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Why India is not a secular state

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In India, we have an illusion of secularism on the façade of the polity. We are often reminded that the secularism is very much part of our life and culture. A section of overenthusiastic intelligentsia tries to prove that the secularism is the integral part of Hinduism. Many others prefer to remain non-controversial, politically correct and meekly endorsing the notion without even understanding the genesis of the word ‘secularism’.

Origin of secularism

Actually ‘secularism’ is a western philosophical and jurisprudence concept that evolved due to prolong conflict between the Church and the state in the medieval Europe. That conflict was resolved in 1122 AD after ‘Concordats of Worms’, with the separation of the powers of the Church and that of the state. In effect, no religious classification can be the basis of public policy. Similarly, the state can neither promote, assist nor hinder any religious activity or any religious institution.

Secularism and ancient Indian culture

From the perspective of ancient Indian culture, secularism is an alien concept. As mentioned earlier, the concept of secularism evolved in medieval Europe as a result of conflict between the state and the Church. In ancient Indian culture, there was no concept of religion as understood in the west. Here, the term ‘Dharma’ was a notion of ‘Duty’ assigned to specific role in the society. The duties of the state and the spiritual institutions were clearly defined along with duties of various other social institutions. Interestingly, there was no power struggle between the state and the spiritual institutions and the duties between the two were neither competing nor conflicting. In fact, the state and the spiritual institutions were supplementing each other for the collective wellbeing of the society. 

Secularism and the Freedom Movement

Indian freedom movement is generally accepted to have started from the revolt of 1857. One of the main reasons for that revolt was the introduction of new cartridges greased with cow or pig’s fat. The Indians perceived that as attack on their faith (religion) by the East India Company administration and revolted. Later, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan linked Urdu language with the religion to seek political concessions for Muslims, from the British. Further, the Congress used religious fairs to propagate the politics for the freedom movement and influenced the polity. B.G. Tilak promoted Ganesh and Shivaji festival (1895 onwards), Bengali freedom fighters also promoted freedom movement from the platform of Durga Puja and Gandhi promoted the concept of Ram Rajya while demanding the self-rule.

Gandhi further used temple visits by organizing ‘bhajan’ and ‘Qu’ran’ recitation in tandem, in pursuance of his own political objectives. This peculiar combination of ‘bhajan and Qu’ran recitation’, on the pretext of Hindu-Muslim unity, was the integral part of Congress’s political program. Indian Muslims waged Islamic Jihad through Khilafat movement, in support of Khilafat under Ottoman empire and the Congress under the leadership of Gandhi, wholeheartedly supported the same.  There is nothing to suggest that there was any serious attempt from the main political party like Congress, seeking separation of the religion from the polity and politics both. Muslim League and Hindu Mahasabha were already committed to religion while dealing with the issues of polity and politics both. The Congress was reluctant for religion based representation in the Council, but that was not for any ideological consideration of secularism but a political tactic to thwart the British policy of ‘divide and rule’. After Provincial Assembly elections in 1937, Muslim league raised the demand for Pakistan based on the religion.

There again, the Congress did not take any moral or political position on secularism, insisting on separation of religion with polity and politics. To counter Muslim League’s demand, the Congress faintly called for Secularism without any specific agenda or program. Instead of that the Congress under Gandhi, resorted to the thesis of multi-religionism as ‘Sarva Dharma Sambhav’ on the pretext of secularism. Most of Gandhi’s visits to temples to listen the psalms and Qu’ran simultaneously came in this period only. The war cry of the freedom fighters, ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jay’ and ‘Vande Matram’ had clear religious orientation. Muslim league was also relishing ‘Nara e Takbeer – Allah Hu Akbar’ and ‘Pakistan Ka Matlab Kya, La Ilaha Illallah’. Thus, from the beginning to the end, the freedom movement nowhere had the ideals of secularism as any pillar of the politics of freedom movement.

Secularism and the Indian Constitution

The original copy of the Constitution, that was signed by the members of the Constituent Assembly, had the pictures of Lord Ram and other Hindu deities. In its original form, the Constitution of India did not have any specific reference of secularism. Yet, in accordance with Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the UN, the Constitution had Article 25-28 to deal with the Freedom of the Religion. The Constitutional provision is apparently consistent with the covenant of secularism, till this point only. Under the Constitution, these rights are not absolute and the state intervention is permissible under certain conditions like due to public order, health and morality along with regulations or restrictions on the activities of economic, political or financial aspects related to religious practices. Here, the provision of regulation or restriction on political aspect of the religion, makes room for the state’s intrusion in the domain of religion. Apart from that Article 25(2)(b) of the Constitution, conferred the undefined power to the state to intervene categorically in Hindu religious institutions, on the pretext of social welfare and reforms. This particular provision of the Constitution is discriminatory in nature and also intruding a specific religion.

First of all, why the state needs to intervene to reform any religion, as that should be the responsibility of the religious institutions and the society. Second, assuming that social welfare and reforms are the needs of the evolving society then why it should be restricted to any particular religion only? Thus, the Article 25(2)(b) is inconsistent from the western perspective of secularism and also incoherent with notion of multi-religious society which means equal treatment to all religions by the state. Article 27 of the Constitution denounces to map any specific tax or proceeds to any particular religion or religious denomination. The public policy on temple trusts, waqf property and Madarsa etc; is also questionable on two grounds, one many temple trusts are government controlled and contributing to the state treasury and second, the state funding of Madarsa and clerics. This apparently violates the spirit of Article 27 of the Constitution.

Secularism and Indian Politics

The major point to ponder is that what should be the role of religion in any secular democracy? If the polity is inherently secular then all aspirants of power should also adhere to the same value system, else that would be threatening to the polity itself. Then only the state can remain secular. But, in India that is not any case. For example, Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) and Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) representing Islamic ideology and Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) representing Sikh ideology, are purely religion based parties. The only restriction on such parties is that when electoral process has started, they cannot seek the vote in the name of religion and after winning the election its candidates need to swear to follow the Constitution. The experience shows that such restrictions are not very effective to prevent the intrusion of religious prejudices within the polity.

India is not secular

In Indian context, secularism is an illusion on the façade of the polity. In reality the state and religion both are intruding each other and the threat to the state’s security is being ignored by the state itself. Instead of that state and religion both are trying to influence each other to strengthen their respective positions in the power struggle within the ecosystem. In practice, the state has not been able to either keep away from the religions or treat multi religionism fairly. Multi religionism has created a new type of power struggle within the ecosystem, where western religions want to grow in complicity with the state and at the expense of other Indian religions.

Earlier the state used the Articles 25(2)(b) and 27 to favour some religions while restricting other religions. Obviously in a democratic polity, state is driven by the political parties. In democracy, the political parties have competing interests to run the state as per their ideology. Each action has its reaction and past few years, the table is turned on the opponent. In democracy, that is very normal and permissible within the framework of the polity. Thus, there may be a blame game from both sides. But, the reality is that traditionally, culturally and practically, Indian polity is not secular. At best, it can be considered as illusion of secularism on the façade of the polity.

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