The Superficiality of Secularism In India
Secularism is a concept trapped in semantics like “separation of church and state”, and is often considered a Christian-European concept.
Literally, “secular”, is: “Worldly, as distinguished from spiritual”. This is not a succinct definition, as secularism is a socio-political construct, and who constructs it determines its definition. Such secular constructs are governed by legal and political policies and systems, envisaged in constitutions of nations. They are much needed both to check state power and tyranny of the majority and also to control the destabilizing swings generated by outbursts of popular passion. However, constitutions also provide us with peaceful, democratic means with which to bring about profound social transformation. Thus, it is pertinent to study the definition of secularism in context of the various constitutions in the world.
Although the word ‘secular’ was not enshrined in the Indian Constitution until the 42nd Amendment of 1976, when it was inserted in the Preamble, this in no way suggests that secularism was not a principle value of our Constitution and our nation up till then. It is a unanimously accepted opinion that the founding fathers of the nation were particular and clear about the necessity of establishing a secular State after achieving independence.
Gandhian And Nehruvian Perspectives
During the freedom struggle, secularism emerged as the most dominant principle. The leaders of the Indian National Congress; Mahatma Gandhi, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Jawaharlal Nehru and others were extremely dedicated to the ideal of secularism, though each expressed it in very different ways. They represented the aspirations of the different sections of society and it is due to the struggles of these different people that secular principles got enshrined into the Indian constitution.
It is well known that Nehru had to marked belief or commitment to religion, whereas in strong contrast, Gandhi was deeply attached to the ideals of religion. In Hind Swaraj, written in 1909, Gandhi suggested that India cannot cease to be a united nation just because people belonging to so many different religions live in it. He believed that the state should be completely separate from religion, which was solely a personal matter of the individual.Nehru too, in asserted that the government of free India must be secular, in the sense that it would not associate itself with any specific religious faith but would give freedom to all religious functions. He argued that in essence, what he proposed was that the state would not discriminate among citizens on the grounds of religious affiliation and that it would not patronize a specific religion, such that another would be excluded.
It must be valued, how Nehru’s and Gandhi’s ideology was evolved specific to the Indian context of diversity of culture, language, religion and customs, where the aura of partition and the trauma brought about by it still hung over the nation.
However, while the Nehruvian view of secularism was popular, it was not without its problems. Some articles of the constitution, which were drafted under Nehru, who is seen as the chief architect and articulator of the relation between state and religion, harbour problematic implications for it. Article 25, for example provides no unambiguous criteria for evaluating the demand for legislative intervention in the name of welfare and justice that may be detrimental to minorities. Article 30 too, seems to unduly favour those religious bodies running educational institutions.
Under Jawaharlal Nehru and later under his successors in the Congress Party, the concept of a secular nation-state was officially adopted as India's path to political modernity and national integration. Unlike in the West, where secularism came mainly out of the conflict between the Church and the State, secularism in India was conceived as a system that sustained religious and cultural pluralism.
It is widely known to be a core principle of secularism as put forth by Nehru, that the state shall not itself, practice, adopt or proclaim any religion. India is a multi-religious society, and does not support the notion of the theocratic state. The Supreme Court has held, in the Kesavananda Bharti case that secularism is intrinsic to the basic structure of the constitution, such that there must be an operative limit on the amending power of the constitution with respect to it. As such, any amendment seeking to convert India into a theocratic state is likely to be held unconstitutional.
However, since the 1980’s, the concept of Indian Secularism has gone through a somewhat problematic phase, facing stiff opposition from the BJP, which has in recent years strived to prove that the Indian State is in fact, “pseudo-secular”, in the sense that it is interventionist with respect to Hindu religious tradition, which at the same time visibly refrained from the reform of other major religious institutions, such as the Islamic Shariat law. They essentially believed that the State pampered the minorities at the expense of the majority.
As a specific example, the constitution, by abolishing untouchability as a matter of the human right to equality as enshrined in Article 17, and by its mandate to provide for “social welfare and reform” under Article 25(1)(b) provides a charter for reformation, under the auspices of the State, of Hindu religious tradition.
Whether or not the constitution should have provided such a role to the state is a question exiled to the histories of social reform movements in colonial India. The constitutional proscription of practices of untouchability is seen to be a massive secular assault on Hindu religious traditions. It is seen to be one among many instances of double standards, by which they state effectively says that the majority must live by the paradigm of secularism, but the minority may adhere to other norms.
The Superficiality of Secularism
I am inclined to agree with Sadanand Dhume who, writing for the Wall Street Journal, severely criticized Indian secularism as a “fraud” and “failure”. He postulated that, the Indian idea of secularism is not the separation of religion and state, as it is understood in the western world, but rather more along the lines of religious appeasement.
Along similar lines, Ronald Inden, a historian, has blamed the Indian government for not really being secular at all, but selectively discriminating against the Hindu community, while superficially appeasing Muslim leaders without providing any community or theological benefits to “regular” Muslims in India.
The fact of the matter is that secularism in India is but a superficial concept. Although the government under Nehru was supposed to move towards secularism as identified and defined in the west, they could only weakly reiterate this idea to the public, such that the state would not interfere in personal matters of the people and would strive to create a context in which the country could live in harmony. They have not been able to effectively alienate the state from the institution of religion. In fact, general perception still exists that the State has worked to “reform” the Hindu traditions of the majority, while leaving those of minority religions intact. Overall, it is my belief that the idea of secularism as envisioned for India has not come to fruition, and that the State has failed in this regard.
# Seval Yildirim, Expanding Secularism's Scope: An Indian Case Study, The American Journal of Comparative Law, Vol. 52, No. 4 (Autumn, 2004), pp. 901-918
# Bryan A. Garner (Editor in Chief), Black ’s Law Dictionary, Eighth Edition, Thomson West
# Supra n.1
# Stanley J Tambiah,The Crisis of Secularism in India, Ed. by Rajeev Bhargava, Themes in Politics: Secularism and its Critics (Oxford University Press 1998) Pg 420
# ibid Pg 421-422
# ibid Pg 422
# ibid Pg 424
# ibid Pg 425
# Upendra Baxi,The Constitutional Recourse on Secularism, Ed. by Alice Jacob & Trilok Singh, Reconstructing the Republic (Har Anand Publications New Delhi 1999) Pg 211
# ibid Pg 212
# ibid Pg 213
# ibid Pg 214
# Dhume, Sadanand. "The Trouble with Dr. Zakir Naik." Editorial. Wall Street Journal 20 June 2010. Web.
# Inden, Ronald. "Imagining India." Indiana University Press (2000). Print.
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