Secularism in India

February 1, 2018


India, a nation almost synonymous with “accommodating diversities” has been struggling through her most disastrous phase of treating diversities to be equivalent. A secular state is one which supports all religious communities equally and needs to recognise the multiplicity of religious truths. It will not be wrong to argue that secularism in India is an aspiration, not yet a reality. By adapting to the concept, India has affirmed its confidence that it can and will solve the problem of communities which are profoundly different in every possible aspect can be made to live together.

The term “secularism” or “secular state” means that the government of the country doesn’t interfere with the religious norms of its citizens and doesn’t confer any special status to any religion. But it can’t be denied that some particular religion may enjoy a certain amount of official support at different instances. The advent of Christianity with the colonial missionaries presented a picture of the curious unity of opposites. With independence, the mass conversions to Christianity came to an end which gave a relief to the Hindus. At present, the Christian community is the second largest minority community in the Indian subcontinent. From the partition onwards, Hindus emerged stronger and the Muslims weaker than during the British period. The struggle was more a freedom movement and less a national movement. Although the Congress was open to all but a sense of freedom not nationalism in secular sense had been the main qualification


It is a mistake to assume that the western states have solved this major problem for assurance of national integration as it can’t be denied that every western democracy is religiously homogeneous, almost, by Indian standard. The western conception of sovereignty has been a strict separation of Church and the State. Accordingly, the state must not interfere with any sphere of life which comes under the authority of religion. If applicable to India, this seems to be hardly possible.

There is a difference between the British Indian conception of secularism and the secularism which the Indian constitution makers adopted. The Indian constitution guarantees the freedom to propagate, practice and profess religion ‘subject to public order, morality and health’. The problem of conflict between the religious communities is not particular only to our country. The symbolic base for such conflicts has been differences in race, colour of skin, language or culture. One common thread for such conflicts may be the struggle for scarce economic resources. After the establishment of Pakistan, around 55 million Muslims were left in India. A large majority of these Muslims belonged to the lower strata of the society. Economic disparities widen the emotional gap between the communities and create explosive circumstances. These economic disparities lead to other disparities such as educational, attitudinal and cultural.

The Indian state has interfered in regard only to the Hindu community as the legal ban on untouchability, child marriage and polygamy, etc. To advocate reforms in Muslim personal laws has been very difficult for the Indian state due to the civil code generally known as the Hindu Civil Code as it applies only to Hindus. Muslims being led by the anti-Hindu leaders are made to believe if they are brought under its provisions it would amount to ‘Hinduising’ their social system. It should be made clear to them that a uniform civil code that governs all communities would necessarily have to violate any Islamic conjunctions.

The country has seen a new low in Hindu- Muslim relationships at the time of two major political issues. Who won’t remember the legendary Shah Bano Case? This changed the entire scenario of political and legal discourse in India. It was the first instance when the Indian state did interfere in the Muslim Personal Law. Shah Bano sued her husband for maintenance beyond the period of iddat. The Supreme Court used section 125 which is applicable to every citizen of India irrespective of caste, creed, religion, gender and granted maintenance to the woman. Some Muslim fundamentalists called it an “encroachment” of the Muslim Personal Law and forced the government to scuttle against it. The then Prime Minister, Mr. Rajiv Gandhi had to bow down to their demands and passed the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act in 1986 nullifying the Supreme Court judgement and at the same time, disheartening the Islamic feminists. Critiques argue that this Act was passed to appease the minorities and an effort to garner the vote bank. 


On the other hand, the Ram janmabhoomi- Babri Masjid controversy led to the demolition of the mosque in Ayodhya on 6december, 1992, believed by many to be a birthplace for lord Rama. The words “Ayodhya” and “6 December”, one a place and the other a date, describe the whole Hindu-Muslim discourse in India. It was not just an event at a geographical place but had its roots deep in the past and its implications to be seen by the future generations. The unprecedented violence and sheer drama had gripped the nation. Across the length and breadth of the country, everybody felt that something wrong had taken place which will merely lighten the seeds of separatism and hatred between the Hindus and the Muslims.

The demolition of the Babri masjid has posed a question of Indian Muslims. But at a deeper level, it also symbolises the crisis within Hinduism. Hinduism is a pluralistic creed which accepts as well as encourages multiple paths to the divine. There are some fundamental concepts in Hinduism, widely known as Vedanta, derived from the teachings of the Upanishads and the Bhagwadgita. The direct physical assault on a place of worship, the claimed birthplace of lord Rama, and the subsequent torturing of the Muslim households, for sure doesn’t fit in the traditional deriving of the Vedanta. Who can forget the cruel and gruesome behaviour against the Muslims in the state of Gujarat in 2002? And what explanation will the “secular” Indian state has for these brutalities against minorities?

Another factor leading to turmoil among the religions has been the cow slaughter. Even during the historical times there wasn’t a total ban on cow slaughter. Indeed it is a comparatively a very recent phenomena. So much has been written about the inviolability of the cow. The Jain religion has been attributed with the origin of the commandment of not killing the animals pertaining to the ideal of “ahimsa”. The constitution also enshrines this in its directive principle on cow protection in the article48.

There is a great demand that the article 48 to be amended to put a total ban on cattle slaughter. Cow protection is a religious demand from the Hindu world. But many raise a question why the useless cattle should not be slaughtered? Nothing can be more absurd than a nation which carries the useless economic burden of the cattle population beyond its powers of maintenance. But they can be very well answered using the rhetoric of survival. Every living being has the right to life, then why not the cow. Of course, there is a religious sentiment among Hindus about considering the cow as “the mother.” It is still debatable and remains to be in the future.

Any individual is a product of multiple identities, be it based on language, caste, ethnicity, gender, region or religion. Contemporary politics has to grabble with all these identities. The labels Hindu, Sikh, Muslim and Christian signify a religious identity. The use of religion towards political ends, today, requires a discussion on religious fundamentalism which has become a very powerful force than it has been before. This religious fundamentalism is a product of social alienation of the community. For instance, the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi in 1984 following the assassination of the then Prime Minister; Mrs. Indira Gandhi was a result of conflict between extremist religious communities. Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his armed followers were accused of amassing weapons in the Harminder Sahib Complex to plan a major uprising. “Operation Blue star” and “ghallughara” against the Sikh militants due to their demand for the state of Khalistan has been one of the most horrifying acts which proves the extent to which the ruling power can go to sabotage opponents. According to the Nobel laureate, Amartya Sen, the religious identity takes precedence over all the other identities in situations of a riot. This singular solitary characterisation of identity ignoring social, economic and professional identities of an individual is the root of communal violence associated with utter confusion and illusion of the destiny of Hindu- Muslim identities. It also symbolises the arena to which religious minorities can extend in order to ascertain their identity. A fear of loss of identity generates the hopes of ensuring one’s acceptability in the society.


The concept of “secularism” has been analysed endlessly. But after the Ayodhya massacre, there is an emerging great need to redefine the concept. I would like to raise a question about why the word was included by the constitution makers. Was it a conscious occurrence? Was it amnesia? The modern leaders of the Indian subcontinent have made the concept redundant and betrayed the basic ethos of the Indian society. Amidst the diversities in every aspect of the society, can we actually claim ourselves to be “secular”?

Since time immemorial, secularism in India has been defined by the scholars and politicians as equal respect for all religions- sarva dharma sambhava- the harmonious coexistence of the religions. In the Indian constitution, secularism is rendered in Hindu as the neutrality of the state for all religions- “pantha nirpeksha”, more precise than the notion of harmony and equal respect for all religions, but still not clear though. But the term “Secularism” is a Christian concept, the one which is derived and hence, not applicable to India. Secularism has emerged in different ways in the west and India. In the west, the concept emerged due to the conflict between the state and the church, whereas in India, the idea emerged to sustain the religious, traditional and cultural pluralism.

Rajeev Bhargava argues about the “Principled Distance” claiming that to ensure equal treatment it is at times necessary for the Indian state to interfere in the hierarchically organised religions. In fact, when the state interferes in one religion more than others doesn’t lead it to depart from “secularism”. It is still debatable that whether the recognition of minority rights violates secularism. India’s secularism can be called to be “pseudo- secularism”.

Today we are witnessing the use of religion for the realisation of political goals. If you notice the speeches of the Hindu extremist leaders of may be, the Sangh Parivar, you will, most probably, realise to what extent the Indian state is adhering to the concept of secularism. Communal politics is creating the psychology of “fear” and “religion in danger” syndrome. We need to examine the form that the religion is taking under the modern politics and what form is politics taking in a religion-oriented society.

Today, there is little doubt that the growth of political consciousness around religious issues has provided a discursive vehicle for the mobilisation which has been a social and political force. It has written a new argument for secularism but has failed behind a legacy in which religion has been bolstered as a focus of political identity. It is a beginning of the formulation of a more radical society for the future. The world we live in is always in a state of move and reinterpretation is an unending endeavour.

Similarly, the secularism in India is and always be in the process of becoming. 

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