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Indian secularism - Place of religion in human life - The Statesman

S K Chaube ()
21 January 1997

Title : Indian secularism - Place of religion in human life
Author : S K Chaube
Publication : The Statesman
Date : January 21, 1997

If knowledge is power, ignorance is a sure way to slavery - of the
body and the mind. One sure way to ignorance is belief in myths.

In the great debate on secularism in India a number of cultivated
myths abound even among well intentioned people bearing no malice
against other communities. "Indian society is secular", "Hindu
society is secular", "The Indian Constitution is secular" and "The
Indian State is secular" are some of them.

The myths are raised to a theoretical plane by asserting that "Our
secularism is different from secularism in the West". From this
absurdity one moves to the confusing array of "our definitions" of
secularism and exchange of abuses like communalism and


This myth-making started in the Constituent Assembly. K. T. Shah,
a radical Congressman, moved an amendment to the draft Constitution
seeking to declare India to be a "secular, socialist" sovereign,
democratic republic. It was turned down on two different grounds.
On the question of socialism it was held that a Constitution is a
political document and need not reflect any social philosophy. On
the question of secularism it was asserted that the Indian
Constitution embodied secularism as Indian - Hindu - society is
essentially secular. This illusion ran through social scientific
literature as well as several judgements of the top courts of this
country ending up with the judgement that Hindutva is compatible
with secularism.

Social science is also a science or, at least, an aspiring one. The
minimum requirement for attaining the status of a science is an
agreement on the terms that are used. Otherwise, if people mean
different things by the same word, their words are bound to lose
precision. Social science is not poetry that thrives on mystery and
obscurity. One simple way to attain descriptive precision is
through the fundamental principle of philology - meanings being
derived from roots.

Secularism is a word derived from the word secular which means this
worldly, mundane, profane. As such it is contrasted with "sacred".
Secularism means attachment to this wordliness. The distinction is
ancient - going back to the Roman period. In the Middle Age, the
parish courts, controlled by the church, tried ordinary civil cases
of the villagers while serious offences were tried by "secular
courts" controlled by the King. The demand of the Protestants was
that the church should not dabble in secular affairs that were
governed by the State. The bloody civil strife between the
Protestants and the Catholics in Europe led to a further
prescription that the State should keep away from secularian
conflicts in the domain of the sacred. The English monarchy went to
the extent of establishing its own Church of England. The first
amendment of the Constitution of the USA prohibited the U.S.
Congress to make law on religious establishments. This meant that
government funds could not be spent on any religious cause.

Secularism is thus a political doctrine and not a social one. It
cannot be counterposed against communalism as communalism is a
social doctrine. It is not true that a communally tolerant
population is automatically secular.


On the other hand, in a society where communal intolerance is high,
there is a strong case for having a secular State as the State, in
order to preserve its moral authority, must wash its hands of
sectarian conflicts. It should not be partisan. If, on the other
hand, the State is seen to be taking side in a sectarian conflict,
there is a civil war, as in the cases of many countries in medieval
Europe. Secularism is a cultural laissez faire.

The opposite view - the cultural welfarism patronizing all
religions equally - is dangerous. For no State can fully satisfy
all the contending communities. The serve dharma samabhava
philosophy that allows the Government to build temples or repair
mosques and churches, arrange religious festivals or pilgrimages
will inevitably give scope to complaints of unequal treatment.

The crucial question is not whether Indian society is essentially
secular because the majority community in India - the Hindu - is
secular. For a society is made up of the entire web of human
relationship, including the religious. No society can be secular
for every society contains religions. In fact, except the perfect
atheist, no individual is secular for there always is a place of
religion in human life. But there is a secular domain of human
fife, just as there is a sacred domain. This applies to social
life too. A secular State is one which confines itself to the
secular domain of society.


This distinction is clearly made in Article 25 of the Constitution
which authorizes the State to regulate "economic, political or
other secular activities associated with religious practice". And
yet, having made such a clear distinction between the sacred and
the secular, if the fathers of the Indian Constitution rejected the
proposal for declaring India a secular State, they must have made a
conscious decision.

According to Article 27 the State shall not impose any tax for the
benefit of a particular religion. There is, however, nothing in
the Constitution that prevents the State from spending money for
the benefit of a religion. On the other hand, according to Article
290A, sums of money are charged on the consolidated funds of the
States of Kerala and Tamil Nadu for payments to the Devaswom Funds
for the benefit of the Hindu religious Institutions.

Funding is the major means of patronage and contributions to
religious establishment are the major irritants with sustained
effect. Allegations of State partisanship are occasionally heard
in case of communal riots. The Babari Masjid demolition has been
cited as an instance of State connivance at violation of the
religious rights of a community. Such allegations are not easily
amenable to verification. But an attempt of the State to mediate
in a religious conflict is either stupid or motivated by ulterior

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