The Case Against Indian Secularism

The Case Against Indian Secularism

Introduction – The Birth of Western Secularism                                                                       

Secularism has been a much used (and abused) term in India’s popular, particularly political, lexicon for the last seventy years. It has meant “all things to all people,” making it difficult for common people as well as political commentators to arrive at a precise definition/meaning of it. The difficulty in arriving at a consensus over what it stands for stems from the legacy of our freedom movement and the ideological and institutional foundations laid during the Nehruvian years, and the resultant contrast our “journey” towards “secularization” — considered a hallmark of progress and modernity (read, Westernization) – presents in contrast to the dominant Western experience and conception of secularism. My attempt in this essay is to explore the historical origins of secularism in the Early Modern European Context, how it developed and is currently practiced in the West, how it came to India and influenced us, and subsequently, how we have taken to the idea and practiced it. This exploration will be followed by a critique of our approach towards secularism and its repercussions.

The roots of secularism lie in the late medieval/early modern period of European history when the monarchical entities of Europe were struggling against the preponderant authority of the Pope (and the Catholic Church of which he was the Head)[i]. The Church collected a massive amount in taxes from the laity for the performance of rituals and sacraments. Moreover, kings had to respect the authority of the denominational and monastic orders of the Church by granting them tax exemptions. Often, it took the extreme form of paying tributes to Rome. Whenever the kings defied such conventions and tried to appoint their own clergy for their own kingdom (the clergy was appointed by Rome), there were severe reprisals in the form of excommunication. Few mustered the courage to go against the Holy See or the Bishop of Rome — the successor of St. Peter on earth. Even Papal Canonical Law was imposed across Europe.

All of these challenged the sovereignty of the monarchs, and they were finding a way out to strike a blow against the authoritarianism of the Church. Martin Luther, till then an unknown, simple priest in the lands comprising modern-day Germany, struck the first successful blow: there had been attempts in the past by Huss, Wycliff, and many others which failed. His searing critique of the Papacy in his “95 Thesis” and other notable works gave kings the opportunity they were looking for. The “Protestant Reformation,” as it came to be known later, was not born out of just theological or philosophical motives — even if they were important. Luther’s movement was successful because monarchs seized upon it to justify curbing the authority of the Papacy — through nationalization of Church lands, abolition of Canon Law and Papal Court jurisdictions, appropriating the right to nominate Bishops and priests, etc. Some even went further to create a “National Church” of which they were the Head. Such initiatives led to a paradigm shift in European institutions, culture, society and thought processes — a gradual reduction of the influence of religion in public life and the development of the “public” and “private sphere” — the latter the place where religion was now sought to be confined to. Luther’s doctrine of “justification by faith alone,”, meaning one could individually ask God to grant him/her grace by confessing faith in God and repenting for sins by accepting Jesus Christ as the savior, struck at the roots of priesthood, by creating the concept of all believers constituting a priesthood and not requiring mediation of priests to gain salvation. “Sola Scriptura” was another Lutheran doctrine, meant to assert that the Bible was the sole guide to living a Christian life — and everyone was free to interpret the message on his/her own. Thus, we see the Bible being translated into English, German, Dutch, etc., and sermons being delivered in the language of the people. All this made religion individualistic[ii].

This movement gained further fillip due to the post-1648 Westphalian system of states, the Scientific Revolution, and the Enlightenment — whose culmination was the French Revolution. God and supernatural factors were removed as factors or causes that can be used to explain the meaning, origins, and effects of phenomena – and their place was taken by “Reason”. It was assumed that human beings are essentially good and “rational” beings, that they were capable of using “reason” to comprehend the world and make changes using “reason” to achieve progress — or a better way of life. The application of Reason was sought to be extended to all spheres — politics, society, economy, culture, etc. — to discover “inalienable” and “self-evident truths”[iii]. In the political sphere, it took the form of absolutist states building up permanent armies and bureaucracies to effectively assert their sovereignty over their territory – undercutting the influence of lords and vassals. Indivisible sovereignty and single power center were viewed as rational, as opposed to the chaos and instability presented by multiple foci of authority. The state further sought to cut down the Church to size — and thus, we see “enlightened despots” like Catherine the Great, Joseph II, and even Napoleon Bonaparte starting to take state charge of education, healthcare, and even the payment of salaries and appointment of priests and bishops. Church lands became state property[iv]. As the 19th and even the 20th century progressed, the movement towards secularization continued unabated, and thus, emerged the West of today.

Hence, as we can see, secularism in Europe is a legacy of Protestant Reformation and Enlightenment – an attempt to create a stability and peace between religious orders and individuals by ensuring strict separation of Church and State. Initially it took the form of the state regulating the “secular affairs” of religious institutions — like, payment of salaries, and the appointment, sale, and lease of land, etc. However, a disengagement gradually developed even in this sphere. The Church no longer had any political authority, and even in the socio-cultural sphere its influence stood diminished due to secular civil laws, public education, etc. The state also decided that it would not interfere in any metaphysical or theological dispute, neither would it privilege one group over the other in extending patronage (in fact, all religious patronage was to be abolished). Secularism was seen as liberating as it freed people from the stifling religious control of their lives and gave them autonomy — giving a boost to individualism as well. It also created new bonds of solidarity based on language and ethnicity, which were exploited by Westphalian states to legitimize their rule over the people by utilizing the symbols associated with such feelings to “manufacture consent”[v].

Secularism’s Arrival in India

Keeping this background in mind helps us to understand better as to how and why secularism came to India. As with many other things, it was a product of colonialism. The British Raj had to maintain its neutrality with respect to the multiple religious sects and cults that dotted India’s landscape; not only for extinguishing rebellion but to “divide and rule”. Initially they tried to support Indian temples like the Hindu Maharajahs did, but gradually, with the rise of the Evangelist Movement in Britain, such efforts had to be abandoned as it was viewed as encouraging savagery and superstition[vi]. The new objective of the colonial ruling dispensation, coming under the influence of Utilitarianism of Mill, Bentham, and Macaulay, was to “modernize” and “civilize” India in the image of the “West”[vii]. Thus, a series of socio-religious reforms were taken up, like the abolition of Sati in 1829, the legalization of widow remarriage in 1856, etc. However, the experience of the 1857 Rebellion closed this episode. Gradually, the colonial state adopted the policy of non-intervention in Indian society.

This colonial secularism stood on dangerous ground. While outwardly pretending to be neutral, with the emergence of the nationalist movement in the first decade of the 20th century, the policy of “divide and rule” came to be officially adopted whereas previously it was just meant to be an option that one could fall back on. The Raj started pandering to Muslim identity politics by granting separate electorates, establishing state funded universities in Dhaka and Aligarh, and by giving primacy to Urdu over Hindi in North India as the second official language. It naturally clashed with the Hindu sentiment over Hindi, the protection of cows, educational and political opportunities, etc. The growing communal polarization vitiated the atmosphere. Thus, when Gandhi thought of launching the Non-Cooperation Movement against the Raj in 1920, he realized that the support of Muslims was needed to make the movement successful and that required convincing them that the movement served their cause. To this end, Gandhi decided to support the Khilafat Movement – a pan-Islamic movement meant to re-install the Turkish Ottoman Caliph as the ruler of Holy Islamic lands. It was a gamble that Gandhi thought he could pull off – and he only did so with tragic consequences. The Pan-Islamic movement, already evident in the sentiment over the Urdu language issue, the Balkan matter, and the establishment of Aligarh University now started taking its toll on Hindus in Malabar and other places across India. Some radical Muslims viewed it as a movement to create a “Dar Ul Islam” (Abode of Islam) in India, by cleansing off the “Kaffirs” (the Hindus). By 1930, calls could be heard demanding a Muslim homeland to be carved out of Northwestern India and reservation of up to 35 percent of seats in the executive branch and legislatures at the central level (extending to above 50 percent in Muslim majority provinces like Bengal and Punjab)[viii].

Muslim Appeasement and Secularism

The Congress Party and its stalwart leaders like Gandhi, Nehru, and Bose, wanting to lead a successful freedom movement, felt that there was a need to accommodate Muslim demands and sentiments. This gradually gave rise to what has been called the concept of “Muslim appeasement”. The Congress run municipal councils started giving reservation in legislatures and jobs to Muslims, and the Congress Party started giving primacy to Urdu, and agreements like the Bengal Pact even promised to allow cow slaughter and stop Hindus from playing music before mosques. Even the verses of “Vande Mataram” were excised to appease Muslim sentiments. None of the Congress Party leaders raised a voice against the introduction of Section 295-A into the Indian Penal Code in 1929, criminalizing blasphemy, and thus stifling free speech[ix]. All of these were viewed as necessary sacrifices and compromises to achieve “communal harmony” — thought to be the foundational base of Indian nationalism and crucial to the achievement of freedom.

The Indian Brand of Secularism and its Effects

To justify the political stance that came to be adopted by the Congress Party in the 1920’s and 30’s, a new kind of philosophy emerged which sought to re-interpret Western secularism to create India’s unique brand of “secularism” — better defined as a multi-cultural perspective oriented towards communal harmony. Ashis Nandy hails such a conception of communal harmony as a suitable alternative to the Western notion of impersonal, alien, and institutionalized secularism. It was not against religion — neither did it seek to divorce “religion” from the state. For Gandhi, religion functioned as a source of morals and ethics in politics, without which, politics would be animalistic. Thus, Ashoka (Buddhist) and Akbar (Muslim) were regarded as rulers of the past who could provide inspiration for the present — an inspiration for a multi-faith, multi-cultural country founded on religious morals and ethics and yet, equally respectful of and tolerant of different sects, cults, schools etc. No Hindu king made the cut to this exalted “secular” status. Such a state, it was thought, was suited to Indian conditions. It protected the “syncretic” and “pluralistic” ethos of Indian civilization by ensuring that the state respects diversity and ensures that this diversity fosters and is preserved. It drew upon the Indian experience of dealing with religious diversity in a non-confrontational manner, especially at the realm of folk culture — the Bhakti-Sufi cults. That is why figures like Sant Kabir, Dara Shikoh, and Amir Khusro became seminal heroes of such a narrative[x].

However, the Muslim League never bought into this narrative. In 1940 it adopted the official policy of “Two Nation Theory” at its Lahore Session — calling for the establishment of a Muslim State of Pakistan comprising of territories in the North-West and North-East. The changes brought about by the Second World War and the virtual inactivity of the Congress Party after 1942, made it possible for the Muslim League to win the entire Muslim vote in the 1946 elections. This was a referendum on Pakistan and thus sealed the fate of the Congress Party dream of a United India. Thus, on August 15, 1947, not one but two states were created after being freed from the British colonial yoke — India and Pakistan.

What is perplexing, however, is that the Hindu leadership of the Congress Party again chose to ignore the warnings and signs of history. The Partition saga was meant to re-assert and highlight the incompatibility between the Dharmic and Abrahamic faiths — and necessitate the creation of a Dharmic civilizational state in India. A step in that direction was taken through citizenship rules made in the beginning, which allowed Hindu and Sikh refugees to seek asylum while Muslims returning required permits and were not allowed to reclaim their properties[xi]. However, the Nehru-Liaqat Pact of 1950 brought that policy to an end — as both the states agreed to “protect each other’s minorities” in order to guarantee the security of the dominant community of one state in another state. This was the “critical hostage theory”[xii] — Muslims in India and Hindus in Pakistan were to act as collateral/guarantees for protection of Hindus in Pakistan and Muslims in India respectively. The strange paradox of this entire arrangement comes out in the fact that despite Nehru’s claim that India was a secular state and people of all religious communities had equal rights to it – he was willing to concede to the communal demands of Pakistan; to the extent that it involved in an ironical way the silent acceptance of India as a land of the Hindus and Muslims infantilized as a “protected minority” living within it. Yet, every effort was made to deny the Dharmic civilizational roots of the new Indian Republic, despite the very acceptance of the demand for Pakistan by the Congress Party[xiii]. The leaders of the Congress Party learned no lessons from the Partition saga and chose to believe that the trauma of Partition could be cured through the magical healing power of “communal harmony” — a chimera and a mirage which haunted and continues to Hindus and refuses to go away.

The search for this impossible utopia is evident in our Constitution. Article 30 of the Constitution has the following provisions [xiv] :

  • A minority community (both religious and linguistic) shall have the right to establish and administer educational institutions of its choice and the State shall not, in granting aid to such institutions, discriminate against an educational institution maintained by a minority community on the ground that it is under the management of a religious community.
  • Full compensation has to be paid if the State seeks to acquire the property of a minority educational institution.

Provisions such as these were meant to protect the cultural and educational rights of minorities, and it was assumed that the so-called “majority” community, enjoying a de-facto dominance over the public sphere, would not need any such protection. However, this provision turned out to be the perfect tool for discriminatory treatment against Hindu-run educational institutions vis-à-vis the minority ones. Hindu trust-run educational institutions were at a disadvantage because the state could take over their property anytime without paying full compensation; moreover, the state could discriminate against them legally in the grant of funds on the ground that they imparted religious instruction (there would be no such fetters on minority run institutions). In fact, even the nationalization of Hindu schools has been attempted and partially effected by many state governments while minority institutions continue to enjoy legal immunity. The ignominy of this discriminatory treatment is compounded by the fact that the provisions of the Right to Education Act, 2009, do not apply in the case of minority institutions. Thus, Hindu-run schools are placed in an adverse situation compared to schools run by other religious trusts because they have to compulsorily set apart 25 percent of the seats for economically underprivileged children[xv].

The “affirmative action policy” discriminates against the Hindu trust run private educational institutions (both aided and unaided) further. Through the 93rd and 103rd Amendments to the Constitution (2006 and 2019), the following clauses were inserted into Article 15 of the Constitution, which otherwise guarantees prohibition of discrimination on grounds of race, religion, caste, sex[xvi] :

5) Nothing in this article or in sub-clause (g) of Article 19 shall prevent the state from making any special provision, by law, for the advancement of any socially or educationally backward class of citizens or for the SC’s and ST’s in so far as the special provisions relate to their admission to educational institutions including private educational institutions, whether aided or unaided by the State, other than the minority educational institutions referred to in clause (1) of Article 30. (Emphasis mine).

6) Nothing in this article or in sub-clause (g) of  Clause (1) of Art.19 or Clause (2) of Art.29 shall prevent the state from making- b) any special provision for the advancement of any economically weaker class of citizens other than the ones mentioned in clauses (4) and (5) in so far as such special provisions relate to their admission to educational institutions including private educational institutions, whether aided or unaided by the State, other than the minority educational institutions referred to in Clause (1) of Art.30. (Emphasis mine).

Thus, Hindu institutions (even unaided ones) are at an intrinsic disadvantage when it comes to reservations made for admissions. On the other hand, not only are the minority run institutions free from this cumbersome burden, but they are free to reserve 50 percent of their seats for members of the religious community which runs the institution — like, St. Stephen’s College in Delhi and Aligarh Muslim University[xvii]. A Hindu institution like the Banaras Hindu University will never be allowed this privilege. A glaring example of the extent to which Hindu institutions are severely disadvantaged was the attempt by the Ramakrishna Mission, a premier Hindu monastic order, to seek “minority status” – a status distinct from Hinduism — in order to protect its educational institutions and its property from the then Government of West Bengal which was hell bent on confiscating them to establish its political influence[xviii]. Fortunately, the attempt did not succeed, and the government backed off, but it showed how vulnerable Hindus and Hindu institutions were to the depredations of the state and its asymmetrical treatment of different religions under the rubric of “Indian Secularism”.

Secularism’s Effects on Temples and Temple Management

This unjust treatment does not stop at the level of educational institutions. It further extends into the treatment of Hindu temples vis-à-vis the institutions of other religions. The state governments make use of a constitutional provision to usurp temple properties and funds, and even try to interfere in the customs and rituals of the temple. State appointees to temple trust boards make use of their power to serve interests and concerns not connected with the temple or Sanatana Dharma in any way. The provision, Article 25(2)[xix], runs as follows:

“Nothing in this article shall affect the operation of any existing law or preclude the State from making any law-

(a) Regulating or restricting any economic, financial, political or other secular activity which may be associated with religious practice;

(b) For social welfare and reform or for throwing open Hindu religious institutions of a public character to any class or section of Hindus.”

This Article constituted a direct attack on Sanatana Dharma. It basically makes the rights that Hindu religious institutions and denominations enjoy under Article 26[xx] meaningless, which is as follows:

“Freedom to manage religious affairs, subject to public order, morality and health- every religious denomination or any section thereof shall have the right

(a) to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes;

(b) to manage its own affairs in matters of religion;

(c) to own and acquire movable and immovable property; and

(d) to administer such property in accordance with law”

The Supreme Court in its various judgements has come up with an ingenious explanation to justify the stances of the state governments towards cash-rich Hindu temples. It has argued that by inserting and using such a provision, the states are not violating the fundamental right to religion or the rights of religious denominations to own property – and that it is basically a measure intended to ensure that “secular affairs” of a temple are taken care of by the state, while the religious and sacred customs are taken care of by the temple[xxi]. This is meant to check diverting endowments for purposes other than the ones for which they were created as well as to check corruption and leakage within the system as it is. The natural question that obviously crops up under such circumstances is that what makes other institutions immune to such legislation and why are only Hindu institutions subjected to them? The answer given by the court and many commissions set up to suggest reform measures in temple management stands as follows: that Hindus are the majority of the land and therefore reforms impacting Hindus will have greater impact; moreover, Hindu institutions are intrinsically or inherently “notorious” for corruption and pilferage and therefore need regulation; that Hindu institutions need to be “egalitarian,” etc[xxii]. As to why minority institutions like churches and mosques are exempt from such provisions, the answer is – they need some time to integrate with the national mainstream, and so, reforms will have to wait for a better time.

Curiously enough, that better time has not arrived in 70 years. What has instead happened is that, despite the artificial erection of barriers between religious and secular aspects of temple affairs by the Supreme Court — the State, which holds the purse strings, is encroaching upon the so-called “religious sphere” as well. The Tamil Nadu Government controls Hindu temples in the state through the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Board (HRCE), set up through the HRCE Acts of 1925, 51, 59[xxiii]. In an egregious example of contempt of court and sleight of hand, the Tamil Nadu Government incorporated provisions of the invalidated 1951 HRCE Act (through the Shirur Mutt case) in the 1959 Act again, but in a different language. HRCE Commissioners are appointed to temples for life, despite the Supreme Court in a recent judgement saying that they are intended to be there till the mischief is not rectified and settled[xxiv]. The temple priests are paid a very low salary which makes the profession unsustainable[xxv]. The Board engages in shoddy restoration and renovation works that do more harm than good — destroying murals and sculptures[xxvi]. The temple ecosystem and the people who depended on it for livelihood – the artisans, flower sellers, drum beaters, cooks and others stand to lose out in terms of sustenance. Temple murtis are smuggled abroad[xxvii], and even after being returned, kept in a shoddy way. Hundreds of millions of rupees accumulate in the temple coffers (hundi) but none of it (mysteriously) comes to be used in basic safety arrangements, leading to tragic disasters like the one in the Meenakshipuram Temple in 2019[xxviii].

Temple land is encroached upon by squatters and instead of evicting them, the state legalizes their theft of land at the cost of the temple. Temple land running into thousands of acres yield a trifling sum as rent, and yet the state sits over it[xxix]. Temple money is used for every purpose other than those connected with the welfare of the temple — like, for example, appropriating it for running a free food scheme (the credit given not to the temple, but the Chief Minister), for disbursing freebies to other religious communities, and for Covid-relief[xxx]. All this while temple servitors continue to suffer. If this was not enough to constitute an insult, the Tamil Nadu Government has started dictating the priests to perform rituals in Tamil, and even started appointing non-Brahman priests in violation of the Agama Shastras — all in violation of the artificial distinction set by the Supreme Court, defining the respective spheres of influence for the State and the temple[xxxi]. This is also in violation of the verdict by a Supreme Court Bench that ruled that appointment of temple priests must happen as per the Agamas. Curiously enough, some High Court judgements have come up with the ingenious explanation that even the appointment of priests is a “secular activity” that can be managed by the state, and only the very “act” of performing rituals fall within the religious basket[xxxii].

The greatest insult came from the State of Kerala during the Sabarimala Crisis. The head of the Kerala Devaswom Board, a self-declared atheist and communist, insulted the Tantri (Chief Priest) of Sabarimala by questioning his authority on religious matters and warning action against him for protecting the sanctity of the temple[xxxiii]. The State Government, in violation of its role as guardian of temple traditions, chose to implement stringently the Supreme Court’s 2018 judgement in violation of Tantra and Agama rules. (It could have chosen to file a review petition, which it ultimately did under public pressure in 2019, given that it had ignored previous Court judgements mandating state appropriation of church property[xxxiv]). Even in the case of the Padmanabhaswamy Temple, the eyes of the State Government were on the gold reserves lying in the temple’s chambers[xxxv]. That is why an attempt was made to usurp the temple from its natural guardians — the Royal Family of Travancore, the Verma dynasty. Even here the usurpation of temple funds for ostensibly Covid-relief related purposes took place[xxxvi].

Fortunately, however, in recent years a number of Supreme Court and High Court judgements have questioned the state’s rights to control and manage temples. The judgement in 2014 on the Chidambaram Nataraja Temple and the 2020 judgement on Padmanabhaswamy Temple are illustrative of this new and desirable trend. Social media has held up the Tamil Nadu and the Andhra Pradesh governments to scrutiny for their temple management practises. But much needs to be done even now. The Uttarakhand Government has passed recently a legislation nationalizing the fifty-one temples of the Hilly State[xxxvii]. In Karnataka and Andhra there have been instances where temple money has been used to fund Hajj and Christian pilgrimages[xxxviii].

Secularism’s Welfare Schemes foisted on Hindu Shoulders

Coming to the welfare schemes launched by both the Central as well as State governments, they are extremely partisan in nature (some of them targeted to cater to specific religious groups, in violation of the basic tenets of secularism). There are schemes to provide pre-matric, post-matric, postgraduate, and even PhD scholarships specifically to minorities (and only one group seems to benefit from it)[xxxix]. Free UPSC coaching classes are provided to them through tax-payers’ money, to create a “diverse and inclusive” bureaucracy[xl]. The Sachar Commission Report has been responsible for this trend of minority appeasement. Now even state police recruitment and other state services are being made to give preferences to “minority” groups[xli]. Some states like West Bengal have classified certain groups among the minorities as “backward” and chosen to give them reservations under the OBC category by inserting a separate sub-category, at the cost of other deserving OBC’s[xlii]. Salaries are being paid to Imams and Maulvis[xliii], and Waqf Boards (Muslim Charitable Endowment Boards) are funded by the state, in contrast to temples which are taxed[xliv]. When the former Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, said that “We will have to devise innovative plans to ensure that minorities, particularly the Muslim minority, are empowered to share equitably the fruits of development. These must have the first claim on resources,” in his address at the 52nd meeting of the National Development Council[xlv], it was an endorsement of the blatant minority appeasement policy that has been carried on in our country since independence.

The legal discrimination against Hindus vis-à-vis minorities is manifest in the existence of various personal laws for different religions, some of them even left uncodified. While polygamy is an unpardonable crime if practised by a Hindu, it is perfectly legal and moral for a Muslim to practice[xlvi]. If the objective of the Indian Constitution is to advance the cause of feminism, surely it can’t be said that feminism is good for one religious group and bad for other religious groups. A similar issue is the inferior rights to divorce and inheritance that a Muslim wife has vis-à-vis a Hindu wife (who has greater rights due to a westernized and secularized code)[xlvii]. Even child marriage is not a crime and evil if performed by a Muslim, as the Sharia allows children who attained puberty to be married (even converted ones) and this has been upheld by court judgements[xlviii]. A Hindu who converts to other religions can very well inherit his/her ancestral property[xlix], but the marriage of a Hindu woman and Muslim man if not done by nikah (requiring conversion to Islam) will lead to one’s marriage being void and inheritance rights thrown into question[l]. One might very well lose one’s sanity trying to find one’s way through this bewildering maze of executive orders and court judgements upholding such a blatantly unfair and discriminatory system. Yet this is the system we are supposed to uphold and celebrate as a tribute to our secularism. It extends to other spheres — like, the moral grandstanding of the judiciary pronouncing upon the “essential practises” of Hinduism and acting as a theologian while legitimizing the orthodox position in the case of other communities (using restrictions on Art. 25 as its weapon), the portraying of the digestion and appropriation of cultures as “diversity”, etc. As one hears advertisement agencies often saying, “Yahi to Khubsurti Hamari Desh Ki” (“This is the beauty of our country”).

“Queer” Secularism

As has been very clear from the discussion till now, India follows a very queer kind of approach which, even if it goes by the name of secularism, is vastly different from its Western counterpart. The reason for having the discussion on the origins of secularism and its trajectory in Europe in the beginning was to highlight this contrast. While western secularism emerged in a largely homogeneous (in spiritual /theistic sense) environment and was meant to address intra-religious dominance, oppression, and equality issues (given the history of the Thirty Years War), Indian secularism emerged in a “multi-religious environment” and thus seeks to address both “intra-religious” and “inter-religious domination”. While the West emphasizes individual rights, the Indian State emphasizes group/community rights. Rajiv Bhargava has tried to explain it as a policy of maintaining a “principled distance” between the state and religion[li] — not a “wall of separation” between the State and the Church (as in the West). This meant that the state would be/should be equally respectful of all religions and maintain an equidistance from all — a policy of non-discrimination rather than complete alienation[lii]. It draws from the legacy of the multi-cultural, pluralistic narrative that was woven by Gandhi, Nehru, and others in the course of the freedom movement. This, however, did not mean that the state would intervene in all religions and at the same time equally — addressing an evil of one community may be connected to and justified as part of advancing one particular goal — for example, social justice in the case of opening up of Hindu temples to all; or gender justice in case of abolition of Talaaq-e-Biddat among Muslims.  Thus, it is about maintaining a “principled distance” – allowing religious freedom and diversity while simultaneously intervening in religion to bring about social reform. It could, Bhargava says, even take the form of giving special rights and privileges to religious minorities — if it is connected with a principle or goal enshrined in the Constitution like social justice. According to Bhargava, this would not constitute discrimination as it is meant to address inter-religious relations — that is, the vulnerability of minorities vis-à-vis the “majority”.

Rajiv Bhargava’s work on secularism is the justification for the “Indian” or Gandhi-Nehru brand of secularism that India has been following until now. The points that we raised before fall in place if one considers Bhargava’s arguments. The problem with this argument is of course the very postulation of an “oppressive majority” vis-à-vis a “vulnerable, innocent minority” as the fundamental template of Indian social relations. It does not take into account the very diverse and pluralistic nature of the Hindu society — characterised by numerous jatis/castes, sects, schools, and the monolithic, homogeneous nature of the organized religions. Under such circumstances, it is very easy for an organized, determined religious minority to overwhelm a fragmented, confused majority; and the tendency gets aggravated if you provide them with special privileges. Being a majority is not a guarantee for safety and power. Such a ludicrous logic was evident in the framing of the Communal Violence Bill by the UPA-2 Government in 2011-12, where it was assumed that the majority community is by default responsible for any riot or violence[liii]. Even a state-wise analysis would have shown that Hindus are a vulnerable minority in many states but no doubt such a thing escaped the gaze of our eminent lawmakers and intellectuals. The mode of secularism that we have in India is asymmetric in its treatment of different religions which in itself is a violation of the original principle of secularism — that of treating all religions and religious groups equally. The very wording of executive decisions and laws, as well as constitutional provisions, makes this manifest. As a result, the Dharmic civilizational heritage, the bedrock of Indian consciousness and identity, is under threat in Bharatavarsha today.

There is no scope in this article for a discussion on the alternatives to the current system. The only thing that I would like to conclude with is that, given the origins of secularism in Western Europe and the problems it has created in India, there is a very strong case to make against what is popularly known as “Indian secularism”. As we have explored, it is simply irreconcilable with India’s civilizational ethos as it currently stands and harms it in many ways. There is a pressing need to re-examine and re-assess it in the light of conserving India’s Dharmic civilizational heritage, instead of being politically correct and choosing not to address the sick elephant in the room.



[i] Sinha, Arvind, “Europe in Transition: From Feudalism to Industrialization”, Manohar, New Delhi; 2017

[ii] Weber, Max, “Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”, 1905

[iii] Perry, Marvin, “Western Civilization: Ideas, Politics and Society”, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, New York, 2009

[iv] Sinha, Arvind, “Europe in Transition”

[v] Hobsbawm, Eric, “Nations and Nationalisms since 1780”, Cambridge University Press, 1992

[vi] Chandrachud, Abhinav, “Temple and State”, The Hindu, June 16, 2018

[vii] Bandyopadhyay, Sekhar, “From Plassey to Partition: A History of Modern India”, Orient Blackswan; 2004

[viii] Ibid

[ix] Ibid

[x] Nandi, Ashish, “An Anti-Secularist Manifesto”, Seminar, Issue 314: pp. 14-24, 1985

[xi] Chatterjee, Joya, “Bengal Divided: Hindu Communalism and Partition, 1932-47”, Cambridge University Press, 1994

[xii] Dhulipala, Venkat, “Creating a New Medina: State Power, Islam and the Quest for Pakistan in Late Colonial North India”, Cambridge University Press, 2015

[xiii] A glaring indication of that in PM Nehru’s refusal to attend the foundation stone laying ceremony of Somnath Temple, and warning others — notably Patel, Prasad and KM Munshi- from doing so as he felt it was a show of “Hindu Revivalism” and would harm India’s international image. (Maheshwari, Manish, “When Nehru Opposed Restoration of Somnath Temple”, Swarajya, May 12, 2017)

[xiv] Basu, D. D., “Introduction to The Constitution of India”, LexisNexis, 2020

[xv] Desai, A Prabhu, “Hindu-Run Schools Buckling Under Right to Education Law”, Swarajya, October 28, 2016

[xvi] Basu, D. D., Introduction to The Constitution of India

[xvii] Banerjee, Rumu, “Delhi: 50% Christian Quota in St. Stephen’s “, Times of India; June 15, 2008

[xviii] Punj, Balbir, “Yearning for Minority Status”, The New Indian Express, April 5, 2018

[xix] Basu, D. D., Introduction to The Constitution of India

[xx] Ibid

[xxi] Bhatia, Gautam, “Individual, Community and State: Mapping the terrain of religious freedom under the Indian Constitution”, legallyindia, February 7, 2016

[xxii] Justice Challah Kondaiah Commission of Andhra Pradesh, 1986

[xxiii] Tamil Nadu HRCE Act

[xxiv] Srivatsan, A, “Century Old Temple Conflict Ends”, The Hindu, January 6, 2014

[xxv] Prabhu, S, “Making a Case for Temple Priests”, The Hindu, April 5, 2018

[xxvi] Venkataraman, Swami, “Great Hypocrisy of Secular Indian State: It Controls Only Temples, We Must Take Them Back”, Swarajya, November 6, 2017

[xxvii] Rao, Manasa, “Idol Wing Crackdown: TN HRCE official’s arrest raises eyebrows”, The News Minute, December 17, 2018

[xxviii] Sundar, S, “Fire in Madurai Meenakshi Temple”, The Hindu, February 3, 2018

[xxix] Ramakrishnan, Deepa H, “Beyond Faith: The Contentious Issue of Temple Land in Tamil Nadu”, The Hindu, November 24, 2019.

[xxx] Yamunan, Sruthisagar, “Why a Tamil Nadu circular asking temples to contribute to Covid-19 relief led to political storm”, Scroll, May 12, 2020

[xxxi] Ganesh, S., and Vasanth, B.A., “Tamil Nadu’s first government-trained, non-Brahmin priest and his God moment”, The Hindu, August 4, 2018

[xxxii] Chandrachud, Abhinav, “Temple and State”, The Hindu, June 16, 2018

[xxxiii]Travancore Devaswom Board to seek explanation from Sabarimala head priest over purification rituals”, The Economic Times, January 4, 2019

[xxxiv]Church Takeover: HC slams Kerala Govt”, The Hindu, November 9, 2020

[xxxv] Krishnakumar, R., “Treasures of History”, Frontline, July 29, 2011

[xxxvi] Babu, Ramesh, “Kerala HC asks govt to return Rs. 10 Crore it got from Guruvayur Temple”, Hindusthan Times, December 18, 2020.

[xxxvii] Santoshi, Neeraj, “Uttarakhand HC upholds constitutional validity of Uttarakhand Char Dham Devasthanam Management Act”, Hindusthan Times, July 21, 2020

[xxxviii] Killur, Vignesh, “Utilization of Temple Funds in Karnataka: A Factual Report”, IndiaFacts, September 19, 2018.

[xxxix] Website of the Ministry of Minority Affairs, Government of India —

[xl] Guidelines for implementation of Prime Minister’s New 15 Points Programme for the Welfare of Minorities- Ministry of Minority Affairs, GOI —

[xli] Mohammed Wajihuddin, “Leaders spur minority youths to join police force in Maharashtra”, Times of India, July 22, 2020

[xlii] Website of West Bengal Commission for Backward Classes —

[xliii]Calcutta High Court scraps Mamata’s stipend for Imams”, NDTV; September 2, 2013

[xliv]Priest asks why Govt imposes tax only on Hindu temples”, The New Indian Express, November 25, 2019.

[xlv]Muslims must have first claim on resources: PM”, Times of India, December 9, 2006

[xlvi] Krishnan, Murali, “Muslim Personal Law Board opposes Supreme Court petition that seeks to end polygamy”, Hindusthan Times, January 27, 2020.

[xlvii] Comparison between the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 and the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Act of 1986

[xlviii] Sheriff M, Kaunain, “Muslim Personal Law conflicts with POSCO, says Delhi court, allows marriage of minor girl”, The Indian Express, March 21, 2017.

[xlix] Thomas, Shibu, “Woman convert to Islam can claim Hindu dad’s property”, Times of India, March 17, 2018.

[l]Marriage of a Hindu woman and a Muslim man is not valid- woman cannot inherit man’s property”, Times of India, January 22, 2019

[li] Bhargava, Rajeev, “The Distinctiveness of Indian Secularism”, T.N. Srinivasan (ed.) “The Future of Secularism”, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2006

[lii] Mahajan, Gurpreet, “Secularism as religious non‐discrimination: The universal and the particular in the Indian context”, India Review, September 28, 2007

[liii] Jagannathan, R., “9 Reasons Why the Communal Violence Bill is itself Communal”, Firstpost, May 30, 2011.

Sukrit Banerjee

Sukrit Banerjee earned a BA in History from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, in 2020, and is now working toward earning an MA in History from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. He is also trained in Rabindra Sangeet and Hindustani Classical Music. He writes on matters of history, law, politics, and current affairs.