[Mains-Static] Secularism in India – History, Constitution, Challenges

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India is a land where people of all the major religions of the world find a peaceful home. The ancient ethos and modern philosophy of India have Secularism as its inalienable part. The idea of secularism makes India a multicultural society. Religion, though a very important part of human life, has its own share of problems associated with it. Secularism addresses those problems in a very effective manner.

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How did this idea originate?

Secularism as a socio-political idea emerged in western society. The interference of religion in every aspect of life and corruption of the clergy made human life difficult with full of superstitions, inequality. The State also could not negate the dictums of religion.

Martin Luther’s Movement first emphasized the separation of Church and State. He said that religion has no place in secular (Latin for “This worldly”) sphere. The material well-being is different from spiritual well-being and the Church i.e. the religious body should only restrict itself to the private sphere. This idea was developed into an important political idea of Secularism

What is secularism?

Secularism in the West strictly means,

  • complete separation of state and religion.
  • State and religion have totally different spheres of influence. Religion is a strictly private sphere and the State should worry about the public sphere.
  • Both should not interfere in each other’s spheres.
  • The state should not have an official religion. The state should allow all religions in the private sphere and should not aid any religious activity from its coffers.

We can see from the European concept that it was essentially suited for a mono religious society.

History of secularism in India

India is a multireligious society from time immemorial. India too has embraced Secularism as its basic civilizational and constitutional ethos but in its own ways. We can trace back secularism to ancient times.

  • Secular traditions have very deep roots in India’s history though it was not specifically not projected as such.
  • The Upanishads famously say,” Ekam Sat Vipra Bahuda Vadanti” meaning there is only one truth (one true god), sages interpret it in different ways. Vedic traditions were highly secular and tolerant and always tried to incorporate different traditions in a common way of life.
  • The great emperor Ashoka in his 12th Rock edict propagated religious toleration and mutual respect among followers of all religions. Though being influenced by Buddhism, he did not make it a state religion and treated every religion equally.
  • The Bhakti and Sufi traditions are the epitome of religious harmony and secular intellectualism. Teachings of Kabir, Baba Farid, Guru Nanak, Basavanna are a glorious proof of the secular moorings of the common Indian masses.
  • The Mughal Emperor Akbar also propagated religious toleration through his reign. He abolished Jizya. He promulgated ‘Din-e-Ilahi’ or the divine faith which has elements of both Hindu and Muslim faith. He emphasized ‘Sulh-i-kul’ i.e. peace and harmony among religions.

The secular nature of Indian society faced its most serious challenge in British rule. The British employed a divide and rule policy to maintain its rule. The following actions by the British were responsible for religious hatred

  • Distortion of History by portraying ancient times as the Hindu period and medieval as Muslim period. They overemphasized the religious nature of Indian polity and the different territorial and economic wars of kings.
  • The strategic appeasement of first Hindus and then Muslims and other religious and caste minorities.
  • The Bengal partition in 1905.
  • The Communal electorate of 1909 and further acts
  • The communal award of 1932.

These divisive policies of the British led to the formation of religious organizations’ supporting Two nation theory resulting in the Partition of the country. A bloody partition and ideas espoused in the freedom struggle made the founding fathers of Modern India, the constitution-makers, decided that free India will be a secular democracy with freedom of Religion and fraternity.

Secularism and Indian constitution

India has secular characteristics embedded in its constitution. India is a nation with no State religion though Pakistan separated on the basis of religious identity. Constitution though originally did not mention Secularism explicitly, it contained express provisions making India a modern and novel secular democracy.

Following Constitutional and legal provisions make India a secular nation

  • Article 14 -grants equality before the law and equal protection of the laws to all.
  • Article 15- prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth.
  • Article 16 (1)- equality of opportunity to all citizens in matters of public employment and no discrimination on the basis of religion, race, caste, sex, descent, place of birth and residence.
  • Article 17- It bars the inhuman practice of Untouchability and makes it a punishable offence.
  • Article 25- secures Freedom of Conscience, the right to freely profess, practice and propagate religion.
  • Article 26- every religious group or individual has the right to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes and to manage its own affairs in matters of religion.
  • Article 27- the state shall not compel any citizen to pay any taxes for the promotion or maintenance of any particular religion or religious institution.
  • Article 28- allows educational institutions maintained by different religious groups to impart religious instruction. And bars it strictly in state institutions.
  • Article 29 and Article 30 provides cultural and educational rights to the minorities.
  • Article 32- Right to move the highest court for the protection and enforcement of the above rights.
  • Article 44 directs the state to secure a Uniform Civil Code throughout the country.
  • Article 51A- obliges all the citizens to promote harmony and the spirit of common brotherhood and to value and preserve the rich heritage of our composite culture.
  • The 42nd amendment to the constitution added the word ‘secular’ in the preamble making the provision explicit.

As said above Indian Secularism is novel in the sense that it follows a positive concept of secularism as against the negative concept of secularism in Western democracies. “Sarv Dharma Sama-Bhava” is the main principle.

  • India does not follow blanket separation of state and religion and encourages healthy and reformative interaction.
  • The state can interfere in religious matters to remove bad traditions such as untouchability, Sati, Triple Talaq, etc.
  • The state can engage positively giving financial support to the religious denominations.
  • The state helps in maintaining religious and educational institutions and maintains institutions like Waqf boards.
  • While many states have taken to the task of modernizing madrasa education but they also provide exceptions like exceptions from laws like Right to education act etc.
  • Affirmative actions like giving reservations to the backward castes are a form of positive secularism in which the historic wrongs by religious bigotry have been sought to be corrected.
  • The Schemes like Jiyo Parsi are religion-specific population improvement schemes when we are moving towards a stabilizing population country. This contradictory aiming showcases our idea of secularism where the State engages with religions without being a propagator of the specific religion.

The idea of secularism with Indian values is clear from the beginning itself. It can be seen from the following opinions:

H.V. Kamath said: when I say that a state should not identify itself with any particular religions, it does not mean that we should be anti-religious. A secular state is neither a god-less state nor an irreligious nor an anti-religious state.

Dr. S. Radhakrishnan said: Secularism as in the Indian Constitution defined is in consonance with the ancient religious traditions of our land. It aspires to build up a fellowship of believers, not by subordinating individual qualities to the group-mind but by bringing them into harmony with each other.

What are the challenges to Secularism in India?

  • Burdens of Legacy
  1. The bloodsheds of partition are still not forgotten by the sections who suffered losses then.
  2. The dividing tendencies always try that the memories are not faded away for selfish gains.
  3. The communal riots are always a possibility in a religiously charged pockets.
  4. Even national parties tend to engage in such activities in the name of social engineering.
  • Relative Economic backwardness of minority religions
  1. The Sachar committee reports suggest the relative backwardness of the minority population in every aspect of income, education, health, the standard of living.
  2. The inability of successive governments to improve the situation has made the situation even more complicated.
  • Perception battles
  1. Though we are a multicultural society, there is an imbalance of population as the Hindu community is almost 80%. In this scenario there always will be outnumbering of other communities in every aspect.
  2. In a multicultural society, the burden is on the State to be extra vigilant and extra honest in these matters.
  3. The majority cries appeasement and most of the minority population is left to battle out for daily needs
  4. There can always be allegations of biases against one community or the other.
  • Politicization of religion
  1. In a multiparty democracy like ours, the electoral calculations always hinge on religion, caste-based mobilization.
  2. The first past the post system helps the balkanization of the society on these divisive lines and vote bank politics flourishes.
  3. Religious riots are incited for political benefits.
  • Weak Establishments
  1. Sometimes the power hungriness of the establishment does not allow unbiased actions.
  2. The Shah Bano case and consequent Muslim Women Protection act, The inaction during the Babri Masjid demolition, inability to contain religious conversions by wrongful means, inability to take reform activities in minority religions for the fear of losing vote banks and cases like those blow dents to the credibility of the establishment to uphold secular nature of the country.
  3. The faulty implementation of reservation policy and its inability to tackle the sorry state of the backward class has led to the perception of reverse discrimination in the majority community.
  • The threat of majoritarianism and reaction by the minorities
  1. The majority community and its perception of neglect by the ruling class is already a threat as can be seen from instances of cow vigilantism, mob lynching, etc.
  2. The reaction to this by some selfish sections of the minority is of tit for tat. This creates a chain reaction of fear-mongering and violence.
  3. The increasing radicalization in the youth of both the majority and minority communities is alarming. The social media like WhatsApp, Facebook groups are becoming echo chambers of radicalization.
  • Legal issues
  1. The current churning over NRC and CAA is a classic case of communal issues and how we deal with it.
  2. The fear-mongering and misunderstanding is based on the colorable amendment of Citizenship act. The government’s stance of going forward anyway has been charging up the atmosphere communally.

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What is the role of the Judiciary in the strengthening of the idea of secularism?

  • R. Bommai case

The Supreme court has ruled that secularism is a part of the basic structure of the Indian Constitution. The president’s rule can be imposed for the want of secular character in the state government.

  • Abhiram Singh case

The Supreme court expanded the ambit of section 123(3) of the Representation of the people’s Act, 1951. It deals with the canvassing for elections in the name of voters and candidates’ religion.

  • Ayodhya Case

The Supreme Court said that secularism is not easy to crush in India.

  • Shayara Bano case (Triple talaq)

The Supreme court held that the Triple Talaq is bad in both law and theology.

Way forward

  • There is a need to clear perceptions on both sides. Clear cut information dissemination can battle the perceived alienation.
  • More powers to Minority commission to deal with the minority issues.
  • There should be a reorientation of the process of socialisation like the education system to help to promote secularism.
  • The education system must be overhauled to introduce courses in social sciences in technical education also to make the youth aware of the philosophy of the constitution.
  • The economic backwardness of the minority community must be seriously looked into.
  • The governments need to act on wrongdoers otherwise the feeling of bias will strengthen.
  • Uniform Civil Code only with the agreement of all stakeholders
  • Mass media must be fully utilised to educate the people for Secularism
  • Even the school curriculum can also be sensitized with the idea of secularism.
  • The electoral offences relating to communalism must be dealt with swiftly.
  • The composite culture must be celebrated in every aspect. All the stakeholders must be engaged in the dissemination of the composite culture.

Mahatma Gandhi said,” I want the winds of every culture to blow around my house but I don’t want to be blown away from my roots by anything of that”. The cultural confidence we have in our genes will always be tested with time. The real greatness of our diverse but united country to live up to every test of the time and flourish in a harmonious and fraternal environment. The Indian way of life is essentially secular. We need to remember and cherish this.

Practice Question for Mains

“If India is not secular India is not India at all”. Critically analyze the statement in light of the Current events. (250 words)

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