in Canada Secular?
Secularity in Great Britain
and Secular Attitudes in France
Secularism: The Case of Denmark
Secularism in India
The Secular Israeli Jewish Identity
Secularism in Iran: a Hidden Agenda?
Secularism in India
Asghar Ali Engineer
in India has unique implications and meaning. In the Indian context, the
word secularism has never been used in the sense in which it has often been
used in Western countries, i.e., in the sense of atheism or a purely
this-worldly approach, rejecting other-worldly beliefs.
is a country where religion is very central to its people’s lives.
as expounded in Hindu scriptures called Upanishad, is sarva dharma
samabhava, which means equal respect for all religions.
The reason behind this approach is the fact that India
has never been a mono-religious country.
Even before the advent
of Christianity and Islam, India was multi-religious in nature.
India is one country
where caste rigidity and the concept of untouchability have evolved and
still play a major role in religious, social, and cultural matters. Under
the feudal system, there was no competition among the different religious
traditions, as authority resided in the sword; generally, there was no
tension among the people of different religions. Though occasional
inter-religious controversies did arise, blood was never shed in the name of
entire social, economic, and political scenario changed after the advent of
the British rule in 19th century. Differences between the Hindu and Muslim
elites began to emerge for various socio-cultural, economic, and political
reasons. The British rulers, adopting the policy of divide and conquer,
distorted medieval Indian history to make Muslim rulers appear as tyrants to
the Hindu elite.
The Hindu elite were
quick to adjust to new realities and took to modern education, commerce, and
industries. The Muslim ruling elite resisted the new secular education
system and did not take to commerce and industry. They were thus left far
behind in the race for progress.
When the Indian
National Congress was formed in 1885, it adopted secularism as its anchor
sheet in view of the multi-religious nature of Indian society.
India could not head
towards Hindu Rashtra (Hindu Nation), as India was not merely a Hindu
country. Prior to partition in 1947, Muslims were 25 percent of the
population of the British Raj, and, in addition, there were other religious
minorities such as Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains. However, Hindu
society was a highly fragmented society and far from monolithic. The Dalits
(low caste people) refused to call themselves Hindus; subsequently, their
leader B. R. Ambedkar adopted Buddhism in protest.
After independence and
partition, a large body of Muslims was left in India; hence, leaders like
Gandhi and Nehru preferred to keep India secular in the sense that the
Indian state will have no religion, though the people of India will be free,
both in an individual and a corporate sense, to follow any religion of their
birth or adoption. Secularism in India was more a political than personal or
philosophical phenomenon. The Indian National Congress adopted secularism
not as a worldly philosophy but more as a political arrangement among
different religious communities. Thus, India remained politically secular,
while its people continued to be deeply religious.
Right from the British
period, the main conflict in India was not between the religious and the
secular; rather, it was between the secular and the communal. In the Western
world, the main struggle is that of the Church with the state and civil
society, respectively, but in India neither Hinduism nor Islam had any
church-like structure; so there never was any such struggle between secular
and religious power structures.
Secularism in India
means equal respect for all religions and cultures, and the non-interference
of religion in government affairs. Also, according to the Indian
Constitution, no discrimination will be made on the basis of caste, creed,
gender, or class. Similarly, all citizens of India have the right to vote,
irrespective of religion, gender, or caste.
Secular and Unsecular
In India an
overwhelming majority of people are religious, but tolerate and respect
other religions and are thus ‘secular’ in the Indian context.
Thus, the real spirit
of secularism in India is all-inclusiveness, religious pluralism, and
peaceful co-existence. However, it is politics that has proved to be
divisive and not religion. With few exceptions, it is not religious leaders
who divide but the politicians seeking to mobilize votes on grounds of
primordial identities like religion, caste, and ethnicity.
In the case of India, one can say by and large that it remains secular in as
much as it is religiously plural and tolerant. However, there are quite
active and politically divisive forces intent on creating communal pressure
and widening the gaps among religious communities, thus bringing Indian
secularism under threat.