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Secularism In Indian Context: A Close Reading

By Noor Ameena

29 November, 2015

Secularism in Indian context is distinct from Western secularism. Indian secularism is not irreligion, but multitude of religions. Every time there is a communal disharmony, or a politicization of religion, the idea of secularism in India is re-examined. Secularism in its literal sense means separation of religion from politics/state. But the experience of secularism in India is different. Religion in India is more politicized than politics itself.

The origin of the discussion on secularism in India dates back to the idea of “India” itself. That is why every discussion on secularism also brings in debates on nationalism/nationhood. The India that we see today, with its well defined political and geographical boundaries, that extends from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and from Gujarat to North-East was the product of independence movement against British. On that fateful eve of August 14, 1947, when the Jawahar Lal Nehru made that eventful speech on ‘tryst with destiny’- when the whole world slept, India awoke to freedom. But what we should not be oblivious about is that it was not only the celebration of India’s independence. It was the day in which a New India was born. For a long time, we were not even one country, but was made up of several kingdoms; there were times when the vast portions of this subcontinent came under one empire; the country was invaded many times by foreigners; some of them settled down here, became Indians and ruled as Kings and Emperors, while some of them plundered and looted our country. People in this sub-continent practiced different religions, spoke different languages and celebrated different festivals. We did not have a common government, a common leader or a common military. This large landmass and whole lot of its people would not have been united but for the struggle for independence.

Later, when we made a Constitution for our newfound nation, we dismissed the idea of a nation built on religious tenets. We rejected the idea that religion was the most essential element in shaping a political identity. Instead we went for a nation, which had space for each of its citizens to practice and profess his religion. In fact, ever since 1920s, the secular nationalist movement of the nation was clear that the India that we are going to build is a secular democratic republic. We remained firm in this resolve, even when a portion of us drifted away to build a so called ‘Islamic nation’ for themselves. If we observe the politics of Partition carefully, it can be seen that even in the furious speeches by Mohammed Ali Jinnah explaining the two nation theory, nothing has been said against Hindus or Hinduism in particular. It was the politics of the time – the drift between Congress and Muslim League coupled with the lack of farsightedness or the haste shown by the leaders, altogether resulted in Partition. If at all Jinnah represented all the Muslims of undivided India, what explains Bangladesh? What explains the numerous Muslims who remained in the mainland even after Partition? The logic here is simple- the origin of communal divide in India was more a political construct than a religious construct.

There is a mistaken perception at least among a section of Indian society that when a portion of the country went on to make an Islamic nation, what remained was a Hindu nation. Ever since partition of India, the Muslims in the mainland are suspected to have loyalty towards Pakistan. Every time when India wins or loses to Pakistan in test cricket, the repercussions were felt in Indian streets. It is only in India that a normal sport like cricket is communalized to this extent. The incidents like questioning the patriotism of Sharukh Khan has been happening, not even the persons holding highest positions in the state machinery has been exempted. But what is to be taken note of is that we had dismissed the idea of creating a nation on the basis of any religion. Even in the post independent India after Partition, this mainland had more Muslims than any other Muslim nation in the world. Perhaps, the line of Partition was not only drawn in Indian soil, but Indian minds too, and many of the Indians are still not able to be over with it.

India is the birthplace of many religions, while many religions came and flourished in India through trading links, missionaries and several other routes. All these religions had a natural growth in the Indian soil, making India a pluralist nation in its true sense. With the kind of diversity in faiths that India carried, the Western model of secularism was not appropriate in the Indian context. Secularism in India, unlike its western counterpart, does not mean irreligiousness, but profusion of religions with state not patronizing any of them.

Secularism is one of the essential elements that constitute the basic structure of our Constitution. The four basic tenets of Indian secularism are as follows: (1) The State has no religion, (2) All citizens have fundamental right to practice and propagate their own religion, and (3) It is the duty of the state to protect life, liberty and property of all citizens, provide security to them and enable them to exercise their fundamental rights, including the right to freedom of religion, and (4) The state will not discriminate between the citizens on the grounds of religion and language.

In the early days of independent India, the task before us, as G. B. Pant, the then Home Minister put it, was to build national unity and economic reconstruction. The gravest danger to unity and integrity of nation comes from four ‘isms’- casteism, communalism, linguism and regionalism/ provincialism, all of which can be brought under the umbrella term “communalism”. And the only antidote to communalism was “secularism”. Secularism was also an instrument to assure the minority communities that India would remain just and fair to them, and that social and political equality will be duly served. Pandit Nehru, in one of his letters addressed to his fellow Congressmen wrote: “The word ‘secular’ meant more than free play of all religions… it conveys the idea of social and political equality. Thus a caste ridden society is not properly secular. Communalism means the dominance of one religious community and is thus ‘a negation of nationalism’. Nehru said that though the idea of linguistic states has some virtue and logic, it may become a curse to India if we do not keep in mind the unity of India. He concluded stating, “We must always keep the ideal of the unity of India and the political and social equality of her people, to whatever group, religion or province they might belong.”

It is also interesting to observe the Constitutional Assembly debates on the nature of religious freedom that Indians ought to enjoy, while crafting or defining the Indian model of secularism. It was a major debate- whether the right to freedom of religion should mean “freedom to worship” or “freedom to practice and profess religion”. The former is a limited freedom to practice religion in your private realm, while the latter is a much broader freedom which enables a citizen to bring in religion even to his public life, and the Constitutional Assembly members settled for the latter. It is at this context that the hues and cries on conversions, reconversions, forced conversions, love jihad and what not, become relevant. There is nothing in the Constitution that prevents an individual to be an atheist, to practice a particular religion, to voluntarily relinquish a particular religion or to adopt another religion. The idea of forced conversion itself is a farce – if religion is accepted as the way to attain God, definitely adding names to the entry books of a masjid, temple or any other religious organization does not suffice. The undue vigour for adding names to the religious registers is nothing but diminution of religion itself. The recently reported incidents like the so-called reconversion in Agra, promising state entitlements like Electoral ID Cards, ration cards and so on, are not raising a question of religion per se, but opening to us a clear failure of machinery of the state.

Religion is one of the most politicized institutions in modern India. Religion in India is used not only to serve spiritual interests, but also to serve material interests. In fact, the greatest disservice to the religions and secularism in India has been done by the democratic institutions itself, or more precisely, the political parties of this country. Jaya Prakash Narayan once said that it was only when religion was used to serve socio- economic and political interests, that there was communal violence. What needed to be done in the interests of secularism was to incorporate an article in the Constitution prohibiting the use of religious institutions for political purposes or the setting up of political organisations on a religious basis. This particular suggestion finds so much value in the present day context. The number of truly secular political institutions in this country is miniscule, what we see are few politico-religious organizations, which give predominance to the interest of a particular community over the general national interests. Even the so called secular political organisations in the country have its religious undercurrents. Any religious institution can be transformed into a political entity in India, and legitimately so. But there is one another way of looking at it. The best way to empower any community is to give them political representation. Even after so many years after independence, the number of Dalit or tribal representation in politics is few; without reservation, it would have been much fewer. Hence, in case a group of minority community feel that to represent themselves better, they need to form apolitical party, it is truly justifiable. This could be a reason behind the flexibility and comparative ease with which political parties are formulated in India. However, that is no explanation for the appeasement policies and votes bank politics that is being carried out in India.

Prominent headlines in the Indian and foreign newspapers today is about the growing intolerance in India. Since the new Government has come to power at the Centre, a number of instances can be pointed out, which cannot be let happen in a secular democratic republic like India. Several statements coming from a few elected representatives and prominent faces holding important responsibilities are completely outrageous. Too much of energy is wasted on issuing sermons on how much each community should procreate to remain a majority/ minority community, what an Indian should or should not eat and so on and so forth. Every such incident is highly condemnable and what every Indian can do at this instance is to understand the politics behind the events that unveil. It is not only the culture of tolerance towards other religions that needs to be reinstated, but also respect for all religions. Our endeavours shall be to fulfill that end.

Where the mind is without fear and the head held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by Thee into ever-widening thought and action;
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
- Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)

Noor Ameena, Student, MA Development Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai

1. Ashok Naidu, “Secularism re-examined”, Vol.68, No.3, Indian Journal of Political Science, 2007, pp. 607-614.
2. Granville Austin, Working of a Democratic Constitution, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1999.
3. Jaswant Singh, Jinnah- India –Partition- Independence, Rupa & Co., New Delhi, 2009.
4. Rajeev Bhargava (ed.), Secularism and its Critics, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1999.
5. Shashi Tharoor, The Elephant, Tiger and Cell phone, Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, 2007.
6. Shefali Jha, Vol. 37, No. 30, Economic and Political Weekly, pp. 3175-3180.



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