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Indispensability Of Secularism In India: Origin, Threat, And Necessity

Updated: Feb 15

By Priyanka Rajput

If one were to ask any Indian to describe India, it is most likely that the answer would include a land of diversity. This incredible diversity comes from its diverse people and what makes these people diverse is primarily their religion, and ethnicity. 

To preserve and protect this diversity the 42nd Amendment to the Constitution added the word ‘secular’ to it in 1976. However, since the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014, the actions of its leaders are consistently posing a threat to India’s secular credentials. 

Composition of secularism

People may understand secularism in different ways but the way British social reformer George Jacob Holyoake, who coined the word secularism, puts it – secularism is an approach where people must abandon all received knowledge and instead look for reason and science in all claims made for the progress of humans.  

The ideology gained traction in France of the nineteenth century when the relationship between the church and state was robustly debated in an attempt to separate the two. The idea of laïcité was born and it sought to remove religious interference from social life to guarantee freedom of conscience to all citizens. 

French scholar of secularism Jean Baubérot describes secularism as an amalgam of three aspects:

1) The separation of religious institutions from the institutions set up by the State and disallowing any form of political control by religious institutions,

2) Every citizen has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the freedom to change beliefs and express such beliefs in keeping with public order and rights of others,

3) The state does not discriminate against anyone on the basis of their religion or non-religious world view and all citizens be treated equally on this basis.

The India Constitution also treats religion and politics as two parallel roads that never meet. Article 25 guaranteeing the Right to Freedom of Religion states:

“25. Freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion: (1) Subject to public order, morality and health and to the other provisions of this Part, all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess, practice and propagate religion.” 

“26. Freedom to manage religious affairs: Subject to public order, morality and health, every religious denomination or any section thereof shall have the right —

  1. To establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes;

  2.  To manage its own affairs in matters of religion….”

“28. Freedom as to attendance at religious instruction or religious worship in certain educational institutions:

  1.  No religious instruction shall be provided in any educational institution wholly maintained out of state funds.

  2.  Nothing in clause 1 shall apply to an educational institution which is administered by the State but has been established under any endowment or trust which requires that religious instruction shall be imparted in such institution.”

The Constitution does not declare India to be a Hindu nation under any Article. On the basis of Articles 25 to 30, 44 and 51A of the Indian Constitution, the Supreme Court in the 1994 SR Bommai v. Union of India case and in the Bal Patil & Ors v. Union of India 2005 case ruled that India is not a theocratic State. The latter verdict states: 

“Our concept of secularism, to put it in a nutshell, is that ‘state’ will have no religion. The states will treat all religions and religious groups equally and with equal respect without in any manner interfering with their individual rights of religion, faith, and worship.”

The Constitution does not bar an Indian citizen of any religion from seeking the highest constitutional office which also emphasizes the equality guaranteed to people of all religions, and, hence, signifies secularism.

Persons “professing the Sikh, Jaina or Buddhist religion” are included under Hindus, so in all Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, and Zoroastrianism are the other major religions practiced in India. 

Religion as defined by political analyst Bidyut Chakrabarty in his book ‘Indian Constitution- Text, Context, and Interpretation’ is “a consciousness based on one’s subjective understanding of the social reality that one confronts; it is a mirror in which one sees oneself in relation to others.”

Compromising Secularism

Since India does not have a State religion, the Prime Minister as the leader of this Indian state and who has taken oath of the Constitution, is, therefore, obliged to adhere to the spirit of a secular State. 

But during my travel in the Delhi metro, I saw Prime Minister Narendra Modi advertising the state of Uttarakhand by using pictures of his visit to Hindu places of worship, wearing religious costumes, and performing Hindu rituals. This is not the only occasion when the Prime Minister has displayed his religious beliefs in public when they should have been kept private. 

On August 5, 2020, the Prime Minister was not only present at the foundation stone laying ceremony of the Ram temple in Ayodhya but also laid the foundation stone himself. He is also set to be present at the inauguration of the temple on January 22, 2024. 

Though Modi is often seen displaying his Hindu identity in public, these examples are clearly in violation of the Constitution’s secular mandate. 

Critics argue that the word secular holds little importance in the Constitution as it was added after the Constitution was adopted. This is untenable as the meaning of the word secular is what has been described under Articles 25-28, so secularism has been a part of India’s existence since its inception. 

Prime Minister Modi has violated the Constitution’s secular provisions through speech as well. During campaigning for the November 25, 2023, Assembly elections Modi exhorted voters to press the lotus symbol which would be akin to awarding a “death sentence” to the Congress. Inaugurating the Kashi Vishwanath Dham in 2021 Modi said: “If an Aurangzeb arrives here, then a Shivaji also rises”.

Senior leaders of the BJP have been regularly mouthing insults at Muslims, which peaks during election campaigning. Union Home Minister Amit Shah while addressing a rally at Chevella in Telangana ahead of the Assembly elections there tried to win over the electorate by stating that - 

“If the Bharatiya Janata Party forms a government in Telangana, then we will end the unconstitutional reservation for Muslims.”

Seeking votes on the grounds of a candidate’s religion or fostering enmity between religions amounts to corrupt practice and an electoral offence under the Representation of People’s Act, 1951. This is what the Act states under the ‘Corrupt practices and electoral offences’ header: 

Section 123 (3) “The appeal by a candidate or his agent or by any other person with the consent of a candidate or his election agent to vote or refrain from voting for any person on the ground of his religion race caste community or language or the use of or appeal to religious symbols or the  use of or appeal to, national symbols, such as the national flag or the national emblem, for the furtherance of the prospects of the election of that candidate or for prejudicially affecting the election of any candidate.

3(A) The promotion of, or attempt to promote, feelings of enmity or hatred between different classes of the citizens of India on grounds of religion, race, caste, community, or language by a candidate or his agent or any other person with the consent of a candidate or his election agent for the furtherance of the prospects of the election of that candidate or for prejudicially affecting the election of any candidate.”

In 2020, ahead of the Delhi Assembly elections, BJP’s key leaders like Anurag Thakur, Parvesh Verma made communal remarks. Kapil Mishra, the BJP candidate from the Model Town Assembly constituency compared anti-CAA protesters to traitors who should be shot dead. “Arvind Kejriwal is doing the politics of Jinnah; AAP's new name should be Muslim League,” he had stated just days before polls.

Tejasvi Surya, the party’s star campaigner and Bangalore South MP, claimed “Every single vote you give BJP is a vote for Bharat, Hindutva, to make the country stronger. A vote for Owaisi is a vote against India,” while campaigning for Hyderabad municipal corporation elections the same year. Hindutva may not be a religion but it implies Hinduism, not secularism.

“The State can and indeed has in terms of Section 123(3) forbidden interference of religions and religious beliefs with secular activity of elections to legislative bodies.” Such activity “…would constitute a corrupt practice sufficient to annul the election in which such an appeal was made regardless whether the appeal was in the name of the candidate’s religion or the religion of the election agent or that of the opponent or that of the voter’s…,” ruled the Supreme Court in the Abhiram Singh versus CD Commachen case in 2017 — disallowing mixing of religion with politics. 

Test of Secularism 

The easy defense to such violations of the Constitution and laws of the country is that all parties are guilty of it. However, if one searches on the internet about instances when Congress party candidates took to communal speeches to gain votes there are hardly any results. 

The Congress has been accused of pseudo-secularism by its opponents who base their claim on the Shah Bano case of 1985. The Congress does not stand accused as a violator of secularism under the Constitution as the then government of late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was well within the bounds of the Constitution to bring a law to quell religious acrimony.

 The Supreme Court verdict allowing maintenance to Shah Bano beyond the ‘iddat’ period caused resentment within the community which felt that its personal laws governing marriage were being overtaken by the pitch for a Uniform Civil Code. 

It must be noted that Bano’s husband had provided her with all maintenance under the Muslim personal marriage laws during the ‘iddat’ period for two years. The Rajiv Gandhi government by bringing in the Muslim Women (Protection of Right on Divorce) Act, 1986, did not end the provision of maintenance granted to a divorced Muslim woman within the ‘iddat’ period. It, however, prohibited a Muslim woman from seeking maintenance under Section 125 of the Code of Criminal Procedure unless her husband agrees to determine her post-divorce rights under this Section; instead of the 1986 Act brought by the Rajiv Gandhi government. 

Bano’s marriage was solemnized under Muslim law and her husband claimed maintenance to a divorced wife after the ‘iddat’ period contradicts Muslim law. Adhering to the Supreme Court verdict, in the face of opposition by the community, raised fears that the Rajiv Gandhi government contemplated bringing all religious groups under a Uniform Civil Code (which hadn’t been formalized yet) where a set of marriage laws were uniformly applicable to all religions — even though they were and are governed by their own laws. 

The idea of secularism is to let religions flourish according to their own practices (laws) unless there are grounds on which the government can intervene. 

In this regard, Article 25 (2) states: 

“Nothing in this article shall affect the operation of any existing law or prevent the State from making any law—

(a) regulating or restricting any economic, financial, political or other secular activity which may be associated with religious practice;

(b) providing for social welfare and reform…”

The insecurity among Muslims during 1986 can be imagined as the one that emerged after the BJP government framed a law banning ‘Triple Talaq’. It fuelled similar controversy over Uniform Civil Code. The Citizenship Amendment Act also faced criticism as the State was seen to be discriminating against Muslims when it ought to be neutral. 

Identity versus Secularism

When secularism guarantees freedom and equality to all religious groups, it raises fears of identity as well. People tend to assert their religious identity and for Hindus calling India a Hindu Rashtra is a way to preserve that identity. This fear is unfounded because if secularism prevails it will guarantee preservation of Hindus just like others. The identity people carry in a secular nation is a collective one which identifies the person as an Indian citizen who is free to make his or her own choices and enjoy equal rights. 

As it is said fear is of the unknown. It disappears in the face of coexistence leading to a shared understanding, shared values. A collective yet diverse identity helps democracy to thrive. Therefore, a democratic country is also an aspect of identity. Secularism belongs to India more than to the West. It has existed since the time of the Vedas, adopted by Buddhism, carried forward during the period of Sufism and sustained during the Bhakti movement. Later, Sikhism took birth and endorsed the idea that no single religion could be the sole truth.

“This long heritage of active management of diversity provided the background conditions for secularism when it came,” writes humanist leader Andrew Copson in his book Secularism, Politics, Religion And Freedom.

Compulsion of Secularism

Why secularism matters to India is – though different nations have experimented with secularism; many of them have failed to uphold it the way India has. The Laik republic Turkey, Khomeini’s Iran, and the United Kingdom are among them. Secularism is the success story of India. 

British research Alexander De Waal has written that “Indian plural secularism has clear value in many of the world’s ethnically and religiously diverse countries”. 

In compromising with secularism, a nation sows the seed of discord, leads to polarization, and a society not at ease with itself. Riots are an outcome of such social divisions and on a larger scale has the potential to stall a nation’s progress. 

According to a paper by Humanists International, “States that uphold neutrality are much better equipped to confront hate crime and discrimination on equal grounds. A secular education system is more likely to equip students with objective history, scientific knowledge and critical thinking skills”.

However, in present times the chants of Jai Shri Ram or ‘Abba jaan’ to mock people of a particular religion and slogans like ‘now bulldozers will run’ have occupied not just social media but public places and television debates. Such rhetoric is bound to increase with the upcoming General Elections in 2024. It is only ‘We the People’ who can safeguard secularism amid such onslaught. 


By Priyanka Rajput

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Gunjan Rajput
Gunjan Rajput
Jan 24
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Quite true !

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