The Politics Of Secularism In India

Secularism in India has always been more of a political than a philosophical phenomenon. Secularism may be one of the basic features of the Preamble but its validity as one of the basic features of the Constitution and its practicability in Indian society is questionable. There is an increasing use of religion in the social construction of ethnic and communal identity which is made the basis for the articulation of common economic interests and political mobilization. There is also the construction of a pan Indian Hindu consciousness that cuts across caste and regional divisions. While secularism has been integral to India’s democracy for more than 50 years, its limitations & implementations are indeed matters of acrimonious debate even to this day. Discussions on the place of religious community in Indian society have turned on the opposition of “secularism & communalism” and of “modernity & tradition”. Secularism is unalterably linked with modernity, but the ideal of equal respect for all religions has not been translated into social reality, and the end result is something termed as pseudo-secularism.

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Modernity was characterized by the emergence of public, civic and privatized religious entities, concepts of a liberal democracy and a nation state, and the “secularized” individual who is unfettered by ascriptive identities. But such a trajectory of human development and social transformation required an understanding of humanity that was fundamentally ahistorical. Both the Round Table Conferences as well as the Constituent Assembly Debates struggled with the dilemma of formulating a liberal democracy for people who had historically been represented, and in turn came to represent themselves, as determined by the ascriptive identities of sect and caste. [1] Whenever critiquing secularism, the question of caste has always been sidelined by the preoccupation with religion. But the politics of secularism in India is integrally reliant and revolves around the co-optation of untouchables into an upper caste Hindu identity. The crucial fact that needs to be clarified is that, rather than being distinct from the categories of community and caste, nationalism and communalism, liberalism and democracy, Indian secularism emerged as the nexus of all of these. [2]

The Indian Constitution has spelt out several provisions regarding the secular state even before the term secularism was introduced into the Preamble of the Constitution in 1976. Articles 14, 15, 16, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 325 all incorporate the principles of

1. Freedom of religion to individuals as well as to religions.

2. Equality of citizenship and no discrimination on grounds of religion.

3. Separation of State from religion.

It is evident that the intention of the Constitution is neither to oppose religion nor to promote a rationalization of culture, but merely to maintain the neutrality and impartiality of the state in matters of religion.

The 42nd Constitutional Amendment Act of 1976 stated that “Secular means a republic in which there is equal respect for all religions”, but the Supreme Court of India has been interpreting secularism in the Constitution differently over the years in its various judgments.

To examine the vicissitudes of the Indian experiment with secularism, one needs to understand that there is a dichotomy in Indian society- Firstly, the political society comprising parties, movements, non party political formations which channelise popular demands through a form of mobilization termed as democracy- and secondly the civil society for whom the affirmation of secularism has been through the state and its institutions, schools, universities and the English media.

In Indian society, the merits of secularism have been familiarized only by the academy and intellectual circles (civil society) whereas Hindu communal history has pervaded the streets and common sense (political society). [3]

The relations between state, society and religion are not well defined, personal laws vary with religious communities, the precarious position of religious minorities, the affiliations of political formations with religious fundamentalists, increasing importance of the Hindu and more importantly the Hindutva philosophies pose severe challenges to the success and future of secularism in India. [4] It must be conceded that secularism in India today is too politicized and statist acting as an ideology of the state and an instrument of power. It is necessary to find ways to depoliticize secularism and to move it further into the domain of civil society.

The project will put forward and comparatively analyze both the Gandhian and Nehruvian approaches to understanding secularism, the way secularism has been interpreted by the judiciary at times even contravening constitutional provisions, and finally the researcher will attempt to discuss whether a coexistence of democracy and secularism can be successful in a diverse and plural society like that of ours.

Through the research paper, the researcher attempts to advocate the following:

“Secular means a Republic in which there is equal respect for all religions” – In the light of this remark, comparatively analyze the Nehruvian and the Gandhian understanding of the concept of secularism?

Referring to the Constituent Assembly Debates 1946-1950, and landmark Supreme Court Cases, discuss the changing perceptions to the concept of secularism and whether such decisions have been a reflection of the Nehruvian or the Gandhian understanding?

Can Secularism in India survive the functioning of democracy where the will of the majority is imposed on the minority and their consent is gained by a mere strength in numbers?

Chapter 1.
Secularism: Nehruvian Understanding Vs. Gandhian Understanding.

“Religion,” Nehru wrote to Gandhi in 1933, “is not familiar ground for me, as I have grown older I have definitely drifted away from it. I have something else in its place, something older than just intellect and reason, which gives me strength and hope. Apart from this indefinable and indefinite urge, which may just have a tinge of religion in it & yet is wholly different from it, I have grown entirely to rely on the workings of the mind. Perhaps they are weak supports to rely upon, but, search as I will, I can see no better ones” [5]

Gandhi’s use of the term secular in relation to the state is such as may, in contemporary political discourse, be described as “Nehruvian”.Likewise, Nehru’s positions on the definition of the Indian nation are the same as Gandhi’s. [6] That is, Gandhi does not attach any meaning to the term secular that would have been unacceptable to or unintelligible to Nehru. [7] Both possessed a remarkable steadfastness of faith. Even though they had strong mutual synergies on vital issues, nonetheless there was a creative tension in the Gandhi-Nehru relationship. [8] Gandhi and Nehru had differences. Gandhi’s religiosity and non violent principles was not shared by Nehru.

Although he opposed the concept of theocratic statehood, Gandhi strongly advocated the importance of religious ethics in political practice. Perhaps no single leader has succeeded to the same extent as Gandhi in terms of effectively appealing to the Indian masses from all walks of life. [9]

Gandhi expressed the opinion that the state should undoubtedly be secular. [10] It could never promote denominational education out of public funds. Everyone living in it should be entitled to profess his religion without hindrance, so long as the citizen obeyed the common law of the land. There should be no interference with missionary effort, but no mission could enjoy the patronage of the state as it did during the foreign regime. [11] This understanding came subsequently to be reflected in Articles 25, 26 and 27 of the Constitution. .” In the last years of Gandhi’s life, a withdrawal from the political sphere to that of private moral experimentation is evident.

. Unlike Gandhi, Nehru was hurled into the ruckus of politics, in command of a state, the most powerful structured concentration of modern instrumental reason that exists. He subjected Gandhi’s principle to scrutiny – could the principle of non-violence make sense in politics, where governments are notoriously based on violence which is indeed the very lifeblood of the modern state. Nehruvian secularism was characterized by an equal contempt for all religions. Secularism as an element of modernity, required therefore a non-discriminatory rejection of all religions and all religiosity from public, as distinct from private, affirmation. Nehru was neither irreligious nor antireligious but his approach to religion was influenced by 3 basic assumptions of humanist liberal tradition- individualism, rationalism and universalism. Nehru’s secularism meant “freedom of religion and conscience, including freedom for those who have no religion, subject only to their not interfering with the basic conceptions of our state.”

Nehru envisaged for India a secularist programme that gave religion little role in national affairs. Nehru’s political wisdom was based on a theory of democracy, socialism, secularism and non-alignment. His strategy lay in an all-out attack on those forces that threatened disunity: provincialism, separatism, communalism and above all casteism.

He could claim credit for making democratic secularism India’s pathway to the modern world. In his opinion India’s encounter with the West’s humanism, skepticism, and its ascendant science and technology, demanded a radical evaluation of all that India knew and was, and in that effort India’s outstanding religious heritage must correspondingly bear the strain of the encounter because in the final analysis the encounter of civilizations is a matter of spiritual discernment and active exchange. [12] Nehru was acutely aware and reflected expansively on the meaning of religion in the history of Indian civilization, but interestingly he was far from attempting a philosophy of religion but talked about religion in an anecdotal fashion, allowing others to distil from his remarks a refined Nehruvian theory of religion. [13]

To summarise, analogous to post modernity’s concern with immediacy and the present-Gandhi was a relentless explorer of immediacy- ‘immediate needs, immediate means, immediate ends’. In a very short span of time Gandhi introduced new themes in Indian politics with mass effect. But throughout his long career as a political thinker and activist, Gandhi encountered the dilemma of either remaining faithful to his non-violent principles and risking the failure of the Indian nationalist movement, or focusing at the seizure of political power at the expense of his moral message.

Nehru’s writings reveal full awareness on his part of the need to strengthen nationalism and democracy in a multireligious society characterized by arrested development while his style of functioning is an acknowledgement of the limitations under which he had to work. [14] A point that deserves mention is that Nehru did not intervene even once in the discussions on the clauses related to religious freedom in the constitution assembly debates.

An in depth analysis of Nehruvian philosophy reflects his strong belief that the crucial choice for society is not between a fixed present and a proposed innovation, but more importantly it is concerned with an ‘uncritical abandonment’ and ‘structural engagement’. The essence of Nehruvian philosophy lies in his intellectual and political understanding, in his struggles trying to base public life on a reasoned morality. [15] When dwelling on the thought provoking question of whether secularism has a future in India or not, the Nehruvian analysis regarding the parallel streams of the material and the spiritual which he identified as the fundamental matrix of life, for persons and civilizations alike, seems particularly relevant even to this day.

Chapter 2.
Secularism: Constituent Assembly Debates & Landmark Cases.

Constituent Assembly Debates [1946-50]:

A look into the Constituent Assembly’s debates clearly reveals that the general understanding amongst members of the assembly was that India was to be a secular state. They have emphasized the secular foundation of the Indian state. They also declare that secularism as adopted in the Indian constitution is not an anti-religious concept; rather it prevents discrimination against the citizens on the basis of religion.

According to H V Kamath, “When I say that a state should not identify itself with any particular religion, I do not mean that a state should be anti-religious or irreligious. India would be a secular state but according to me a secular state is neither a godless state nor an irreligious nor an anti-religious state.”

During the debate in the Constituent Assembly, Prime Minister Nehru declared that secularism was an ideal to be achieved and that the establishment of a secular state was an ‘act of faith’ [16] . It is unfortunate that he failed to identify what “faith” the faith that he was referring to actually meant and in an unfortunate turn of events and circumstances it has been progressively interpreted by the courts to mean the “Hindu” faith.

The dominant position on secularism that a ‘democratic’ Constitution find place for religion as a way of life for most Indians triumphed over those who wished for the Assembly to grant only a narrow right to religious freedom, or to make the uniform civil code a fundamental right. [17]

The crucial questions that arose by way of discussions in these debates were:

Was a state secular only when it stayed strictly away from religion, and could such a secular state survive only if society was secularised as well?

Did a state that equally respected all religions best capture the meaning of secularism in the Indian context?

How could a democratic state represent a religious majority at the expense of the rights and liberties of a minority?

The issue of religious freedom and secularism was discussed in the light of three alternative theoretical positions:

The no-concern theory of secularism saw a definite line of separation between religion and state. Given the principles of religious liberty and freedom of expression, it was up to the individual to decide whether to be a believer or not, or to adhere to this religion or that. [18] Based on a doctrine of intolerance it confined religion to the private realm. This approach led to a conception of a secular state as one that stays away from religion per se. India was engaged in creating a modern nation state and in this enterprise, religion which seemed to be an obscurantist and divisive force, had no place.

The second position was that no links between the state and religion should be permitted, not because it would weaken the state, but it would demean religion. Religion could not be made subject to the whims of changing majorities by allowing the democratic state to intervene in religious affairs. [19]

The third position termed as the equal respect theory began with the principle of religious liberty, but held that in a society like India where religion is integrally related to the lives of the people, the state should not stay away from all religions equally but that it respects all religions alike.

Thus it is evident the in these Constituent Assembly Debates the main issues of contention were: Whether the right to religious freedom should be the right to religious worship or to religious practice; Whether the state should recognise only linguistic minorities or religious minorities as well; The dispute over the Uniform Civil Code, over political reservation of religious minorities; Whether there should be religious instruction in state-aided schools. What is finally reflected in the articles of the constitution is a broad definition of the right to religion as the right to religious practice, but nonetheless there were no political safeguards for the religious minorities.

Landmark Cases

In Sardar Taheruddin Syedna Sahib v. State of Bombay [20] , the apex court claimed that ‘Art. 25 & 26 serve to emphasize the secular nature of the Indian democracy which the founding fathers considered to be the very basis of the Constitution.’

Although in Kesavananda Bharati case, it was declared that secularism was a part of the Basic Structure of the Constitution, but interestingly a year later in St. Xavier’s College Society v. State of Gujarat [21] , Supreme Court ruled that it was only by implication that the Constitution envisaged a Secular State. [22] For the first time there seemed to be an apparent contradiction between the judicially constructed concept of secularism and that in the text of the Constitution.

In 1976 the court adopted a more philosophical and utilitarian approach in the Ziyauddin Bukhari [23] case. In the S.R. Bommai [24] case it was reasserted that secularism was a part of the Basic Structure and that it was based on “principles of accommodation and tolerance.” Herein what is evident is a euphemistic approach – an espousal of a “soft secularism”. [25] In this case it was ruled that

The State has the duty to ensure secularism by duty or by executive order. It is the duty of the court to bring every errant political party in line if it goes against secular ideals like casteism and religious antagonisms – Jus. Ramaswamy.

The State has the power to legislate on religion including personal laws under Art.44 and secular affairs of places of worship – Jus. Jeevan Reddy.

If a political party indirectly espouses a religious cause, it will be considered unconstitutional – Jus. Agrawal.

It is interesting to note that the Court withdrew from most of these commitments in the subsequent years.

In the Ramjanmabhoomi case, the court went on to elaborate on secularism in terms of Indian scriptures thereby going back to the Gandhian ‘Sarva Dharma Sambhava’ – tolerance of all religions. In resorting to religious scriptures the court seems to have rejected the western concept of secularism of separation of church and state as propounded in S.R. Bommai case and has gone back to initial approach of equating secularism with tolerance and the fact that state has the power to take over any religious place. [26]

Lastly with reference to the latest ‘Hindutva judgements’ [27] the court enunciated, contrary to the Bommai decision that ‘a speech with a secular stance alleging discrimination against any particular religion cannot be treated as an appeal on the ground of religion . Moreover the court seemed to have conveniently shifted its stance to uphold the constitutional duty to get political parties in line with secularism and most importantly it equated Hinduism and Hindutva with Indianisation and are not to be construed in a narrow sense.

Thus what is clearly evident is the lack of consistency in these abovementioned Court decisions. The court has mostly stuck to secularism not being a wall between the church and the state but a sense of toleration between people of different religions. There have been frequent deviations from the Bommai decision, but it seems that the Ramjanmabhoomi case encapsulates the essence of Indian secularism – toleration based on tradition. The ‘Hindutva judgements’ reassert the recognition and increasing importance of the essential Hindu identity of tradition. [28]

Clearly the judiciary in India is a significant site where contests under the banner of secularism have been taking place over the last sixty odd years. Though landmark judgements of the apex court of the nation has been interpreting secularism in the Constitution differently over the years in its various judgments [29] reiterating the fact that secularism is a part of the basic structure of the Constitution and that secularism involves liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship, even though secularism as a term appears in very few Supreme Court judgements yet it is evident that a crisis of secularism indeed exists in the world’s largest and most fractious democracy.

With reference to the Constituent Assembly debates and the landmark cases the following interesting observations can be deduced:

When discussing the concept of religious freedom in the Debates, there arose a paradox- it is precisely some of the advocates of a broad right to religious freedom who were also the most vociferous opponents of any political rights for religious minorities.

The no-concern and equal-respect positions on secularism clashed constantly during the debates in the Constituent Assembly as the question of secularism cropped up in discussions about innumerable articles.

The distinction between tolerance and secularism has never been made by the Indian judiciary.

The apex court conveniently avoids exact direct mention of the word ‘secular’ in its various prior judgements eg. Kesavananda Bharati case.

A valid argument could be that the Supreme Court has not directly addressed the issue of secularism for the simple ‘adjectival’ reason that it is a thorny issue with also the Constitution being suitably ambiguous would never permit a justifiable interpretation. The interpretation by the court reflects the interpretation of the Constitution which society is more likely to accept.

As opposed to the prior cases such as Kesavananda Bharati and S.R.Bommai , post the ‘Hindutva’ cases, the line of thinking of the Court has gradually been inclined towards secularism being tolerance based on tradition but the interpretation of tolerance is more in terms of grudging accommodation than wholehearted notions of acceptance.

What is most extraordinary about the court’s reasoning, from a strictly legal point of view, is that it can draw such an unequivocal conclusion as to the meaning of Hindutva without having cited virtually any authorities-judicial or otherwise in its support.

Even when the apex court has addressed the issue of secularism it has not been uniform in its judgements. On the one hand it has effectively legitimized the Hindu Right’s understanding of secularism and supported its nonsecular agenda, but on the other hand it has also in no uncertain terms condemned the practices of several members of the Hindu Right. Thus the decision given by the court in the Hindutva cases is a contradictory one, wherein it has both condemned as well as condemned the Hindu Right.

Chapter 3.
Secularism & Democracy: A Misunderstood Relation.

Sixty years ago, 565 princely states and 13 British-ruled states became united into one sovereign nation, with a secular democracy as its Constitution’s primary guiding principle. In our country, eight major religious communities co-exist ,namely the Hindus(82%), Muslims(12.12%), Christians(2.6%), Sikhs(2%), Buddhists(0.7%), Jains(0.4%), Parsis(0.3%) and Jews(0.1%). The single-most defining element of the Indian democracy is the acceptance of all religions in the nation’s Constitution, granting explicit freedom to all its citizens and residents to practice their faiths without violating the others’ right to do so. It is from this explicit freedom that citizens experience other freedoms necessary to realize their lives. In stark contrast to some 90 percent of Asian nations, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, India guarantees that right.

A state that arises from democracy need not be strictly secular. Democracies are perfectly capable of giving an important role to religion in the affairs of the state. It is the problem of aggregation that is of utmost importance. A democratic state will tend to reflect in its own makeup the complexity of the individuals it represents. [30]

The challenge facing the theorists of Indian secularism is therefore to devise an answer to the problem of intolerant religions. If one or more religions in a pluralistic society preach their unwillingness to co-exist with the others, and insist on religion as the unitary framework for individual, society, and state, how do we define a secular regime for such societies? No viable model of secularism can be built on terms defined by any one religious group even if it is the majority community, especially so since its mode of toleration has historically included absorption, subjugation and marginalisation of religious minorities.

The Indian democracy provides mechanisms, available in a secular democracy, to temper extremism and intolerance inherent in most religions; it leads diverse religious communities, especially the Hindu majority, to accept that the well being of all human beings consists in respecting the others’ religious and civil rights, particularly that of minorities.

Many critics [31] reject secularism as radically alien to Indian culture and tradition and advocate a return to genuine religion and the indigenous traditions of religious tolerance as the best means to preserve a pluralist and multireligious Indian society. On the contrary Nehruvian theory suggests that democracy would have never been possible in a non-secular India. Nehru claims that if democracy requires a minimum consensus about the basic values and institutions of society and the rules of the political game, then such a consensus could not have been built on a religious basis in a pluralist nation like India. [32] This fact is clearly reflected in the failure and subsequent removal of the communal electorate system in the wake of India’s independence.

Whether India is a sufficiently secular state and whether circumstances are favourable for the survival of secularism depends ultimately upon the readiness and ability of its people to maintain an autonomous political community. The challenges of casteism, communalism and religious fundamentalism involving separatism in India are the major threats to our Secular state. They weaken the working and stability of our democratic secular Federal state and militate against the basic principles governing our national life and providing means to our new identity. Communal riots and caste carnage has to stop if India has to emerge as a secular and democratic polity.

Large-scale communal riots broke out in India after the demolition of Babri Masjid by the Sangh Parivar in Ayodhya . Both Hindus and Muslims were killed in the communal backlash that followed. The attacks on Christians in Orissa and Gujarat made headlines in electronic and print media. The grouse of the Sangh Parivar is that the Muslims had demolished their temples, humiliated Hindus during Muslim rule and partitioned India and thus justified their animosity and attacks on Muslims. The Godhra and Post-Godhra incidents pointed to the absence of political sanity in Gujarat. Nothing could represent a more provocative insult to the national commitment to communal harmony and pluralist co-existence than Narendra Modi’s repeated taunts of the Muslim minority people of his own state, his insinuations that they are susceptible to the supposedly adventurous designs of Pakistan and his final desperate suggestion that if the opposition Congress wins the election, it would represent a victory for Pakistan. The terrorist attack on Indian Parliament on December 13,2001, was unprecedented not only in the history of India but also in the annals of democracy in the world. It manifests utter disregard and contempt for parliamentary democracy by Pakistan which only can boast of a military democracy.

Thus it is evident that during the last 60 years of independence, India has witnessed both successes and failures in running the secular democratic processes. It has evolved a lasting secular constitution, a viable political system and a functional federal secular polity and with strong democratic traditions on the one hand, but on the other hand it has also garnered several communal riots and caste wars. However, it is politics, which proved to be divisive and not religion. It is not religious leaders by and large (with few exceptions) who divide but politicians who seek to mobilise votes on grounds of primordial identities like relig