This article has been authored by Ramya Singh, a second-year student at RMLNLU, Lucknow.
The term Secularism was coined by George Jacob Holyoake, a non-religious atheist writer who also propounded the term jingoism. He has propounded various principles of secularism. One of them being, ‘secularism is the study of promoting human welfare by material means; measuring human welfare by the utilitarian rule, and making the service of others a duty of life’. However, the ideas discussed by him are a separate discourse from the general notion of secularism. Now ‘State secularism’ is prevalent instead of secularism. It has gone through an evolutionary transition starting from Holyoake’s idea to the present-day practice. The literal meaning of State secularism(hereinafter secularism) is, ‘indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations’.
The modern-day secularism seen today is different from its archaic version. The term secularism takes its origin from the word secular. The term secular can be referred to a view encompassing two broad principles. Firstly, the separation of religion from State which leaves people free to practise their religion provided they don't infringe the freedoms of others and allow the non-religious people to live without the imposition of religion upon them through law, education, government, employment or health. This promotes freedom of religion and from religion. Secondly, the principle of equality before the law seeks to remove all privileges or penalties for having or lacking religious faith, to ensure that no belief - religious or otherwise - receives special protection from criticism.
Furthermore, the inequalities which some support within their religion are not all pervasive and they won't be supported outside the scope of that religion. Obviously under this principle blasphemy and apostasy are non-punishable.
When properly understood, secularism creates an environment of equality that benefits everyone due to which it's supported by theists and atheists, religious and non-religious people, alike. A secular nation is not a Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Parsi or any other nation, it's not even a religious nation. It's a nation of many faiths and none. And even within faith groups there can be fundamental differences of opinion on important issues. The interests of both religious and non-religious are protected when secular boundaries are established, as it prevents any single religion from dominating others. Secularism denies no one a religious identity. It defends the freedom of religion but does not enshrine the freedom to impose a religious identity on others. Secularism says, having a religious identity does not justify special tax exemption, preaching religion in State schools, inserting narrow religious values into common law, having unelected religious leaders as legislators. Redressing these unjust and inappropriate privileges is not totalitarian nor is it an attack on faith. It's a recognition of the freedom of all people to live without divisive inequalities.
To sum up, State secularism is when there is no official State religion. The government does not promote or condemn any particular religion or religious viewpoint allowing everyone to believe whatever they want and practice whatever religion they choose. It refrains from discriminating anyone based on their faith. Also, religious organizations play no role in determining State policy and in return the government also has no role in determining the precepts of any religious organizations. Furthermore, the rights of religious minorities are protected and the religion of an individual has no impact on his or her rights or societal status. Nonetheless all members of a society are considered equal in all regards, regardless of religious association or faith.
Nowadays in India, the awareness regarding the constitutional perspective is escalating. The same effect is on the term secularism, which is gaining widespread use and is being added to the common household jargon. This might seem to be intensifying the democratic cloth of the country, however the possibility of it being misunderstood is increasing at the same pace which has resulted into an aggressive conundrum. Thus, it becomes significant to understand the foundation and application of this idea in India.
This subject is of immense depth and meticulous efforts have been made in its discussion since its inception, to consider its importance, usage, ambiguity and some underlying defects. Hence, the purpose of this article is to state the basic tenets which lay the ground of the Constitutional dream of a Secular Democratic India.
Secularism in India
On 26 January 1950, the Constitution of India took effect to establish a secular and not a theocratic State. The mindset of the members of Constituent Assembly framed the provisions of the Constitution in a secular fashion. No religious dominance or preference is implied by any of the provisions. The secularism entrenched in the Constitution, is not based on the lines of the literal meaning of the term secularism, but on more of a creative and progressive outline which happens to be quintessential to this nation. As regards to the nature of Indian secularism, it is neither anti-religion like some of the socialist or communist constitutions, nor does it create a wall of separation between the State and religion as in the United States. It is also not based on total neutrality or indifference towards religion. It is effectively based on equal respect for all religions and embodies the age-old Indian concept of sarva-dharma-sambhava (all religions are equal). Thus, teaching of Sanskrit in schools, reservation of seats for Sangha in the Legislative Assembly of Sikkim and acquisition of places of worship, including mosques, is not against secularism.
The Indian secularism can be said to have three distinct functions - Separation, freedom and equality. The State of pseudo separation of the State and religious institutions and a public domain where religion may participate, but not dominate. Freedom of an individual to let him/her practice or change one’s faith or belief or not have one, without harming others. Equality in the sense that one’s religious beliefs or lack of them does not put the one at an advantageous or a disadvantageous position as compared to the others.
Secularism as an ideology in the Indian realm, is one which encourages and supports religious freedom. It is about democracy and fairness and also equal access to public services offered by the State. Most importantly secularism is not atheism, option of practice or no practice of any faith is out of its sphere. Also, it safeguards free speech and expression and lets one have a choice over his own voices and opinions unless they are vindictive to other’s similar interest.
Indian Constitution on Secularism
Secularism was expressly introduced in the Constitution when the term ‘Secular’ was added to the Preamble of the Constitution by the Forty-Second Constitution Amendment Act of 1976. However, since the commencement of the Constitution in 1950, various provisions have been impliedly expressing the manifested secular nature of the India. Thus, secularism was a part of the Constitution even before the word ‘secular’ was inserted in the Preamble. The provisions emphasise the fact that India is a secular nation which has no State religion and India should endeavour to establish pseudo State neutrality, in the sense that all the religions should not be ignored but recognised and accepted without any bias for any particular religion.
The basic principles of secularism are embodied by some provisions of the fundamental rights enshrined under Part III of the Constitution and fundamental duties enshrined under Part IV-A of the Constitution.
Right to equality
Article 14 of the Constitution grants equality before the law and equal protection of the laws to all and Article 15 of the Constitution enlarges the concept of secularism by prohibiting discrimination on grounds of religion. Also, Article 16(1) of the Constitution guarantees equality of opportunity to all citizens in matters of public employment irrespective of their religion.
Right to Freedom of Religion
Article 25 of the Constitution entitles freedom of conscience and right to freely profess, practise and propagate religion to all the people. Article 26 of the Constitution lets any religious group or individual to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes and to manage its own affairs in matters of religion. As per Article 27 of the Constitution, the State shall refrain from compelling any citizen to pay any taxes for the promotion or maintenance of any particular religion or religious institution. Also, Article 28 of the Constitution allows educational institutions maintained by different religious groups to impart religious instruction.
Fundamental Duties contained under Article 51-A of the Constitution lay down obligations for all the citizens to promote harmony and the spirit of common brotherhood and to value and preserve the rich heritage of our composite culture.
Indian contrast with Western Model of Secularism
Around the world, secularism is practised in various ways, these ways can be categorized into three categories. Secularism in some parts of the west, one of them being USA, is exercised by the total separation of the State and the religion. Both of them have their own separate spheres and neither the State nor the religion interferes with another. The other form or model is when the State is anti-religion, it discourages the bloom of any religion. The third model is of total neutrality or indifference towards religion, the State has no association with any form of religion, it neither encourages nor demoralizes it. It is also not an absolute separation of State and religion. The state does not intentionally maintain distance from religion or is hostile towards it, it does not concern about the existence or functioning of religion.
However, none of the above-mentioned paradigms is the Indian model of secularism. Though it may be referred to as a cumulative assembly of all of them, but not in their entirety. In India, there is no separate wall, both State and religion can, and often do, interact and intervene in each other's affairs within the legally prescribed and judicially settled parameters. In order to preserve the minority rights, the Indian model has chosen a positive mode of engagement, the State provides all religious minorities the right to establish and maintain their own educational institutions which may receive assistance from State. Furthermore, the Indian State interferes in religion to remove blemishes from it which go against public good. Legislation against the practices of sati or widow-burning, dowry, animal and bird sacrifice, child marriage, preventing Dalits from entering temples and triple talaq illustrate this. In addition to this, the Indian State does not restrict religion to be an entirely private affair, and it has the policy of setting up Departments of Religious Endowments, Wakf Boards etc. and is moreover involved in appointing Trustees of these boards.
The goal which secularism in India sorts to achieve is of sarva-dharma-sambhava, yet the theory is varied from what is practised. If this ideal means unrestricted use of religion in politics or matters of religion so long as religion is not used for creating ill-will among different communities, then the secular image of the State will remain questionable because the religion of the majority community will be much more visible in the public life than the religion of the minorities. This makes the religious and political influence among each other continue unabated. The State must therefore, maintain a partial separation from religion and keep itself away from it except for the purpose of its regulation when it comes in the way of other rights of the individual and constitutional values.
The Indian idea of secularism is based on establishing an egalitarian society where there is respect for individual’s religious and ethnic identities with an innate public spirit. The State encourages each religion equally and safeguards the minorities. It does not envisage a strict wall between State and religion and thus when the need comes it criticises and also abolishes those practices which are against the constitutionally protected rights. In a nutshell, this paradigm can be termed as extensively optimistic in nature. There is no denying to the fact that this goal can be achieved but for attaining it, the State is required to be operationally vigilant, prompt, progressive and regulatory.
In a pluralistic society like India which is largely piously and politically driven, the most viable approach to nurture secularism is to dilate religious freedom rather than strictly practise State neutrality or exclusion of State and religion. The value education system of the country should nurture the generations to not only respect their own religious faiths but also of others, thus a sense of individuality circumscribing a national spirit should be invigorated. Apart from this, there is also a need to identify a common structure or a shared set of values which allows the diverse groups to live together which can be achieved through the social reform initiative like Uniform Civil Code. The aim is to create a conducive environment and forging socio-political consensus moreover developing and understanding and respect towards different religions.