Secularism In India | An Analysis

Secularism in India as Gandhi and Nehru saw it is distinctly different from the Western view of secularism. The “Gandhi-Nehru” secularism places the importance of the state’s “neutrality” between India’s many faiths.

India’s independence “eventually came as a result of Congress’ success in 1946 elections,” [1] and as a result the emergent India embodied an “idea” of a political community that was brought together by modern notions such as individual rights, democracy, and citizenship irrespective of religious or other markers of ethnic identity. [2] The Congress party embraced a version of nationalism that promoted an inclusive and plural vision of the Indian state irrespective of religious or other identities.

According to Amartya Sen, the roots of Indian secularism can be traced back to its long and diverse multi-faith history. [3] India’s constitution grants its citizens, individual as well as group rights. [4] As such, India’s secularism tends to emphasize the “neutrality” of the state in religious affairs as opposed to a strict “separation” of the state from religion. According to Sen, the first view requires the state to be “equidistant” with respect to all religions – meaning that the state treatment of different religions and religious communities will be symmetrical. The second view requires that the state has absolutely no relationship with any religion. [5]

For the purpose of this essay first we will look if as per the Constitution India is secular State and second how Hindu nationalism affects India’s secularism.

Evolution of constitution

Nehru initiated the process of constitution making with the “eight point resolution” for Independent India on December 13th, 1946. According to the resolution India was to be a “union” of the provinces and the princely states. The constitution guaranteed the upholding of equality, justice, and freedom to the people of India. Along with these the constitution had special provisions for the people from the scheduled class, backward and under-developed areas. The constitution of Independent India had many things in common with the Government of India Act 1935 except the incorporation of Universal Adult Franchise as article 326 in June 1949 which marked its major differentiation with the Government of India Act. [6]

The Constitution did not contain the word ‘secular’ till the 42nd Amendment in 1976, in Article 25(2)(b). Prof. K.T. Shah was the only member who made an effort to get a provision regarding the secular character of India included in the Constitution. The following amendment, moved as Amendment No.366, was defeated on 3rd December 1948. [7]

“The State in India being secular shall have no concern with any religion, creed or profession of faith; and shall observe an attitude of absolute neutrality in all matters relating to the religion of any class of its citizens or other persons in the Union.”

The following extract from the speech of Pandit Laxmi Kanth Maitra on 6th December 1948 quoted by Justice R. A. Jahagirdar can be said to reflect the consensus of the members:

By (a) secular State, as I understand it, is meant that the State is not going to make any discrimination whatsoever on the ground of religion or community against any person professing any particular form of religious faith. This means in essence that no particular religion in the State will receive any State patronage whatsoever. [8]

As the BJP Home Minister L.K. Advani is quoted by James Chiriyakandath to have said:

The Constituent Assembly drew up a secular Constitution essentially because theocracy is alien to India’s history, tradition and culture. The concept of Sarva Panth Sammabhav (equal respect for all faiths) has always been regarded as an essential attribute of the state and statecraft of our country. [9]

The non-discriminatory character of a secular State is undoubtedly imprinted on the Constitution. There is individual and collective freedom of religion – the right to freely profess, practice and propagate religion. Every religious denomination has been given the fundamental right to establish and maintain its own institutions and to manage its own affairs in matters of religion (Art.25). [10]

While Article 25 gives individuals complete autonomy with regard to practice and performance of religious rituals, Article 26 allows every religious group an equal opportunity to operate within the prescribed domain, which is defined by the law. [11]

Equal treatment of all religious denominations requires that the state does not associate itself with a particular religion or recognise a particular religion as the majority’s religion which in India’s case is Hinduism, the constitution rather disassociates itself from it. Article 27 stipulates that no person shall be compelled to pay any taxes, the proceeds of which are specifically appropriated in payment of expenses for the promotion or maintenance of any particular religion. Article 28(1) says: “No religious instruction shall be provided in any educational institution wholly maintained out of State funds”. [12]

These articles indicate separation of state and religion. Moreover, the silence of Indian constitution over the provision of an official religion speaks the most about separation of state and religion. As Smith says, “What the constitution does not say is just as important as what it does say.”

On citizenship, the Indian constitution recognises the people of India as the citizens where the state has nothing to do with their religion, faith, belief or caste and acclaims to treat all citizens equally. Article 15(1) ensures religion as not being a cause of discrimination. It states:

“The state shall not discriminate any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, and place of birth or any of them.”

Article 16(1) and (2) states:

“There shall be equality of opportunity for all citizens in matters relating to employment or appointment to any office under the state.” [13]

“No citizen shall, on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, descent, place of birth, residence or any of them, be ineligible for, or discriminated against in respect of, any employment or appointment under the state.”

The employment of the three clauses, individual and collective freedom of religion, separation of state and religion and citizenship in the Indian constitution excludes the role of religion in defining the relationship between the union and its citizens.

Emergence of Hindu nationalism and role of Hindutva in Indian politics

The Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS) and the Akhil Bharat Hindu Mahasabha had been in the Indian political arena since 1951 and 1915 respectively. It was the political and institutional context of Indian politics in the 1980s, and not Hindu nationalist ideology per se, that facilitated the emergence of the BJP. [14] For BJP Hindu nationalism equates “Indian-ness” with Hindutva (“Hindu-ness”) [15] as the threat that nationality is based on territory and not religion..

For this essay the impact of Hindu nationalism on India’s secularism is explained by assessing a) the Uniform Civil Code, b) the Ayodhya controversy and c) Article 370 of the Indian Constitution which gives Kashmir special status within the Indian union. We also look at d) the “saffronization” of education in India through a reinterpretation of Indian history by Hindu nationalists.

According to Savarkar a true citizen of India is one for whom India is not just the matribhoomi (motherland) but also the punyabhoomi (sacred land). [16] These two notions are congruent for “Hindus” – Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs – whom they regard as the true citizens of India. According to this argument, Christians and Muslims pose a cultural threat to Indian (Hindu) culture since their punyabhoomi does not coincide with the territory of India. They can live in India so long as they do not assert their identities and conform to the larger Indian (Hindu) culture. [17]

The Hindu nationalist agenda operates at multiple levels within Indian society. The BJP (and its predecessor, the BJS) serve as the political arm of Hindu nationalism. The RSS fulfils a militant and ideological role; the Bajrang Dal is an organization aimed at radicalizing India’s Hindu youth; the Vishwa Hindu Parishad works as a social and cultural body espousing Hindu nationalism (and even works with the radical elements within the Hindu diaspora); and the Vidya Bharti works as the educational arm of the RSS. Together, these and numerous similar organizations form what is known as the Sangh Parivar built around the RSS that aims to promote Hindu nationalism.

In 1948 RSS was temporarily declared to be an unlawful organization and its activities were proscribed as a result of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination by Nathuram Vinayak Godse, an RSS devotee. The Hindu Mahasabha, another political group of HIndutva escaped ban at this time but their activities were forbidden these groups were forced to maintain a lower profile.

Since independence, Congress party dominated the Indian political scene until 1989. Congress party’s hegemony began to gradually decrease after Nehru’s death in 1964. Indira Gandhi’s imposition of emercy between 1975 and 1977 caused mass disillusionment with the Congress party across India. This ultimately led to the election of the first non-Congress party government in 1977, led by the Janata Party, a coalition of parties that included the BJS. Within this political context BJP formed in 1980 entered national politics in India. BJP tried an attempt to appear as a more moderate party and capture wider popular appeal which alienated the RSS, which in turn supported Rajiv Gandhi and the Congress party in the 1984 elections to demonstrate its displeasure. [18] As a result, the BJP returned to its Hindu nationalist ideological core. Use of religion by Indira Gandi in the state of Punjab to challenge the appeal of its regional rival, the Akali Dal, a Sikh religious party and later Rajiv Gandhi’s reversion of Supreme Court judgment that had granted alimony to Shah Bano [19] further assisted BJP’s Hindutva cause rise.

BJP used Congress party’s decision to pacify the Muslim orthodoxy to argue that this step was contrary to the spirit and practice of Indian secularism as it privileged the sectarian interests of a particular religious community.

In 1989 Rajiv Gandhi began his electoral campaign in Faizabad district, where the town of Ayodhya is located. There he promised to create a “Ram Rajya” (rule of Ram), again playing “majoritarian” politics. BJP started to openly criticise the Congress party’s manipulation of religious symbols as “pseudo-secularism.”

However, the Congress party lost the 1989 elections and the era of coalition and minority-led government of V. P. Singh which was supported by the BJP from the outside. In order to secure the support of the now mobilized lower castes, V. P. Singh’s government put forth an affirmative action program – the Mandal Commission – that promised 27 percent of all government jobs and places in institutions of higher education. [20] In order to offset political split within the Hindu community, L. K. Advani launched a 10,000 kilometer-long rath yatra in 1990. He expected the “twin pillars of Mandal and Masjid” would ensure the rise of hindu nationalism rise in Indian politics.

While the BJP was only able to win 7.4 percent of the popular vote in the 1984 general elections, its vote share increased to 21 percent in 1991.35 In 1996 the BJP formed a coalition government that only lasted 13 days, while the 1998 BJP-led coalition government, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), survived for a year. Finally, in 1999 the BJP-led NDA government formed the first non-Congress government that survived the full five-year term with Atal Bihari Vajpayee as its prime minister.

Jaffrelot has shown that the Hindu nationalist movement’s strategies include both radical and moderate elements. [21] The BJP’s radicalized, militant nature is demonstrated by the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992 and the Gujarat violence a decade later ensured the support of its core constituency and the RSS. In spite of their coalition with ideologically different parties, the BJP succeeded in promoting a Hindu nationalist version of Indian history by implementing changes to the National Curriculum Framework. [22] The specific policy issues that were crucial to the Hindu nationalist agenda were;

Uniform Civil Code: In the late 1980s the controversy created by the Shah Bano case gave the BJP the ammunition to criticize the policies of the Congress party as catering to “minority-ism” and being “pseudo-secular.” This case is an example of this tension between individual and group/religious rights guaranteed by the Indian Constitution. [23] The Indian state did not show the same zeal for reform in Muslim laws as it did while enacting the Hindu laws in 1955 and 1956. According to Articles 37 and 44 of the Indian Constitution, the establishment of a uniform civil code is a “directive principle” for the Indian state in making laws, even as it is not enforceable by any court. [24]

BJP still remains committed to the implementation of a uniform (Hinduized) civil code.

The Ayodhya Controversy: The destruction of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya in 1992 and controversies surrounding this mosque had been around since the nineteenth century, this issue had remained dormant since India’s independence. [25] In the 1980s, the BJP used this issue as a political rallying point to unite the Hindu electorate irrespective of caste or language in an attempt to construct a “Hindu vote.” [26] As an electoral strategy the Ayodhya issue paid off. The BJP increased its vote share from 11.4 percent in 1989 to 21 percent in the 1991 general elections. [27] The construction of a Ram temple at the site of the destroyed mosque remains on the agenda of the Hindu nationalists. The Ayodhya controversy erupted again in February 2002. This attack had all the signs of a systematic and pre-meditated political violence on minority Muslims in which the state government was an active party. This led to the rise of Hindu nationalism supporters so much so that Narendra Modi even campaigned on the Hindutva platform in the state elections in 2002 and won. The Hindu nationalists further threatened that Gujarat experience would serve as a “laboratory” to be replicated elsewhere in India. [28]

According to Nussbaum, Hindu nationalism in general, and the Gujarat incident in particular, poses a serious threat to the survival of democracy in India. [29] However, the general outrage amongst the Indian public in other states led BJP to drop this issue from their 1999 NDA election manifesto try to replicate it in other Indian states.

Article 370 and Kashmir: Article 370 of the Indian Constitution grants Kashmir special status within the Indian union. Kashmir is India’s only Muslim-majority state but enjoys special provisions such as restrictive land-ownership. Article 371 of the Indian Constitution allows the governments of certain states such as Nagaland and Mizoram in northeast India to legislate on the ownership and transfer of land in these regions, thereby restricting migrations of Indians from elsewhere in the country. [30] India’s Lakshadweep islands also enjoy a similar status as even Indian citizens require special permission to enter this restricted region. [31] However, it is only the Kashmir issue that is important to the Hindu nationalists given the complex history of its accession to the Indian union after independence. [32]

Reinterpretation of History and Changes in the Educational Curriculum: In an attempt to show that India is the matribhoomi of all Hindus, the Hindu nationalist historians claim that the Vedic Sanskrit-speaking Indo-Aryan peoples were indigenous to India, thereby implying that no Indo-Aryan migration into the subcontinent ever occurred. [33] to show that all of India’s Hindus are the descendants of the original inhabitants of the subcontinent. [34] Islamic political dominance in the subcontinent has been reinterpreted by the Hindu nationalists to emphasize the more militant aspect of the rule of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb and the exploitation of their Hindu subjects. Periods of Hindu-Muslim cultural syncretism and good governance of Akbar is absent from the Hindu nationalist narrative of this period of India’s history. [35] Furthermore, these revised textbooks have deleted references to the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948 by a member of the Hindu Mahasabha. The textbooks blame Muslims for the partition of India. [36] Since the BJP has a long-term agenda to redefine Indian identity, they were not hesitant to use their power while in government to redefine India’s past with the intention to mould the future generations’ understanding of India’s history along their ideological lines.

According to the “twin tolerations” argument, a broad range of religious-state relations are possible in a democracy. [37] BJP’s single major success has been the communalization of Indian politics by changing the discourse on secularism. It has affected in two ways. First, in spite of the rise of Hindu nationalism, a standardization of Hinduism appears to be occurring for the first time in the religion’s history. Second, India’s lower castes are increasingly conforming to the religious and social norms of the upper castes as they climb the socio-economic ladder. This is resulting in further homogenization within Hindu society. [38]

Is India a secular state?

What is India and who is an Indian are simple questions that are extremely difficult to answer. [39] One should note that the territorial idea inevitably becomes part of all nation-states, but territory does not have to be the defining principle of national identity. [40] The constitution makers without mentioning the word “secular” wrote a secular constitution. Though the constitution does not define who or what is a Hindu, but it defines followers of Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism as Hindus for purposes of Hindu temple entry. Article 25 (2) (b) (Explanation II) states: “the reference to Hindus shall be construed as including a reference to persons professing the Sikh, Jaina or Buddhist religionaˆ¦”

Would this be to prevent the conversion of Dalits to Christianity or Islam, to “reform” Hinduism to make it palatable to the former untouchables?

The Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 applies to

(a) any person who is a Hindu by religion in any of its forms and developments, including a Virashaiva, a Lingayat or follower of the Brahmo, Prarthana or Arya Samaj;

(b) to any person who is a Buddhist, Jain or Sikh by religion, and

(c) to any person domiciled in the territories who is not a Muslim, Christian, Parsi or Jew by religion. [41]

In other words, legally there is no such thing as a Buddhist, Jain, or Sikh marriage, is this another attempt to deny other religions a distinctive identity and absorb them in the Hindu fold?

Although freedom of religion is granted under the constitution’s Article 25 (1), in 1982, when a few hundred Dalits embraced Islam in Meenakshipuram, Indira Gandhi characterized conversions as a threat to national security and the central government took measures to curb conversions.

Is it not ironic that the Indian state is ready to deploy army to cleanse out Sikh insurgents from Golden Temple and Muslim rebels from Charar-i Sharif, but not protect Babri Mosque from the Hindu activists?

Article 16 (2) of the constitution prohibits discrimination in public employment on religious grounds. Per Presidential orders of 1950 and 1956 the beneficiaries of Scheduled Castes’ reservation can only be Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists but not Christians and Muslims.

Predominantly Hindu army of Kashmir was absorbed in the national army in 1947; whereas Hyderabad’s largely Muslim army was disbanded, rendering nearly 20,000 jobless. Are Indian army’s infantry regiments not still based on religion (Sikh regiments), or ethnicity (Gorkha) or caste (Rajput) or region (Garhwal) in which members of other faiths, ethnicities, and regions are barred?

Are government school texts in Hindi and regional languages not saturated with signs, symbols idioms, phrases, and icons of Hinduism? Have the textbooks of history and social studies not been filled with gross distortions of Indian history of all eras, ancient, medieval and modern portraying Muslims and Christians to be the villains, traitors and foreigners?

Based on the constitution and political practice including congress party’s can we not say India is as secular as India can be – No Less, No More.