Wednesday, Oct 05, 2022

Secularism is caught in a crisis

It is caught in a crisis not because it is irrelevant, but because it is subjected to rank overuse and invested with too many expectations.

The significance of secularism becomes clearer when we make three distinctions. The first distinction is between secularisation and secularism. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

This is, perhaps, not the best time to clarify and defend the principle of secularism in India. For the religious right, secularism has become a “bad” word, an object of mockery, disdain, and casual dismissal. There is still an urgent need to ponder, reflect and rethink. India’s recent history of discrimination against minorities demands this. Recollect that history is a hard taskmaster. No one can dodge the big questions that history crashes onto political platforms. History poses questions; it is the job of imaginative and visionary politics to find the right answers. Or, these questions will continue to haunt us.

The leaders of the freedom struggle were confronted by one such big question in the aftermath of the 1931 Kanpur riots, which left 400 dead. The Indian National Congress established an inquiry commission to investigate the problem. The committee reported that communal riots are an outcome of historical processes sparked off by colonial rule. Overturning the assumption that Hindu-Muslim enmity is endemic to India, the Congress held that India is home to both Hindus and Muslims. It is possible to end the conflict if minorities can be assured that their rights to religion and culture will be given full protection in an Independent India, the party held.

On March 31, 1931, while moving the resolution on fundamental rights in the open session of the Congress at Karachi, Gandhi spoke on the issue. “Though Islamic and Aryan cultures are not mutually exclusive,” he said, “we must recognise that Mussalmans look upon Islamic culture as distinctive from Aryan. Let us therefore cultivate tolerance… Religious neutrality is important and Swaraj will favour Hinduism no more than Islam, nor Islam more than Hinduism… Let us from now on adopt the principle of state neutrality in our daily affairs”. This neutrality of the state we call secularism.

Secularism is not a standalone concept, it flows from Article 14 of the Constitution, which guarantees equality. No one shall be discriminated against on the basis of birth into a class, caste, gender, or religious community or for her sexual preferences. This was the intention of the founders of democracy in India, and this is what secularism should be understood as — as related to democracy.

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The significance of secularism becomes clearer when we make three distinctions. The first distinction is between secularisation and secularism. Secularisation is a social process that involves the privatisation of religion, as in Europe after the Enlightenment. In India, processes of secularisation were stymied because religion, since the late 19th century, was latched to the nationalist project, and, from the 20th century, to competitive nation-state projects. Hinduism and Islam had been politicised and continue to be so. Two, religion as politics has nothing to do with religion as faith. Politics in search of power seeks only one thing — monopoly over resources. The third distinction dispels a confusion that has accompanied the debate on secularism in India. Secularism is not the binary opposite of communalism. The opposite of communalism is religious harmony. Secularism is the diametric opposite of theocracy or the merging of two awesome forms of power — the non-religious and the religious. Theocracy simply does not fit into modern democratic imaginations.

Secularism for long has ridden to prominence on the shoulders of secularisation. Now that secularisation has been shown to be one of the vanities of modernity, secularism needs a new home. What other home can it live in except democracy? Democracy and secularism are companion concepts, because of their shared commitments to basic values such as freedom, equality and justice. This does not imply that secularism can be collapsed into democracy. We need to distinguish between the two.

Indian society is fractured in many ways. Vertically, it is fractured along the axis of caste, class and gender. Horizontally, it is divided along the matrix of different belief systems. Different sorts of strategies are needed to deal with different kinds of inequalities and oppressions. The responsibility of reorganising unequal and unjust religious communities on the norms of freedom, equality, and rights falls on democracy. The principle of secularism is intended to ensure equality between these communities. It is not the job of secularism to reorder unequal gender or caste relations. That falls within the province of democracy. Secularism ensures that the state is not aligned to any one religion, that all religious communities are treated with equal care and consideration, that no community is granted special advantages because it is in a numerical majority. Similarly, it ensures that no religion is discriminated against just because its numbers are smaller than the majority community. Secularism extends the principle of equality — or even its weaker form, non-discrimination — specifically to the relationships between religious communities. If a government openly supports a majority religion and discriminates against minorities, justice kneels before political power.


This is not to say that all is well with the concept. Secularism is today caught in a crisis, not because it is irrelevant, but because it has been subjected to rank overuse and invested with far too many expectations, from solving the issue of national integration to gender justice. Notably, secularism is not a robust concept like democracy or justice; it is a “thin” and a limited procedural concept. The challenge to secularism has not come from personal faith or religion, but from religious groups that struggle for power. The challenge is also to democracy because denial of secularism catapults issues about the rights and privileges of citizenship, and throws into sharp relief the intersections between religion and the lack of voice, inadequate distribution of goods, and recognition of unique distinctiveness of groups.

Finally, the coexistence between religious identity and democratic politics is not easy. There is, arguably, a fundamental discrepancy between religious and secular languages. Religion gives to believers “thick” or comprehensive conceptions of the good that help them to make sense of the world, order their lives, and relate to others. The concept of secularism is, in comparison, “thin” insofar as it establishes procedures that indicate what the place of religion in the public domain is, and what the relationship between different groups should be, and how justice and democracy can be secured.

This is not to suggest that secularism is not a good; merely that secularism does not tell people how to lead their lives or what to strive for. The principle of secularism contributes to the construction of a constitutional framework where people can pursue their faith or any other substantive conception of the good, unburdened by discrimination, and where the state does not discriminate between different religious groups. Religion and secularism relate to different kinds of justice and are in many cases difficult to translate into each other.


But that is the nature of democratic political life. Irresolvable dilemmas that can only be negotiated through the deployment of imagination and creativity in thinking and practice. Let us remember and take heart from Jawaharlal Nehru’s words in the Discovery of India. He quotes the chorus from the Bacchae of Euripides, translated by Gilbert Murray. “What else is wisdom? What of man’s endeavour/ Or God’s high grace, so lovely and so great?/ To stand from fear set free, to breathe and wait;/ To hold a hand uplifted over Hate;/ and shall not Loveliness be loved for ever?”

This article first appeared in the print edition on December 3, 2019 under the title ‘All’s not well with secularism’. The writer is a former professor of political science, Delhi University.

First published on: 03-12-2019 at 12:24:44 am
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