Secularism: A Discourse In Contemporary Socio-Political Environment

By: Dr Elizabeth Imti & Dr Kumar Raka, Editor-ICN

Secularism, the core essence of tolerance and co-existence of various religious groups, is a practical necessity of multi-religious nation.

The concept of secularism was not expressly incorporated in the constitution of India at early stages; however, it was deeply embedded in its philosophy all the way through fundamental rights and directive principles. The ideals of secularism had always been present in debates and discussions in the world’s largest democracy and constituted one of the core pillars of the Constitution after independence.

The preamble (read in particular with articles 25 to 28) emphasis this aspect and indicates that it is in this manner that the concept of secularism embodied in the constitutional scheme as a creed adopted by the Indian people has to be understood while examining the constitutional validity of any legislation on the touch stone of the constitution (Alka Bharti). Yet there is perplexing understanding about secularism in India in recent socio-political developments. Although communal identities existed but the growing assertiveness towards it in recent political history has sown the seeds on fundamentalism, challenging the entire idea of secularism being debated and questioned by various scholars.

The Western concept of secularism, which is basically inspired by the American model, is the result of division between the Church and the State. The Roman Catholic Church became dominant over the authority of the king which ultimately led to drifting away of both the institutions. While in India various religions coexisted from ancient times. Therefore, Indian secularism took on a distinct form as a result of interaction between what already existed in a society that had religious diversity and the idea that came from the West. This leads to understanding of the idea as a mutual exclusion. Secularism as an ideology has emerged from the dialectic of modern science and Protestantism, not from a simple repudiation of religion and the rise of rationalism (T.N. Madan). In contrast, Indian secularism does not focus on such separation of religion or religious institutes from the State rather it focuses on equal treatment of all religions by the State and accommodates people practicing various religions, as the very core fundamentals of Constitution.

While in West according to the idea of secularism the State neither hinder nor help in terms of religious matters making secularism to be an absolutely isolated concept for the State but in India the State hinders as well as helps in religious issues. The helping in Indian context can be understood in terms of support for religious and linguistic minorities which creates a balancing act between the majority and the minority groups (Rajeev Bhargava). The Hon’ble Supreme court has held in Lata Singh Vs. State of U.P,” that caste barriers in societal interactions are anti-secular. Inter caste marriage shall be promoted, protected and conserved by the state to promote greater secular values.” The State is supposed to discourage any conflict against communal harmony. But the decision is a part of secularization process. The concept of secularism is not merely a positive attitude of religion tolerance but also is the foundation of positive concept of equal treatment.

Nandini Chatterjee, in her book ‘The Making of Indian Secularism: Empire, Law and Christianity, 1830–1960’ published in 2011 creates a narrative of Christian idea of Secularism influencing the Indian idea and context of secularism. This book begins and ends with cases of contemporary Indian ‘secular’ political culture. Her aim is to make sense of the complex story of how Christianity was largely responsible for the particular culture of secularism in India. According to Nita Kumar’s review on Chatterjee’s work; she states that “Nandini Chatterjee’s book is a contribution not only to the story of secularism, but to the history of Christianity itself.”

The term secularism denotes a threefold relationship between the individual, State and religion which is interweaved. While the individuals are free to perform their own religious practices, the State is not supposed to favour or promote any religion in any specific context. The word secular has not been defined in the constitution that was adopted in 26th Jan 1950 or even in 1976 when the word ‘secular’ was a part of the preamble during the emergency under Indira Gandhi through the 42nd amendment.  Even, it does not suggest that secularism was one of the core values of our Constitution till then. Secularism in Indian context was never clearly defined by either our Constitutional experts or political ideology.

As a matter of fact, there is unanimity in the opinion that the founding fathers of the nation were particular and clear about the necessity of establishing a secular State after achieving independence. But, there were several problems in defining secularism in the Indian context. 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 of India. The development of the ‘idea of secularism’ has been of a different pattern. The idea has not been the product of a process of actual secularization of life, and also philosophical development had been on different lines. Like other ideas of democracy, socialism and the likes, if developed as a response to the actual historical need of Indian society.

Therefore, the Constitution didn’t acquire its secular character merely from the words in the Preamble, but from a collective reading of various fundamental rights that Constitution provided to all the citizens of the State (Suhrith Parthasarathy). In S.R. Bommai vs. UOI “It was held that Religious tolerance and equal treatment of all religious group and protection of their life and property and the places of their worship are an essential part of secularism enshrined in our constitution. while the citizen of this country are free to profess, practice and prorogate such religion, faith or belief as they choose, so for as the state is concerned i.e. from the point of view of the state, the religion, faith or belief of a person is immaterial to it, all are equal and all are entitled to be treated equally.” Further the Court while emphasizing upon the significance of Secularism declared it as the basic structure of the Constitution. (Alka Bharti)

Several articles were provided for smooth governance of the country along secular lines. The purpose of inserting the word ‘Secular’ was to make apparent and re-emphasize what was already imbibed in the life of the nation. India is a country where Hindus form a vast majority of population and Hinduism not given any special place in the society. All religions are given equal recognition and protection. There is no State religion in India. The constitution of India under Article 25(1) unequivocally assures freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion. Meaning that “the State or Central government cannot aid any religion, or give preference to any against the other”. Therefore, to be obliged absolutely secular in the character. Article 29(2) provide that no citizen shall be denied admission into any educational institution maintained by the state, receiving aid out of the state funds on grounds only of religion, race, caste, languages or any of them. It is the manifestation of State neutrality in the matter of religion as it implies equal conservations of all religion and equal religious right to all the citizens. Along with that it prohibits discrimination on the ground of the religion, race, caste, sex or place of the birth.

The growing assertiveness and violence of communal forces have undoubtedly helped to bring secularists and their neo-traditionalist critics to a common position of concern, but what makes mutual hearing among them possible is the developing secularist consensus that one cannot simply divorce religion from the politics and leave it at that (P.K. Dutta) Amartya Sen in his work ‘The Argumentative Indian’ asserts that secularism cannot but affect religion by observing that secularism is implicated in religion by the very act of protecting rights to religious belief. While Rajeev Bhargava calls for a secularism that occupies the space between the extremes of intervention and exclusion of religion, allowing a case-by-case resolution of conflicts. (P.K. Dutta)

Historical Background

A holistic conception of secularism would include various other components like religious freedom, tolerance, a democratic conception of citizenship, equality, protection of fundamental human rights regardless of religious considerations (Rajeev Bhargava). It is on the basis of such an interpretation of secularism that the historical setting of secularism in India is examined in this point. One school of thought argues that it is futile to look for the roots of secularism in India’s past because throughout Indian history, religion and the State have been inextricably interlinked. But a critical analysis would reveal that this is too simplistic a formulation of a complex phenomenon. For certain factors can be identified in India’s historical ethos which to some extent indicates a secular political order.

Secularism as a concept is very deep rooted in the history and social fabric of India. It has been existed since ancient times. The people of India have been practicing different religions and the ruler by and large abstained from imposing any particular religion on the people. Followed by Mughal and colonial era, Ashoka about 2200 years ago and Harshvardhan about 1400 years ago accepted and patronized different religions. Ellora cave temple built next to each other between 5th and 10th centuries show a co-existence of religions and a spirit of acceptance of different faith. There was also tradition of tolerance between religions due to state policies of various kings since time immemorial from Gupta dynasty to Ashoka and Akbar. Ashoka made a distinction between his personal belief and his obligation as a king and a statesman to insist that all religions must be respected. He saw ‘Dhamma’ as conformity to the social ethic. In the Rock Edict XII of Ashoka which proclaims, “One who reverences one’s own religion and to glorify it over all other religious, does injure one’s own religion most certainly.” (Romila Thapar)

Professor J. J. Anjaria concluded that ancient India had plural forms of polity. He observed: Several types of states like republics, oligarchies, diarchies and monarchies were prevailing in India in ancient times, but eventually monarchy became the order of the day. This phenomenon was not peculiar to ancient India; it repeated itself in ancient Europe also where we find the republics in Greece and Italy being gradually supplanted by monarchies and empires.

During medieval period, when the Islamic rulers came through the north-western region to the subcontinent they identified all the subjects they ruled as Hindus. Islam being an institutionalized religion could not identify various religions existing in India like Buddhism, Jainism to be different from the Sanatan Dharma which the majority Hindus followed in the subcontinent. Hinduism then was not an institutionalized religion like Islam, yet the Islamic rulers did take up titles related to Indian mythology and often issued coins that contained Gods and Goddesses of Hindu mythology. It was during this period that the Sufi and Bhakti movements emerged. The mystics and saints of the two movements seem to have been influenced by each other. Saints such as Kabir, Chaitanya and Nanak emphasized the essential unity of all religious.

Mughals Emperor Akbar’s policies were considered to be secular even though it is debatable if his policies were to cater to his own political interests. His idea of Sulh-i-kul or universal peace stood for tolerance between all religion and their peaceful existence. He even sponsored a series of religious debates which were held in the ‘IbadatKhana’ of the Hall of Worship, and the participants in these debates included theologians from amongst Brahmins, Jains and Zoroastrians.The emperor is also known for persecution of Shia’s and Mahadis. Instances of forced conversion to Islam during tyrant rule of Aurangzeb and other rulers and imposition of religious tax (jizya) are also known. (J. F. Richards)

Until the East India Company came to rule the subcontinent Hinduism was yet not established as an institutionalized religion. In fact, religious identity, communal assertiveness and religious code of conduct which was either non-existent or strikingly suppressed during Mughals’ invasion amongst majority Hindu population found a new life. This was time not only for Hinduism as an established religion but also Buddhism, Sikhhism and Jainnism got their plank to be an established and seperate religion. Sanatandharma got divided. It was when the colonial rulers asked for book of laws that the Pandits inscribed scripts like Manusmritidharmashastarsaccording to which the way of life of Hindus were to be governed. While Company officials like Nathaniel Halhedcompiled digests of native laws based on the recommendations of the maulvis and pundits in ‘A Code of Gentoo Laws’ they never interfered within the religious issues of both Hindus and Muslims.  (B. S. Cohn)

(Copyright Material)


About the authors

Dr Elizabeth Imti, MA, M.Phil & PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, is a Doctoral Fellow of the Indian Council of Social Science Research ( ICSSR), a recipient of the National Merit Scholarship sponsored by the University Grant Commission (U.G.C.). She worked as a Research Assistant at the Department of Economics at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. Guest faculty at the Department of Sociology at Nagaland University and the Centre for Gandhian Studies and Research, Nagaland University and on the Board of Trustees, Martin Luther Christian University, Shillong. Issues such as gender and violence, women and conflict resolutions, youth and social change, peace studies etc, are what she passionately writes and strongly advocates. Presently she is an Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, Fazl Ali College , Mokokchung.

Dr. Kumar Raka is a Social Scientist graduated (M.A, M.Phil. & Ph.D.) from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Executive Masters in Disaster and Emergency Management from Tel Aviv University, Israel.


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