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Insights into Editorial: The future of Indian secularism



Recent event of the Prime Minister attending the inauguration of Ayodhya temple under official capacity.

It is argued that this is against the principle of secularism where the state cannot promote any one religion and must treat all religions equally.

Secularism during freedom struggle:

  1. Indian freedom movement was characterized by secular tradition and ethos right from the start.
  2. In the initial part of the Indian freedom movement, the liberals like Sir Feroz Shah Mehta, Govind Ranade, Gopal Krishna Gokhale by and large pursued a secular approach to politics.
  3. The constitution drafted by Pandit Moti Lal Nehru as the chairman of the historic Nehru Committee in 1928, had many provision on secularism.
  4. ‘There shall be no state religion for the commonwealth of India or for any province in the commonwealth, nor shall the state, either directly or indirectly, endow any religion any preference or impose any disability on account of religious beliefs or religious status’.
  5. Secularism was never meant to be the indifference to religion by our leaders and freedom fighters, who realised that India is a highly religious country.
  6. That is why even the most orthodox Hindus and Muslims accepted it as a viable ideology for India.
  7. But after independence Indian secularism followed a tortuous course and religious fundamentalism has grown dangerously in the last few decades.

Constitutional Articles related to Secularism:

  1. Article 14 grants equality before the law and equal protection of the laws to all, Article 15 enlarges the concept of secularism to the widest possible extent by prohibiting discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth.
  2. Article 16 (1) guarantees equality of opportunity to all citizens in matters of public employment and reiterates that there would be no discrimination on the basis of religion, race, caste, sex, descent, place of birth and residence.
  3. Article 25 provides ‘Freedom of Conscience’, that is, all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess, practise and propagate religion.
  4. As per 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.
  5. As per 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.
  6. Article 28 allows educational institutions maintained by different religious groups to impart religious instruction.
  7. Article 29 and Article 30 provides cultural and educational rights to the minorities.
  8. Article 51Ae. Fundamental Duties 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.

Term ‘Secular’: forty-second constitution Amendment Act of 1976

The term ‘Secular’ was added to the preamble by the forty-second constitution Amendment Act of 1976, (India is a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic, republic).

It emphasises the fact that constitutionally, India is a secular country which has no State religion.

And that the state shall recognise and accept all religions, not favour or patronize any particular religion.

Indian Secularism: Respect and critique towards all religions:

Constitutional secularism is marked by at least two features.

  1. First, critical respect for all religions.
  2. Unlike some secularisms, ours is not blindly anti-religious but respects religion. Unlike the secularisms of pre-dominantly single religious societies, it respects not one but all religions.
  3. However, given the virtual impossibility of distinguishing the religious from the social, as B.R. Ambedkar famously observed, every aspect of religious doctrine or practice cannot be respected. Respect for religion must be accompanied by critique.
  4. It follows that our state must respectfully leave religion alone but also intervene whenever religious groups promote communal disharmony and discrimination on grounds of religion (an inter-religious matter) or are unable to protect their own members from the oppressions they perpetuate (an intra-religious issue).
  5. Second feature, the Indian state abandons strict separation but keeps a principled distance from all religions.
  6. For instance, it cannot tolerate untouchability or leave all personal laws as they are. Equally, it may non-preferentially subsidise schools run by religious communities.
  7. Thus, it has to constantly decide when to engage or disengage, help or hinder religion depending entirely on which of these enhances our constitutional commitment to freedom, equality and fraternity.
  8. This constitutional secularism cannot be sustained by governments alone but requires collective commitment from an impartial judiciary, a scrupulous media, civil society activists, and an alert citizenry.

Critical views to the present party-political secularism:

Today, Indian constitutional secularism is swallowed up by this party-political secularism, with not a little help from the Opposition, media and judiciary.

This party-political ‘secular’ state, cozying up alternately to the fanatical fringe of the minority and the majority, was readymade for takeover by a majoritarian party.

This was accomplished by removing the word ‘all’ and replacing it by ‘majority’: respect only the majority religion; never criticise it, but recklessly demonise others; and ridding the state of the corrupt practice of opportunistic distance not by restoring principled distance but magically abolishing distance altogether.

This is untrammelled majoritarianism masquerading as secularism, one that opposes ‘pseudo-secularism’ without examining its own equally unethical practices.

Grounded in millennia-old pluralist traditions, it cannot easily be brushed aside.

Brakes have been suddenly applied to this largely state-driven political project of dealing with inter-religious issues such as communal harmony. It has come to a screeching halt, broken down.

Way Forward:

Two crucial moves to kick-start the discourse and practice of secularism.

First, a shift of focus from a politically-led project to a socially-driven movement for justice.

Second, a shift of emphasis from inter-religious to intra-religious issues.

More focus on intra religious issues will ensure that inter religious issues won’t worsen further. It will give breathing space for evolving new forms of socio-religious tolerance which promote secularism, inclusion and democracy.


Gandhiji’s secularism was based on a commitment to the brotherhood of religious communities based on their respect for and pursuit of truth, whereas, J. L. Nehru’s secularism was based on a commitment to scientific humanism tinged with a progressive view of historical change.

Needed today are new forms of socio-religious reciprocity, crucial for the business of everyday life and novel ways of reducing the political alienation of citizens, a democratic deficit whose ramifications go beyond the ambit of secularism.