India is a diverse country where multiple religions and cultures coexist. This can also become a source of conflict and tension in the country. So India has followed secular principles so that every religion and community is respected and is given equal rights.

Secularism is a doctrine which seeks to realise a secular society, i.e., one devoid of either inter-religious or intrareligious domination. It promotes freedom to practice their religion and equality between religions as well as within religions.

Secularism can be defined on three perspectives

  • People-centric: It emphasizes on the idea of separating religion from politics, economy, education, social life and culture
  • State-centric: It emphasise on the need to keep the state protector to all religion.
  • India-centric: It focus upon the unity of all people against communalism

A secular state must be committed to principles and goals which are at least partly derived from non-religious sources. These ends should include peace, religious freedom, freedom from religiously grounded oppression, discrimination and exclusion, as also inter-religious and intra-religious equality.

This means a State should take a neutral position on religion. It implies separation of State and religion. There is no official religion in India, unlike some countries guided chiefly by religious principles. Secularism pervades its provisions which give full opportunity to all people to profess, practise and propagate religion of their choice. Indian constitution provides for equal treatment for all religions. It means that we are neither a theocratic nor an atheistic state.

Constitutional Mandate

The Indian constitution through its Preamble and particularlyn through its chapters on Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles has created a secular state based on the principle of equality and non discrimination. Along with the principles of social and economic democracy, secularism has been held to be one of the ‘Basic Structures’ of Indian Constitution. It has been reflected in the Constitution primarily as a value in the sense that it extends support to our plural society. Secularism aims at promoting cohesion among different communities living in India.

The guarantee of equality in Article 14; the promise of non-discrimination in Articles 15 and 16; protection from religious taxes and religious instruction in state-funded institutions set in Articles 27 and 28; the permission of educational institutions of choice to linguistic and religious
minorities in Articles 29 and 30; the promise of equal ballots devoid of sectional preferences in Article 325 – all make for a constitutional architecture which is devoid of any religious preference whatsoever.

Article 15 (Nehruvian Perspective)

  • Article 15(1):
    • The State is prohibited to discriminate between citizens on grounds only of religion, race, caste, place of birth or any of them.
  • Article 15(2):
    • Prohibits discrimination by the State and the citizens with regard to access to shops, public restaurants, hotels and places of public entertainment or the use of wells, tanks bathing ghats, roads and places of public resorts maintained wholly or partly out of State funds or dedicated to the use of general public.
  • Article 15(3):
    • Recognising need of special protection, it offers special protection for women and children
  • Article 15(4):
    • Provides reservation for socially and educationally Backward Classes of the citizens or for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

In S. R . Bommai vs. Union of India case the Supreme Court declared secularism to be a part of basic structure of the constitution. It also upheld 42nd Amendment Act to Constitution, whereby words ‘socialist’ and ‘secular’ were added in Preamble, stating that what was implicit throughout the constitution, has been made explicit.

According to Nehru, a functional government structure must encourage and sustain religious diversity. India is a country with multiple religions; hence the government can never be biased towards any specific religion. Therefore, religion had no place in politics. Here Nehru differed from Gandhi for whom spiritualisation of politics was a major objective of political life. Though both had respect for all the religions, Nehru and Gandhi were true secularists but differed on the application of religion in political life.

Nehru’s secular credentials were based upon his rational humanistic attitude towards life, and this life was more important than the one after death. His attention was riveted to betterment of life in this age, not the age about which we are in the dark.

Article 25 (Gandhian Perspective)

It guarantees a) freedom of conscience, b) freedom to profess, practice and propagate any religion. Reasonable restrictions to this freedom are religious liberties subject to public order, morality and health (Art. 25). Further subject to public order, morality and health every religious denomination or any section should have the following rights to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes:

  • to manage its own affairs in the matters of religion.
  • to own and acquire movable and immovableProperties.
  • to administer such properties in accordance with law.

Mahatma Gandhi emphasized the inseparability of religion and politics and the superiority of former over latter. As per Gandhi, religion is a moral order and different religions are sets of belief systems and rituals.

Article 29 (Ambedkarite Perspective)

Article 29 emphasizes that state has been entrusted responsibility of protection of interests of minorities. It also confers minorities right to establish and administer educational institutions and provides following four distinctive rights :

  1. Right of any section of citizens to conserve its own language, script or culture
  2. Right of the citizen not to be denied admission in to any State maintained or State aided institutions on grounds of religion, caste, race or language.

In constituent assembly debates, Ambedkar was clear on his stand on the State following the spirit of secularism, however he was adamant on avoiding its inclusion in the Preamble along with Nehru. He said “what should be the policy of the State, how the Society should be organised in its social and economic side are matters which must be decided by the people themselves according to time and circumstances. It cannot be laid down in the Constitution itself because that is destroying democracy altogether.” Ambedkar was in favour of discussing only the economic philosophy of the Constitution and not dealing with the questions of secularism and federalism, because he felt that what was already implicit in the Constitution need not be reiterated.

Consequently, the Constituent Assembly adopted Articles 25, 26 and 27 of the Constitution with the intention of furthering secularism. Article 29 shows his views on secularism wherein state can not indulge in discrimination on grounds of religion and caste, and minorities have right to prevent their culture. Though not formally inserted in the document, secularism was definitely embedded in the constitutional philosophy.

Sarva Dharma Sambhavah

Sarva Dharma Sambhavah is referred to denote the Composite Culture Reverence for other’s beliefs,
Communal unity in India. The real meaning of secularism in the language of Gandhi is Sarva-Dharma-Samabhavah, meaning equal treatment and respect for all religions. Every person has the right to preach, practice and propagate any religion they choose. Article 28(1) states that no religious instructions shall be provided in any educational institution wholly maintained out of State funds.

However in judgement of Aruna Roy vs. Union of India (2002), Supreme court interpreted that Article 28(1) does not ‘prohibit’ introduction of study of religions in the State educational institutions including those wholly or partly aided by the States, owing to idea of Gandhi’s Sarva Dharma Sambhavah. The study of religions has been considered necessary for acquiring the knowledge of the unity and integrity of India, and understanding of secular fabric of Indian society.

Just as Dharm Nirpekshta is a duty of the State to all its citizens, Sarva Dharma Sambhavah is the responsibility which accompanies that right. At its bare minimum this means, not tolerance of ‘others’ but, mutual acceptance of differences.

Models of Secularism

Western Model

Secularism in west is a product of the renaissance and enlightenment. It was the expression of western man’s urge to live his own life independently of the domination by the church. Secularism affirmed the reality and worth of life in this world and the authority of reason and science. It was hailed as “the liberation of modern man from religious tutelage”.

The secularization process initiated only after non-metaphysical rational and scientific explanation was satisfactorily provided for the evolution of the universe and human life there on. Renaissance thinkers challenged them for e.g Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection confronted the Christian dogmas about the earth being a creation of god and Adam and eve as ancestor.

In the west, the feudal state had very close relations with religious institutions. Monarchs granted revenue free land grants on religious institutions and later endowed their feudal patrons with the ‘grace of god’. The Bourgeoisie in fight against feudal state took recourse to science and rationality with an anti-religious edge. It triggered the reform in religion e.g election among clergy. Similarly practice of feudal privilege based on heredity, oppression based on the will of the sovereign and the divine right of monarchs to rule was challenged on rational grounds.

Western model of secularism, inspired mainly by the American model, provides for separation of religion and state. It is a policy of mutual exclusion between religion and state: the state will not intervene in the affairs of religion and, in the same manner, religion will not interfe in the affairs of the state.

Similarly, state can not hinder the activities of religious communities, as long as they are within the broad limits set by the law of the land, opposite to Indian model of secularism. For example, if a religious institution forbids a woman from becoming a priest, then the state can do little about it. On this view, religion is a private matter, not a matter of state policy or law. This was because; most of the western societies were religiously homogenous except the presence of Jews. So they focused on individual freedom and equality and inter religious issues were neglected.

In the similar way, religion will not intervene in the affairs of the state. Each has separate sphere of its own. No public policy will be drafted on the basis of religion.

Total separation between Church & State

Indian Model

According to Rajeev Bhargava, Indian model has following features:

  • Multiple religion present are part of its foundation
  • Although state doesnot identified with a particular
    religion, there is official recognition granted to religious
    communities
  • Commitment to multiple values – like liberty, equality etc.
  • Not erect a wall of separation between state and religion, there are porous boundaries which allows state to intervene in religion e.g grant of aid for haz
  • Secular ideas- more like a contextual, ethically sensitive, politically negotiated arrangement rathern than a scientific doctrine.
  • Indian constitution has no fixed commitment to individual / community decision within democratic
    politics or by court can be taken.

Evolution:

Secular ideas were adopted during freedom struggle to unite the various communities against the colonial powers. They matured with development of nationalism and later incorporated in constitution. For Nehru, imperative of secularism was detachment of religion in public life and progressive life and modern outlook. Its impact can be seen in various sphere like holding a public office and government service should not be dependent on religious affiliation. Yet at the same time, citizen can enjoy the right to freedom of religion and worship.

The Indian State is not ruled by a religious group and nor does it support any one religion. In India, government spaces like law courts, police stations, government schools and offices are not supposed to display or promote any one religion.

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.

Indian secularism deals not only with religious freedom of individuals but also with religious freedom of minority communities. Within it, an individual has the right to profess the religion of his or her choice. Likewise, religious minorities also have a right to exist and to maintain their own culture and educational institutions.

Thus, Indian secularism does not focus only on church-state separation but the idea of inter-religious equality is crucial to the Indian conception. In this way, Indian secularism is similar to, but also fundamentally different from Western secularism.

Comparison of Western and Indian Secularism
DimensionsWestern SecularismIndian Secularism
Evolution and social context.Since Europe was the mono-religious society. Hence, the fight was between Christian vs. church. Hence complete separation between state and religion.Secular ideas were adopted during freedom struggle to unite the various communities against the colonial powers. In India struggle was between one religious community and the other. Hence emphasis was on pluralism
Relation between religion and stateNon-interference of religion and state in each other’s affairs separation of state and religion.State supports religious reforms.
Relation between various religious groupEquality between different sects of a religion is emphasized.Equality between different religious groups is a key concern.
Minority right vs community rightsLess attention to community based rights.Focus on minority rights. Community based
rights are granted.
Liberty vs equalityIndividual liberty at the centre.Equality at centre

Hindrances to Secularism

Ambiguous Definition: There is no clear cut separation between state and religion rather sarva dharma sambhava. This creates lot of questions like Should a secular state provide subsidies for the Haj pilgrimage, or manage the Tirupati-Tirumala temple complex, or support pilgrimages to Himalayan holy places? Should all religious holidays be abolished, leaving only Independence Day, Republic Day, Gandhi Jayanti and Ambedkar Jayanti for example? Should a secular state ban cow slaughter because cows are holy for a particular religion? If it does so, should it also ban pig slaughter because another religion prohibits the eating of pork? If Sikh soldiers in the army are allowed to have long hair and wear turbans, should Hindu soldiers also be allowed to shave their heads or Muslim soldiers allowed to have long beards? Questions of this sort lead to passionate disagreements that are hard to settle.

Cultural Diversity: India is home to a diverse set of cultures, customs, traditions, castes, languages and religious ideologies. While secularism seeks to intervene in negatives of religion, it may entice feelings of encroachment on religious beliefs and identity. For example, the Constituent Assembly of India in 1948 did not agree to enactment of uniform civil code, which started with a movement to seek equal rights for women in matters of marriage, divorce and inheritance. Instead, it was put in Directive Principles of State Policy (Article 44). It was argued by both minority as well as majority community representatives that its provisions would go against their religious beliefs and hence their fundamental rights.

Politics of Minority Appeasement: It leads to tension between the Indian state’s simultaneous commitment to secularism as well as the protection of minorities. The protection of minorities requires that they be given special consideration in a context where the normal working of the political system places them at a disadvantage vis-avis the majority community. But providing such protection immediately invites the accusation of favouritism or ‘appeasement’ of minorities. Opponents argue that secularism of this sort is only an excuse to favour the minorities in return for their votes or other kinds of support.

There is the argument that secularism used for minority appeasement encourages the politics of vote banks. After the verdict of the Supreme Court in Shah Bano Case, in 1986 the Government was compelled by the Muslim clergy to enact legislation (Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986) concerning maintenance of divorced women depriving them of right to alimony post Iddat period overturning the judgement of the apex court. This law was heavily criticised for undermining modern secular considerations, rights of women and opinion of secular-minded Muslims.

Majoritarian Assertion: Numerically the Hindus are considered to be in the majority, which inspires many for Hindutva identity politics asserting that India is a Hindu State. These claims generate homogenising myths about India and its history.

These claims are countered by other religious groups who foresee the possibility of losing autonomy of practise of their religious and cultural life under such homogenising claims. This initiates contestations that have often resulted in communal riots. The generally accepted myths that process the identity divide on religious lines centre on the ‘appeasement theory’, ‘forcible religious conversions’, the ‘hegemonic aspirations’ of majority groups and ‘denial of a sociocultural space’ to minority groups.

Historically, the Hindu revivalist movement of the 19th century is considered to be the period that saw the demarcation of two separate cultures on religious basis the Hindus and the Muslims that deepened further because of the partition. This division which has become institutionalised in the form of a communal ideology has become a major challenge for India’s secular social fabric and democratic polity.

Rise of Religious Pressure Group: e g bajrang dal, hindu sena etc . recent incidents likes ghar vapsi in agra, kerala in 2014, by lured conversion. Similarly attack on religious minority groups by cow vigilanties raise the level of intolerance in the society cast aspersion on the Indian states, was also secular seen by some as undue interference by ideology the state in secular realm.

Demand for Enforcing Uniform Civil Code in the name of promoting the gender justice.

Government Efforts

Government Promote Secularism in Various Ways

  • Abolishing symbols of ritual inequality e.g untouchability
  • Open all religious places and institution to all classes and sections of the people
  • Reform Hindu personal laws with an aim to evolve a common personal law for all communities in the country.
  • Forbidding any agency e.g shop , hotel which discriminates among citizens
  • Opening of all educational institution of members of all community
  • Secularizing the content of the text books
  • Development of sound economic base so as to eradicate poverty and ensure an equitable distribution of wealth among the people.
Apart from this other institutional measure are:

National Integration Council: Founded in 1961, the NIC aims at finding ways and means of combating the menace of communalism, casteism and regionalism. Its members include Union Ministers, Leaders of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, the Chief Ministers of all States and Union Territories with Legislatures.

National Minority Commission: To protect interest of minorities and uphold safeguards given in constitution for them, National Commission for Minorities (NCM) under the National Commission for Minorities Act, 1992. Six religious communities, viz; Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Zoroastrians (Parsis) and Jains have been notified as minority communities by the Union Government.

National Human Rights Commission: NHRC is a statutory commission established in 1993 to look into matters of deprivation of human rights, including religious and casteist oppression. The government put together a list of public holidays that gave due consideration to different religious communities. At least one holiday was given for a major festival or event of religious importance, for each community.

Strategy of Non-Interference: The state makes certain exceptions for particular religious communities in order to respect the sentiment of all religions and to not interfere with essential religious practices. For Example, Sikhs are exempted from wearing a helmet when they ride a two wheeler, even if wearing a helmet is a law.

To remove intra-religious and inter-religious conflicts, government came from time to time with legislations that favour “positive discrimination” and equality and justice for all.

Recent schemes for welfare of minority communities are Hamari Dharohar, Jio Parsi etc. The word ‘secular’ was inserted in Preamble of Constitution through 42nd Amendment Act, 1976.

Conclusion

India is a land of the great diversities and infinite varieties. It is a country with at least 18 major languages and over 400 important dialects. It is a land that has given rise to four of the world’s major religions. It is home to the world’s second largest Muslim population. It is a society with over 4,000 ethnic communities or castes or endogamous groups. India is thus a multi-religious, multi-linguistic, multi-ethnic and multi-regional civilization without a parallel. Therefore, secularism is the only way out where every religion and religious community will get the needed space to survive and respect each other.


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