Is India Secular?

Let me introduce myself briefly. I’m the Dhimmi, *tard, bhakt, biased and might not be termed as an intellectual. I live somewhere between black and white, within those grey shades.

Now, If we come to the topic, I hear word secular (especially in CAA context) so much on Twitter, FB and WhatsApp groups (some call it WhatsApp university although I like it). Many are saying that secularism is in danger or constitution is in danger or similar slogans hence curiosity got the best of me.

Hence, I did some research on word Secular, its meaning, how its adopted/practiced in India, how Governments have performed on secularism, is India truly secular and many more perspectives. I came up with below from Google/Whatsapp/Wiki university which brought me many articles from well meaning authors. 

What is the dictionary definition of word secular?

As per Dictionary definition, Secular (1) means “not pertaining to or connected with religion” or “concerned with nonreligious subjects”.

Wikipedia page of Secularism (2) defines it as “Secularism, as defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is the “indifference to, or rejection or exclusion of, religion and religious considerations”.”

One might notice that Secular and Secularism words are purely based on religion perspective and not based on ethnicity, race, culture, language, tribes etc. When we say that we are secular, we actually mean that we are equal to all religions or we do not care about religion. Now, let’s get to Indian history to understand how its used, adopted or perceived.

Was India secular in ancient times (Hinduism/Hindutva Era) or before Mughal Era? 

India was always pluralist (or secular, this term actually did not exist at that time) by its nature or behaviour during this era. Many religions flourished, like, Jainism, Budhhism, Zorostrianism in addition to Hinduism in India much before Mughals. 

Interesting lines from article in Wikipedia on “Secularism in India” (3) which mentions, “There is no belief in the superiority of their god. Quite conversely, there are instances in religious texts like the Ramayana and the Mahabharatha, wherein even the antagonist on the side of adharma are shown to have a admirable traits, while Gods on the side of dharma are shown as having fallacies. This encouraged a unique outlook of questioning, open-mindness and acceptance in Dharmic religions.”

Was India secular during Mughal Era?

Same article (3) mentions this about Mughal era “The political doctrines of Islam, as well as its religious views were at odds with doctrines of Hinduism, Sikhism and other Indian religions. New temples and monasteries were not allowed. As with Levant, Southeast Europe and Spain, Islamic rulers in India treated Hindus as dhimmis in exchange of annual payment of jizya taxes, in a sharia-based state jurisprudence.”

Whatever I have read (it could be biased), I understood that Islamic rulers tried to impose islam on Indian citizens. It was only that Hind (or Hindustan, Bharat, India) had so many Hindus that it was impossible to convert everyone which was realized by Akbar and he tried to have a balancing act however rest all Islamic rulers tried their best to impose Islam in India.

It was simple power game if Mughal had more powers, they would impose Islam and if others (e.g. Marathas) had more power, they would restore Hinduism. One big change from religion perspective happened that many in India converted to Islam either due to will or force and a significant population became muslims who had very different rituals/customs compared to other religions. 

Was India secular during Colonial Era?

‘Secularism in India’ article (3) on wikipedia further mentions, “Once British came post Aurangzeb, they sought commerce and trade, with a policy of neutrality to all of India’s diverse religions. Before 1858, the Britishers followed the policy of patronizing and supporting the native religions as the earlier rulers had done.”

Further, a thesis from researcher Haque, Mohammad Mohibul (4) from AMU in year 2009, mentions “

In 1858, when the British Crown started ruling through its representatives and many reforms were brought about then the question of minority and majority came into light. There were many Indian leaders and intellechials of that time who shared the view that India is not one nation rather many nations constituted India. Interestingly, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, who was a member of the Imperial Legislative Council (1878-1882), emphasized the social and political diversities of India while speaking on the occasion of introduction of the local-self government bill in the Council.”

The Morley-Minto reforms in year 1909 (knowns as Indian Councils Act 1909) provided separate electorate to Muslims, justifying the demands of the Muslim league and taking India further from pluralism/secularism. On the insistence of Muslim League, British framed laws based on religions and enacted Indian Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act in 1937, which instead of separating state and religion, did the reverse.

How do we understand India before independence on Secularism?

After going through many articles, I’m of opinion that India was thriving as multi-religious, multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-ethnic country (can be termed as Secular or Pluralist) till Mughal rule started in India. Britishers played safe initially however due to stark differences between Islam and rest all religions/cultures, they also started giving differential treatment to keep the reign. Same time, many citizens saw the futility of religious differences and different cultures got assimilated.

Britishers brought Morley-Minto reforms in 1909 and India was officially divided on the basis of religion and special rights were given to Muslims. As far as I could understand, this is when preference to Muslims started which eventually led to partition of India. Many muslims stayed in India as India was always a pluralist country.

Was India Secular from the time of independence? 

You would be surprised that our law-makers at the time of independence, including Dr. Ambedkar did not include word Secular in constitution. Also, Muslims were already givens lands (Separate Country) for themselves and those who remained in India was believed to be secular/pluralist in nature hence no special mention was required.

Secular word was inserted in Preamble of constitution in late 1976. Interesting part is that India was under emergency by Congress Govt. So, the question comes in mind, that, was India not secular from independence till late 1976? What suddenly changed in India during emergency that India has to explicitly include ‘Secular’ word in preamble? Do read about ‘The Emergency in India’ at Wikipedia ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Emergency_(India) ) to get better picture.

When India officially became Secular country?

An amendment to the constitution (42nd Amendment, 1976) formally inserted the word secular as a feature of the Indian Republic. However, unlike the Western concept of secularism which separates religion and state, the concept of secularism in India means acceptance of religious laws as binding on the state, and equal participation of state in different religions. India formally became secular country in Jan 1977 when 42nd amendment came into effect.

Do read Preamble here (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Preamble_to_the_Constitution_of_India). SC has considered Preamble as integral part of constitution hence it matters a lot what is in Preamble and why it changed. 

Has anyone tried to remove Secular word from preamble post 1977?

As per Wikipedia article, “Forty second Amendment of the Constitution of India” (5), Indira Gandhi lost elections in 1977 and Janata Party came in Govt. They tried to bring back constitution to its original form before 42 amendment for most cases but could not do so due to not having enough strength in Rajya Sabha. 

Can Preamble be changed? Yes, with proper majorities in both houses of Parliament. Will constitution or secularism comes in danger due to change in Preamble? I do not think so.  Indian Parliament has changed constitution almost every year and it’s their job. One may read the Wikipedia article (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_amendments_of_the_Constitution_of_India) to understand number of changes in constitution.

Indian constitution does provide option to someone to go to SC and get it reviewed and even if SC overturns it, Parliament can still go ahead and approve it e.g. Shah Bano case. Constitution does not come in danger if Parliament changes it with proper procedures however it comes in danger when someone knowingly breaks it.

Did India become truly secular even after having the word in Preamble from Jan 1977?

Keeping the current context in mind, India might not be secular as per the definition of ‘Secularism’.

The article “Secularism in India” (3) on Wikipedia mentions that “The overlap of religion and state has given various religions in India, state support to religious schools and personal laws. This state intervention while resonant with the dictates of each religion, are unequal and conflicting. For example, a 1951 Religious and Charitable Endowment Indian law allows state governments to forcibly take over, own and operate Hindu temples, and collect revenue from offerings and redistribute that revenue to any non-temple purposes including maintenance of religious institutions opposed to the temple; Indian law also allows Islamic religious schools to receive partial financial support from state and central government of India, to offer religious indoctrination, if the school agrees that the student has an option to opt out from religious indoctrination if he or she so asks, and that the school will not discriminate any student based on religion, race or other grounds. Educational institutions wholly owned and operated by government may not impart religious indoctrination, but religious sects and endowments may open their own school, impart religious indoctrination and have a right to partial state financial assistance.”

Ashwini Anand wrote an article “Why India is not a secular state?” (6) where he mentions many reasons of peculiarity of Indian secularism. He mentions few points:

  1. Different laws for Hindus, Muslims and Christians
  2. Government control of temples but not of mosques or churches 
  3. Different laws for minority schools and “majority” schools
  4. Subsidies for Haj but not for Amarnath Yatra 

Can India be secular or pluralist country without ‘Secular’ word in preamble?

I strongly believe ‘Yes’. It seems to be very political to me that even after adding word secular in preamble, nothing changed on ground. No focus on Uniform Civil Code (UCC), not streamlining funds to religious institutions and one can cite many practices from subsequent Govts which is opposite to definition of word secular. 

My conclusion is that whole idea of secular word in constitution came as appeasement to a specific minority. India has proven to be a country tolerant to all faiths from the ages and still believes strongly on its secular and pluralist ethos and it does not change even if we remove or keep word ‘Secular’ in Preamble.. 

References (read partially or fully by author):

  1. Secular word, Dictionary, https://www.dictionary.com/browse/secular
  2. Secularism, Wikipedia article, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Secularism 
  3. Secularism in India, Wikipedia article, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Secularism_in_India 
  4. “The rights of minorities in India with special reference to the role of the national commission for minorities” by researcher Haque, Mohammad Mohibul from AMU in year 2009. link:https://shodhganga.inflibnet.ac.in/bitstream/10603/55393/7/07_chapter%202.pdf 
  5. Wikipedia article, Forty second Amendment of the Constitution of India, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forty-second_Amendment_of_the_Constitution_of_India 
  6. “Why India is not a secular state?” by Ashwini Anand, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/why-india-is-not-a-secular-state/articleshow/50072294.cms 
  7. The Hindu,  https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/news/constitution-does-not-define-the-word-minorities-govt/article23106364.ece 
  8. “Minority Rights – The Judicial Approach” by Varun Shivhare on Legal services portal, http://www.legalservicesindia.com/articles/judi.htm
  9. ‘Bound hand and foot and handed over to the caste Hindus’: Ambedkar, untouchability and the politics of Partition. Jesús Francisco Cháirez-Garza .  https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0019464617745925 
  10. https://carnegieendowment.org/2019/04/04/fate-of-secularism-in-india-pub-78689 
  11. https://www.quora.com/Is-India-really-secular-What-is-secularism-in-the-Indian-context 
  12. http://www.legalservicesindia.com/article/1881/Freedom-of-Religion.html 
  13. https://www.newindianexpress.com/opinions/2018/mar/19/the-great-secular-confusion-1789212.html 

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