Indian Model of Secularism : An Analysis - Current Affair Article for UPSC, IAS, Civil Services and State PCS Examinations

Indian Model of Secularism : An Analysis - Current Affair Article for UPSC, IAS, Civil Services and State PCS Examinations


The historical verdict of Ayodhya Issue delivered by five judge bench of Supreme Court (SC) has once again led a national level debate on Indian model of Secularism. Since the nuances of Indian model is quite complex, the question also arises whether this model is able to address the religious diversity of India.


During colonial rule in India, England was not a secular country with a Jeffersonian wall of separation between church and state. Instead, the Church of England was the established church. The “Act of Supremacy” enacted in 1534 declared that the monarch was the “Supreme Head of the Church of England”. Initially, the East India Company (EIC) got itself intricately entangled with the administration of religious institutions. Laws were enacted which said that the “general superintendence of all lands granted for the support of mosques and Hindu temples” was vested in the colonial government.

All this annoyed Christian missionaries and members of the clergy in England and India who put pressure on the government. Consequently, in 1833, the Court of Directors of the EIC sent instructions to the colonial government outlining its policy towards India’s religions. However, they wrote: “The interference of British Functionaries in the interior management of native temples, in the customs, habits and religious proceedings of their priests and attendants, in the arrangement of their ceremonies, rites and festivals, and generally in the conduct of their interior economy, shall cease.”

It was in this manner that the seeds of secularism were sown in India. The colonial government was directed to disentangle itself from “superstitious” Indian religious institutions, because Indian religions were considered heathen and false. However, this colonial vision of secularism was rejected by India’s founding fathers. The founding fathers of the Constitution gave us an enlightened, forwardlooking basic law, which is not just a legal document but is aimed at bringing about socio-economic transformation in the country. In the Constituent Assembly, B.R. Ambedkar drafted an establishment clause which said that “[t]he State shall not recognize any religion as Satte religion.”

The Constitution of India stands for a secular state. Hence, it does not uphold any particular religion as the official religion of the Indian State. The following provisions of the Constitution reveal the secular character of the Indian State. The article 14, 15, 16, Articles 25 to 28, article 29 and 30 and Uniform Civil Code (Article 44) are foundation of Secular nature of our constitution.

Secularism is an important precept underlying the framework of fundamental rights. But, as in several other areas, there is a considerable divergence between the precept and the reality. Significantly, the Constituent Assembly failed to agree on the definition of the word “secular”. It also could not agree on calling the Constitution secular. It was only during the Emergency in 1976 that the word secular was introduced in the preamble to the Constitution by the highly controversial 42nd amendment. Secularism acquired a new status when the Supreme Court declared it as a part of the basic structure of the Constitution of India.

What is Secularism?

Secularism is a normative doctrine which seeks to realise a secular society. It is free from inter-religious and intra religious domination. It promotes freedom to practice their religion and equality between religions as well as within religions. As secularism is opposed to all forms of institutionalised religious domination, it challenges not merely interreligious but also intra-religious domination. The idea of secularism possesses a normative doctrine which seeks to realise a secular society, i.e., one devoid of either inter-religious or intra-religious domination. Put positively, it promotes freedom within religions, and equality between, as well as within, religions.

Conceptions of Secularism in India

Two related but equally distinctive conceptions of secularism developed in India:

  • One constitutional, the principled distance model;
  • The other, the communal harmony model, attributed to the Mahatma Gandhi.

Principled Distance Model of Secularism: Principled Distance is a new model of secularism, which is different from western model of secularism which is the separation of government institutions and persons mandated to represent the state from religious institutions and religious dignitaries. Indian secularism did not erect a strict wall of separation, but proposed a 'principled distance' between religion and state. Moreover, by balancing the claims of individuals and religious communities, it never intended a bludgeoning privatization of religion.

In India, secularism means equal treatment of all religions. Religion in India continues to assert its political authority in matters of personal law. The principled distance model, which on one hand respects the diversity (Articles 25 to 28, guaranteeing the fundamental right to freedom of religion)) and at the same time empowers the state to interfere in case of any discrimination in the name of religion. Article 29 & 30 in Constitution of India seeks a principled distance between minorities as well as majority to protect, preserve and propagate their cultural, linguistic and religious identity through establishment of cultural and deucation ni stitutions.

Communal Harmony Model: It is based on Gandhian notion whereby it is held that the roads to one and the same God are many, but the goal was one, because God was one and the same. In fact, the roads are as many as there are individuals in the world... The various religions were as so many leaves of a tree; they might seem different but at the trunk they are one. It dismisses the idea that there could ever be one religion in the world, a uniform religious code, as it were, for all human kind.

What is needed then is due recognition of different religious communities and to ensure comfort and trust among their members. This is viable because, all humans had a fundamental desire for what might be called deep sociability. They value human relations as an end in itself. They desire a constructive relationship with others. The world’s religious diversity, the impossibility of there ever being one religion for humankind, makes mutual respect, equal regard and communal harmony a necessity.

Although, responsibility for maintaining communal harmony lies with communities themselves. But there are times when this communally sustained harmony is disturbed, even breaks down. When this happens, the state has to step in. And for this to be possible, it cannot already be aligned to any one religion but must be distant from all.

The Western Model of Secularism

The history of western societies naturally focused on intrareligious domination. While strict separation of the state from the church is emphasized to realise among other things, individual freedom, issues of inter-religious (and therefore of minority rights) equality are often neglected. All secular states have one thing in common: they are neither theocratic nor do they establish a religion. However, in most commonly prevalent conceptions, inspired mainly by the American model, separation of religion and state is understood as mutual exclusion: the state will not intervene in the affairs of religion and, in the same manner, religion will not interfere in the affairs of the state. Each has a separate sphere of its own with independent jurisdiction.

  • No policy of the state can have an exclusively religious rationale.
  • No religious classification can be the basis of any public policy.
  • There is little scope for communitybased rights or minority rights.

Similarly, the state cannot aid any religious institution. It cannot give financial support to educational institutions run by religious communities. Nor can it hinder the activities of religious communities, as long as they are within the broad limits set by the law of the land. For example, if a religious institution forbids a woman from becoming a priest, then the state can do little about it. If a religious community excommunicates its dissenters, the state can only be a silent witness.

Difference between Indian vs Western Secularism

Indian secularism is fundamentally different from Western secularism. Indian secularism does not focus only on church-state separation and the idea of inter-religious equality is crucial to the Indian conception. Indian secularism took on a distinct form as a result of an interaction between what already existed in a society that had religious diversity and the ideas that came from the West. It resulted in equal focus on intra-religious and interreligious domination.

  • Indian secularism equally opposed the oppression of dalits and women within Hinduism, the discrimination against women within Indian Islam or Christianity, and the possible threats that a majority community might pose to the rights of the minority religious communities. This is its first important difference from mainstream western secularism.
  • Connected to it is the second difference. Indian secularism deals not only with religious freedom of individuals but also with religious freedom of minority communities. Within it, an individual has the right to profess the religion of his or her choice. Likewise, religious minorities also have a right to exist and to maintain their own culture and educational institutions.
  • A third difference is this. Since a secular state must be concerned equally with intra-religious domination, Indian secularism has made room for and is compatible with the idea of state-supported religious reform. Thus, the Indian constitution bans untouchability. The Indian state has enacted several laws abolishing child marriage and lifting the taboo on inter-caste marriage sanctioned by Hinduism.

Nuances of Indian Secularism

Indian secularism has been subjected to fierce criticism. These nuances are discussed as below:

Anti-religious: First, it is often argued that secularism is anti-religious. Indian secularism is not against institutionalized religious domination. Similarly, it has been argued by some that secularism threatens religious identity. However, as we noted earlier, secularism promotes religious freedom and equality. Hence, it clearly protects religious identity rather than threatens it. Of course, it does undermine some forms of religious identity: those, which are dogmatic, violent, fanatical, exclusivist and those, which foster hatred of other religions.

Western Import: A second criticism is that secularism is linked to Christianity, that it is western and, therefore, unsuited to Indian conditions. On the surface, this is a strange complaint. A secular state may keep a principled distance from religion to promote peace between communities and it may also intervene to protect the rights of specific communities. This exactly is what has happened in India. India evolved a variant of secularism that is not just an implant from the West on Indian soil. The fact is that the secularism has both western and nonwestern origins. In the West, it was the Church-state separation which was central and in countries such as India, the idea of peaceful coexistence of different religious communities has been important.

Minoritism: A third accusation against secularism is the charge of minoritism. It is true that Indian secularism advocates minority rights. Minority rights are justified as long as these rights protect their fundamental interests. To make a separate arrangement for them is not to accord them any special treatment. It is to treat them with the same respect and dignity with which all others are being treated. The lesson is that minority rights need not be nor should be viewed as special privileges.

Interventionist: A fourth criticism claims that secularism is coercive and that it interferes excessively with the religious freedom of communities. This misreads Indian secularism. Indian secularism follows the concept of principled distance which also allows for noninterference. Besides, interference need not automatically mean coercive intervention. It is of course true that Indian secularism permits state-supported religious reform. But this should not be equated with a change imposed from above, with coercive intervention. However, state act as a facilitator by supporting liberal and democratic voices within every religion.

Vote Bank Politics: Fifth, there is the argument that secularism encourages the politics of vote banks. As an empirical claim, this is not entirely false. However, we need to put this issue in perspective. First, in a democracy politicians are bound to seek votes. That is part of their job and that is what democratic politics is largely about. But what if the welfare of the group in question is sought at the cost of the welfare and rights of other groups? What if the interests of the majority are undermined by these secular politicians? Then a new injustice is born. In short, there is nothing wrong with vote bank politics as such, but only with a form of vote bank politics that generates.

Way Forward

To be truly secular, a state must not only refuse to be theocratic but also have no formal, legal alliance with any religion. The separation of religionstate is, however, a necessary but not a sufficient ingredient of a secular state. A secular state must be committed to principles and goals which are at least partly derived from non-religious sources. These ends should include peace, religious freedom, freedom from religiously grounded oppression, discrimination and exclusion, as also inter-religious and intra-religious equality.

What is needed then is due recognition of different religious communities and to ensure comfort and trust among their members. They value human relations as an end in itself. Humans simply can’t do without one another, and no matter how much they like to be with people of their own ilk, they invariably also need to live with those with who they differ, to reach out to people with whom they disagree. Humans can’t really be good to each other unless they are respectful to each other’s religious and philosophical traditions. So the Gandhian notion of secularism is the need of the hour. Yet, the realisability of Gandhian secularism depends on faith in popular wisdom traditions which in turn is sustained by a certain idea of popular moral agency. Gandhian secularism is badly needed, but who will ride it out?

General Studies Paper- I

  • Topic: Social empowerment, Communalism, Regionalism & Secularism.

Click Here to Download Article in PDF


<< Go Back to Main Page