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Does Secularism exist?

Does Secularism exist?

By Avinash Pandey

Edited by Michelle Cherian, Associate Editor, The Indian Economist

Origin of Secularism

States become secular either after independence (USA, India) or when they enact secularism (France, Nepal). The Modern concept of Secularism has been defined by the movements for ‘laicite’ in France and for the separation of church & state in the United States. Historically, the process of secularizing states involved granting religious freedom, disestablishing state religions, stopping public funds to be used for a religion, freeing the legal system from religious control, freeing up the education system, tolerating citizens who change religion or abstain from religion, and allowing political leadership to come to power regardless of religious beliefs.

The term “secularism” was first used by the British writer George Jacob Holyoake in 1851. Holyoake invented the term “secularism” to describe his views of promoting a social order separate from religion, without actively dismissing or criticizing religious belief. An agnostic himself, Holyoake argued that “Secularism is not an argument against Christianity (any religion), it is one independent of it. It does not question the pretensions of Christianity; it advances others. Secularism does not say there is no light or guidance elsewhere, but maintains that there is light and guidance in secular truth, whose conditions and sanctions exist independently, and act forever. Secular knowledge is manifestly that kind of knowledge which is founded in this life, which relates to the conduct of this life, conduces to the welfare of this life, and is capable of being tested by the experience of this life.”


Secularity (fom Latin saecularis meaning “worldly” or “temporal”) is the state of being separate from religion, or not being exclusively allied with or against any particular religion.

Secularism, is the principle that government institutions and their representatives should remain separate from religious institutions and their beliefs.

Secularity is best understood, not as being “anti-religious”, but as being “religiously neutral” since many activities in religious bodies are secular themselves and most versions of secularity do not lead to irreligiosity.

Secularity in India’s Past

Indian religions have co-existed and evolved together for many centuries before the arrival of Islam in the 12th century, followed by the Mughal & Colonial era. The people in ancient South Asia had freedom of religion, and the state granted citizenship to each individual regardless of whether someone’s religion was Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism or any other. This approach to interfaith relations changed with the arrival of Islam and establishment of the Delhi Sultanate in North India by the 12th century, followed by Deccan Sultanate in Central India.

West Secularism vs Indian Secularism –

In the West, the word secular implies three things: freedom of religion, equal citizenship to each citizen regardless of his or her religion, and the separation of religion and state.

One of the core principles in the Constitution of Western Democracies has been this separation, with the state asserting its political authority in matters of law, while accepting every individual’s right to pursue his or her own religion and the right of religion to shape its own concepts of spirituality. Everyone is equal under law, and subject to the same laws irrespective or his or her religion.

In contrast, in India, the word Secular does not imply separation of religion and state. It means equal treatment of all religions. Religion in India continues to assert its political authority in matters of personal law. The applicable personal law differs if an individual’s religion is Islam, Christianity, or Hinduism.

For example, the minimum age of marriage for girls is 18 for Hindu and Christian Indians, while the personal law according to Sharia allows Muslim Indians to marry a girl less than 12 years old. Over the last 40 years, All India Muslim Personal Law Board and other Muslim civil organizations have actively opposed India-wide laws and enforcement action against child marriages; they have argued that Indian Muslims have a religious right to marry a girl when her age is below 18, even 12. In Western secular countries, age of consent and age of marriage are derived from secular laws, not religious laws.

In matters of personal law, such as acceptable age of marriage for girls, female circumcision, polygamy, divorce and inheritance, Indian law permits each religious group to implement their religious law if the religion so dictates, otherwise the state laws apply. In terms of religions of India with significant populations, only Islam has religious laws in form of sharia which India allows as Muslim Personal Laws.

The term secularism in India also differs from the French concept for secularity, namely ‘laicite’.While the French concept demands absence of governmental institutions in religion, as well as absence of religion in governmental institutions and schools; the Indian concept, in contrast, provides financial support to religious schools and accepts religious law over governmental institutions. The Indian structure has created incentives for various religious denominations to start and maintain schools, impart religious education, and receive partial but significant financial support from the Indian government. Similarly, Indian government financially supports, regulates and administers the Wakf council (Islam), historic Hindu temples, Buddhist monasteries, and certain Christian religious institutions; this direct Indian government involvement in various religions is markedly different from Western secularism.

Secularism in Indian Constitution

The 7th schedule of Indian constitution places religious institutions, charities and trusts into the Concurrent List, which means that both the Central Government of India, and various state governments in India can make their own laws about religious institutions, charities and trusts. If there is a conflict between Central Government enacted laws and state government laws, then the central government law prevails. This principle of overlap, rather than separation of religion and state in India was further recognized in a series of constitutional amendments starting with Article 290 in 1956, to the addition of word ‘secular’ to the Preamble of Indian Constitution in 1975.

The Indian Constitution mandates that the Indian State be secular. According to the Constitution, only a secular State can realise its objectives to ensure the following:

1. One religious community does not dominate another

2. Some members do not dominate other members of the same religious community;

3. The State does not enforce any particular religion nor take away the religious freedom of individuals.

Remarks of some Writers & Historians

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Sadanand Dhume writer & journalist and expert on Asian affairs,  criticises Indian “Secularism” as a fraud and a failure, since it isn’t really secularism as it is understood in the western world (as separation of religion & state) but more along the lines of religious appeasement. He writes that the flawed understanding of secularism among India’s left wing intelligentsia has led Indian Politicians to pander to religious leaders and preachers, and has led India to take a soft stand against Islamic terrorism, religious militancy and communal disharmony in general.

Others, particularly historian, indologist, Ronald Inden, have also observed that the Indian government is not really “secular”, but one that selectively discriminates against Hindu communities while superficially appeasing Muslim leaders (without actually providing any community or theological benefits to regular Muslims in India). He writes that poorly educated Indian so-called “intelligentsia” identify Indian “secularism” with anti-Hinduism and even a tacit Islamophobia.

He writes – “Nehru’s India was supposed to be committed to ‘secularism’. The idea here in its weaker publicly reiterated form was that the government would not interfere in ‘personal’ religious matters and would create circumstances in which people of all religions could live in harmony. The idea in its stronger, unofficially stated form was that in order to modernize, India would have to set aside centuries of traditional religious ignorance and superstition and eventually eliminate Hinduism and Islam from people’s lives altogether. After Independence, governments implemented secularism mostly by refusing to recognize the religious pasts of Indian Nationalism, whether Hindu or Muslim, and at the same time (inconsistently) by retaining Muslim Personal Law. “


The problem begins when religion is seen as the basis of the nation. The problem becomes more acute when religion is expressed in politics in exclusive and partisan terms as well as when one religion and its followers are pitted against another. This happens when beliefs of one religion are presented as superior to those of other religions, when the demands of one religious group are formed in opposition to another and when state power is used to establish domination of one religious group over the rest. This manner of using religion in politics is communal politics.

Political mobilisation on religious lines is another frequent form of communalism. This involves the use of sacred symbols, religious leaders, emotional appeal and plain fear in order to bring the followers of one religion together in the political arena. In electoral politics this often involves special appeal to the interests or emotions of voters of one religion in preference to others.

Behaviour, Policies & Working of Political Parties – 

Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP)

They say their politics revolves around Hindutva which I believe is not the case, as Hindutva is a Secular way of life and they are not Secular (we can discuss over it later).

1. The people whose politics are developed around Rath Yatra for building of a Temple. Is this neutrality towards religion? Is this what our Constitution forsees?

2. The people whose politics is structured and developed around destruction of a Mosque which was quasi-judicial.

3. The party which cannot give representation to the people of Minorities. Out of 182 seats in the Gujarat 2012 Assembly Elections, no ticket was provided to the Minority Community, inspite of the fact that Gujarat is a state with more than 35% of Minority population.

4. The party whose PM candidate can say he is a “Hindu Nationalist” at a National Stage. Religion can never be mixed with Nationalism. (Again, Hindu religion in itself means ‘desh-bhakti’, but as mentioned earlier, they are not strict followers of Hindu teachings, rather use it for electoral gains)

5. Most importantly, when other parties accuse Mr. Modi of being Communal, they start discussing over other topics clearly depicting that they are not secular, but communal.

Indian National Congress (INC)

1. The assassination of the PM of India – Mrs. Indira Gandhi was tragic, but the Mass Sikh killings or the Delhi Sikh Riots of 1984 were purely Communal, where individuals of only one community were killed, just on the basis of Religion.

2. The Shah Bano Case of 1985 under Mr. Rajeev Gandhi as prime Minister between the lady & the Union of India, where the Congress led government had to face the defeat in Supreme Court when they were trying to appease one religion.

3. The appeasement of a certain religion or section of people, degrading others cannot be termed as secular, which is their regular politics –

4. Let us look at some of the allies of the ‘secular’ Congress:

a.) Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) in Kerala – a Muslim party

b.) Kerala Congress (Mani) [KC(M)] in Kerala – a Christian party

c.) All India Majlis e-Itaahid al-Muslimin (MIM) in Andhra Pradesh – a Muslim party.

The ideology of these parties is not secular. They guided by their own respective religions. If the Congress party is really secular, then why should it support religion driven parties?

5. If the Prime Minister of India in his speech to the Nation can say – “Muslims have the first right over the national resources”, the impact this statement will have on the minds of people from other faiths is inconceivable.

Samajwadi Party

They are as communal as any other party can be. Last year, within a span of few weeks, 6 SHOs/DSPs were killed in Uttar Pradesh by Mafia, Goons or Gundas under the regime of Mr. Akhilesh Yadav.

To mention a few, Deputy Superintendent of Police Zia-ul-Haq,was killed by the ‘gunda’ of a village. Later, Rajendra Kumar Dwivedi,Station House Officer, Allahabad was killed by a group of armed men. Then, a Circle Officer of Etawah was chased and assaulted by a violent mob. A police party was chased by a crowd in Mathura last month, which ended in the killing of a police constable. It was followed by the killing of a Station House Officer (SHO) in Fatehagarh district of Uttar Pradesh & the killing of a Head Constable, Ashok Pandey.

In case of Mr. Haq, who was a Muslim, huge compensations were given; a job was given not only to the widow but to his brother too. Not only the CM, but Mr. Mulayam Singh Yadav too visited to his place.

But in case of other officers/police personals, who were Brahmins or Hindus, none visited, none talked, none offered any condolence or paid any tribute. So, even here religion will pay a role! What effect will it have on our society? Why are these brave sons becoming martyrs ? To become pawns in this political game? Is this secularism?

The Muzaffarnagar  riots of Uttar Pradesh in  August-September 2013 clearly raised all curtains off the SPs’ Communal face.

They were of the view that only Muslims are the ones who suffered and Hindus did not. Here is what the Honorable Supreme Court says in its judgement on March 26,2014 –

The Supreme Court has asked the Uttar Pradesh government to recall a notification issued last month, which provided for a compensation of five lakh rupees to Muslim families affected by the Muzaffarnagar communal riots. “It is better to withdraw this notification to include all who are eligible,” the court observed while pronouncing its order. Over 60 people were killed and 40,000 were left homeless after they fled their villages, as the rioting spread in September.

Even in such a case of adversity, they cannot forget their communal politics.

Bahujan Samajwadi Party (BSP)

They are known for Dalit politics. It’s good that the extremely backward part of society need some representation and this party acts as their mouthpiece. They might lack in providing representation but never lack in carrying out the politics of caste in religion even when there is no scope. Ex: The recent episode of the humiliation of the IFS Officer, Ms. Khobragade, where the party just pronounced that the unfairness metted out to her is just because of her caste. This sensationalisation on the name of caste/religion is obscurely non-secular. Many more such examples can be cited.

Shiv Sena & Maharshtra Nav Nirman Sena (MNS)

These two parties need no introduction. They are already infamous because of their ‘gunda’ politics. I don’t understand why the Law is not the same against them. Nevertheless, their politics revolves brazenly against North Indians, Hindi Speaking People, People from Bihar & Uttar Pradesh as well as Fighting & Torturing Non-Marathi people. This is definetly anti-secular and I fear that this is anti- Nationalist too!

Many other political parties are there, but one thing that is common to all is the appeasement to one sect, group, region, caste or religion. Our Constitution clearly states that secularism is not appeasement of certain sections of society, degrading others, stating that one section is better than the other or getting involved in any religious notions & prejudices. It is sad that our parties disregard the constitution in an attempt to fulfil their electoral gains.


Secularism in India, thus, does not mean separation of religion from state. Instead, secularism in India means a state that is neutral to all religious groups. Religious laws in the personal domain, particularly for Muslim Indians, supersede parliamentary laws in India and currently the state finances many religious initiatives taken by different religious groups.

These differences have led a number of scholars to declare that India is not a secular state, rather secularism in India is a strategy for political goals in a nation with a complex history, and one that achieves the opposite of its stated intentions.

What is your decision? Are we truly secular?

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