Separation of Government from religion understood in western law as a separation of church and the State is the origin of the concept of secularism.  This was a concept known to the Greeks and applauded  by the Roman philosophers especially Marcus Aurelius and Epicurus. Islamic philosopher Ibn Rushd also refers to this concept.

All modern philosophers of the middle age in the west like Voltaire, Locke, Jefferson and Paine have taken the view that secularism is desirable. Robert Ingersoll and Bertrand Russell have carried the battle for secularism to the modern era along with free thinkers, agnostics and atheists. In fact, secularism has been understood as a movement towards modernism.

Holyoake, who  popularised the word ‘secularism’ as a concept to promote a social order distinct  from religion defends the concept by explaining, that it is not meant to be an opposition to Christianity but independent of it. He further pointed out, that he does not claim, that there is no light or guidance in any other truth, but would demand secularism in the affairs of the State. French Republic made secularism a part of its law by separation of Church and State known as ‘Laicite’ in its Constitution. State religion as in Torah and Sharia law is anathema to this concept of secularism.

In India, secularism was not unknown. Maharaja Ranjit Singh, a devout Sikh himself established a secular rule in the Punjab with all the communities in his Darbar funding extensively for education and arts irrespective of religion.

Secularism today

The on-going confrontation based on religious views in contrast with secular approach is on matters like abortion, contraception, embryonic stem cell research, same sex marriage and sex education. These subjects are focused by many American secularist organisations like Center for Inquiry.

Secularism is sought to be supported even with reference to the Bible in the Book of Luke in a statement attributed to Jesus “Give unto Ceasar what is Ceasar’s”. But the concept of secularism is strongly opposed both by fundamentalist Christianity and Islam or, for that matter Hindutva, which describes secularism as pseudo-secularism.

Though secularism is the official jargon of countries as varied as USA, France, India, Turkey and many other countries, there is no identity of understanding of the concept either in theory or practice. It is generally accepted, that it is most suitable for a pluralistic society. It is also generally understood as one, which fosters tolerance without commitment to any ideology, however divine or  lofty, it may be considered in some quarters.

Prolific Writer and
Renowned Tax Consultant

In the pure theory of secularism, all problems are expected to be solved in a secular society rationally without any assistance from non-secular sources. The State will have no official images or have any common ideal as having universal application. It will have respect for human life and for individuals without recognising any barriers of class or caste or religion.

Secularisation is a sociological process. Political philosophers have laid great stress on avoiding confrontations between different groups of citizens. Ethics is not forgotten, but secular ethics is different. There had been a strong secularist movement in the U.K. with Holyoake and Charles Bradlaugh leading two schools with Holyoake following a middle path showing no interest in religious questions, while Bradlaugh was actively against religion.

Derek Parfit and Peter Singer carry on the secular work in the U.K.  In the U.S., care is taken to show secularism need not mean atheism, but not all in the U.S. share such a view.  The U.S. approach generally is to be  indifferent to religion.  Classic instances opposed to secularism are Nazism and Talibanism, since these are bad words according to the Lexicons of the believers as well as non-believers.

America  has many active organisations with the object of secularism, which have even federated into “Secular Coalition for America”. Canada has Toronto Secular Alliance and Secular Student Alliance as non-profit educational organisations. Active secularism inspired by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk has resulted in a very active organisation known as Ataturk Thought Association in Turkey in his honour.

What is India’s role?

The Constitution (Forty-Second Amendment) Act, 1976 has made a change in the preamble substituting the expression “sovereign democratic republic” by the words  “sovereign socialist secular democratic republic”.

But the Supreme Court even prior to the amendment to the Constitution in Keshavananda Bharti Vs Kerala 1973 4 SCC 225 had categorically laid down, that secularism is a part of the basic features and basic structure of the Indian Constitution.

Notwithstanding the status granted for secularism in the preamble to the Constitution, it is most misunderstood and misapplied in India. It has been generally misunderstood as requiring the State to treat all religions as equals, while true secularism would mean absolute separation of the State and the religion with the State being unconcerned with religion.

Secularism after the amendment to the Constitution has been recognised as a basic feature of the Constitution in S.R. Bommai Vs UOI AIR 1994 SC 1918. Any step inconsistent with secularism would be unconstitutional. Justice Verma, who had given handsome compliments to the objects of secularism in the Indian Constitution in the decision of the Supreme Court in Babri Masjid (1995) A.SC, wherein Justice Verma has referred to  secularism in Indian ethos naming Akbar, Gandhi, Abdul Gaffar Khan, Swami Vivekananda and Shankar Dayal Sharma, the then Vice-President to support Ayodhya Act, which according to H.M. Seervai in the addenda to his volume 2 of Constitutional Law of India is the very negation of secularism being partisan, arbitrary and unreasonable.

He characterises  the decision as biased and non-secular. See the article on Babri Masjid’s case in the article in January, 2013 issue of Modern Rationalist under the title “Whither secularism”. It is the minority judgement in this case and not that of Verma J, which  appealed to H.M.Seervai, when he chose to commend  the minority view of Bharucha J, who found the impugned Act to be unconstitutional and opposed to secularism  and warned “Ayodhya is a storm that will pass. The dignity and honour of the Supreme Court cannot be compromised because of it”. It is sad, that Babri Masjid case is yet to be finally cleared by the Supreme Court.

The understanding of secularism as mere tolerance of religion overlooks the fundamental basis of the concept, which involves complete divorce of State from religion. The Supreme Court in Aruna Roy Vs UOI (2002) 6 SCALE 408 would find support for a diluted  view, in finding that secularism is not endangered with reference to basic tenets of all religion and that it is only fanaticism, which is opposed to secularism.

Religion is allowed to have free play in Government offices and even Courts contrary to secular principles. It is also freely permissible in public places as for Ganesh pooja and other processions leading invariably to clashes and riots. The constitutional provisions relating to secularism and even law and order requirements are rarely observed. The concept of secularism is best understood when it is read in conjunction with Article 51A inserted by the same Amendment Act 1976 listing out the fundamental duties in clause (e) as under:

“(e) to promote harmony and the spirit of common brotherhood amongst all the people of India transcending religious, linguistic and regional diversities to renounce practices derogatory to the dignity of women.”

Transcending religious diversities explains the concept of secularism better than the approach of equal tolerance for all religions. There can be real democracy only where there is  undiluted secularism in practice.


A California Judge has described yoga as a distinctly American cultural phenomenon, while discussing the complaints of some parents who argued that teaching it to school children amounted to “an unconstitutional promotion of eastern religions”. It is an esoteric faith, presumably because the practice entails longish periods of contemplative silence and various formulaic bodily postures.

Those with greater awareness of yoga would know that they are a form of exercise aimed at toning up the body and even relieving the mind of tension.

As Jawaharlal Nehru wrote in ‘The Discovery of India’, this “typical Indian method of preserving bodily fitness is rather remarkable when one compares it with the more usual methods involving rushing about, jerks, hops and jumps which leave one panting”. It is the soothing effect which yoga has on the mind that explains its popularity in the consumerist West.

From celebrities to corporate honchos, homemakers to the elderly, yoga is attracting a strong following with even the US military introducing it for the veterans, especially those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Studies have shown that yoga increases patience, attention span, competitive spirit and cognitive abilities of school children.

Courtesy: The New Indian Express

Comments are closed.