- Dr. Vasundhara Mohan

When  we talk about secularism in India,  the concern is always mainly political; the nature of relationship between state and religion, interrelationship between different communities, and interdependence of secularism and democracy. A common bond connecting these three issues is the quest for religious harmony, which is identified with secularism.

In politics, almost everybody swears by it although very few practise it. Though the practice of it is not secularism has withstood the intellectual skepticism about its system by communal ideologies. Fortunately, legal and institutional structures have been able to safeguard the secular space through constitutionally guaranteed public institutions, although aberrations have taken place in all these spheres.

It can be said that secularism has survived with sufficient strength to make the system work. Though Indian society has often witnessed religious fascism, it has unsuccessfully pulled back at the nick of the time due to popular commitment to secularism.

What is important is a three-way resolution: first, determining the relationship between State and religion; secondly, assigning relative distance between state and different religious communities; and thirdly, ensuring harmonious relationship between communities.

To the question that if religious harmony is not secularism, what else constitutes it in a multi-religious society, K. N. Panikkar states that the answer perhaps lies in the ability of the state and society to internalize values and ethics, informed by reason and humanism.

Till the 42nd Amendment in 1976, the Indian Constitution adopted on 26th Novemebr 1949 did not contain the word ‘Secular’. Though the spirit of secularism was evident in  various Articles of the Constitution, some Members of the Constituent Assembly tried to make a specific mention of the principle of secularism in the Constitution so that the Constitution says that “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 and relating to the religion of any class of its citizens or other persons in the Union. The State shall not establish, endow, or patronize any particular religion”.

But, during those euphoric days the concept of secularism was so ingrained in India’s national culture that it did not even occur to the architects of the Constitution that there was a need to specially mention secularism as one of its basic principles. The Congress party affirmed its faith in secularism and assured that independent India would not discriminate on the basis of religion or misuse religion for political gains. The Congress believed in confining religion to the private sphere. In reality, none of these things seem to have happened.

The social reality is that the Indian brand of secularism has sought to address religious plurality and the tensions arising out of it and adopted peaceful coexistence of different religions as the solution. Pinning deterioration of Indian secularism only on Hindu-Muslism rivalry, people have repeatedly traced the antecedents in religious harmony and cultural synthesis from medieval times.

This does not seem to be enough. As professor Romila Thapar wrote, “Secularism has to be retrieved from being a pale shadow of what is projected as religious co-existence, to a system of values and actions that come from insisting upon democratic functioning and human rights.” The success of secularism will depend upon such a reorientation.

The intricacies of Secularism

In Indian Culture and traditions, it is impossible to separate religion from day to day life. Even Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi used religion and religious symbols to unite Indian masses against the alien rule. The British policy of involving the government in the Hindu and Muslim religious affairs continued even after independence in the form of setting up Departments of Religious Endowments, Wakf Boards, having a say in appointing Trustees of Temples and waqfs, subsiding religious pilgrimage etc., showing government’s inability to distance itself from religion.

Although secularism is an integral part of the basic structure of the Constitution, what exactly the word means continues to be debated. H.M. Seervai, an authority on Constitution, opined that the word ‘Secular’ is ambiguous (as also socialism) and should not have been inserted in the Preamble without a reason. Perphaps the most common understanding of the word “Secular” today stands in opposition to “religious”.

Donals Eugene Smith defined a secular state as one “Which guarantees individual and corporate freedom of religion, deals with the individual as a citizen irrespective of religion, is not constitutionally connected  to a particular religion nor does it seek either to promote or interfere with religion”.

In essence, a “secular state” is not one where religion is abolished but one where the State distances itself away from religion and there can be no discrimination on the basis of religion or faith nor could there be room for the hegemony of one religion or majoritarian religious sentiments and aspirations.

It is from this understanding that our Constitution is supposed to safeguard secularism. Doubts were expressed even in the Constitution Assembly whether India could really practise secularism. Lok Nath Mishra (Member, Odisha) wondered in the Constitution Assembly: “Do we, in the midst of many religions, cannot decide which one to accept? If religion is beyond the ken of our State, let us clearly say so and delete all reference to rights relating to religion. If we find it necessary, let us be brave enough and say what it should be”.  

Mahatma Gandhi on Secularism

Personally, Mahatma Gandhi was religious. To Gandhiji, religion was a human institution made by human ingenuity to solve practical affairs as well as spiritual matters. Gandhiji asserted: “Religion is a personal matter and if we succeeded in confining it to the personal plane, all would be well in our political life.

If officers of the Government as well as members of the public undertook the responsibility and worked wholeheartedly for the creation of a secular state, we could build a new India that would be the glory of the world…. The State should undoubtedly be secular. Everyone living in it should be entitled to profess his religion without hindrance so long as the citizen obeys the common law of the land”. For the Mahatma, religion was inextricably woven into the fabric of Indian life. He once said: Those who thought that religion had nothing to do with politics, understood neither religion nor politics.

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar also did not support the view that religion is not essential to the society he felt is essential, in a way. He also considered secularism is  not only a political issue but also a moral issue.

Nehru’s concept of Secularism

Jawaharlal Nehru wrote to Mahatma Gandhi in 1933: “Religion is not familiar ground for me, and as I have grown older, I have definitely drifted away from it”. He believed that religion itself was irrelevant, backward and superstitious. He never placed his faith in religion. Organised religion filled him “with horror…almost always it seemed to stand for a blind belief and reaction, dogma and bigotry, superstition and exploitation”.

Nehru looked at secularism from a humanist and scientific point of view. As an agnostic, Nehru believed in rationality, secularism and scientific approach as the true means of progress in India. In a country divided by religious differences, Nehru looked at secularism as a great cementing force of the diverse people of India.

While Gandhiji stressed on the equality of all religions and religious pluralism, Nehru was more inclined towards the modernity of enlightenment. Nehru was the first in the subcontinent to accept the western concept of secularism, as opposed to Gandhiji and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad who spoke of secularism from the perspective of religion. Explaining his concept of secularism, Nehru said:

“We call our state a secular one. The word ‘Secular’ is not a very happy one. And yet for want of better word, we have used it. What exactly does it mean? It does not obviously mean a state where religion is discouraged. It means freedom of religion and conscience including freedom for those who have no religion, subject only to their not interfering with each other or with the basic conceptions of our state…. The word secular, however, conveys something much more to me, although that might not be its dictionary meaning.

It conveys the idea of social and political equality. Thus, a caste-ridden society is not properly equal. Thus, a caste-ridden society is not properly secular. I have no desire to interfere with any person’s belief but when those beliefs become petrified in caste divisions, undoubtedly they affect the social structure of the state. They, prevent us from realizing the idea of equality which we claim to place before ourselves”.

Nehru found it extremely difficult to build a secular state out of a religion dominated India. Still, it was the able leadership and a visionary of Nehru that helped hold India together in the early years of independence. In a Hindu-majority country, it was the secular vision of Nehru that helped maintain a rule of law in a democracy that was continually in danger of falling into the rule of the people.

But, Nehru’s concept of secularism continues to be criticized, some saying that his brand of secularism sought to alienate the Indian from his hoary past. Others feel that he put the Hindu majority somewhat on the defensive, predicating Indian secularism on certification by the minorities, that the majority is secular.

Nehru’s belief that “if we lay tress on it (the economic factor) and divert public attention to it we shall find automatically that religious differences recede into the background and a common bond unites different groups. The economic bond is stronger than the national one”. This was not to happen.

Constitutional provisions

Unlike the Muslim League which insisted on a nation of Muslims, rest of India did not become a religious or theocratic state because of the generally non-communal character of the Congress party of the period and the wise leadership that guided Indian polity at the initial stages. The Constitution Assembly debates show that there was unanimity on the point that there would be no discrimination based on religion, though there was no common understanding what secularism meant.

A number of provisions in the Indian Constitution guarantee freedom of conscience, assure equality before the law or equal protection of the laws to all citizens irrespective of their religion; prohibits discrimination on that score for accessing public places maintained wholly or partly out of state funds or dedicated to the use of the general public.

It also prohibits religious instruction or compelling children from receiving religious instruction in educational institutions wholly maintained out of state funds but allows educational institutions maintained by different religious groups to impart religious instructions. Thus, the State has no religion, and limits the validity of religion in the public arena, and the basis of discussion and social consensus cannot be religion; much less one particular religion. Despite the weakness in actual practice, elements of this understanding of secularism have been an essential part of the accepted political values of modern Indian society.

Problems of Secularism

India is a secular state, but the Indian society is hardly secularized. In Europe and America, the secularization of society is generally understood as the retreat by traditional religion from public and social significance. In modernization theory, secularization of society is generally regarded as an inevitable development. The relationship between a state and the religious institutions found within its territory may be broadly one of three kinds.

l    The state may adopt an attitude of hostility to all religious institutions, and harass and in some cases persecute those who engage in religious activity eg., the Soviet Union;

l    The state may be constitutionally committed to one religious tradition (example: Church of England, Thai Buddhism or Sri Lanka’s support to Buddhism). In such cases the religion concerned is known as the State religion, and this may receive recognition on certain public state occasions; and

l    The state may adopt a tolerant and neutral stance towards religious institutions, with occasional patronage of certain religious institutions or occasional action to control religious excess when necessary.

This type of relationship is most often what is meant by secular state. In such cases the state is in principle religiously non-committed but may without inconsistency extend patronage to religious events on specific occasions. The classic example of this category is India.

The Indian Constitution makes the State to observe Dharma nirapekshata. But, our society is steeped in religion. Religious feelings govern our mode of thinking and observance of religious festivals and rituals is part of our day – to day life. Thus there is a clear contradiction between the basic tenets of the Constitution and the character of our society. For secularism to survive, it is not enough if the State declares itself to be secular, but the society should also be secular. If not, the society’s religiousness gets reflected in politics and public administration, which often work in a manner contrary to what is envisaged in the Constitution.

“Secularists” contend that Indian secularism has suffered damage following the rise of Hindu Nationalism in the form of the Sangh Parivar. Stating that the BJP’s ideology was based on Gandhian Socialism, Vajpayee presented the BJP as a modernizing and scientifically – oriented political party. The BJP adopted what it called positive secularism, an ambiguous concept ultimately based on the Hindutva view that Hinduism was not a religion and could not be other than secular.

Vajpayee said that Dharma nirapekshata, the indifference of state to religion, was neither secularism nor a reflection of the dominant (Hindutva) ethos of India. Hence, positive secularism could seemingly incorporate both the existing conception of sarva dharma samabhava (the view that the orientation of the state should conceive of all India’s religions differently though ‘special privileges’ or ‘concessions’ would advantage them in comparison with Hindus”.

The BJP and the Sangh Parivar could mobilize support for its activities by presenting itself as a disciplined party, with its members subject to the aims and values of Hindutva. This position became increasingly stronger, as Congress continued to garment because of its inability to define what it stood for.

One of the arguments in the political discourse in India is that India is secular because Hinduism is tolerant and non-violent; that such tolerance nurtured a diversity of faiths, religion, and cultures in India. In plain terms, the message that is sought to be concretized is that India can afford to be secular only because of Hinduism.

Secularism in contemporary India

In spite of that fact that Secularism is one of the essential elements in the basic structure of our Constitution, religious feelings not only govern our mode of thinking but get  reflected in our politics and public administration, participation in religious functions and asking for votes in the name of religion.

All political parties use religion to come to power. While professing secularism, vote banks are systematically built on the basis of religion  and caste. Compared to the politicians of the past, today’s politicians do not hesitate to foment communal violence if it serves their purpose. Every political party claims that it is the only secular party in India, pointing out that it takes care of the minorities better than the others.

To prove their point, such parties try to implement different laws to different people resulting in a crisis where groups gravitate to their own communities and create dissatisfaction among others. This is obviously an untenable situation. Such a scenario would be ripe for fragmentation. What is worse, such political parties remain mute spectators when Children are not allowed access to secular education or girls are withdrawn from schools and married off at a very young age. Such parties claim that they do not want to interfere as they are secular.

What is required is some unifying system that everyone can agree on so that a large community of people can be effectively controlled and ruled over. There has to be a system  of  law that is fair to all sections of the people without showing any bias. For example, in 1970, the then the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs of Singapore, which is a secular but multi-religious, had said in 1970:

“While It is not our desire to be purely materialistic, it is imperative that in the context of living one must achieve material objectives. Taking the nation as a whole there must be development, and so secularism can help in such development. For one thing it places no impediments as it does in some societies where development is sometimes dictated by religious beliefs which if carried to the extreme can lead to stagnation.

It is therefore important for us to realise that while a secular state allows the individual religious enlightment it also allows for national development without religious hindrances”.

A  secular state in India as conceived by the Constitution was not an exclusively political – intellectual construct, but it reflected the social and cultural reality of Indian Society. Being alive to the social reality, Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru attached great importance to communal harmony for the survival of secularism in India. For secularism to survive, there must be a common principle to tolerance, and this demands a secular polity. Politics means solving people’s problems though a government.

Under a properly functioning secular government, people can have their problems of food, comfort or security solved easily. But interference of religious belief and spiritual considerations with the functions of a government foils the purpose. However, today’s politicians need the thrust of religious sentiment to fool people, and use it as a weapon to silence ignorant people. Justice and fair play get sacrificed when secularism takes a backseat.


Secularism is not just a word; it is an idea; that was espoused by the founding fathers of independent India and the architects of India’s Constitution. It refers to a number of norms and values regarding the way a plural society and its state should be organized. The basic idea is that the state and its laws should not  mingle with the realm of religion. Instead, each religion should offer useful anchorage to the government’s secular attempts to turn out Indians into good and hones  citizens.

For India, secularism is not a simple point of view; it is a question of survival; a safeguard of peace, order and sanity in the society. Hindus, Muslims, Christians and several other groups were quite successful in living together in relative peace for a long period of time in India and nobody had heard of the word “Secularism”. Therefore, the task ahead is to examine the ways of living together by making adjustments, within the bounds of their religious beliefs. Internal pluralism exists within every religion and their traditions.

In spite of periodical clashes among these traditions, these never developed or the other; rather each of these traditions absorbed or adopted elements from the other traditions. Interaction among Hindu, Muslim and Christian religions reveals similar pattern.

Although there were violent clashes, Muslims and Christians were not persecuted because of their religious beliefs or their form of worship. Such clashes were based on other considerations; economic, for example. Even today Hindus, Muslims and Christians pay reverence to dargahs and shrines (Velankanni shrine and Ajmer Dargah for example) and join in the celebration of religious festivals.

What is needed is a common frame work – a shared set of values – which allow the diverse groups to live together. For this one would have to identify this constitutive set of values shared by the different communities. If India should remain secular and peace should prevail, India should not be seen as a land of Hindus alone.

It is unreasonable to expect the minorities to lose their religious identities. It is the responsibility of an elected government to do “justice to all”. It is the responsibility of the government to protect the reasonable interests and aspirations of adherents of other religions within the limitations and provisions of the constitution by extending necessary concessions.

But unfortunately, vote bank politics has been making the governments to cross the thin line between concessions and appeasement. To prevent further damage to its secular credentials, there is a need for deep national introspection and a sense of balance and direction. People at the helm of affairs in government, politics and social life have to provide these.

During the early days of independent India, Donald Smith, American political analyst, had observed that” the possibility of a future Hindu state in India does not appear a strong one. The secular state has far more than an even chance of survival in India.” Even Gandhiji did not expect India to develop one religion and added: “I want it to be wholly tolerant, with its religions working side by side with one another”.  

If the conservatives in all the religious communities are reined in, and if the people realize that their welfare and prosperity depends on the success of secularism in India, Donald Smith’s prophecy will hold good for generations to come. But, the government should take on the role of a netural arbiter between the different religions and not be seen as partisan. Politics must remain secular by default, because politicization of any one religious group will lead to the competitive politicisation of other groups, thereby resulting in inter-religious conflict.

-Courtesy : Indian Journal of Secularism

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