Indian constitution proudly claims to establish a secular democratic state in India. However, certain provisions in the constitution itself and the practices of government office holders and many political leaders and parties do not reflect the secular ethos.
It is true that India did not have had the legacy of renaissances and enlightenment, the precursors of secular spirit, as in Europe. Though leaders of the Indian freedom movement championed the vision of liberal, democratic, secular, egalitarian society, largely it remained lip-service and the masses had not imbibed the cultural prerequisites required for its realization in practice.
Further, there seems to be confusion about the meaning of secularism. In India it was conceived to mean not negation of religion by state but tolerance of all religions and practices to the extent of protecting and promoting them.
Even in our so called secular constitution, there is a provision, limiting freedom of expression, against ‘hurting religious feelings of others’. This limitation is used to curb criticism of any religion, malpractices of persons claiming to be religious leaders, or certain harmful traditions and beliefs. ‘Feeling’ being a vague thing anyone can claim that his feelings are hurt and ask for a criminal proceedings against a critic or a scholar for exposing certain facts or a painter for depicting some deity.
This is against the spirit of a secular or a liberal democratic society or scientific inquiry, such a provision in the constitution or legal code is an anachronism. (Refer: Article 25 of Indian Constitution dealing with religious freedom and provision 295 (A) of Indian Penal Code about religious feelings.)*
The spirit of secularism is compromised by government office bearers by visiting religious places or persons and performing religious rites at public expenses. Also, religious pilgrimages (like, Hajj, Kailash, Amarnath, etc.) by people are subsidized from public funds. Similarly, religious functions like mela, urs, etc. are supported by providing infrastructure facility and security at government’s expense. This is equivalent to promoting religion.
India has number of religions and sects but none of them is organized like Christian Church. Some of them have a sacred book, a prophet and some form of apex body but none of them is monolithic. Main religion is known as Hindu (sometimes termed; as Hindu Culture) with numerous sects, different gods and goddesses, various books, prophets or gurus (teachers) and interpreters.
Amorphous nature of the Hindu religion is due to the tradition of philosophical search for the meaning of life and persons in relation with the cosmos. This philosophical antecedent developed during thousands of years ensuring openness for an intellectual search and acceptance of various paths to reach the truth.(Particularly, Vedanta/Upanishadic period).
Later on, this quest for knowledge was replaced by devotional approach. Number of religious sects rose in its wake. Hence, we have a spectrum of beliefs which accept number of gods and goddesses, three gods claiming for supremacy, an abstract concept of supreme divinity, no god, theory of karma and transcendental world and only this world is real and final. This coexistence of variety of faiths, inducing an amorphous nature of beliefs, is misunderstood as tolerance.
This situation has provided leeway for some persons (even charlatans) to claim special spiritual prowess or revelation, establish a new sect, ashrams, or temples with a number of followers and claim the status of a religious leader as well as protection from criticism. It is surprising that, during this period of secular state, the number of male and female saints, ashrams and temples, organization of pilgrimages and religious functions and participation in them, have sky-rocketed. It is noted that there are temples but no toilets in many villages.
The wealth of these temples is in billions of billions, (some of them having more income than the top most industrial house and they get all the facilities without paying any tax!) the number of saints, babas, matajis, maulvis is more than ten percent of population and they consume a major portion of production without producing anything. Also, they obstruct the program for upliftment of backward classes and women.
Criminal behavior of many religious leaders is common. It was claimed in a survey in the state of Bihar that ninety percent of mathathis (Heads of religious establishment) have criminal records. Many religious leaders are accused of murders, rape, land grabbing, beguilling people, misappropriation and forgery.
Some of them are well known personalities having large following and political clout. Many of their misdemeanors are overlooked or forgiven by obliging political leaders or bureaucracy. This should not be the scenes of a secular state or society.
During the last three decades, the political scene has worsened. Growth of parties with religious bias, parochial loyalties and regional patronage, competing for a chunk of power, has given a severe setback to the secular movement and the process of secularization. Electoral politics has led them to create vote-banks based on narrow loyalties instead of any valid program dealing with real issues related with development or progress.
Secularism tends to support secularization, the creation of large community by acquiring wider identity progressively, leading to a global society. In India, after independence religious and parochial parties have come to the fore. They openly espouse a religious creed, caste, regional community or interests. This proves that our leadership has failed to inculcate the spirit of secularism in Indian masses. It is clear that religious groups and persons are supporting and in turn supported by political leaders, parties and bureaucracy.
It is true that the rise of Pan-Islam movement and terrorism has provided a cause to Hindu fundamentalist parties. However, this should not be an argument for abandoning secular values. Actually, secularism is the antidote for religious fundamentalism.
This proves that the religion is the most corrupting factor in Indian polity and society. It shields criminals and non-productive masses (consuming a large portion of GDP), it vitiates the political will, shields criminals, promotes blind faith, obstructs progressive reform, which are responsible for communal disharmony and riots. It is required that their role must be curbed.
Stringent rules and regulation are required to control their activities. Close supervision of income and expenditures of religious establishments is necessary. Their accumulated wealth should be utilized for increasing public amenities and they should not be exempted from paying their due taxes. State should not subsidize any religious activity or provide infrastructure facility for them.
Government office holders should not be allowed to perform any religious rites in public and at public expense. Hurting religious feelings’ should be scrapped, of course with a proviso against fomenting communal hatred.
* 295(A) of Indian Penal Code: “Deliberate and malicious act intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs”.