An Interface with Different Shades of Secularism (A blue print for a workable thesis)

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An Interface with Different Shades of Secularism

(A blue print for a workable thesis)


Associate Professor & Head

Department of Philosophy

The Madura College (Autonomous)



India is the land of many religions, languages and customs. Secularism is one of the deeply problematic issues in contemporary Indian political discourse. During the sixty years or so secularism has been a supremely debated, discussed and contested subject.

Secularism has its origins in Europe. When it was first used at the end of the Thirty Years' War in Europe in 1648, "secularization" referred to the transfer of the properties of the church to the princes. Similar transfer of church properties to the state also formed a part of the achievements of the French Revolution. Later, in England, George Holyoake used the term "secularism" to refer to the rationalist movement of protest which he led in 1851.

In its pursuit of the project of Enlightenment and Progress through the replacement of the mythical and religious view of the world with the scientific and technological-industrial approach, Europe brought about a differentiation or separation of the political sphere from the religious sphere. This process by which "sectors of society and culture are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols" came to be variously referred to as the "secularization" or desacralization of the world.

In addition to this idea of  the separation of religion and politics, "secularism-secularization" also means  the diminution of the role of religion;  this-worldly orientation rather than orientation towards the supernatural; the replacement of the "sacred" or "mysterious" conception of the world with the view that the world or society is something that can be rationally manipulated or socially engineered; and  a view of religious beliefs and institutions as human constructions and responsibilities rather than as divinely ordained mysteries.

While these are the meanings of "secularism" in the West, its use in India is accompanied by a significant variation.  The meaning of secularism, it is believed, has emerged with sufficient clarity from the survey of historical development made earlier herein. The next question is whether India, as unfolded by the Constitution, is a secular State. What did the Constitution-makers intend it to be? The Constitution, till the 42nd Amendment in 1976, did not contain the word ‘secular' except incidentally in Article 25(2)(b). Prof. K.T. Shah was the only member who made a valiant effort to get a provision regarding the secular character of India included in the Constitution. The following amendment, moved as Amendment No.366.

"The State in India being secular shall have no concern with any religion, creed or profession of faith; and shall observe an attitude of absolute neutrality in all matters relating to the religion of any class of its citizens or other persons in the Union."

To be sure, neither this amendment nor the speech which Prof. Shah made in support of the amendment would have brought about a situation of "a wall of separation between the State and the Church". But it would have put a brake upon the State functionaries freely using the State finance and the machinery for pilgrimages and other religious activities. Prof. Shah's amendment would have also prevented the State media, especially radio and television, from broadcasting bhajans, prayers, religious discourses etc. It must, however, be noted that the original constitution did contain several provisions, which left no one in doubt about the secular (i.e., nontheocratic and noncommunal) character of the Indian state and which, in 1973, made the full bench of the Supreme Court to rule that "secularism" is a constitutive feature of the basic structure of the constitution.

In the West, secularism usually refers to the state's separation from, or indifference toward, religion. Hence, the Western antonym of "secular" is "religious." In India, by contrast, it is "communal" that is the antonym of "secular." This is so because given the pervasive religiosity of the people and the pluralism of religions, an ethico-politically appropriate pattern of relationship between religion and state had to be one that stressed the equal respect of all religions, rather than the erection of any insurmountable "wall of separation" between the state and religion

Instead of blindly copying Western secularism, the framers of the Indian Constitution, as insightfully pointed out by P. K. Tripathi, "contemplated a secularism which is the product of India's social experience and genius." The main articles of the Constitution providing for a "secular state" may be briefly summarized as follows:

(1) All persons have equal freedom of conscience and religion;

(2) No discrimination by the state against any citizen on grounds of religion;

(3) No communal electorates;

(4) The state has the power to regulate through law any "economic, financial or other secular activity" which may be associated with religious practice;

(5) The state has the power to provide for "social welfare and reform or the throwing open of Hindu …

At best this means that in secular society everyone should be free to practice his or her religion. In my opinion, this is of very little use in the discussion on secular State. The state in the Indian Constitution appears to possess all the feature of a secular state.


"The word ‘secular', like the word ‘religious', is amongst the richest of all words in its range of meaning. It is full of subtle shades which involve internal contradictions, and of these contradictions the conventional dictionary meaning can scarcely give a correct view."

Let me make an attempt to place some of the important views on secularism here and arrive at a workable thesis.

Mahatma Gandhi always practiced religion in politics through prayers realized in the last days of his life the need for separation of religion from politics, especially the state. He followed the principle of equal respect to all religions. He also emphasized the separation of religion so that it can be practiced only at personal level. Jawaharlal Nehru as first prime minister of India always stood for secularism. But he could not take it to the logical end due to pressures from political and religious lobbies.

S.Radhakrishnan's view of secularism: "No group of citizens shall arrogate to itself rights and privileges which it denies to others. No person should suffer any form of disability or discrimination because of his religion but all alike should be free to share to the fullest degree in the common life. This is the basic principle involved in the separation of Church and State. The religious impartiality of the Indian State is not to be confused with secularism or atheism. Secularism as has been defined is in accordance with the ancient religious traditions of India".

Dr Radhakrishnan defined secularism as equal respect to all religions and never should be considered as irreligious. Political parties in power follow this definition and take advantage of the situation to their advantage.

T.N. Madan is of the view that secularism is a late Christian idea and it is not indigenous to the religious cultures of India. He argues that the demand for removal of religion from public life is predicated on the view that religion is irrational. He believes that "in the prevailing circumstances secularism in South Asia as a generally shared credo of life is impossible, as a basis for State action impracticable, and as a blueprint for the foreseeable future impotent. He makes what he calls an excursus into South Asia's major religion "to make the point that the search for secular elements in the cultural traditions of this region is a futile exercise for it is not these but an ideology of secularism is absent and is resisted".

He takes full note of the Muslims' resistance to the reform of family law, Shah Bano case, the Hindutvavadis agitation for the demolition of Babri Mosque in Ayodhya and Sikh and Hindu fundamentalists facing each other in Punjab and the killing of innocents by Sikh terrorists - even in the context of secularisation in everyday life. Then he takes to following judgment which I would regard as astounding:

But surely these phenomena are only apparently contradictory, for in truth it is the marginalisation of religious faith, which is what secularisation is, that permits the perversion of religion. There are no fundamentalists or revivalists in traditional society.

In the end Madan rejects secularism as a western modern idea unsuited to the pious society of India and stresses the need for some form of modern secularism in the Indian cultural context.

I will also briefly dispose of the view of another writer, Aashis Nandy, who too has written extensively on the subject. Nandy, in his contribution 'The Politics of Secularism and The Recovery of Religious Toleration', canvasses the thesis of the cultural inappropriateness of secularism on grounds that the public/private distinction lying at the heart of modern secularism makes no sense to the faithful. Let me at this stage state that rejection of secularism on the ground that it is a western concept is perverse nationalism. You may, on this ground, reject, as some in this country do, modern medicine. Democracy, equality, liberty, which were wholly unknown to Indian and Asian societies - can we legitimately reject them? USA was a highly religious society when the wall of separation was built; Catholic Church practically ruled the French society which was also intensely religious; Turkey was the heart of Islamic world. All these countries have accepted secularism as the foundation of their States.

If a secular State is desirable in a multi-religious country that is India, it can be done and done easily by amending the Constitution to separate religion from all State activities and activities on behalf of State. To be sure a Secular State cannot build a secular society but a secular State can be established even in a non-secular society. This will put religion in its place where it belongs - the hearts and the homes of the individuals.

In the concluding Chapter entitled 'What is Secularism For?' in Secularism And Its Critics, Rajeev Bhargav has discussed the desirability of secularism in a modernState and has analysed the implications of secularism looked at from different points of view. He appreciatively enumerates the arguments for the separation of religion and State broadly on the following grounds. First, religious and political institutions must be separated from one another because both are powerful institutions that command peoples unqualified allegiance. Secondly, secularism is required in order to ensure equality so that no person by virtue of being a member of one institution should be guaranteed membership in another institution. "Separation is required in order to ensure a subtle and complex equalitarian system". Thirdly, democracy requires that there be no concentration of power in any one institution. "Separation is required to curb political and religious absolutism". Finally secularism will inculcate the value of fully transparent life.

Another view holds that religion as a  storehouse of superstition and falsehood. From this position, a life free of illusion is a life without religion. If this is generally true, then it must be true of our political life. Our polity must be governed by true and self-evident principles, not by false and obscure dogmas. It follows that religion and politics must be separated.

Two more practical arguments are also valid. At least in a multi-religious society, the State cannot be entrusted with any functions derived from or dependent upon a religion or religions. The State, after all, is a coercive machinery and there should not be coercion in matters of faith.

Ultimate ideals and religious ideals are not only irrelevant to but are obstructive of, ordinary secular life in this world. Bhargava quotes Charles Taylor, who has described ordinary life as the life spent in the production and the reproduction of life as distinct from life spent in the pursuit of some ultimate ideals. Ordinary life is not restricted as mentioned by Charles Taylor.

Dr. Amartya Sen, in his essay, 'Secularism and Its Discontents' to "Unravelling The Nation", calls himself an unreformed secularist and proceeds to propound the theory of symmetric treatment to all religions. This, according to him, is warranted by the provisions of the Indian Constitution. His conclusion in his own words was that :

It is hard to escape the need to see India as an integrally pluralist society and to accept the necessity of symmetric treatment and secular policies as crucial parts of that recognition.

The Indian state has chosen to interpret secularism differently: it has undertaken the change to ensure the protection of all religions. It therefore makes a huge investment in matters of religion, unlike  any nation in the West- for example, by administering religious trusts, declaring holidays for religious festivals, preserving the system of different personal laws for different communities, undertaking the reform of religious law. Having secular courts interpret religious laws and so on.

This raises the problem of where the boundaries of state secularism are to be drawn.

But equally it is the exacerbated expectations of secularism as political ideology and civic practice that have led to the inflation of its significance in the Indian context. Secularism was intended to achieve several ends in a nation: to serve as a means of unifying the partitioned and hugely heterogeneous nation; offer religious freedom and the protection of the state to the number of sizable minority religious communities who constituted it; reform Hindu practices, particularly caste discrimination; and set the nation on the path of modernization and progress. However, the last two items on this agenda never really took off with any momentum Though secularism is primarily berated today for being a modernizing force, the modernizing project has never been carried through India through secular ideologies with the energy it was in Turkey, for example.

The issue most relevant to secularism today is that of minority rights. Whether secularism should be called on to promote minorities' rights as one of its functions, and conversely, whether minority rights is best served by secularism, is a question perhaps specific to India. Here, it should be clearly understood that privileges extended to the minorities in the democratic country are not for making them to dominate  others or deprive others space but for safeguarding their interest  and providing them a sense of security.

It is well known that democracy itself is no guarantee for  secularism, since electoral majorities can often be mobilized against minority communities; we see this only too well in the case of Gujarat. On the other hand it is also true that protected minority rights give a premium to tradionalists and even fundamentalists within the minority communities unless the question of who represents them is allowed to negotiated within a more effective democratic process. (Partha Chatterji)

The question of secularism has been posed as a question of pluralism, or of tolerance between diverse religious and cultural communities. In a more robust formulation, it has been represented as being about the possibility of " interreligious understanding which, as  T.N.Madan wirtes, is not the same as an emaciated notion of mutual tolerance or respect, but also (about) opening out avenues of a spiritually justified limitation of the role of religious institutions and symbols in certain areas of contemporary life.

In this sense, toleration is entirely consistent with a total refusal to respect the religion of others. It is also compatible with gross inequality and hierarchy. One may tolerate the religion of another person even as one treats him as inferior. Secularism, on the other hand, is grounded in notions of equality- equal concern and respect- and therefore goes far beyond the notion of inter religious tolerance.

It is equally inappropriate to identify secularism with equal respect for all religions. This equation implies that one ignores the non religious part of human existence that all modern states must confront and which are also an integral part of modern secularism.


Today, India is following its own peculiar secularism. Government office bearers exhibit their faith publicly at the cost of government funds. The government officially declares holidays to all religious festivals. Temples, Masjid and churches are allowed in the premises of government offices. During office hours the prayers are allowed. Persons bring their own individual Guru's pictures, images into the offices. Government officially patronage the pilgrimages, provide all facilities and extend financial concessions. Government lands are allotted to religious purposes.
Each religion took advantage of the weakness of political parties and gained much to benefit in several ways. Religious establishments became powerful institutions with huge amounts accumulated. All religions get exemptions from taxes. There is no accountability either for the illegal money or business affairs conducted in the name spiritual activity.

In India Religion encroached into politics and public life. There is a perception that religious belief system shows the moral life of the people. Religious morality should not be confused with values and ethics. So the faith in a religion should not be confused with human rights, human values and human morals. Political parties are associating with religious groups and sects. Selections of candidates are done based on religion and caste. Political parties try to please the religious minorities and secure their votes.  In this context, it should be remembered that secular practices with human dignity, human values and human morality will alone bring bright future for India.

In the words of Asgar Ali Engineer, ‘Secularism means liberation of politics from the hegemony of religion'. Asgar Ali Engineer says that the real spirit of secularism in India is all inclusiveness, religious pluralism and peaceful co-existence. However, it is politics, which proved to be divisive and not religion. It is not religious leaders by and large (with few exceptions) who divide but politicians who seek to mobilize votes on grounds of primordial identities like religion, caste and ethnicity.

In a multi-religious society, if politics is not based on issues but on identities, it can prove highly divisive. Politicians are tempted to appeal to primordial identities rather than to solve problems. The former case proves much easier. The medieval society in India was thus more religiously tolerant as it was non-competitive. The modern globalized Indian society, on the other hand, has proved to be more divisive as it is based on competition. This competition becomes more acute if development is uneven and unjust.

Some proposals/ workable theses:

During the past 60 years, the activities of communal organisations have been such that Indian society has been ideologically and socially communalised. Moreover, communalism has made society brutal; brutality of the kind perpetrated in Gujarat and Orissa was unknown in the past despite communal riots occurring rather regularly.

The communal advance witnessed during the past 60 years is at the expense of secular space. That space has to be reclaimed if India is to remain a democratic society. Being a multi religious and multicultural society, democracy cannot survive in India without secularism. Are there efforts afoot, both by the state and by civil society, to further the process of secularisation?

Secularism does not come to stay because of successes in an election or two. It has to be assiduously constructed through sustained work; continuity is the key to the creation of social consciousness. The secular forces hardly realize this fundamental factor, but believe that secularism can be fought and won in the political arena.

One of the main reasons for the success of Hindu communalism has been the failure of secularism to intervene effectively in the social and cultural domains, in which communalism is ever active. But secularism is as much a cultural and social phenomenon as a political one. The secular forces have not evolved an agenda based on such an understanding. At the same time, anti-secular forces attribute great importance to the non-political sector.

The agenda of secular forces has neither been innovative nor culturally sensitive to evolve an idiom to communicate with the masses. Much of the secular activity does not go beyond press statements by intellectuals and seminars in which committed secularists alone participate. There is hardly any attempt from secular intellectuals to reclaim popular cultural consciousness. The accusation that the secular intellectuals and cultural activists circulate alien ideas among themselves appears to stick, even if it is not entirely true.

If secularism is to be a force in society, it has to reinvent itself in cultural and social terms. Then and then alone it will be a part of the ideology of the masses. The Hindu and Muslim villagers in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan who greet each other with Ram Ram have their own notion of secular interpersonal relations, despite being believers of different religions. Secularism has to internalize the culture of this social relation if it aims to be a hegemonic force in society.

In the field of education, scientific method should be inculcated from primary level. Religious instruction should not be included in texts and curriculum since that belongs to faith and belief. Rights of minorities so far as religion is concernedshould be confined to personal level. The strong legal wall of separation between religion and state must be strengthened and the enforcement must be ensured. For which the role of the intellectuals at the cultural and political sphere is very important. Public opinion building in favour of secularism is the essential task.

But on the other side it should be remembered thatsecularism in the Indian context should imply respect for pluralism and a non-coercive and a voluntary recourse to change. Respect for diversity not only embodies the democratic spirit, it is the real guarantee of unity. We should value democratic, not fascistic, unity. No democratic society can downgrade diversity and pluralism in the name of unity. Secular ethics can be strengthened only when the acts of vandalism are sternly dealt with and the guilty are made to pay for it. With secularism that insists on the inalienable rights of the citizens and a due process of law, it will be easier to mount public pressure against sectarian killers and those who promote hatred. The battle of secularism and democracy has also to be fought at the grass root levels where a set ideals generating strong idealism is required to mobilize and prepare the masses for struggle.

Secularism begins in the heart of every individual. There should be no feeling of "otherness" as we all have is a shared history. India being a traditional society that contains not one, but many traditions owing their origin in part to the different religions that exist here, has so far managed to retain the secular character of its polity. Ours is a society where Sufis and Bhakti saints have brought in a cultural acceptance for each other. Are we going to let it all go to waste and listen to people who have concern for their careers as politicians or leaders rather than our welfare at heart? Let us instead concentrate our efforts at making India a powerful and progressive nation.


1.Secularism and its Critcs by Rajeev  Bhargava , Oxford University Press, USA,2005.

2. Is secularism dead? Asgar Ali Engineer, PUCL Bulletin, July 2003.

3. Secularism in India – The Inconclusive Debate, Justice R. A. Jahagirdar.

4.In The Name Of Nationalism, By K.N.Panikker , Front Line,16 March, 2004

5.Secularism in India. Asghar Ali Engineer  The Mill Gazette Online, 23 June 2006.

6. Pseudo-secularism — II ,By Gail Omvedt, The Hindu, Tuesday, Jan 21, 2003.
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