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SECULARISM IN INDIA

By

Prachie Singh, IV year of BA.LL.B specialization in Energy Laws from UPES, School of Law

Many countries began to focus on Indian politics since India is becoming a global economic power, especially after the 2000s. Because religious affairs have been significant and the basis of many issues in Indian politics throughout its history, secularism in India is the primary subject to understand the essence of its modern politics. It can be said that secularism -with handicaps- is the tie between Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism; between nationalism and communalism; between liberalism and democracy that holds Indian society together.

Firstly, it has to be clarified what kind of secularism we are talking about. Since secularism is essentially a western term shaped by the European Enlightenment thought, it is hard to adapt it to an Asian community. It is even hard for Western countries to describe secularism; whether it means the existence of a state treating all religious groups impartially or a state whose actions are completely separated from religion. Secularism in India can’t be simply examined by using Donald Smith and Charles Taylor’s definition as the separation between church (religion) and the state. Nor can it be examined as a private-public sphere distinction as José Casanova defines since religion is diffused into both private and public spheres in India. Also, it is not merely “private belief” as in John Locke’s terms. Rather, it might be described as an idealism consisting of tolerance and coexistence that enables various religious groups living together.

Indian Constitution & Secularism

To examine and understand secularism in India, looking at the secularism and attitude towards religion in its constitution would be the first thing to do. As Javed Majeed pointed out, the reason for the complexity of the Indian state’s secularism is that since independence it has played a key role in shaping religion through legislation. The signs of the distinct feature of secularism and religion having a big and inseparable role in India can be seen in the Indian state’s constitution that was adopted in 1950.


First of all, there’s no state religion and the preamble of the constitution secures all Indian citizens’ freedom of faith, belief and worship which give the constitution its secular character. Also, the chapter on fundamental rights guarantees minority religious groups that their interests or priorities can’t be simply ignored in the majoritarian democracy. Article 28 is one of the examples that state secures private religious freedoms. According to article 28, all public educational institutions are completely secular; however private institutions may be run by religious groups and they can continue their religious character even if they receive financial state assistance.


Of course, the state does not simply keep their hands off the religion; leave religious groups or the institutions on their own. Article 25 declares that all citizens are equally given freedom of conscience and right to profess, practice and propagate religion. However, the state controls the exercise of those freedoms and rights to maintain and ensure public order, morality and health. For instance, the state imposes sanctions regarding Hindu institutions opening up to all classes and sections of society to prevent social inequalities and abolish untouchability.


Those examples from the Constitution highlights the features of Indian secularism being impartial to all religious groups regardless of being a majority or minority but at the same time, it highlights the fact that the state and religion are not separated from each other. Indeed, the state controls religious groups or institutions and their actions to maintain social order and peace which is a hard job in a country with various religious and ethnic groups. Moreover, there’s the fact that the state is continuing to interrupt in running temples and religious foundations. For example, in some states like Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, there are established bureaucracies for temple administration and management of religious endowments.


Even though there is no state religion declared in the Constitution, the enactment of the Hindu Code Bill in 1955 giving personal law for all Hindu citizens is ironic. These series of personal laws coexist with Article 44 stating “The State shall endeavour to secure for citizens a uniform civil code throughout the territory of India.”. Namely, there’s a conflict between the Indian state’s secularism and securing uniform civil code; and the existence of multiple personal laws based on religion.


The fact that legislation was and is hugely affected by Hinduism cannot be simply denied. India’s first law minister B. R. Ambedkar’s constitution draft, which was ratified on 26 November 1949 by the Constituent Assembly, included freedom of religion, the abolition of untouchability and the outlawing of all forms of discrimination. For the sake of establishing national uniformity and peace, preventing inequality and securing religious freedom were necessary for a country full of different religious groups. Ambedkar, who was untouchable himself before turning into Buddhism, also presented a system of reservations of seats in schools and colleges and jobs in the civil services for citizens from scheduled castes and scheduled tribes; which was supported by the Assembly. The state’s efforts to secure equalities and abolish inequalities based on religion and ethnicity can’t be ignored. However, it is securing equalities using the terms which have their roots in Hinduism proves the fact that Hinduism largely affected the establishment of the new constitution. It might have been necessary or inevitable to use these terms in the first phases of the formation of Indian state but in modern India giving those reservations to economically poor people instead of people from lower castes would be both more secular and fairer.

Crisis of Secularism

If a constitution securing equalities, religious freedom and supporting secularism was enough, there wouldn’t be that many religious conflicts, continuing inequalities based on religion, ethnicity or economic status in many areas all over the world. Undoubtedly, this is the case for India as well. The fact that India declared independence after a compelling phase resulting with the partition, emergence of a new Muslim majority state Pakistan makes establishing secularism and securing equality a primary but blood-and-gut struggle. The ongoing Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan since the partition is a sorrowful example of this struggle. Especially after the partition; securing the equality between Muslims and Hindus, tying society together through secularism was a primary issue which wasn’t achieved all the time.


Increasing Hindutva politics especially after the 1990s with the rise of militant Bharatiya Janata Party caused a tangible crisis of secularism. The demolition of the Babri Masjid on 6 December 1992 and the state-sponsored violence in Gujarat in 2002 were two events that occurred after BJP became powerful, which were described as “the most recent and most serious crisis of secularism” by Nedheem and Rajan. Flavia Agnes also, in her interpretation of these crises, argues uniform civil code itself became communalized and she shows evidence of the Supreme Court regenerating Hindutva politics and of making judgments biased towards Hindu Personal Law; which exemplify Hinduism-affected jurisdiction.


The obstacles to maintaining secularism are not only caused by conflicts between Hindus and Muslims. The Punjab problem was another example of the complexity of the Indian state’s secularism and diversity of religious and regional politics in India. Khalistan movement which was boosted in the 1980s with the aim of a separate Sikh state in Sikh majority region Punjab is another crisis of secularism which resulted in hundreds of casualties in the Golden Temple attack in 1984. The main but somehow insolvable problem is that in a state like India characterized by ethnic and religious diversity, legal sanctions and laws must be grounded in principles that everyone can share since the force of religiously based principles will be rejected by proponents of competing faiths.

A Solution?

The reason for secularism sometimes being inefficient and having crises might be naming some religious groups as minorities in opposition to the Hindu majority. A group oppressed historically, being regarded and regarding itself as a minority might be defensive to maintain and protect their rights or even to attain more. Even though there is no tangible proof that Indian State regards itself as a Hindu state, its Hindu-affected politics and legislation are crystal clear. Hindus might be a majority in general in India while Sikhs, Muslims, etc. are a minority. However, those minority groups are also in majority in sizeable lands of India.


Therefore, rather than looking at India consisting of Hindu majority population with other religious minority groups, seeing it as a sum of multiple minorities, in other words adopting a minoritarian position might be a peaceful and theoretical solution to the problem of secularism crisis. In practice, however, it might weaken national unity. Moreover, the most dangerously, pro-Hindutva politicians might use that minoritarian policy of Hindus becoming a minority to boost nationalism or even racism among Hindus by arguing that they are being discriminated against and are regarded as minorities in their own country like during the times of British Colonial Empire.


To sum up, in its adapted form, secularism looks like the most practical, although not the best, method for Indian State to keep national uniformity, order and peace; and a nexus tying up all religious and ethnic groups.

Reference List

1. Needham, A. D. & Rajan, R. S. 2006. The Crisis of Secularism in India, Duke University Press, pp. 45-333

2. Majeed, J. 2010. Modern Intellectual History, Cambridge University Press, pp. 653-666

3. Bhargava, R. 1994. Giving Secularism Its Due, Economic and Political Weekly, pp. 1784-1791

4. Bhargava, R. 2005. India’s Secular Constitution, IN Hasan et al India’s Living Constitution: Ideas, practices, controversies, Anthem Press: London, pp. 105-133

5. Kumar, P. 2008. Rethinking Secularism, Limiting Secularism: The Ethics of Coexistence in Indian Literature and Film, pp. 1-43

6. Mitra, Subrata. 1991. Desecularising the State: Religion and Politics in India after Independence, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol 33, No. 4, pp. 755-777

7. Kesavan, M. 2003. India’s Embattled Secularism, The Wilson Quarterly, Vol.27, No. 1, pp. 61-67.

8. Thakur, R. 1995. The Indian Mosaic, The Government and Politics of India, Macmillan Press, pp.1-35

9. Guha, R. 2010. The Annihilation of Caste: B.R.Ambedkar, Makers of Modern India, Penguin Books, pp. 204-227

10. Hewitt, V. 2008. Hindutva as Crisis, Political Mobilisation and Democracy in India, Routledge, pp. 181-195