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The warped definition of ‘Indian Secularism’: Calling a Spade a Spade

Author: Anjali Kanojia
Publication: Myind.net
Date: July 3, 2019
URL:      https://myind.net/Home/viewArticle/the-warped-definition-of-indian-secularism-calling-a-spade-a-spade

Elites and academics continue to debate the meaning of secularism in India; most of these arguments revolve around secularism being a positive, Western trait which India needs to adhere to (whatever this entails) given that India is a democracy.  Let us examine what secularism is, including its Western-origins and try to figure why this term and concept are problematic for Eastern nations, including the Indian political system. 

Secularism in its original sense is separation of state from religious institutions.  Specifically, the term denotes separation of Church from a State and vice versa, with each institution protecting its vested interests.  The United States’ Constitution and the First Amendment states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."  This separation works for the U.S. system.  Religion is the East, especially in India is not organized as it is in the West.  South Asian nations constitute religious majorities and minorities but in the Indian case, Hinduism - the majority belief system does not have a primary church, a pope figure, a chosen book or even a messenger.  There is no organized religious entity which unites myriad of beliefs under the ‘Hinduism’ umbrella.  ‘Religion,’ also a Western term is not what Indians identify themselves as practicing; Hindus largely identify themselves as practicing Sanatana Dharma - which loosely speaking is the way one conducts their life.  Religion in India is more of a cultural phenomenon with the end goal of obtaining moksha, irrespective of the debate of belief in one God vs. many vs. none.  The term ‘religion’ is not endemic to Eastern culture or traditions, yet use of both, ‘religion’ and the distance a State needs to maintain from religion - ‘secularism’ - are being utilized for interpreting law and policy-making in India.

When ‘religion’ is not an agreed-upon or defined concept in a nation such as India, how does one separate religion from the State and vice versa to define secularism?  The term ‘secular’ originates in Western society and its intended purpose does not fit within Eastern settings where the idea of religion is loosely coupled, and not as organized or top-down as seen in the West.  Distinct forms of secularism exist, including the Indian form of secularism which is often explained as the State being equidistant to all religious beliefs.  All religions are to be given equal treatment but the ‘how’ has never been outlined by the Indian Constitution. From 1976 the Preamble to the Indian Constitution states that India is a secular nation.  What does secularism mean, exactly?  Secularism sounds great on paper, but actual ‘how to’ or implementation mechanism of this concept has never existed from the angle of law-making in Indian society.  This has led to unsystematic, sometimes flip-flop interpretation of the term, depending on party politics.  Secularism in India needs to be closely examined and half-conclusions such as ‘secularism in India is different from the west,’ or ‘India has its own form of secularism’ are not sufficient or satisfactory explanations for contemporary governance and administration regarding India’s diversity or her democracy. 

Secularism in the West supports freedom of religion, equal citizenship regardless of religion and separation of church and state, or religion and state.  India however does not practice separation and allows religious communities to practice personal/religious law.  i.e. Religious and personal laws sit on top of state laws.  How can this set-up be described as secularism?  

If personal and religious laws trump state laws for some communities but not others, how can the State dictate be ruling on entry into places of worship without violating the ‘state being equidistant to all religions’ principle?  Or are some religions less equal than others for the State?  Is the answer here a uniform civil code applicable to all of India or does the answer lie in further examining the term secularism and realizing it as a principle which is not fit for India, her constitution and her polity?  And might I point out that secularism is ill-fitting for all of South Asia and many nations have already accepted this fact and declared themselves as religious republics with strict guidelines on what constitutes ethnicity, citizenship and thereby, inclusion.

The debate about perceived lack of secularism in India has recently opened up a Pandora’s box, leading to questioning various domestic policy issues - defining public versus private space, food habits/meat eating, regulating entry into houses of worship, defining gender rights regarding triple talaq, etc.  Secularism debates are evident in the public, media and legislative agendas in India. The time to revisit secularism in the Indian context is now. 

Indian institutions can try to become truly secular in the original sense of the concept, but this is nearly impossible to do since religious law trumps democratic law-making.  Religion itself is an amorphous category in the East and introducing secularism, yet another amorphous category to define the distance or relationship between the State and belief systems is a futile task.  Since India inherently accepts religious law as being supreme over governmental institutions, the term secular is a misnomer which needs to be re-visited and perhaps obliterated from further misuse, especially in the legal arena.  Contemporary polarization in Indian politics seems to stem from certain elites, academics and the media framing minority affairs as secular affairs. Secularism in this sense is dressed up to go hand-in-hand with democratic principles. 

However, since secularism is ill-defined, and the implementation is haphazard in the Indian context, it has historically been framed as a pro-minority, anti-majority phenomenon. Meaning, if one identifies as pro-Hindu, they must be anti-minority and therefore anti-secular. Also, secularism in this context is framed and perceived as a refined, sophisticated, modern phenomenon adopted from ‘outside’ which the gawar or unsophisticated natives do not seem to understand or digest.  Secularism is as little understood today as it was in 1976; the term has since been used to advance one’s own agendas to act against groups of people, often violating the equal citizenship factor.  Secularism might be a conducive system for Abrahamic systems where a dominant church, an agreed-upon religious text and one-God concept exist but it is ill-fitting for the Indian context.  One simply cannot force-fit a circle into a square since the context for implementation has not, does not and cannot exist.

Perhaps India’s forefathers or leaders had grand ideas of turning India like the West, or perhaps they did not think the secularism concept through as thoroughly as they could have.  Contemporary leaders need to revisit the term and concept before it becomes a complete nuisance as a polarizing term frequently thrown around as a divisive and communal political tactic.  Secular is what India is not, nor should it pretend to be.  Pluralistic is what India is and always has been.  Pluralism and democratic principles are deeply rooted in the Indian political institutions as evident from ancient literature and texts. Questions related to identity, citizenship, policy and law-making are answered based on principles on pluralism since ancient times.  What is Pluralism?  Pluralism is based on energetic engagement with diversity, active seeking of understanding across lines of difference based on dialogue and give and take of criticism including self-criticism.1 Diversity of all types in the Indian political system can be viewed from each of these characteristics describing Pluralism. 

The practice of pluralism, roles of individuals in society, principles of governance and administration, prescribed punishments, including laws have been chronologically described by the Rigveda and then latter in the writings of Shukracharya, Kautilya, Brihaspati, Kamadakya and Carvaka.  In a pluralistic society the goal therefore is to maintain mutual respect rather than focusing on separation or boundaries - which is what is being done under the guise of secularism in India.  Narratives framed around threat to secularism are clearly undermining democratic principles within India.  The idea of plurality automatically echoes inclusion rather than ‘othering’ and exclusion based on differences, especially faith-based differences.  In a political system such as India’s, where a multitude of religious and spiritual practices exist, it is impossible to forcefully insert an exclusionary principle such as secularism.  Why has India survived and even thrived through ancient times and external onslaughts?  It is because pluralism is deeply embedded into the decentralized Indian fabric as well as echoed in the principles of good governance.

It is time to call a spade a spade and acknowledge that secularism is not fit for the Indian political system.  Weakening of Indian institutions and judiciary due to amorphous ideas and inconsistent interpretations of these ideas which will never fit in the Indian system and is the opposite of good governance.  A nation is as strong as her institutions and random interpretations of ill-fitting ideas need to be examined with a critical lens.  Removing ‘secular’ and acknowledging ‘plural’ in the Constitution will not render India to be an illiberal democracy. 

Political Scientists have tried to explain why some nations in the developing world took the authoritarian path while some remained democratic and why India does not fit the post-colonial norm.  According to the socio-economic determinants’ theory of democracy, democracy is not suited to countries which have widespread illiteracy, poverty, unemployment and high population growth.  Despite inequities and impoverishment, India has sustained democratic principles despite the 1975 emergency.  This is attributed to the practice of pluralism and presence of strong institutions.2 According to another theory, social heterogeneity is a threat to democratic institutions as well as the state - as observed in a few South Asian nations - though heterogeneity (Hindu majority) has not destroyed Indian democracy.  Why?  Because again, pluralism and legitimate institutions served as a strength for the Indian democracy. 

Promoting vague ideas of secularism by framing it as a cornerstone of democracy is being used for fear-morning and silence opposing views in contemporary Indian society.  Secularism is not a precondition for a democratic society as long as plurality and diversity are acknowledged and protected, and not just from a religious lens.  Misguided debates utilizing secularism to form misleading narratives on immigration, national security, personal/religious laws, defining public vs. private space, human rights, immigration and refugee rights, female empowerment and recently even the electoral process, etc. will quickly weaken if India embraces the fact that it is not a secular nation.  It is a pluralistic, tolerant nation based on the premise of inclusion of all, based on citizenship and not on divisions based on religious ideology.  This search-replace of secularism with pluralism needs to begin with amending the Indian Constitution and implementation of it needs to occur with the Indian Judiciary, where an overhaul due to backlog is anyway due. 


1. Eck. D. (2006). The Pluralism Project.  Retrieved from: http://pluralism.org/what-is-pluralism/

2. Weiner, M. (1989). The Indian paradox: essays in Indian politics. Sage Publications Pvt. Ltd.
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