Secularism in India: History, Implications and Alternatives

Secularism in India: History, Implications and Alternatives

India officially became a secular nation in 1976 with the 42nd Amendment of the Constitution of India enacted in 1976. [1] [2] But what does secularism mean? Unlike the West which is very clear about the core tenets of secularism, most Indians do not have a clue about what it means or what it signifies. Even the Courts in one of their judgements had said that secularism is an exceedingly complex concept and difficult to define. So how is one supposed to be secular if one cannot even define secular?
In the west, there is no such confusion. Secularism has three main features:

  • freedom of religion
  • equal citizenship to each citizen regardless of his or her religion (uniform civil code)
  • the separation of religion and state (or church and state)

In the west, without Uniform Civil Code there can be no secularism. Yet in India UCC is a contentious issue and Muslims are governed by Sharia (Islamic Law). It is absurd, painfully funny and laughable, yet we Indians do not even realize how ludicrous this is. In fact secularism in India is often perceived to be anti-majoritarian and pro-minority. Many scholars and policy makers in India view secularism from a “religious conflict” lens. It is believed that if Hindus as majority community become less religious, become more sympathetic towards Muslims and Christians who in turn become more religious, exclusivist and demand greater rights, there will be no conflicts and secularism will be achieved. In other words secularism in India is Hinduphobic and pro-Islam (and pro-Christian). Exiled Bangladeshi Muslim author Taslima Nasreen in fact clearly says that there’s a major problem with the way secularism has been practiced in India:
“Most secular people are pro-Muslims and anti-Hindu. They protest against the acts of Hindu fundamentalists and defend the heinous acts of Muslim fundamentalists.”[3]
So why is there such a confusion in India? Why is the entire discourse around secularism so confusing and biased? To understand secularism in India, we need to understand secularism in general, its origins in Europe, Protestantism versus Roman Catholicism, Christianity versus Judaism, the role of Church, European history and the conditions under which secularism was imported to India.
Yes secularism is an import just like cricket and English language.
It is an alien concept, completely foreign to an inherently pluralistic society on which it was foisted, and embodies the centuries of experiences and debates of an unfamiliar European culture. To give an example, if tomorrow corrida de toros (Spanish bull fighting) were to be forcefully made compulsory in India, we would be in a similar quandary. We may intellectually know about Spain, about bull-fighting and Spain’s passion for bull-fighting, but since it is not part of our “lived experience” and wholly unfamiliar to (and against) our civilizational ethos, we can never relate to it, the way we would relate to bursting crackers in Diwali or eating temple prasadam.

Religion, Christianity and Judaism

If we do not understand religion we can never understand secularism. And to understand religion we must put ourselves in the shoes of Europeans and try to understand their world view.
Religion in the western sense of the term has three components:

  1. a Creator God who created earth at some specific time in the past
  2. a (semi-historic) Prophet or Prophets through whom God communicated
  3. a Holy Book in which all this is recorded

Christianity, Judaism and Islam are religions in this sense. For the early Europeans, anything which did not meet this criteria was paganism. Dharmas of India like Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism did not meet any of these criteria in the way they understood it. First none of these faiths have a creator God who created the universe in a certain point in history. Creation and destruction is cyclical, there is no linear historicity so to speak. Hindus have an underlying reality called “Brahman” which has no similarity with a Creator God, and so Divine Forces were mis-translated as “gods” and suddenly Hinduism became polytheistic. Hinduism has no founder prophet, and no Holy Book. Jains and Buddhists have no creator “God” and Jains believe that their founder is actually the last in a very long line of Yogis. In other words none of the categories of religion, none of the Biblical metaphysics, cosmology or theology are applicable to Indic dharmas, and are technically not religions by any stretch of imagination. Yet they have been forcefully retrofitted to a religion framework and so becomes a candidate for “secularism”.
Coming back to religions, Christianity has two major sects, the Roman Catholic and the Protestants. Three major differences between these sects are as follows [4]:

  1. Protestants rely only on Bible (sola skriptura) while Catholics are additionally bound by the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church.
  2. Catholics have only one true church under the leadership of the Pope. Protestants have thousands of Church denominations each considered equal.
  3. Catholics believe in Pope while Protestants do not accept Papal primacy.

We also need to understand the key differences between Judaism and Christianity [5]:

  1. Christianity accepts Jesus as the Son of God who came down to earth to atone for human sins. Judaism does not treat Jesus Christ as any one special. It rejects the entire associated theology of original sin, salvation and so on.
  2. The customs of Judaism appear to be significantly different from that of Christians, and their language was also different from that of Christians.

To understand the origins of secularism in the sense of the term as commonly understood in the West, we now need to go to Europe.

Origins of Secularism

Secularism started with the fights and intense debates among Protestants and Roman Catholics in Europe with regards to what constituted religiosity, religious freedom, state interference, role of Church or Pope and degree of religiosity in public sphere.

  • The Protestants believed that religion was something private between man and a Creator God
  • Protestants did not want the interference of Roman  Catholic church in state machinery
  • Roman Catholics on the other hand opposed the interference of State in clamping down on public religious practices because of fear of “eternal damnation”

Jakob de Roover summarizes this Protestant-Catholic schism in Europe, the nature of the debates they had and the origins of secularism very well [6]:
“When something becomes a religious act or a religious practice, which should be free from state interference and those debates, if you look at them, they do go back to Protestant and Catholic Christianity and very often the conflicts between Protestantism and Catholicism. So the question what is religious what is secular was a very important question to them because to them it meant when a practice was religious it is one of the duties or the obligations we have towards God and God is not just any God to them. It is the creator of the universe who has created humanity to obey Him and only if we live up to his expectations and we follow his Commandments and worship Him in the proper way, only then can we even hope of finding salvation in the next life. So to them it is not a joke because when something is religious and the state prevents you from participating in that practice, it means the state is condemning you to eternal damnation. You’ll go to hell because of state interference. So their religious freedom becomes incredibly important.”
So the origin of secularism as a concept is the result of fights between Protestants and Roman Catholics, attitude towards Papal supremacy and fear of “eternal damnation.” In other words secularism is Christian in origin, what Jakob de Roover calls the “hard core of Christianity”. Let this idea sink in for a bit.
The other factor which shaped secularism was the fight among Christians and Jews in Europe. Christians felt that the Jews were wholly dissimilar to them even in the public sphere, which was not acceptable. There were debates and fights, and as we all know one specific strain of it culminated in the Nazi pogrom of the Jewish community.
Thus in a European context, intra-Christian conflicts, Judaism-Christianity fights, and Christian-Muslim interactions, all these contributed to shaping the notion of secularism. Such debates and fights happened for centuries, developing an idea that was European in origin and shaped by European experiences that were completely unknown to India.

Secularism in India

Now that we understand the origins of secularism in European Christianity, let us try to understand how it was imported to India. European secularism was imported into India and morphed into Indian secularism in three distinct phases [7]:

  1. Introduction to India, with an aim of preventing alleged tyranny by majority Hindus, who incidentally have no track record whatsoever of any despotism
  2. Pandering to minorities (Muslims mainly) to prevent the above perceived threat by giving them separate laws and special privileges
  3. Labeling anyone opposed to this definition as “communal”

Gandhian pre-Secularism (1920s)

The pro-Islamic component of Indian secularism got a major boost during this phase when a mass leader like Mahatma Gandhi openly supported the Khilafat movement which “resulted in such aftershocks as the Moplah massacres in Kerala and the deepening of divisive tendencies within the Muslim community in India, which subsequently allowed M.A. Jinnah to win millions of adherents (mostly in UP and Bihar) for Winston Churchill’s plan of vivisecting India.” [8]

Pre-Secularism of “Modernity” (1940’s)

Under Ambedkar and Nehru, the Hinduphobic component of Indian secularism received a massive boost with their strong critique of Hinduism and by lending support to two colonial ideas:

  1. India’s lack of “scientific temperament” stemming from its Hindu roots
  2. Annihilation of Caste

Kaushik Gangopadhyay explains it as follows:
“It turns out that both of these ideas are colonial projects. Christian missionaries rued the lack of scientific reasoning in India for Indian’s general unwillingness to embrace a rational religion (Christianity). Similarly, “Annihilation of Caste” is a colonial project in which the European social model is deemed ideal and the ‘other’ society is, naturally, found to be deficient for its lack of fit with the European model.” [9]

Nehruvian Secularism (1950 onwards)

Prior to independence the mood was already set towards a pro-Islamic and anti-Hindu type of politics. It is in such an environment that Nehru officially introduced the Euro-centric Christianized idea of “secularism” to India. He had a deep-seated bias against Hinduism and a pro-Islamic bent of mind and had said in 1949 that “to talk of Hindu culture would injure India’s interests”.
He had admitted more than once that by education he was an Englishman, by views an internationalist, by culture a Muslim, and a Hindu only by accidental birth. In 1953, Nehru had written to Kailash Nath Katju: “In practice, the individual Hindu is more intolerant and more narrow-minded than almost any person in any other country.” [10]
Nehru thus started with a bang, by declaring that the partition of India was a result of mistrust of Hindu majority by minority Muslims. However as Nalapat argues, the reasons were purely political, and had nothing to do with Hinduism:
The 1947 partition of India was the result of the British colonial power punishing the Congress Party for its Japan-leaning “neutrality” during the 1939-45 war and its rewarding the Muslim League for fully backing the Allies against the Axis. However, to sidestep accountability for the division, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru reasoned that Partition was the consequence of Muslim mistrust of the Hindu majority. As a consequence, soon after the murder of Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru got the excuse he was seeking to put in place a system based on what may be termed “Nehruvian secularism”. [11]
Nehruvian secularism thus from the very beginning built upon its Hinduphobia and pro-Islamic foundations, and subjected majority Hindus to restraints, while minority communities were given numerous privileges. One example is Hindu temples, which continued to be in government control. Neither a single temple expropriated during British Raj, nor a single piece of temple land confiscated during the colonial rule was returned to the Hindus after 1947. In fact according to T.S.S Rajan, a minister in the Madras state government, it was the wish of Jawaharlal Nehru that there should not to be any private temples, although “minority” places of worship would be allowed to remain outside the state’s influence. [11] [12] Nehru’s team made changes to the Hindu Code Bill (1955-56) for so-called reform of Hinduism, a process started by British Raj. However no such reforms were initiated for either Muslims or Christians. Moreover Nehru vehemently opposed Uniform Civil Code, which is a core tenet of almost all truly democratic secular nations.
In parallel, on the Judiciary side, the Law started taking a pro-active role in “reforming” Hinduism. Supreme Court and High Court judges assumed the role of religious reformers, started deconstructing Hinduism, interpreted Hindu texts their own way, and gave some major sweeping judgments on Hinduism, a notion that is unheard of in any other democratic nation. Judiciary in India is based on British Jurisprudence which is ultimately of Biblical origin having numerous categories like religion, God and Holy Book, which are clearly Abrahamic and completely alien to the Indian ethos.
In one case, a couple of Jains in Mumbai challenged the Government interference in management of temples and land of temples under the ground that it infringed on their freedom of religion. The Judge explained that state government intervention did not violate the secular character of the state as the activities were not “essentially religious”, which they explained as the relationship between Man and his Creator (God). Now as shown above Creator is a typical Abrahamic category, and Jainism does not have any Creator God, so the lawyers pointed out that this could not be applicable in their case. The Judge instead of accepting his flawed reasoning, changed the definition of “essentially religious” as the relationship between Man and his Conscience, and bypassed all objections [7] In other words there is always a latent Hinduphobia in most Hinduism related judgements, and a huge degree of intervention by the Judiciary who consider themselves as reformers of “Hinduism”, continuing a tradition started by British colonialists. Even today the Judiciary continuously interferes in what they dub as “backward” Hindu religious affairs and decide issues like age of Dahi Handi participants and maximum height, banning of fire crackers, and so on. All this happens ostensibly under the guise of “secularism”.
Radical fringe groups among Muslims, especially the petro-dollar funded Wahhabi Sunnis were considered the spokesperson of all Muslims, and this policy was followed by Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, V.P. Singh and even Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and these hardliners started demanding greater and great rights and privileges at the cost of majority Hindus and soon became mainstream. In the name of healthy living and modernity, government advertisements started encouraging consumption of eggs and chicken, in a predominantly vegetarian country. Such was the situation that even the Ramakrishna Mission tried to declare itself as non-Hindu in order to avoid the State interference.
All these Hinduphobic activities happened in the guise of secularism, tolerance and modernity.

UPA Secularism (2004 to 2014)

Nehruvian secularism reached its zenith under the Congress led UPA regimes from 2004 to 2014. Government officials wearing “tika” on their forehead, and those who visited temples privately were investigated, their career opportunities halted and they were accused of being “pro-BJP” and heckled. Guruvayur Temple in Kerala and Tirupathi Temple in Andhra Pradesh was handed over to non-Hindus to be managed. [11] It is absolutely unheard in any secular country that a place of worship is managed by a person from a different faith. If the reverse had happened in India that a Hindu had gained control of a mosque or church, a civil war would have probably started. Manmohan Singh instituted the Sachar Committee to study the plight of Muslim community in India and in 2006 declared that minorities have the “first claim on India’s resources”. This is a bizarre statement which goes against all tenets of “secularism” and it makes one wonder to what extent the UPA would go to nurture their Hinduphobia. Other actions in the guise of secularism were [12]:

  • survey on the religious affiliations of India’s soldiers
  • the stringent Right to Education (RTE) from which all minority schools were exempted
  • Communal Violence Bill which did not recognize minority community violence against Hindus
  • Jains were declared a “minority” community

As Nalapat argues: “The Manmohan Decade has been in many ways as toxic for the future of India as 1919-22 was, and for the same reason, which is the untrammeled encouragement given to minority communalism in the guise of promoting ‘secularism’”. [10]


Hindus in India have this mistaken notion that democracy as we know it, secularism, law and judiciary, multi-national corporations, mathematics as a subject, holidays on Sunday and so on are universal values and ideas. Unfortunately that is not the case. Each and every one of the above so called “universal” norms are the product and direct outcome of Christian theology and carry the baggage of “original sin” and “eternal damnation”. While secularism appears to be benign and an equalizing force, it has wreaked havoc on Indian society. The Muslim world, barring 2 or 3 countries, has comprehensively rejected secularism, understanding it for what it is, a different version of Christianity (liberal Christianity in the case of Europe and Judeo-Christianity in the case of USA). Secularism is nothing but a manifestation of what Rajiv Malhotra calls “difference anxiety” or the trauma of the West when it has to deal with things which are different, gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, religion or whatever else. [13]
For a nation like India which is inherently pluralistic, which is not religious in the sense of Abrahamic religions, which never had a centralized “Church” and which welcomes diversity, secularism is a farce and a joke of the highest order. We need to have a system which is wholly indigenous, rooted in our civilizational ethos, grows out of our natural diversity and does not carry colonial Euro-centric and Christian theological biases. Moreover Indian secularism has become a national security issue in that rabidly virulent anti-national elements in the Islamic and Christian communities are encouraging their people to wage war against India and challenging her sovereignty. Tufail Ahmad rightly points out the imbalance in the discourse and the threats:
Secularism has emerged as a national security threat to India. Kamlesh Tiwari said something about the prophet of Islam, he was arrested by police officers rightly. But the same police officers don’t have guts to even touch the Islamic clerics of Bijnor, who in 2015 announced a reward of 51 lakh rupees to behead Tiwari either in jail or outside. Secularism has emerged as India’s national sports; everyone participates, everyone pretends, everyone claps, everyone shuts their eyes to reality. [14]
One solution as Koenraad Elst points out is for Government to relinquish their control on Hindu temples so that the imbalance in the day to day lives of Hindus and non-Hindus may be somewhat nullified.
Eliminating the legal basis of the discrimination against Hinduism in temple management, with rich temples (but not mosques or churches) nationalized and their income pocketed by politicians or diverted to non-Hindu purposes, would give an enormous boost to Hindu religious and cultural life, without impinging upon the rights of the minorities. [15]
A long-term solution that has worked historically in India is pluralism, or the freedom of communities to practice their own beliefs as long as they are headquartered in India, respect India’s national integrity, engage in meaningful debate with each other and not attempt to proselytize to convert others. For example Parsis, Jews, and early Syrian Christians, integrated themselves with mainstream India, were head quartered in India and never interfered with other communities. Moreover such a solution should unapologetically be based on Dharmic norms where sustainability of natural order becomes very important. For example, one faith cannot encourage its followers to kill or convert others through fraudulent means. Suppose Hinduism and Islam are to co-exist in this model, then there should be mutual respect between then, and those injunctions in Islam which encourage believers to kill infidels must either be expunged through reforms, or should be given suitable non-lethal symbolic interpretations. Else such a model will not work.
Dharmic pluralism rather than secularism is therefore India’s way forward.

References and Notes

  2. India incidentally also became an official socialist state, but that’s a topic for a separate discussion.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. IndiaFacts does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in this article.

Subhodeep Mukhopadhyay

Subhodeep Mukhopadhyay is from a data science background and his research interest includes history, religion and philosophy. He is the author of "The Complete Hindu’s Guide to Islam" and "Ashoka the Ungreat".