Misunderstanding secularism

Teaching Gita doesn’t go against Indian secularism. Teaching Gita alone does.

Written by Christophe Jaffrelot | Updated: August 11, 2014 12:01 am
The specificity of Indian secularism transpires clearly in these quoted passages. The specificity of Indian secularism transpires clearly in these quoted passages.

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 can be found in the words and deeds of Mahatma Gandhi, who advocated the recognition of religious communities in the public space and their cohabitation as early as 1919, during the Khilafat Movement in which he joined forces with Muslim leaders. Subsequently, he tried to make the Congress party a “parliament” in which all denominations were represented. In Hind Swaraj (1909), he promoted a conception of the Indian nation that ruled out identifying the nation with any religion: “If the Hindus believe that India should be peopled only by Hindus, they are living in dreamland. The Hindus, the Mahomedans, the Parsis and the Christians who have made India their country are fellow countrymen, and they will have to live in unity, if only for their own interest. In no part of the world are one nationality and one religion synonymous terms; nor has it ever been so in India.”

Beyond Gandhi’s contribution, going further back in time, emperor Akbar practised religious tolerance. During his rule, Islam had
a limited place in the state apparatus, in which several communities other than the Muslims participated. This modus operandi was already in existence under the reign of Ashoka. While he worked for the glory of Buddhism with the fervour of a new convert, this emperor also advocated coexistence of religions and mutual respect.

Like Justice Dave, these architects of Indian secularism thought that they had “to get good things from everywhere”, including the Gita, the Quran, the Bible, etc. For them, the question of teaching one religion alone never arose. The fact that it does today is revealing of the way Hindu majoritarianism is gaining momentum. This view clearly contradicts the Constitution because it implies the non-recognition of all religions on an equal footing. Freedom of conscience, speech and worship was written into the Constitution through a number of articles having convergent effects. Article 15 forbids discrimination on religious grounds (among others); Article 16 applies this rule to recruitment in the civil service; Article 29 to admission to a public school or receiving state aid. Most especially, Article 25 states: “Subject to public order, morality and health… all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion.”

In addition to these individual rights, there are collective rights — the Indian state not only recognises no official religion and protects citizens from having to pay religious taxes, but it also gives each religion equal consideration. Article 26 stipulates: “Subject to public order, morality and health, every religion, religious denomination or any section thereof shall have the right: (a) to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes; (b) to manage its own affairs in matters of religion; (c) to own and acquire movable and immovable property; and (d) to administer such property in accordance with law”. Article 30 reads similarly: “All minorities, whether based on religion or language, shall have the right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice.” In awarding aid to educational institutions, the state must in no way discriminate against those administered by a religious or linguistic minority. It is worth noting that the importance given to collective rights by Indian secularism is one of its trademarks, as is its correlative respect for the role of religions in the public space.

If India was to discontinue this tradition and replace it with Hindu majoritarianism, it would embark on the same trajectory as its neighbours — except Nepal, where secularism has recently become the order of the day. The past experience of the other countries of South Asia shows that minorities have been the first casualties of the erosion of secularism, regardless of the majority religion. Hindus, as a minority, have been at the receiving end in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh where religious conflicts have resulted in violence.

The writer is senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/ CNRS, Paris, professor of Indian politics and sociology at King’s India Institute, London, Princeton Global Scholar and non-resident scholar at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

express@expressindia.com

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  1. I
    IndianWellWisher
    Aug 11, 2014 at 10:23 pm
    Excellent
    Reply
    1. I
      IndianWellWisher
      Aug 11, 2014 at 10:20 pm
      Nice response
      Reply
      1. I
        IndianWellWisher
        Aug 11, 2014 at 10:23 pm
        That would re-educate him where he needs to first!
        Reply
        1. A
          abhishek
          Aug 11, 2014 at 2:32 pm
          When we are treating every religion equal then from where comes the word like minority and majority. we have to stop using these words as soon as possible so that every individual became equal irrespective of religion, caste, gender,.......
          Reply
          1. A
            ashok
            Aug 11, 2014 at 9:25 am
            Mr. Christophe Jaffrelot giving us views about India and our issues. One would ume that all he is advising Indian is being implemented in his France! Unfortunately he forgets his country has the Burqa ban and rabid anti Palestinian views . What about a column on his native land?
            Reply
            1. B
              Bhargav
              Aug 11, 2014 at 1:50 pm
              Christian / missionary schools till date have ONLY taught the bible to the students studying there irrespective of the religion the student follows. Different yardsticks for different people, I suppose?
              Reply
              1. C
                Chakra
                Aug 11, 2014 at 8:45 am
                Where does the author gets the impression that "Secular tradition" is getting replaced by Hindu majoritarianism ? He does not cite any specifics. What he does not get is - Indian Secularism is tolerant and such tolerance can be maintained because of Hindu majority only. We are proud of the fact that we are ready to respect all religions.Problem comes from Abrahamic religions which does not recognize other religions or their followers on equal footing.
                Reply
                1. C
                  constructivist
                  Aug 12, 2014 at 2:25 am
                  why i should read an article by a person who had lost his credibility as an independent impartial thinker long back????An article by such person is not expression of opinion but a tool of propaa.
                  Reply
                  1. S
                    Srikanth
                    Aug 12, 2014 at 10:07 am
                    A very pedestrian piece.
                    Reply
                    1. S
                      Srikanth
                      Aug 12, 2014 at 8:04 am
                      It is amazing how these foreign scholars come out of their woodwork whenever the Hindus try to ert their rights after decades of being overwhelmed by minoritarianism! Secularism to these dishonest academic colonizers is never in peril when the minorities enjoy special treatment and the Hindus are repressed. Jaffrelot did not ever ask, for example, why the tyranny of the muslim invaders is not mentioned in Indian history textbooks while the contributions of the Hindus is either delegitimized or overlooked. I dont see this self appointed French protector of Indian secularism taking on the Leftists and the Congressmen who have threatened and perverted secularism more than Justice Dave, the reason for this article, or any other Hindu ever did. Jaffrelot should go and advice his French Govt to start treating the gypsies of Europe who have chosen to live in France as human beings and to clamp down harder on the west african antisemites who are causing his country's jews to run away to Israel. In other words he should mind his own business.
                      Reply
                      1. S
                        Srikanth
                        Aug 12, 2014 at 9:56 am
                        It is amazing how these foreign scholarscome out of their woodwork whenever the H1ndus try to ert their rights afterdecades of being overwhelmed by minoritarianism! Secularism to these dishonestacademic colonizers is never in peril when the minorities enjoy specialtreatment and the H1ndus are repressed. Jaffrelot did not ever ask, for example,why the tyranny of the musl1m invaders is not mentioned in 1ndian historytextbooks while the contributions of the H1ndus is either delegitimized oroverlooked. I dont see this self appointed French protector of Indiansecularism taking on the Leftists and the Kongressmen who have threatened andperverted secularism more than Justice Dave, the reason for this article, orany other H1ndu ever did. Jaffrelot should go and advice his French Govt tostart treating the gypsies of Europe who have chosen to live in France as humanbeings and to clamp down harder on the west african antisemites who are causinghis country's jews to run away to Israel. In other words he should mind his ownbusiness.
                        Reply
                        1. S
                          Srikanth
                          Aug 12, 2014 at 8:09 am
                          jaffrelot does not seem to care to mention that most money from H1ndu temples is collected by the Govt. So, the expenses of the Kumbh mela etc are paid for by the H1ndu. Slyly, jaffrelot seeks to tell us that the Govt spends equally on all its religions. That is not true because it is only the H1ndu who pays for his "subsidies". No one else does.
                          Reply
                          1. S
                            Srikanth
                            Aug 12, 2014 at 9:57 am
                            jaffrelot does not seem to care to mention that mostmoney from H1ndu temples is collected by the Govt. So, the expenses of theKumbh mela etc are paid for by the H1ndu. Slyly, jaffrelot seeks to tell usthat the Govt spends equally on all its religions. That is not true because itis only the H1ndu who pays for his "subsidies". No one else does.
                            Reply
                            1. G
                              geetha saranathan
                              Oct 6, 2014 at 3:30 pm
                              perfect reply
                              Reply
                              1. J
                                JihadHater
                                Aug 11, 2014 at 10:53 am
                                Secular people are nothing but Jihadi islamic terror supporter using the veil of seculrism working days and nights against non muslims, Jefferlot, have some shame, even pr*sutes have more honourable way of earning money than you sick dehumanised terrorist(secualr radicals)
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                                1. F
                                  foolonthehill
                                  Aug 11, 2014 at 6:40 am
                                  According to the survey of national council of economic research last year 76 % of today's youth are religious..it's not like during independence when whatever Nehru said was gospel truth and he could mould public opinion and decide for the country. The youth today is more educated,aware and empowered ..and they demand rational answers not just belief statements.It is impossible to argue or put a point forward from the majority without being labelled communal and the converse is true.so if you are minority then you need not be secular.even this impression baffels the youth.They are no longer in awe of nehru or loyal to any idealogy .they want progress in their life and they want it now.And these are not from the metro cities and their tony areas ,they are recent immigrants to metro cities and the tier 2 and 3 towns.Frankly they care two hoots for the secular ,pl ignore at your own peril.
                                  Reply
                                  1. A
                                    Ashwini
                                    Aug 12, 2014 at 12:23 am
                                    Here is an article from someone who I am not sure has any insight into being 'Indian.' The author clearly seems to be a library scientist quoting from various resources. Let me tell you Mr. Jaffrelot, India is a country that celebrates Eid, Diwali and Christmas as a national holiday with equal fervor. Is that the same in the West?? Wondering if Hanukkah and Chirstmas get the same treatment...or are people even aware of Eid? Except Christian and Islamic schools, all Hindu and Government schools include all religions as a part of their curriculum. Christian and Islamic schools give priority in admissions to students of their own religion. While Hindu schools are measured with a different yard stick. BTW the moguls in the form of Akbar may have practiced tolerance...but the pering of Hindu temples by Moguls is a very well doented fact. Wonder if France will ever remove the Burqah ban.
                                    Reply
                                    1. C
                                      Chandru
                                      Sep 14, 2014 at 3:49 pm
                                      Mr. JefferlotIs conversion allowed?What is your stand? Pl be very clearNo vague answers. If conversion stops most of the communal problems will stop.
                                      Reply
                                      1. N
                                        nkumar
                                        Aug 11, 2014 at 11:11 am
                                        why dont u talk about catholic schools where all they teach is the bibleis that secularism
                                        Reply
                                        1. P
                                          P
                                          Aug 11, 2014 at 1:57 pm
                                          Very often an outsider perceives the internal reality more clearly than insiders. Here we have an example in this article
                                          Reply
                                          1. G
                                            Gowrishanker
                                            Oct 6, 2014 at 4:30 am
                                            Dear Jaffer, Very strange that you don't seem to have any issue in your country and very perfect. So has gone international nose poking. Please study what harm Europeans have done in the last three hundred years to not only India bu to the entire world. Looting and destruction of civilization. Sorry chap old habits die hard.
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