Secular India – retrospection

In every festive season called ‘elections’ in India since last two and a half decade the word from Indian preamble which sounds loudest is – Secularism. It seem to be the key word is gathering political parties together; often them who have known and marked ideological differences and who may have fought elections directly against each other and in many cases in the democratic process the citizens of India, while voting for one, has condemned the other. It makes me think secularism must be something so great that it is worth suspending democracy which is what these political alliance real sum up to. So decided to understand the deeper sense of secularism specially with respect to India. Just thinking aloud.

What is secularism?


Probably all of us have known this word. In fact it would not be wrong to trust that this word is used more in India than anywhere else. It is ironic that most of the other countries label India’s secularism as flawed secularism. Why?

The exact meaning of secularism is debatable since world uses it differently. There are often two different meaning attached to word secularism.

Gandhi’s view of secularism was in essence –

equality to all religion. A design in which everybody is free to follow their own religious belief without being obstructive and malicious towards others.

While Nehru’s view towards secularism was more aligned to the perspective of countries like USA or France and that means –

The State should indifferent and non interfering in religious matters. This in fact implies that state will neither endorse nor interface in the religious matter. In short religion and state are two separate entity. Period.

Before we move I must clarify what I mentioned above was Nehru’s ideal view. Weather it reflected in his practice or not still needs to be discussed.

So which of the two is a better solution? And what have we adopted? While second definition is more popular with the international community, is it really feasible in a country which is both large and rich (read heterogeneous) in terms of number of religions. According to Max Muller :

In terms of religion and culture, India is the only millionaire.

The key question is can we really be neutral to religion? And what will the neutrality mean? Who will be considered secular? One who doesn’t belief in any religion or one who believes in every religion equally? And how many of us will really fit in either of the two definition?

If a secular person means he who doesn’t follow any religion can he really answers to the concerns of his countrymen most of who follow one religion or other? If secular means equal respect to all religion can a person who doesn’t respect his own religion really respect other religions? The key question is:

Can you be a true secular without being a true Hindu or a true Muslim or for that matter without being true to your own religion?


What have we adopted?


So what definition of secularism we adopted? Nehru, being the first leader of Independent India must have at least thought of implementing his own ideals over and above the dreams of the father of the nation.

But it was Nehru himself, who first initiated an attempt to enact and enforce Hindu code bill sought at bringing in reforms to Hindu community. The bill included several provisions aimed at improving so called flaws in Hindu practices and for the betterment of Women members of the society.

The need for such a code was first seen during British rule. But following their own non religious interference principle they couldn’t enact it until it arises from a demand from Hindu community, which was not the case.

When Nehru decided to enact this bill, the situation has not really changed much. In fact Hindu community in general felt offended as it seemed to be an attempt to single out Hindu religion as the only needing an improvement, which was not true.

While several improvements proposed by the bill are undeniably justified it posed three important questions with respect to our current discussion:

  1. Is this not contradictory to non-interference to religions? Why the state should interfere and sought to improve a religion when it seems to be secular (and neutral to the same)?
  2. If it is equality to all religions why a similar attempt was not made by the government to improve other religions in India where need to safeguard women’s right appear to be greater?
  3. So on what definition Hindu Code Bill and secular credential of India go hand in hand?

Nehru faced severe opposition for this bill in the very first general election in India. However, instead of understanding the sentiments of people, opposition made him all the more adement and the bill was enacted in the year 1955-56.

Nehru faced opposition not only from citizens and opposition benches, his own long time colleague Mr Kripalani, on the floor of parliament, labeled him communal.

It was not as if Nehru was not aware of the real solution – Uniform Civil Code. While he agreed to the need in the parliament he dared not enact the same and just suggest the time has not come for such a bill. What does that mean? Time is not right for being secular? So much about the secular credentials of the first Prime Minister of Independent India.

Many years and government later a law was enacted interfering into Muslim laws also. However the famous Shah Bano case was far from protecting the rights of women.


So when we became secular?

That is probably one of the most interesting question to ponder. When India officially became secular? In 1947 on the day we achieved our Independence? Or on Jan 26th 1950, when we embraced our constitution? Interestingly answer is neither. We added the word secular to Indian constitution by 42 amendment act in 1976. Indecently and ironically it was the time of national emergency when our constitution was virtually suspended. So India became secular when it was neither democratic nor republic. This leads to another set of questions:

  1. Was India un-secular before 42nd amendment? Is it that Mrs. Gandhi realized that her father forced India to become non-secular and she sought to correct it?
  2. What was the status of India before Hindu code bill was brought to the table? Was it secular then or it was still un-secular?
  3. Why secular word was not in the preamble of Original constitution?

If we go down in the roots it will not be difficult to realize that India has been a secular country as long as it existed.

Hindu belief has always been that of respect and tolerance to all religions. A glaring example to this aspect is the rise of religions like Buddhism and Jainism. Buddha stood against many of the core aspects of Hindu belief system – like cast and idol worship? So how Hindus reacted to Buddha? Fought him? Chased him? Crucified him? No. We simply accepted them as the 9th incarnation of Vishnu.

In Gita, Krishna himself said : That to eliminate the deformity, to punish the wrong doers and to preserve the good I will incarnate whenever need will arise.

And so we respected every religion and preacher. We saw Krishna and Vishnu in them. We agreed to change systems such as sati and widow remarriage.

How can you offend someone when that someone can be the next incarnation of Vishnu?

It was its secular (non malice towards others religion) credential that first allowed Mugals and later Portuguese, French and British set their foot on this land.

As is clear to see that Hindu majority India can exist essentially in one form – As secular. Secularism (freedom to follow your religion; tolerance and non-malice to every other religion) was so deep rooted in Indian mentality that nobody really thought of explicitly mentioning it in the constitution.

So what was the need to bring this word by an amendment, specially at a time when most of the democratic provisions of constitution was suspended? Was it some of the actions of then or previous governments that ruled India that forced the explicit mention of this word?


What does Indian Constitution Says about Secularism?


First thing first, secularism in Indian constitution doesn’t just mean dharmnirpeksh, non-biased towards religions, it essentially translates to panthanirpeksh, non-biased toward different sects. It emphasis on no discrimination or malice towards any religion or sects. It further says:

Everyone is free to practice, preach and propagate religion of their own choice.

In essence, it means that you will still be considered secular if you respect your own religion, if you work openly towards its cause and propagation.

Is India really secular?


After nearly 66 years of Independence, we have still not dared to move and inch towards uniform civil code. We have ever increasing reservations which can’t really be considered as panthanirpeksha? We have several exemptions and subsidies on certain pilgrimage and several taxation on other pilgrimage doesn’t really amount to what we can call as Dharmnirpekhsa? We introduce reservations and laws to appease a certain sects doesn’t really amount to secularism?

What is the cost of Secularism?

In the year 1996, no single party in India achieved absolute majority. The single largest party was not allowed to form the government. Other parties hastily formed an alternative coalition. Reason? The single largest party was deemed to be non secular. As mentioned earlier the government comprised of parties who had fought bitter battles against each other. People voted in favour of one party essentially voted against the other. Democratic decision of the citizens of India was ignored. All in the name of secularism.

The alternative government since had no real democratic support fell after changing its head twice in as many years and India plunged into yet another general election that incurred cost of millions of Rupees which can otherwise be utilized for more productive purposes. All this in the name of secularism.

An indecisive government headed by premiers who compared themselves with Draupadi of Mahabharat (non secular, I suppose) was not only a disrespect to people’s verdict, but also retarded Indias growth.

Later, the democratic republic, that is India, choose the same non secular party to form its government again. This time with more number of seats to form a stable government that can last. The non secular government survived yet another term.

Is Secularism Worth the Price?

I am certainly not against the idea of secularism. I can’t be against secularism as it is in our blood. The question is what we are ready to trade off for secularism is it a fair price? Say in 1996 the pro secularist parties succeeded in ousting the non secular government; but still a government chosen by the people through a democratic process.

So now India is secular; but neither democratic nor republic. Have we forgotten the original preamble of the India’s constitution?


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