in the affirmative. Elaborating upon the difference in Indian and Western notions of secularism, he argues that unlike Western notion of secularism, Indian secularism did not erect a strict wall of separation, but proposed instead a ‘principled distance’ between religion and state. Moreover, by balancing the claims of individuals and religious communities, it never intended a bludgeoning privatization of religion.

Comparing the views of the western scholars with that of Gandhi and Nehru, we find that Gandhi’s notion of secularism, that of sarva dharma sambhava is very similar to Holyoake’s. Similarly, Brasdlaugh’s conception of secularism finds resonance in Nehruvian notion of secularism, that religion should be kept away from the state. It is this similarity which made Nandy in The Politics of Secularism and the Recovery of Religious Tolerance note that while most non modern Indians opted unwittingly for the accommodative and pluralist meaning, India’s westernized individuals have consciously opted for the abolition of religion from the public sphere. Rajeev Bhargava has explained what secularism in the Indian setting calls for is the maintenance of a “principled distance” between state and religion. This does not mean that the state cannot intervene in religion and its affairs, but that any intervention should be within the limitations prescribed by the Constitution (Parthasarthy, 2018).

Secular undercurrents were also felt during the debates in the Constituent Assembly, which was vested with the responsibility to draft Independent India’s Constitution. Professor KT Shah wanted to include Secular, Federal and Socialist in Article 1 and moved amendments twice for the same, Dr. Ambedkar rejected both the amendments at the meeting of the Drafting Committee. Dr. Ambedkar held that the Assembly should leave the policy of the state, and other socio-economic matters to the intellect of the people, as including the word secular would make future India undemocratic. Moreover, it was widely agreed upon that since India has been a secular country all along, it would continue to remain so in future as well. So adding this term would be no more than a time wasting exercise. The secular nature of the State was, however, reflected through various articles in the Indian Constitution. It was much later in 1976, that the word secular was added in the Preamble to the Constitution (42nd Amendment Act, 1976).

Indian Constitutional and Legislative history is wrought with one anomaly – the use of legislations to bring about reforms in the majority religion alone, ignoring the clamor of reforms arising from the oppressed in the minority community. This inflicts a major blow to the very notion of equal citizenship (Chatterjee, 1994). Acharya Kriplani too chided the government for being communal as it made reform laws for only the Hindu community.

On closer examination, we notice that the Constitution itself has certain anti-secular traits in the form of Articles 290A and 28(2). While Article 290A makes a specific provision of money to be paid by the governments of Kerala and Tamil Nadu to the Travancore Dewaswom Funds, Article 28(2) allows central universities like Aligarh Muslim University and Banaras Hindu University to import religious instructions. Similarly, in 1986 as a reaction to the Supreme Court’s judgment in favor of Shah Bano in Mohd. Ahmed Khan v. Shah Bano Begum, the Parliament of India passed an act titled The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986, that nullified the Supreme Court’s judgment in the Shah Bano judgment. Diluting the Supreme Court judgment, the act allowed maintenance to a divorced woman only during the period of iddat, or till 90 days after the divorce, according to the provisions of Islamic law. This was in stark contrast to Section 125 of the Code. The liability of husband to pay the maintenance was thus restricted to the period of the iddat only. This was a clear divergence from the established principles of secularism, equality, justice to secure brownie points for securing the votes of Orthodox Muslim men.

Resistance to the Temple Entry Movement and Triple Talaq Bill (howsoever inefficient it may allegedly turn out to be), and communal violence in parts of India, on being simply incited by sickening rumors flashing in the social media are some hurdles in making India truly secular. The Left Front’s decision to impose Sharia in Cooch Behar (district in West Bengal) in the 1980s, and the hijacking and appropriation of the Feminist demand for a Uniform Civil Code in the 1990s by the Right Wing (albeit on religious grounds, and not on grounds of gender) show the sincerity of the political establishment in realizing a truly secular state in practice.

One might even go so far as to say that it is India alone which has kept alive the world’s interest in secularism, and to add that skepticism about India’s secularism outside India is not unknown (S Natarajan, 1964). He does not explain this statement, but this is not what I argue here. I feel that Natarajan misses a very important point here. Indian secularism as a guiding principle to our Constitution was being questioned right from the time when the Constituent Assembly was drafting India’s constitution. In the contemporary era, calls for revisiting secularism have arisen not because there is a sudden surge of right wing parties, both at the centre and in the states, but because secularism in India’s context was being misused by political parties cutting across ideologies. Secularism thus has become a controversial and confused subject in India’s discourse.

Having said that there seem to be strong reasons to opine that Indian State has gradually lost its secular credentials. Ashwini Anand (2016) in an atricle for The Economic Times was of this opinion. He writes, that while the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines secularism as “the belief that religion should not play a role in government, education, or other public parts of society”, the most commonly accepted definition of secularism is “separation of religion and state”. He thus proved, using this definition, how India was not a secular state. Rather he alleged, that the Indian State was resorting to blatant reverse discrimination against the majority community. He contends that, “In a truly secular country, all citizens irrespective of religion would be covered by a single set of laws. In India, however, people of different religious beliefs are covered by different laws. While Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists are covered by the Hindu code bills (Hindu Marriage Act, Hindu Succession Act etc.), Muslims are covered by Muslim Personal laws and Christians are covered by Christian Personal laws. So, Hindus, Muslims, Christians & Parsis inherit property differently, have different rules for marriage, divorce and adoption among other things.

Moreover, there has been a growing tendency on part of the politicians to make unwarranted statements to prove their secular credentials, which on the contrary expose their inherently communal mindset. Take for instance Shiv Sena’s Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Raut, who talked about scrapping the voting rights of Muslims. In a column published in Shiv Sena mouthpiece Saamna, he wrote: “Bal Thackeray in the past had demanded to revoke voting rights of Muslims as they are used as vote-banks and they have no future. The secular facade of people will be exposed when voting rights of Muslim will be scrapped.”( The Wire, May 12, 2016). In 2013, Shushil Kumar Shinde, then Union Home Minister, told a Conference of Chief Ministers that no innocent Muslim youth should be falsely implicated in any terror case. This statement was uncalled for, as it gave an impression as if he is fine with innocent Hindu youths to be put behind bars in cases of terror.

Romila Thapar (2015) speaking at the Asghar Ali Memorial Lecture at Jamia Milia Islamia sums up secularism and its issues crisply by providing a remedy for the tendency to project religion overwhelmingly (religious chauvinism) – the primary threat to Secularism. That remedy, she says, is secularizing the masses. It is primarily because of this lack of secularisation, that the Author believes, that India falls short of being called a secular state. Implicit to democracy is secularism and fraternity. Thus, in order to secularize the masses, it is important to first instill in each individual the feeling of brotherhood/ sisterhood; i.e.  the feeling of belongingness. To ensure this, the governing class ought to be duty bound to ensure the existence of a welfare state and put such mechanisms which would ensure that anti-secular elements, hell-bent on destroying the secular ethos of India are dealt with a firm hand.


Secularism, as a concept, traces a very deep history dating back to Epicurus (341- 270 BC). It is a notion which has evolved over many centuries. Modern day political theorists, especially in India, seem content with differentiating Indian notion of secularism from the Western notion of secularism. However, I submit that such a distinction is useless, as there is no Indian notion of secularism. Contradicting as it may sound, I say so because both the Indian notions of secularism, i.e. Nehruvian notion (separation of religion from state) and the Gandhian notion (considering all religions, and treating all religions equally) are essentially two strands of secularism already developed in the West by Holyoake and Bradlaugh respectively. Having said that, there is no denying the fact that both Nehru and Gandhi have contributed a great deal in developing secularism in India’s context. My only submission is that they have been projected as the founding fathers of secularism in Colonial and Post Colonial India, which is an exaggeration.

At the time of the drafting of the Indian Constitution, secularism as a model for Indian society was debated and deliberated upon. The debates regarding Indian Secularism in the Constituent Assembly point towards the enlightened nature of the freedom fighters who were entrusted with the responsibility to draft the Constitution of free India. However, over the years, there have been murmurs that Indian Secularism is flawed, and that India does not need secularism. I contend this thought and feel sorry for those who hold such views, which are at best, based on a web of ignorance and apathy which the anti social, self interested elements have successfully knitted to trap such ignorant and naive people. What I do agree upon is that secularism should be practiced in the truest sense, i.e, in letter and spirit, instead of being viewed as a potential tool to score brownie points over one another and gain quasi one upmanship. Ashwini Anand sums up the whole discussion over the need for secularism succinctly by writing  ”At the end of the day, India must become a truly secular country where the state treats all citizens equally irrespective of their religious beliefs. I am not asking for the majority community to receive preferential treatment – just that the State of India make no distinction between it.”

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