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SECULARISM Political secularism may be defined as the separation of religious activities from that of the state, customarily referred to as "the separation of church and state in the West." The state in its governmental capacity will not promote any religion or religious group, or get involved in religious affairs. Freedom of religious belief and practice are confined to the private domain. Following India's independence in 1947, Congress Party governments under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his successors declared India to be a secular democratic state, thus distinguishing itself from Pakistan, which they judged to be a theocratic authoritarian state. As evidence of equality and equal opportunity for Indian citizens of all religions, India points to three Muslim presidents since independence, a Sikh prime minister, a Christian president of the Congress Party, and several non-Hindu central and state government ministers, state governors, and other high-ranking political personalities—in a country in which 82 percent of the population is Hindu.

Interpretations of secularism in India have not, however, been consistent. Nehru's interpretation was that of the West: the state will not engage in religious activities nor promote any religion. Mahatma Gandhi's interpretation suggested that all religions are equal, and that the state should acknowledge and encourage the practice of all religions equally. If one particular religious ceremony were allowed at a state function, then the state must accord that privilege equally to other religions as well. Hence prayers are sometimes offered by all religions on special state occasions and at state funerals. A third position, derived from the Gandhian view, tends to be perceived as more threatening to other religions. In the Hindu nationalist perspective, Hinduism is capable of representing all religions because Hinduism acknowledges different pathways to God. Therefore, all religions are "true," and "all Indians are Hindus." Though all three interpretations of secularism existed concurrently in independent India, it was Nehru's Western concept that prevailed, on the grounds that the separation of state and religion was an essential prerequisite for the conduct of Western democracy. This perspective of secularism in its Western interpretation was disputed in the 1990s with the rise of Hindu nationalism, which advocated the third variant.

The Roots of Indian Democracy and Secularism

The foundations of India's democracy and secularism are drawn from the West, the roots of which may be found in the American and French revolutions of 1776 and 1789. The separation of church and state underlined both democracies. In the United States, the founding fathers wished to shield the fledgling democracy from the religious conflicts and issues that had plagued Europe for centuries. In France, one of the goals of the revolution was to restrict the power of the Catholic Church in political affairs. The fact that France was an overwhelmingly Catholic country was irrelevant in separating religion from the conduct of government.

In Britain, there was no conflict between church and state, except during the Reformation, when England, Wales, and Scotland broke from the Catholic Church in Rome to establish their own churches of England and Scotland. British secularism was embodied in the liberalism of John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham in the late nineteenth century, and in the Fabian socialism of George Bernard Shaw, G. D. H. and Margaret Cole, and Harold Laski of the early twentieth century. The evolution of parliamentary democracy in Britain as a system based on representative government and adult franchise, together with its secular character, was one of British rule's legacies to India.

Unlike India and virtually all other countries of the world, Britain has no written constitution. Its government is based on tradition and prevailing practice. In England, much of the ceremonial affairs of state, especially that of the Crown, involves the Church of England. Hindu nationalist leaders have referred to this aspect of Britain to advocate the primacy of Hinduism and Hindu traditions as the basis of the Indian state, especially since the Indian political system was based on the British political system. However, the British government's activities are strictly secular. Indeed, the formal practice of Christianity itself among the general population has nearly vanished in Britain, with a minority of the population involved in church affairs. A similar situation now prevails in much of western Europe, with the exception of some Catholic countries of postcommunist eastern Europe.

In Western democracies, especially in the United Sates and France, a secular state is considered an essential requisite of a democratic state. The founding fathers of American democracy, including Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams, were particularly concerned about mixing religion and politics. James Madison, in a private letter, summed up his concerns: "Religion and government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together." Efforts by right-wing Christian fundamentalists to define the United States as a nation founded upon Christian traditions and values, insisting that Christianity be central to the identity of the state, have thus far been rejected as unconstitutional. Even the reference to "one nation under God" in the American Pledge of Allegiance has been regarded by many as unacceptable in a secular state.

France has gone further. In December 2003, a constitutional committee in France sought to determine whether wearing religious symbols by individuals in public schools constituted a violation of France's secular identity. Such symbols would include the wearing of large crosses by Christians, the yarmulke, or skull cap, by Jewish men, and the head scarf by Muslim women. With a population of 6 million immigrant Muslims and their descendants, France has the largest Muslim population of any state in Europe. According to a preliminary observation of the investigating commission, secularism is not only "the separation of church and state, but it is also the respect of [religious] differences." The flaunting of religious differences in public schools was considered to be provocative and unsecular.

Secularism and India's Constitution

Secularism is not mentioned in the original Constitution of India; nor did the Constitution advocate a religious state, or a state that identifies with one particular religion. In Part III, titled "Fundamental Rights," under the section "Right to Freedom of Religion," all citizens are ensured "freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion." The Indian Constitution did not, however, specify noninvolvement by the government in religious practice, as does the Constitution of the United States, nor did it define the government as secular, as does the Constitution of the French republic. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution stipulates that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Article One of the French Constitution states that "France is a republic, indivisible, secular, democratic and social; all citizens are equal before the law."

Although the original Indian Constitution made no specific reference to India as a secular state, the Indian constitution was implicitly secular. The post-independence Constituent Assembly was dominated by members of the secular Indian National Congress, led by Jawaharlal Nehru, who was determined that, unlike Pakistan, independent India would be characterized by forward-looking scientific rationalism, not backward-looking religious traditionalism.

A formal declaration that India is a secular state was first introduced in 1976 in the Forty-second Amendment to the Indian Constitution. The amendment was passed by the Congress Party majority in Parliament during the "National Emergency" that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi imposed on India from June 1975 to March 1977. The Emergency suspended the democratic process and introduced twenty-two months of authoritarian rule. Among the several sweeping changes introduced into the Indian Constitution by the Forty-second Amendment, which provided extraordinary authoritarian powers to the government, was a rewording of the Preamble to the Indian Constitution, under Section 2: "In the Preamble to the Constitution, (a) for the words 'SOVEREIGN DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC' the words 'SOVEREIGN SOCIALIST SECULAR DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC' shall be substituted; and (b) for the words 'unity of the Nation,' the words 'unity and integrity of the Nation' shall be substituted" [capitalization per the original].

The Forty-second Amendment was swept aside, almost in its entirety, following the defeat of Indira Gandhi and the Congress Party in the March 1977 elections. The new Janata Party coalition government (a motley group of parties that included the Bharatiya Jan Sangh led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the Samyukta Socialist Party led by George Fernandes), under Prime Minister Morarji Desai, a former Congress Party finance minister, passed the Forty-fourth Amendment in 1978. While the fundamental rights of all citizens were reinstated and protected from future abuse, the Forty-fourth Amendment reinforced the secular character of the state, noting that:

Recent experience has shown that the fundamental rights, including those of life and liberty, granted to citizens by the Constitution are capable of being taken away by a transient majority. It is, therefore, necessary to provide adequate safeguards against the recurrence of such a contingency in the future and to ensure to the people themselves an effective voice in determining the form of government under which they are to live. . . . It is, therefore, proposed to provide that certain changes in the Constitution which would have the effect of impairing its secular or democratic character, abridging or taking away fundamental rights prejudicing or impeding free and fair elections on the basis of adult suffrage and compromising the independence of judiciary, can be made only if they are approved by the people of India by a majority of votes at a referendum in which at least fifty-one percent of the electorate participate.

Hindutva and Indian Secularism

Hindu nationalist aspirations, promoted by the Bharatiya Janata Party–led coalition government, which held power from March 1998 to April 2004, revolved around the concept of Hindutva. The idea of Hindutva was used in two separate contexts. First, it implied that all Indians should recognize the essence of being Hindu as a way of life, not just among Hindus in particular, but also by the followers of all other faiths in India. Second, the movement sought the eventual establishment of a political state called "Hindutva," the land of the Hindus, replacing other names such as "India" in English, "Bharat" in Hindi, and "Hindustan" in Urdu.

The name "India" is considered Western, derived from early Persian and Greek references to the land around the Indus River. "Bharat" is the name of the land referred to in Hindu scriptures, and was also the name of the country under Emperor Ashoka's rule (r. 268–231 b.c.), when he and all of his Indian empire became Buddhists. "Hindustan" was the name that represented the "two-nation theory" of the founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who claimed that Muslims and Hindus belonged in two separate states, Pakistan and Hindustan. The partition of India in 1947 carved out Pakistan as the homeland for India's Muslims. Ironically, most Muslims in the Hindu-majority areas, who had demanded the creation of Pakistan because they feared Hindu domination, were left behind in India. With the separation of Bangladesh from Pakistan, there are more Muslims in India than in Pakistan, making the declaration of a "Hindutva" even more problematic. With the flight of all Hindus and Sikhs from West Pakistan at the time of the partition of British India, and following the independence of Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971 (where some 15 million Bengali Hindus resided), Pakistan is 98 percent Muslim. Pakistan is a nonsecular, nondemocratic Islamic republic.

This demand for Hindutva, in the context of the essence of being Hindu, was controversial even among Hindus. Unlike Christianity and Islam, or even Buddhism and Sikkhism, Hindus do not believe in organized religion. Hinduism makes no specific demands of its followers, either in its beliefs or its worship. Hindutva as a Hindu state would pose problems for India's democracy. A state that is characterized or identified by a particular religion may be incompatible with the concept of a democratic state, even if all or most of its citizens belong to that religion, and even if the electoral process is continued. As illustrated in the French and American practice, secularism is a precondition for democracy. There are other complications in making India into a Hindu state: the sizable numbers of religious minorities; the uncertain religious-ethnic status of the former "untouchables," now known as Dalits, meaning "the oppressed"; and the potential transformation of the traditional practice of Hinduism from what was essentially a secular way of life into a more intense faith.

In a Hindu state, democracy would be undermined in at least two ways. First, a state identified by its dominant religion would imply the rejection of equality for citizens of other religions. The political commitment of religious minorities would probably be deeply eroded. Second, when the religious clergy or religious-minded leaders are able to arouse the passions of citizens on the basis of religion, then the freedom to make choices becomes threatened, given the fear of retribution. The power to coerce citizens by the government, represented by the dominant religion and its religious leaders and clergy, becomes stronger. In a secular state, the government and religious leaders are unlikely to carry such coercive or persuasive powers over the minds of its citizens when the issues and the debate are confined to the secular domain. Thus, secularism would appear essential for the exercise of free choice in any democracy, even if all its citizens belong to the same religion.

The absolute numbers of religious minorities in India make the enforcement of a Hindu state, which would be a counterpart to Islamic Pakistan, difficult. Following the flight of nearly all Hindus and Sikhs to India, Pakistan's religious minority population is less than 2 percent. In India's population of 1 billion at the beginning of the twenty-first century, 18 percent were non-Hindus, of which 14 percent were Muslims (140 million) and 2 percent Christians (20 million). There are fewer than 100,000 Parsis, who came from Persia in the eighth century to escape Islamic conversions, and who continue to adhere to the pre-Islamic religion of Persia, known as Zorastrianism. The remaining 2 percent religious minorities (about 20 million people) are Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains, religions that were offshoots of Hinduism, founded in India. Hindu nationalists have declared these groups to be Hindus, but this inclusion is rejected for the most part by Sikhs and Buddhists. Sikhs reject the claim of inclusion for fear of being swallowed up by Hinduism. Some Hindu nationalists have called for the return of Muslims and Christians to their "original" religion, from which they were "converted" during various stages of Indian history, or propose declaring every Indian a Hindu.

There is also the problem of the religious identity of the Dalits, the former "untouchables" at the bottom of the Hindu social order. Some Dalits, including their most famous leader, B. R. Ambedkar, who converted to Buddhism, do not consider themselves Hindus. Dalits number about 250 million and constitute approximately 25 percent of India's population. Hindu nationalists today include them in the Hindu fold, but there is no widespread acceptance of this embrace by the Dalits. Statistically, their exclusion—together with that of Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains—reduces the Hindu percentage of India's population to about 60 percent.

Hindu Nationalism, Indian Secularism, and the West

The Hindu nationalist movement, led by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and its activist wing, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), argue that secularism is a Western ideology imported from Britain. It was sustained in India after independence by Western-oriented Anglophile Indian intellectuals and political leaders, chief among whom was Prime Minister Nehru. This Western-oriented secularism is perceived by members of the Hindu right wing as anti-Hindu. Those Hindus who continue to advocate a secular Indian state are often branded as "pseudo-secularists," implying a false or phony understanding of secularism. Alternatively, Hindus who oppose the Hindu nationalist agenda and support the secular character of the Indian state are declared to be "godless communists," socialists, or other leftists. Such Hindu "pseudo-secularists," "communists," and "left-wing apologists" are alleged to pander excessively to Muslim and Christian religious minorities and their religious practice, at the expense of Hindus and the Hindu way of life.

In particular, Hindu nationalist critics of the Nehruvian secular state argue that genuine secularism was not always practiced under Congress Party governments because of "unsecular" concessions to the Muslim minority. Two instances are often cited. First, the Indian government since independence has subsidized the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca for Indian Muslims, without similar subsidies to followers of other religions. Second, Muslim law for Muslims is allowed to override civil law that applies to all other Indians. The celebrated case alleging violation of the principles of the secular state is that of the Shah Bano case of 1985; this case involved a Muslim woman with four children, who was divorced by her Muslim husband, who then refused to pay alimony because Muslim law did not require it. The case went to the Supreme Court of India, which overruled Muslim law and granted Shah Bano alimony, thereby undermining the limited legal autonomy granted to the Muslim minority of India. Faced with adverse Muslim reaction, the Congress Party government of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi passed legislation reiterating the rights of Muslim law for the husband.

The claims by some Hindu nationalists that secularism in India is a Western import is often countered by the claim India's Constitution and democratic political system are likewise derived from the West. Parliamentary democracy embodied in India's Constitution was based on the British political system; the federal arrangement between the central and state governments was modeled on the Canadian federal system; the list of "Fundamental Rights" was derived from the U.S. Bill of Rights; the "Directive Principles of Social Policy" in the preamble was an idea obtained from the Irish Constitution; and the financial relationship between the central and state governments in India was derived from the Australian system. These states are all secular democracies, even Catholic-majority Ireland, in that there is a separation of the spheres of church and state.

When the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) gained a pluralist majority in the 1998 national elections and led a coalition government into office, the status of secularism in India became an issue. Perhaps because of the other motley group of parties that formed the coalition, without whose support the BJP could not remain in power, the BJP immediately declared that India would remain a secular state. This did not satisfy the more extreme members of the group of Hindu nationalist parties known together as the Sangh Parivar, which include the RSS, the VHP, and the Shiv Sena. Concerns remain, within the Congress Party and other secular parties, that a clear majority by Hindu nationalist parties in Parliament in future elections could lead to the declaration of Hindutva, ending a secular India. These Hindu aspirations were halted in the April 2004 national elections, when the BJP-led coalition government was defeated by a secular Congress Party–led coalition, which formed a new government. However, the controversy over whether India should be a secular state along the Western model, as embraced by the Congress and left-wing parties, or a Hindutva state, representing Hinduism and Hindus as proposed by the BJP and other Hindu parties, remains unresolved.

Raju G. C. Thomas

See alsoBharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ; Congress Party ; Dalits ; Family Law and Cultural Pluralism ; Hindutva and Politics ; Muslims ; Shiv Sena ; Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP)


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