7 PM I All is not well with secularism I December 3rd, 2019

Context: Secularism in India


  • “Secularism”, as the concept developed in the west implies the absence of bias towards or against any particular religious groups on the part of the government.
  • Secularism means anything that doesn’t involve religion in any way. However, it is not an opposition to religion.
  • The “secular community” refers to people who live without religion, particularly those who participate in atheist, free thought, humanist, and similar groups in person and online. However, when we talk about secularism as a movement, we‘re talking about keeping faith-based ideas, superstition, and religious ideology out of government.
  • That doesn’t mean converting for atheism, but it does mean recognizing that people’s rights are best protected and government is fairest when religion and myth are not the basis of public policy.
  • Instead, secularists want public policy to be based on facts, science, and reason. A person can be religious and still believe that secularism is the fairest and most equal approach to government since it guarantees religious freedom for all, favoring no one religion over another or over non-belief.
  • In simple terms, the principles of secularism protect and underpin many of the freedoms we enjoy. These are:
    • Separation of religious institutions from state institutions and a public sphere where religion may participate, but not dominate.
    • Freedom to practice one’s faith or belief without harming others, or to change it or not have one, according to one’s own conscience.
    • Equality so that our religious beliefs or lack of them doesn’t put any of us at an advantage or a disadvantage.
  • Secularism in the Indian context has connotations:
    • The first and the most common connotations equal regard for all religions’ or saravdharma samabhava’
    • the second ‘dharma nirpekshta’ or neutrality as against the aniti religious or separating the two spheres of the temporal and the spiritual.

Secularism may be regarded as an ideological concept which attempts to keep the state politics apart from religious considerations.

It further aims to guarantee freedom of religious belief as well as provide fundamental human rights regardless of religious belief.

Origins and Evolution of Secularism in India:

  • The first phase of secularisation of the masses: The earliest traces of secularism in India date back to the Bhakti- Sufi Period (8th Century AD – 15th Century AD). It was based on respect for different religions. The poorer and lower caste Hindus and Muslims were greatly influenced by the Bhakti movement. Unlike the religious orthodoxy in Hinduism and Islam, Bhakti and Sufi saints were highly tolerant and open to truths in other faiths. They never adopted sectarian attitudes and were never involved in power struggles. 
  • The second phase emerged around 1857 when the revolutionaries enforced secular laws like ban on cow slaughter in rebel held territory. Ironically, the British who incidentally came to India under a Civilizing Mission and should have acted as catalysts of change, instead transformed into catalysts for precipitating communal tensions by codifying laws for each community, even though the Crown had assured Indians of non-interference in their personal lives.
  • Secularism in India’s context was never clearly defined by either our constitutional experts or political ideology. There are several problems in defining secularism in the Indian context. Both during colonial and post-colonial periods, the Indian society has been a traditional society dominated by various customs and tradition with deep religious orientation. For the liberal and progressive intellectuals, on the other hand, secularism meant total exclusion of religion from political arena.

Views of various leaders on secularism:

  • Gandhi’s notion of secularism is that of “sarva dharma sambhava”.
    • To quote Mahatma Gandhi, “I do not expect India of my dreams to develop one religion, i.e., to be wholly Hindu or wholly Christian or wholly Mussalman, but I want it to be wholly tolerant, with its religions working side by side with one another.”
    • When Gandhi says that ‘God is Truth’, he suggests that God is same as Truth. It is not a relationship, which subsists between a substance and its attributes. In Gandhi’s philosophy, God and Truth are interchangeable terms, which refer to the same reality and their meanings become identical.
  • Nehruvian notion of secularism (separation of religion from state):
    • Nehru believed that in a country like India, which has many faiths and religions, no real nationalism could be built except on the basis of secularity.
    • Nehru’s exposition of secularism did not mean an absence of religion, but putting religion on a different plane from that of normal political and social life.
    • It was firmly rooted in affirmation of social and political equality.
    • Nehru’s concept of secularism was to serve as an instrument of national integration, actively promoting social and political change in the direction of eliminating inequality.
    • For Nehru, the fight against inequality was tied up with the fight against economic backwardness and underdevelopment.
  • Abul Kalam Azad gave a concise definition of secularism in the Indian context as – “India is a democratic secular state where every citizen, whether he is a Hindu, Muslim or Sikh, has equal rights and privileges.”
  • Dr. B. R. Ambedkar who was a habitual rebel against traditional values, affirmed that secularism in the Indian context does not mean hostility towards religion or religious approach to life: It is all very well to say that we have proposed in our Constitution a secular state… It does not mean that we shall not take into consideration the religious sentiments of the people. All that secular state means is that the parliament shall not be competent to impose any particular religion upon the rest of the people.

Secularism in Indian Constitution:

  • Professor KT Shah wanted to include Secular, Federal and Socialist in Article 1 and moved amendments twice for the same. However, Dr. Ambedkar rejected both the amendments at the meeting of the Drafting Committee.
  • Dr. Ambedkar held that the Assembly should leave the policy of the state, and other socio-economic matters to the intellect of the people, as including the word secular would make future India undemocratic. 
  • Moreover, it was widely agreed upon that since India has been a secular country all along, it would continue to remain so in future as well. So adding this term would be no more than a time wasting exercise.
  • The secular nature of the State was, however, reflected through various articles in the Indian Constitution.
  • Fundamental rights (Article 12 to 35) guarantees and promotes secularism. Right to equality, right to freedom, right against exploitation, right to freedom of religion, cultural and educational rights, and right to constitutional remedies are such six fundamental rights.
  • Secular attitude or attitude of impartiality towards all religion is secured by the constitution under several provisions. (Article 25 to 28).
  • It was much later in 1976, that the word secular was added in the Preamble to the Constitution (42nd Amendment Act, 1976).
  • Article 25 of Indian constitution of India is called as reservoir of religious and secularism in India. It has crystal clear provisions when and how religious freedom is available and when this freedom can be curtailed.

Secularisation versus Secularism:

  • Secularisation is a social process that involves the privatisation of religion, as in Europe after the Enlightenment. In India, processes of secularisation were stymied because religion, since the late 19th century, was latched to the nationalist project, and, from the 20th century, to competitive nation-state projects.
  • Secularism for long has ridden to prominence on the shoulders of secularisation. Now that secularisation has been shown to be one of the vanities of modernity, secularism needs a new home. Democracy serves as the new home to the secularism.
  • Democracy and secularism are companion concepts, because of their shared commitments to basic values such as freedom, equality and justice.
  • The responsibility of reorganising unequal and unjust religious communities on the norms of freedom, equality, and rights falls on democracy.
  • Though the principle of secularism is intended to ensure equality between these communities, it is not the job of secularism to reorder unequal gender or caste relations. That falls within the province of democracy.
  • Secularism ensures that the state is not aligned to any one religion and all religious communities are treated with equal care and consideration; and no community is granted special advantages because it is in a numerical majority.
  • Similarly, it ensures that no religion is discriminated against just because its numbers are smaller than the majority community. Secularism extends the principle of equality or even its weaker form, non-discrimination specifically to the relationships between religious communities.

Religion as politics versus Religion as faith:

  • Religion as politics has nothing to do with religion as faith. Politics in search of power seeks only one thing monopoly over resources.
  • Secularism is not a robust concept like democracy or justice; it is a “thin” and a limited procedural concept. The challenge to secularism has not come from personal faith or religion, but from religious groups that struggle for power.

Secularism versus Communalism:

  • Secularism is not the binary opposite of communalism. The opposite of communalism is religious harmony.
  • Secularism is the diametric opposite of theocracy or the merging of two awesome forms of power, the non-religious and the religious.
  • Communalism is referred in the western world as a “theory or system of government in which virtually autonomous local communities are loosely in federation”. But in the Indian sub-continent context, communalism has come to be associated with tensions and clashes between different religious communities in various regions.
  • Communalism is basically an ideology which consists of three elements:-
    • A belief that people who follow the same religion have common secular interests i.e. they have same political, economic and social interests. So, here socio- political communalities arises.
    • A notion that in a multi-religious society like India, these common secular interests of one religion are dissimilar and divergent from the interests of the follower of another religion.
    • The interests of the follower of the different religion or of different ‘communities’ are seen to be completely incompatible, antagonist and hostile.


The Sanskrit phrase, “Sarva Dharma Sambhava” is the most appropriate Indian vision of secular state and society. But it should not be forgotten that the word “secular” has not been defined or explained under the constitution either in 1950 or in 1976 when it was made part of the preamble. India is multi-religious society and the survival of such a society is possible only it all religions are given equal treatment without any favour or discrimination.

Source: https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/discrimination-hindutva-muslims-rss-alls-not-well-with-secularism-6147422/

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