What is Indian secularism?

Secularism is more than laws, concessions, and special considerations. It is a state of mind, at best almost an instinctive feeling, such as India has known for many centuries.

Dictionary definitions of secularism do not apply in any particular situation. Culture and context provide secularism with various manifestations which move well beyond what the lexicons tell us. In Western Europe, as a result of confrontation between the state and the church, secularism has come to mean the separation of the two, and particularly laicisation in education. In the erstwhile Soviet Union, secularisation denoted atheism and an assault on religions as agents of exploitation. In India, with several religions and the religious element deeply embedded in the human psyche, and with two centuries of foreign rule, the secular idea has taken shape in ways which have no parallels elsewhere.

The present and future of secularism in India should be seen in historical perspective. As Tagore wrote, the muffled steps of the past are felt in blood. India has, from time immemorial, been the home of several religions. Christianity came in the early centuries after Christ and long before it was accepted in Europe. Jews and Zoroastrians settled in the country without difficulty. Muslims came to India several centuries prior to their becoming a political force. But varying religious beliefs did not form a source of social tension. Alongside the maintenance of private identity, and often even enclosed social habit, there was also mutual influence and adaptation among people of different faiths. Converts to Christianity from Hinduism carried with them several customs, caste privileges, and a faith in horoscopes. The impact of Jewish and Hindu traditions can be seen in Syrian Christian church architecture in Kerala. Similarly, mosques in Gujarat show the influence of Jain temples in the neighbourhood. Hindustani or Urdu is a language with Hindu and Muslim lineage; and the interaction of Hinduism and Islam can also be seen in music, dress, and food. Nor could the two religions evolve in India in isolation. An inscription of the year 1264 found in Junagadh, written in Sanskrit and issued by a group of Muslim traders, refers to Allah as Viswanatha. This strand strengthens with the development of the Sufi and Bhakti movements and the emergence of figures like Ramanand and Kabir.


Was this background of popular culture acceptable to the rulers? It is easy to find instances in the history of ancient and medieval India of the desecration or demolition of institutions of religious significance.

But such actions were not the monopoly of the followers of any one particular religion. A Hindu ruler of the eleventh century, Harsha of Kashmir, melted images in Hindu temples, and a Hindu general cut down the Bo-tree in Bodhgaya. Shaivites and Vaishnavites, Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains, Sunnis and Shias quarrelled and frequently pillaged each others’ shrines. When the Sikhs conquered Sirhind in 1764, they deliberately destroyed all buildings, including the mosques. There is no room for generalisations about bigotry applicable only to Muslims.

Nor were such actions the result solely of mindless fanaticism. If Mahomed of Ghazni demolished the temple at Somnath, he also destroyed mosques in Central Asia; and he had in his service a Hindu general who helped him to lay hands on the immense wealth to be found in these institutions. Akbar was, of course, an enlightened monarch. But he drank, wherever he was, only water from the Ganga and married a Hindu wife because he sought to derive political advantage rather than to demonstrate devotion to Hinduism, just as Aurangzeb believed that his religious zeal would secure him not just merit in heaven but the loyalty of his restive Muslim subjects. In parallel actions he sought to win over the Hindus in his empire by land grants to temples. Such temples as he did destroy were located mostly in areas which were in political revolt. Religious institutions, be they temples, mosques, or gurdwaras, were also symbols of dynastic dominance. The main interest of rulers, then and now, is the pursuit and maintenance of power, and bigotry or tolerance, as the case may be, was linked to political interest. Ranjit Singh in 1801 had Muslim learned men present at his court not just to show his broadmindedness but to get these men to validate his claim to be king of the Punjab. Human motivation is complex, and all historical events have plural explanations.

To establish authority in India over people of several faiths, rulers had perforce to keep religion in its place. Babur, with the help of Rajput allies, defeated at Panipat the Muslim sultan of Delhi. The number of Hindus in Mughal service continued to rise till in Aurangzeb’s time they formed a third of the total. In later Mughal campaigns special provision was made for the prayers of both Hinduism and Islam, and a Jain temple was constructed close to the Red Fort at Delhi for the benefit of Jain soldiers in the imperial service. In South India, in the fifteenth century many Syrian Christian churches were built or sponsored by Hindu rulers in return for military service by the Christians; and Christians were donors at Hindu temples. A Maratha ruler built one of the five minarets of the dargah at Nagore. A Muslim ruler was the benefactor of the temple at Madurai, and the nawab of Arcot was the protector of temples at Chidambaram and Tirupati. Tipu Sultan of Mysore in 1793 bore all the expenses for the restoration of the math at Sringeri which had been destroyed by a Maratha chief. To this day there are shared traditions and ceremonials in the temples, mosques, and churches of South India.

In these years, then, religion did not dominate public affairs but was at most one of several factors in a society with ‘a predominantly syncretic culture’ and with no ‘pervading sense of social separateness’. Tension and riots, such as would today be termed communal, can be noticed occasionally from the eighteenth century onwards, but were the result of religious divisions coinciding with economic antagonisms or of local economic change being mixed up with religious disputes. Certainly there was no sense of a religious community functioning as such in politics. A change, however, occurred with the coming of the British. The fact that they landed in the coastal areas, where the majority of the local population happened to be Hindus, meant that it was primarily the Hindus who took advantage of the avenues of trade and employment opened by the British and of education in the English language. We can imagine how very different the situation would have been if the British had come in as a land power and if, like all their other predecessors who came into India, they had come in from the north-west. If they had found themselves say on the North West Frontier and in the Punjab and the UP, where Muslim influence was considerable and where also the Muslim population was greater than in the coastal areas, the situations would have been different. But the fact remains that they landed in the coastal areas, and by the time the British moved into the interior of the country where lay the zones of Muslim influence, a regional imbalance in economic and social development had been created.

This slotted smoothly into the British understanding that India was not a nation, as she did not conform to nineteenth-century European thinking that blood and language were the criteria of nationhood, but a cluster of peoples with separate religious identities. These ‘imagined religious communities’, moreover, were seen as traditionally hostile to each other. British policy was based on this assumption that India was permanently fractured by religion.

Ironically, the Indian National Congress, the party claiming to speak for the growing nationalist sentiment, was inclined to the same illusion. Its leaders too acted on the basis that Hindus and Muslims were separate entities. At its fourth session in 1889, for example, the Congress resolved that no subject would be discussed if the Hindu or Muslim delegates as a body objected. In 1916 politicians claiming to represent Hindu and Muslim interests met to frame a joint representation to the government. Leading figures in the Congress, not excluding Gandhi, spoke increasingly in a Hindu idiom.

So British policy and Congress shortsightedness, working in a context of British policy and lopsided development, nourished the religious element in Indian politics; and this culminated in the partition of the country. The counter-efforts of Nehru and others to build a national identity failed to make headway. Little ground was gained by their attempts to point out that communalism was shallow, skin-deep, and of relatively recent origin; and that priority should be given to the problems of poverty, hunger, and illiteracy which concerned most Indians and overrode differences in religion. But Nehru at least succeeded in getting the Congress in 1931 to accept that in a free India there would be freedom of conscience, all citizens would be equal before the law irrespective of religion, creed, caste, or sex, no disability would attach for these reasons in regard to employment, and the state would be neutral in regard to all religions. These were the building-blocks of Indian secularism from 1947.

After the fierce frenzy of the riots that accompanied Partition, followed soon after by the murder of the Mahatma, independent India sought to move away from a steep descent into savagery and to put together the broken pieces of national identity. The categories of secular practice enunciated in 1931 were incorporated in the constitution of 1950. The principles of national cohesion would be the divorce of religion from politics and public life, the separation of the state from the churches of all faiths, the insistence on religion as a private matter for the individual with no bearing on civic rights or duties, and freedom for the profession of diverse forms of religious worship provided no problems of law and order were created. These secular values derive from no borrowed ideology but, apart from drawing strength from their own logic, make Indian historical experience meaningful. Integral to a civilised outlook, they also provide the policy best suited to India. They form the social cement required by a multi-religious society striving to become a healthy democratic community. They provide the only way of making certain that no one is treated as a second-class citizen on the ground of religion.

What is worrying is that secularism of this type has not as yet taken firm root in India. The state itself has to bear some responsibility for this, for its policy in this regard has, from the start, been faltering. The Constituent Assembly resolved in 1948 that communal political parties should be banned; but no action has been taken till now on this resolution because of legal difficulties in defining a communal party. The banning of cow-slaughter was made, despite the resistance of Gandhi and Nehru, one of the Directive Principles of State Policy. Though no action has been taken in this matter, a principle was jettisoned as a concession to a chauvinist section of Hindu opinion.

Above all, while the reform of Hindu personal law was initiated, a common civil law for all Indians was not enacted, despite a pledge to this effect in the constitution. This is a violation of the principle of equality before the law, for Muslim women are at present being denied the rights given to Indian women of other faiths. There is no room in a society which declares itself to be secular for inequalities which claim religious sanction. Religion should be divorced not only from politics but also from the law. Indeed the Constituent Assembly had, by a resolution in 1948, refused to accept that Muslim personal law was an inseparable part of the Islamic religion and rejected attempts to exempt it from the Directive Principle favouring a uniform civil code.

If the Government of India were reluctant, in the early years, to act on this resolution and impose a common civil law, it was because of the conviction of Nehru and his colleagues that, on the morrow of Partition, the minorities required special consideration. There might still be a few Muslims in India who were communal, and any efforts of theirs to make mischief would have to be dealt with sternly. But more attention should be given to winning the Muslims over and making them feel at home in a free India. The problem of minorities was basically one for the majority community to handle. The test of success was not what the Hindus thought but how the Muslims and other communities felt, just as, while minorities might turn communal out of a sense of grievance or insecurity, communalism of the majority community was dangerous and, masquerading as nationalism, was in fact a form of fascism. The minorities might sometimes be driven by fear to be communal; but there could never be any justification or rational explanation for majority communalism. Only if the Hindus were secular could the minorities be helped to become secular.

A problem which goes to the root of rational life can only be solved by raising the broad level of society and building up the human factor at every level. A secular state can only be grounded in a robust civil society. Even in the matter of personal laws, the way is open for liberal opinion among Muslims, after living in a free India for so many years, to utilise the precedent of changes in Islamic personal law carried out by the British before 1947 without much protest and to follow up the resolution of the Constituent Assembly. It is true that in 1986 a statute set aside a judgment of the supreme court by which a divorced Muslim woman without any means of subsistence was granted maintenance till she remarried. Yet that statute itself has been questioned by several high courts. But for the present crisis one could have hopefully awaited an initiative to arise within the Muslim community in an India committed to secularism for reforms in the personal law in the interests of gender rights.

However, will the present crisis be overcome? The outlook today is dark, but the past gives hope. Secularism is more than laws, concessions, and special considerations. It is a state of mind, at best almost an instinctive feeling, such as India has known for many centuries. With the impetus of democracy and the spread of education, that traditional sense of a common bond which subdues communal feeling can be restored and made stronger. As far back as in July 1948, in the wake of months of communal frenzy, Nehru looked forward with confidence to a brighter future. ‘I believe’, he wrote, ‘that India can only become great if she preserves that composite culture which she had developed through the ages … whatever might happen in the present, sometime or other, India will have to tread that path to self-realisation and greatness.’ That note of optimism can strengthen us still.

Photo: Meena Kadri