Speaking as the chief guest at a conference at Gujarat University’s convention hall on August 2, Supreme Court judge Justice Anil R. Dave said, “Had I been the dictator of India, I would have introduced Gita and Mahabharata in Class I. That is the way you learn how to
live life. I am sorry if somebody says I am secular or I am not secular.But we have to get good things from everywhere.”
These words reflect some of the current misunderstandings about Indian secularism. It is in consonance with Indian secularism to borrow “good things from everywhere”, including the Gita and the Mahabharata. This “ism” does not imply the secularisation of society. On the contrary, whereas French laïcité involves a clear separation between public and religious spaces, far from excluding religion from the public sphere, Indian secularism officially recognises all faiths, as evident from the Constitution and its implementation in the first decades of the Indian republic.
Jawaharlal Nehru himself wrote in 1961: “We talk about a secular state in India. It is perhaps not very easy even to find a good word in Hindi for ‘secular’. Some people think it means something opposed to religion. That obviously is not correct. What it means is that it is a state which honours all faiths equally and gives them equal opportunities.” Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, president of India when Nehru was prime minister, expressed a similar vision in these eloquent terms: “When India is said to be a secular state, it does not mean that we as a people reject the reality of an unseen spirit or the relevance of religions to life or that we exalt irreligion. It does not mean that secularism itself becomes a positive religion or that the state assumes divine prerogatives. Though faith in the supreme spirit is the basic principle of the Indian tradition, our state will not identify itself with or be controlled by any particular religion.”
The specificity of Indian secularism transpires clearly in these quoted passages. Far from being areligious, irreligious or anti-religious, this principle is, on the contrary, perfectly compatible with religiosity. But, recognising the importance of religion in the public space, the state intervenes in favour of all religious communities. It thus subsidises all kinds of religious activities, including pilgrimages for Sikhs (to Pakistan) and Hindus (like the one to Amarnath in Jammu and Kashmir). The state also subsidises major religious celebrations such as the Kumbh Melas. The one in 2001, for instance, cost Rs 120 crore. Since 1993, Indian pilgrims to Mecca have been largely state-funded, too.
This multicultural approach has been recently illustrated in the way President Pranab Mukherjee hosted an iftar party towards the end of Ramzan, soon after publicly offering prayers at the Padmanabhaswamy temple.
This rather unique configuration is the product of a long history. Its immediate antecedent continued…