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What is Secularism in India? Secular Meaning and Facts

Secularism in India: Secularism is a concept that separates religion from the state and its governance. It is an ideology that differentiates religion from political, economic, social, and cultural aspects. Secularism is the term used to keep religion purely as a personal matter. Secularism emphasizes the neutrality of the government with respect to religious beliefs.

What does ‘Secular’ mean?

The term ‘secular’ means not connected with religious or spiritual matters. Having no religious basis and being separate from religion is being secular. It refers to being devoid of any religious basis or any part of it.

A secular person is one with more practical, logical, and scientific thinking as the basis of his morals and values. Such a person propagates secularism non-discriminately and places faith, logic, and religions equally. A person who does not owe his logic and values to any religion and considers rationally and scientifically is called to be secular.

What is Secularism in India?

  • Separation of government and their institutions from religious institutions and religious dignitaries is ideally secularism.
  • The term refers to the treatment of religion as a private concern and personal matter separating it from other aspects of life and governance.
  • The concept emphasizes the separation of the state and religion ensuring complete freedom and acceptance of all religions equally.
  • Religious institutions have no domination from the political units of the country. Ordinarily, it is believed that no religion should influence other spheres of governance in organizations, institutions or the country.
  • It is a normative doctrine that seeks to make a secular society and countries that imbibe secularism are free from inter-religious and intra-religious domination. Secularism promotes freedom to practice their religion and equality between religions as well as within religions.

Secularism in India

Secularism in India: Indian Secularism separates the government institutions and persons of government-mandated to represent the state from religious institutions and religious dignitaries.

In India, legislators and the judicial wing of the state intertwine with the religious affairs of the country. Indian secularism does not relinquish religion completely from state affairs.

Features of Secularism in India

Historical Importance: The concept of Indian Secularism is deeply rooted in the ancient history of the country. It safeguards every citizen of the country and their customs, beliefs and religious practices followed for ages. The concept is the advent of Sarva Dharma Sambhava i.e. equal respect to all religions.

Official Religion: India has no official religion of its own. The county respects all religions equally without any preference. The state also owes no allegiance or ties to any specific religion. India is neutral and impartial towards all religions and their followers.

Fundamental Right: India in its constitution protects secularism for citizens of the country. It welcomes and allows worshipping and following any religion. Freedom of religion is a part of the Indian constitution and therefore judiciary can be approached in case of breach.

State Affairs: India is run by political parties who are not chosen based on their religion. Citizens of the country are free to choose their political leaders and their religion at the same time. However, the state is sovereign and above all the institutions.  They have religious freedom they can follow any religion of their choice irrespective of the state. The state does not interfere with religious institutions respecting their customs and practices.

Traces of Secularism in India

In India, there is no specific official state religion and there are personal laws as to different religions. Secularism in India embraces religious plurality and the coexistence of different religions respectfully.

Two Aspects of Secularism

Dharam Nirpekshta – Separation of religion from the state Sarva Dharma – Equal respect to all religions by state
Adopted by Western Societies Supported by Mahatma Gandhi

The term secularism can be traced to the Vedic era. Dharma Nirapekshata (the indifference of the state to religion) existed in the Vedic times. Western societies where the government is separate from religion are one such example of Dharma Nirapekshata.

Another concept is of Sarva Dharma Sambhava i.e. destination of the paths followed by all religions is the same, though the paths themselves may be different. Indian philosophy is based on this principle which means equal respect to all religions.

Genesis of Secularism in India

Principled Distance Model – Adopted in Indian Constitution Communal Harmony Model – Attributed to Mahatma Gandhi

India preaches a balance between the claims of individuals and religious communities aiming for secularism as a means to equal treatment of all religions. Secularism in India separates the government institutions and persons of government-mandated to represent the state from religious institutions and religious dignitaries.

However, this separation is not strictly demarcated and only a well-respected boundary i.e. principled distance between religion and state. The Principled Distance Model is construed in the provisions of the Indian constitution.

On the other hand, based on the philosophies of Mahatma Gandhi is the Communal Harmony Model which mentions that religions may vary but god is the same for all. The model insists on the principles to ensure comfort, communal harmony, respect, and equal regard for all religious communities.

India has several spiritual traditions and social and communal movements. From its deep ancient roots in India, Hinduism (Santam Dharma) has been reflected as a holistic religion. Hinduism was highlighted by developments and interpretations of the Puranas, the four Vedas, and the Upanishads.

Emperor Ashoka announced that the state would not prosecute any religious sect and he further made an appeal for the toleration of all religious sects and to develop a spirit of great respect toward them.

Later, religions like Jainism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity surfaced, however, the coexistence of these faiths and religions continued.

Constitutional Provisions of Secularism in India

42nd Amendment of the Constitution of India in 1976 added the term ‘Secular’ in the Preamble asserting that India is a secular nation. It states, that India is a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic, republic).

Consequently, the Indian constitution proposes a secular state where all religions are treated equally. This enabled the recognition and acceptance of all religions in all the institutions across the nation. This amendment enforced parliamentary laws instead of religious laws.

India has adopted the concept of Secularism to give equal status to all religions. India defines a secular state that guarantees individual and corporate freedom of religion and respects individuals as a citizen of the country irrespective of their religion.

Under this propaganda, no preference or partiality towards any particular religion. The country or its government neither promotes any specific religion nor does it interfere with any religion.

Constitutionally, India is a secular country that has no State religion of its own. The state shall recognize and accept all religions, not favor, interfere with, or choose any particular religion.

The Indian Constitution incorporates all the basic principles of secularism into various provisions of the constitution:

  • Article 14 grants equality before the law and equal protection of the laws to all. Article 15 protects the concept of secularism by prohibiting discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth.
  • Article 16(1) guarantees equality of opportunity to all citizens in matters of public employment and that there would be no discrimination on the basis of religion, race, caste, sex, descent, place of birth, and residence.
  • Article 25 states Freedom of Conscience that all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess, practice, and propagate religion.
  • Article 26 states that every religious group or individual has the right to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes and to manage its affairs in matters of religion.
  • Article 27 guarantees that the state shall not compel any citizen to pay any taxes for the promotion or maintenance of any particular religion or religious institution.
  • Article 28 allows educational institutions maintained by different religious groups to impart religious instruction.
  • Article 29 and Article 30 provide cultural and educational rights to the minorities. The articles create a balance between the majority and minorities to protect, preserve, and propagate their cultural, linguistic, and religious identity.

Western Model of Secularism

As per the American model, there exists a mutual exclusion where the separation of religion and state is properly demarcated. Mutual exclusion means that the state will not intervene in the affairs of religion and religion will not interfere in the affairs of the state. Additionally, the state will not aid or financially back any religious institution or activities of religious communities.

Western societies adopted intrareligious domination. Western secularism broadly signifies freedom of religion in respect of every citizen and separation of religion from state. No policies of the state will have any exclusive religious rationale and no state decision will be based on any religious classification. Both the terms have their spheres with independent jurisdiction. This form of secularism completely separates religion from the state where religion is a private matter and there is no place for any state policies.

Difference between Indian v. Western Secularism

Both the models of secularism are majorly and vastly different from each other. Indian secularism fundamentally focuses on inter-religious equality. The Indian model of secularism is a mixture of both, existing religious ideas of the Indian society and intra-religious approach from the West.

Indian secularism provides equal protection by the state to all religions whereas, in Western secularism, the state is separate from the functioning of all religious institutions.

In India, the positive intervention of the state in religious matters is allowed while Western secularism completely separates state and religion and the state does not intervene in any religious affairs.

Indian secularism mentions the religious freedom of individuals including, the religious freedom of minority communities. It is well understood that every individual has the right to profess the religion of choice and maintain their own culture, be it of the minority.

Indian secularism also allows state-supported religious reforms provided they conform and respect the religions. For instance, the Constitution banned untouchability, abolished child marriages, etc.

Landmark Judgements on Secularism in India

The Supreme Court in Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala (1973), held that secularism is a part of the basic structure of the Constitution.

In Bommai v Union of India (1994), The Supreme Court defined secularism and held that secularism means equal treatment of all religions.

In Ismail Farooqui vs. Union of India, 1994, the Supreme Court held that “the concept of secularism is one facet of the right to equality woven as the central golden thread in the fabric depicting the pattern of the scheme in our constitution”.

In Ratilal vs. the State of Bombay (1954), it was held that regulations by the state should not interfere with the essentials of religion.

Read More: What is Communalism in India?

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