Understanding Secularism in India


The weighty connotations that the word ‘secularism’ carries in India are of recent origin. There being neither institutionalized religion nor a defined corpus of belief to the majority of people generally known as Hindus, there was no occasion of conflict or even debate between the secular authority and the religious authority. What is now known as secularism in India is the product of the ugly happenings that occurred in the form of Hindu-Muslim communal riots during the British regime and a distant sense of the animus that developed between the two communities during the Muslim era despite a Kabir, a Nanak, or an Akbar. 


Before we take stock of what is known as Secularism in today‘s India, it is advisable to understand the origin, growth, and maturity of secularism in the west, with which the  Indian secularism of today has certain comparable features. Before the Christian era, there was no distinction between temporal authority and religious authority. Both the Greek city-states and ancient Rome had their own God and form of worship. Historically the Jewish state in Israel was the first Theocratic State. With the establishment of Pax Romanica over Palestine, there arose the necessity to separate the State and the Church. The first significant answer to this dilemma was provided by Jesus Christ when he said, – “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s’’. This compromise could not be worked out as reality because soon the Jews were driven out from Palestine. After many vicissitudes, Christianity came to be established in Europe, with the Holy See in Rome as its headquarters.

Along with this establishment, a few States also come into existence. And before the beginning of modern times, the distinct jurisdiction of the Church and the State were roughly agreed upon, although we have a classic instance of the murder of Archbishop of Canterbury by Henry II, and the humiliation that was suffered by Emperor Henry IV at Canossa. The theory that underlines the separation between the two authorities was enunciated by St. Thomas Aquinas who distinguished between  Sacerdotium and Imperium. 

Emergence of Modern Secularism in West

The emergence of modern secularism in the west began from the time of the protestant reformation.  Along with it, the establishment of the national State meant that the religion of the King should be the religion of the people. But the religious minority posed a serious problem as they contributed substantially to society and the State. Gradually with the broadening of people’s outlook and as the majority of the people showed less interest in religion, the State came to allow the existence of several Churches and held them in balance by assisting them, or treating them equally. Added to this, whenever the State legislated on matters which concern the Church also,  the general consent of the latter was obtained; otherwise in purely religious matters, the Church was left alone. This is what is known today as the jurisdictional State of the western world.  Indeed the U.S Constitution went a step further. The First Amendment provided that Congress shall make no law restricting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

Apart from this, the course of secularism in the western world took entirely a queer turn with the emergence of the totalitarian states. States like Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy elevated the state to the status of the Super-Church. To some extent, the same nature is to be found in the communist state also because the Marxist-Leninist philosophy is everything while religion is only the opium of the people. 

Secularism in India

Coming back to India we find that our Constitution has made definite provision for a secular State, more like the jurisdictional State of the west. Although the word secularism is not used,  Article 15, Article 16, and Article 209 of the Constitution of India, clearly debar discrimination based on religion. An individual’s religious freedom to profess, practice, and propagate any religion is guaranteed in Article 25 subject to the proviso of “public order, morality, and decency” and to the other provision of this part. Ultimately Article 26 guarantees corporate religious freedom for establishing institutions, managing its affairs, acquiring property, and administering it, but subject to the public order, morality and decency. The qualifying remark accompanying these freedoms would become clearer as and when judicial interpretation is given.  At the moment judicial interpretation is broadly concerned with distinguishing between what is a  religious denomination, and what constitutes a charitable or religious purpose. 

But some believe that our Constitution does not make any specific provision for a secular State, the reason advanced by them is following: the Constitution does not separate the State from the religion; it does not create two distinct spheres of the State and the religion; on the contrary, the  Constitution vest immense powers in the state to control religious bodies. Despite these doubts, it is maintained even by the critics that the Constitution does have a built-in strength to enable the emergence of a fool-proof secular state. 

More important than these is the actual practice of secularism in India. The State itself does not favour any one religion at the expense of the other existing religion. The religious minorities of the country are not discriminated against, although certain socio-economic reasons might be coming in their way of realizing equal opportunities provided for all. As far as possible the State has adopted touch- me-not-attitude which is far from a happy solution. So far, the state in India has enacted legislation to change the social structure of Hinduism despite the opposition from the religious institutions, all in conformity with the changing norms of social justice: but the state has kept completely silent about some of the outdated practices of the Muslim community.  Paradoxically for a Hindu, Bigamy is an offence and not for a Muslim, although both are Indians.  Commenting on this A.B. Shah wrote: “One can understand different laws of different groups based on consideration of age, sex or economic status. Thus employment laws for women and children must necessarily be more liberal than for men. Similarly, taxation should vary with income so that the weaker section of society has to bear a much smaller burden per capita than those whose economic condition is satisfactory. But one cannot put forward religion as an excuse for discriminatory legislation that denies to entire human groups the rights enunciated by the U.N.  charter. There may arise certain practical difficulties before the emergence of a full-fledged secular state.

According to Article 144 of the Constitution of India, the State is enjoined to endeavor to secure for the citizen a uniform civil code throughout the territory of India. Such a code, when it emerges, will be based on rational considerations but not on religion. If any part of such a code conforms to beliefs of any religious denomination, it would be incidental, not essential. Of course, as Hinduism does not have any definite organization, the State can legislate to bring the necessary social changes. The moment this step is taken, we will face an anomalous situation, that is, state intervention in religious affairs which is contrary to the separation of State and religion in a secular state. 


Indeed, the state in India cannot adopt the exact role of the state in the west in religious matters because of the fundamental difference between the west and India: what the state regard to be ethical in the west is mostly the ethics of the Church, while in India it is not necessarily so if we take into account the extent to which religion is influencing the activities of the state instead of being vice-versa, as the criterion of the theocratic state, we should not hesitate to say that we have yet to be free of the shroud of theocracy. In no other state, is it essential for the state to shepherd the people’s ethics to the non-religious path as in India. Therefore, the success of secularism in India is going to be primarily determined by the extent to which the state in India engenders a true secular spirit in the ethos of the country. After all, we cannot have a truly secular state without a social milieu congenial for it.

This article is authored by Tanu Gupta, Student at Galgotias University

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