Secularism

Previous Year Questions

  1. How do the Indian debates on secularism differ from the debates in the West? (2014)
  2. How the Indian concept of secularism different from the western model of secularism? Discuss. (2018)
  3. What are the challenges to our cultural practices in the name of secularism? (2019)

Secularism as an Antidote to Communalism:

The term ‘secular’ means the spheres of secularism and religion are distinct, independent, exclusive and separate without any grey areas.

The concept of secularism in the West is a product of the struggle between church and the monarchy.  Secularism emerged in the Western Europe as an opposite ideology to the church hegemony and as a protest against wars and massacres in the name of religion. Secularism in the west is originated as an anti-religious principle. The Indian concept of secularism is not necessarily a rejection of religious practices. The Indian culture is deeply religious and Indian society cannot be separated from religious beliefs. The logical attitude of getting rid of religion all together was too Utopian for Indian society, when many religions were deeply entrenched. So, the more practical answer was not opposition to religion, but the removal of religion from public affairs.

What makes Indian Secularism distinctive from Western Secularism?

For a start, it arose in the context of deep religious diversity that predated the advent of Western modern ideas and nationalism. There was already a culture of inter-religious ‘tolerance’ in India. However, we must not forget that tolerance is compatible with religious domination. It may allow some space to everyone but such freedom is usually limited. Besides, tolerance allows you to put up with people whom you find deeply repugnant. This is a great virtue if a society is recovering from a major civil war but not in times of peace where people are struggling for equal dignity and respect. The advent of western thoughts and ideals brought notions of equality in Indian thought. It sharpened these ideas and helped us to focus on equality within the community. It also ushered ideas of inter-community equality to replace the notion of hierarchy.

Thus, Indian secularism took on a distinct form as a result of an interaction between what already existed in a society that had religious diversity and the ideas that came from the west. It resulted in equal focus on intra-religious and interreligious domination.

Some distinctive features of Indian Secularism are as below:

  • Indian secularism equally opposed oppression of Dalits and women within Hinduism. It also opposes the discrimination against women within Indian Islam or Christianity and the possible threats that a majority community might pose to the rights of the minority religious communities.
  • Indian secularism deals not only with religious freedom of individuals but also with religious freedom of minority communities; i.e., individual has the right to profess religion of his/her choice. Likewise, religious minority also have a right to exist and to maintain their own culture and educational institutions.
  • Indian secularism has made room for and is compatible with the idea of state supported religious reform. For example, Indian constitution bans untouchability under article 17. There is also abolition of child marriage and lifting the taboo on inter-caste marriage sanctioned by Hinduism.

Secularism in Indian Constitution:

Constitutionally, India is a secular state because according to the 42nd amendment made to the Indian constitution in 1976, its preamble mentions India as a secular nation. The Indian constitution guarantees the fundamental right to the citizens of India that everyone will be given equal protection before law.

Article 15 of Indian constitution clearly states that there will be no discrimination in India against any citizen on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth.

Article 25(1) guarantee to every person the freedom of conscience and the right to profess, practice and propagate religion.

Article 29(2) provide that no citizen shall be denied admission into any educational institution maintained by the state, receiving aid out of the state funds on grounds only of religion, race, caste, languages or any of them.

In S.R. Bommai vs. UOI “It was held that Religious tolerance and equal treatment of all religious group and protection of their life and property and the places of their worship are an essential part of secularism enshrined in our constitution. while the citizen of this country are free to profess, practice and propagate such religion, faith or belief as they choose, so for as the state is concerned i.e. from the point of view of the state, the religion, faith or belief of a person is immaterial to it, all are equal and all are entitled to be treated equally.” Further the Court while emphasizing upon the significance of Secularism declared it as the basic structure of the Constitution.

The concept of secularism was not expressly incorporated in the constitution at the stage of its making. However, its operation was visible in the fundamental rights and directive principles. The concept of secularism, though not expressly stated in the constitution, was, nevertheless deeply embedded in the constitutional philosophy. The concepts of secularism are not static; it is elastic in connotation. In this area, flexibility is most desirable as there cannot be any fixed views in this concept for all time to come.

Problem of Secularism in India:

The term ‘secular’ does possess an agreed core meaning: state neutrality with regard to religion. In a multireligious society like that of India, this can mean either a fundamental separation of the state from religious activity and affiliation, or state impartiality on all issues relating to the religious interests of different communities. In practice, ‘Indian secularism’ has been a mixture of the two. Some major issues with Indian form of Secularism is mentioned as below:

  • Despite claims made for religious neutrality the State of India has often intervened in the religious matters; this particularly holds in case of management of temples and religious institutions, such as monasteries.
  • The religious tolerance or non-intervention does not mean secularism. Rather partial non-intervention has led to religious fundamentalism in place of growth of humanism.
  • Some provisions of the Constitution and some of the laws passed do interfere with the religious customs and practices of Hindus as mentioned above.
  • Failure of the leadership has damaged the progressive separation of religion and politics in India.
  • The failure of the government to evolve a just economic order and eliminate poverty also gave a serious setback to secularism. 
  • The cultural dimension of secularism has been totally neglected, and we have, therefore, neither attempted to develop a composite Indian culture based on all religious sub-cultures, nor have we developed a new culture based on secular values, with emphasis on secular symbols.
  • Due to the limited interpretation of secularism, as being confined to State policy only, the religious identities and other sub-cultural differences of Indian citizens have continued to remain strong. 
  • There is now ample evidence to show that at times the administrative machinery of the State does not operate impartially at the time of communal riots; those responsible for ensuring law and order act in a non-secular way and tend to victimise members of minority groups.
  • The minorities are in fear of the giant majority, which has the brute strength to overpower them and divests them of their distinctive characteristics.
  • The defective educational system which has encouraged the people to think in terms of groups and communities, has also failed to inculcate secular ideas in the minds of young students and promote feeling of mutual give and take. It had failed to distinguish communitarianism from communalism. 
  • Laws regarding administration of minority educational institutions is different from other private educational institutions. Majority of minority educational institutions receive money from the government in the form of grants/aid whereas the same is not granted for others creating a divide. The state of India is unable to uniform laws for majority and minority schools.
  • While the 42nd amendment to the Indian constitution added the word ‘secular’ to its preamble, there is lack of uniformity as far as personal laws of Hindus, Muslims and Christians are concerned.
  • The distortion of the Constitutional and democratic institutions has also greatly contributed to the weakening of the secularism in India. For example, though use of religion is not permitted for soliciting votes, yet certain religious political parties have made free use of factors like religion, caste etc. to secure votes. 
  • The validity of the Haj Subsidy could well be challenge that it aids people of a specific religion and thereby interferes in the matters of the state as other religions were treated unfairly.
  • Rights granted on the basis of a caste-based social system, continue to heighten tensions in India.

Way Forward:

The strength of Indian secularism — its advocacy of minority cultural rights — was easily made to appear as its weakness and the burden of its defence, rather than be shared by all citizens. Indian secularists in the main are prepared to ignore civil society in favour of a one-sided stress on strengthening the secular nature of the state, supplemented perhaps by mass ideological campaigns in support of a secular interpretation of Indian nationalism.

Where substantial secularization of state and civil society has taken place, religious identity in social—and psychic—life is less important, and the communal appeal correspondingly less successful or attractive. Since the formation and expansion of religious identity ‘from below’ takes place largely in civil society, an inversion of secular emphasis concerning state and civil society is needed, especially for societies like India. A programme for de-communalizing India must give the highest priority to the building of secular counter-institutions in civil society and to promoting a more secular popular culture.