My title is: General Studies I (GS I) | Secularism


2019-10-15 | 15 minutes

Definition of secularism 2019 pendulumias

For peaceful coexistence and progress of societies having different religions, the state must not be biased or discriminatory towards any religion or people belonging to the religion, and it must be separated from religion. The doctrine of separation of religion from the state is called secularism. The state which is not governed by laws or doctrines of religion is called a secular state.

Word secular is generally reported to have been used for the first time in 1648 at the end of thirty years of war in Europe. George Jacob Holyoake coined the term secularism in 1851. There are two models of secularism, viz. western secularism and Indian secularism. While western secularism has evolved around separation of church and state, Indian secularism is rooted in diversity of India and its tolerance among different religions.

History of Indian Secularism

  • Indian people have remained very accommodative of other religions throughout history. Different religions have been accepted and supported by Ashoka about 2200 years ago and Harsha about 1400 years ago.
  • With the arrival of Islam in the 12th century, rulers in India except Akbar discriminated people from non-Islamic religions as dhimmis. The rulers, after Akbar, particularly Aurangzeb, imposed religion-based jizya taxes again.
  • The Bhakti and the Sufi saints have played a significant role in spreading tolerance from 15th to 17th centuries. Sufi saints and their “Mazars” were not only admired by Muslims but also by Hindus.
  • During the British administration, tension and conflicts heightened but, the tolerant nature of Indian society could not be changed much even then.
  • Since the beginning, the Indian national movement was largely structured along secular lines. At Allahabad session of congress in 1887, it was decided not to take up any issue related to religious communities if majority of that community was against the issue being taken up.
  • Throughout the movement, its leaders actively opposed communalism and promoted no discrimination among religions. Karachi Resolution on Fundamental Rights in 1931 gave importance to freedom of religion, right to practice and profess any religion and to cultural autonomy and equal access to educational facilities for minorities.
  • In the post-independence phase, the constitution of India stressed upon equality of freedom of religion and separation of state from religion.
  • From the debates of the constituent assembly during framing of constitution in 1946-49, it is clear that constituent assembly members agreed and emphasized upon secular nature of Indian state, which emerged during the national freedom struggle.
  • While Pandit Nehru underlined that secularism is an ideal, which India should achieve, the view of Dr. Ambedkar on secularism was that the state should not force any religion on the people.


Secularism in Constitution of India

The constitution of India did not pronounce India as a secular state in its original form. However, the provisions to ensure secular nature of Indian state, equality and freedom of religion existed in original constitution since its adoption in 1950. The forty-second constitution amendment act, 1976 added the word ‘secular’ to preamble. Later, secularism was made a basic feature of Indian constitution in the Bommai case judgments.

Under Article 14, Constitution of India grants equality before law and equal protection of law to all and ensures that there is no discrimination between people of different religious groups in matters of law. Article 15 of the Indian constitution prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion, and Article 16 (1) provides equality of opportunity to all without discrimination on the grounds of religion.

Article 25-28 of the Constitution of India provide right to freedom of religion. However, rights under articles 25 and 26 are subjected to some restrictions in case of public order, morality, health and other fundamental rights. Under Article 25 of constitution, state can regulate and restrict any secular activity even if the activity is associated with the practice/practices of religion. The state is also permitted to reform or open up public institutions of Hindu religion to all classes or sections of Hindus. Article 27 prohibits state from levying taxes on promotion or maintenance of religion or religious institutions. This provision ensures that state cannot favor, patronize and support one religion more than the other. But, the taxes can be used for promoting or maintaining all religions and fees can be levied for administering religious institutions in secular manner. For example, fees on pilgrims for providing safety or other services. Article 28 prohibits religious instruction in any education institution funded completely from state funds. Even state-recognized or state-aided institutions cannot compel a person against his consent to join religious instruction or worship.  

In the Constitution of India, it is the fundamental duty of citizens to promote harmony and spirit of common brotherhood and value under Article 51A and the state is directed to work towards bringing Uniform Civil Code (UCC) under Article 44 of DPSP. The debates on need for Uniform Civil code are often part of discussions revolving around secularism in India. Some support Uniform Civil Code as it will promote national integration and gender equality. Additionally, implementation of Uniform Civil Code will also simplify personal laws. Some oppose Uniform Civil Code as according to them it violates rights under Article 25 and in the name of protecting culture under Article 29 of the constitution.  

Constitution of India ensures non-discrimination among citizens in voting and representation on the basis of religion through Article 325 and 326. It does not declare any religion as the state religion.



Article 14

Equality before law and equal protection of law

Article 15

Prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth

Article 16 (1)

Equality of opportunity to all, no discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, descent, place of birth and residence

Article 25

Freedom of conscience and right to freely profess, practice and propagate one’s religion

Article 26

Rights of minorities to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes and to manage their own affairs in matters of religion

Article 27

No taxes on promotion or maintenance of religion or religious institution

Article 28

Right to religious instruction

Article 51A

Fundamental Duty of citizens to promote harmony and spirit of common brotherhood and value

Article  44 (DPSP)

Uniform civil code for all citizens

Article 325 and 326

Non-discrimination among citizens in voting and representation on the basis of religion, race or sex


Comparison of Indian Secularism with Western Secularism

Western secularism and Indian secularism are fundamentally different from each other. While western secularism implies complete separation of religion and state, Indian secularism is not entirely based only on the separation between state and religion. In Indian secularism, the state can engage itself with religion in negative manner to oppose religious tyranny. For instance, Article 17 of Indian constitution abolishes untouchability, which was based on traditional caste hierarchies within religion. Indian state can also positively engage with religion to assist minority religions. For example, Article 26 of Indian constitution gives all religious minorities right to establish and maintain educational institutions with assistance from the state. In western secularism, the state cannot give support to institutions administered by religious communities as part of state policy or law. The religion is entirely a private matter in western secularism.

Indian secularism, in its present form, permits for different personal laws for different religions. In India, people belonging to different religions come under personal laws based on their religion. People belonging to Hinduism, Sikhism, and Buddhism are governed by the Hindu code bills which include Hindu Marriage Act, Hindu Succession Act, etc. Muslims and Christians, on the other hand, are governed by Muslim Personal Laws and Christian Personal Laws respectively.

In western secularism, religious institutions and authorities are completely independent. If a religious institution bans a woman from becoming priest, the state can only be a mute observer. There is severe non-interference between religion and state in each other’s affairs in western secularism. Indian secularism permits state supported-religious reforms. Discriminatory practices under personal laws of Hindu and Christian religion have been reformed to address concerns of gender inequality in matters concerning inheritance and polygamy. The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Act, 2019 to prohibit arbitrary instant divorce (triple talaq) in Muslims is also an example of state-supported reforms.

Individual and his rights are at the center of western secularism. In western secularism, there is less focus on community-based rights. Indian secularism, on the other hand, protects both individual and religious communities. Indian secularism pays attention to minority rights. In western secularism, there is emphasis on equality between different sects of a religion. In Indian secularism, a key concern is equality between different religious groups. Despite being markedly different from Western secularism, Indian secularism has its own set of challenges and criticisms.

Challenges and Criticisms of Indian secularism

  • It is said that secularism is anti-religious and threatens religious identity. However, it is not the case because secularism only prohibits religious domination.
  • Secularism is linked to the western world. So, it is not suitable for Indian conditions. However, this criticism is not valid as India has evolved a variant of secularism that is not western.
  • Indian secularism supports minority rights and promotes minoritism. However, the rights to minorities are justified to protect them. Minority rights are also essential for democracy, its processes, principles and institutions.
  • Secularism is coercive as it interferes with the religious freedom of communities. It is true that state-supported religious reforms are permissible as per the concept of Indian secularism. But, reforms do not necessarily mean excessive intervention and coercion.
  • Fifth criticism is that Indian secularism encourages vote bank politics. When political parties or politicians exploit religious differences for votes, they undoubtedly undermine Indian secularism.
  • Indian secularism is also described as an impossible objective and ideal by saying that people with many religious differences will never co-exist peacefully. But, Indians continue to co-exist almost peacefully.
  • In addition to criticisms, Indian secularism faces challenges in the form of religious intolerance, fundamentalism and communalism.

Ways to Strengthen Secularism

A plural society having people belonging to all religions of the world requires increased awareness among people regarding the importance of maintaining secularism. This can be achieved through campaigns against communal hatred, violence and politics by government and civil society. There is a need to form a national consensus on the issue of Uniform Civil Code. In order to be successful, UCC must reflect diversity of India and seek to achieve justice for all religions. The government should involve all religious groups and civil society organizations in the formulation and implementation of UCC. Government, civil society and all other stakeholders must find ways to create and nurture secular institutions. Institutions such as National Integration Council, which look for ways to deal with the problems of communalism and regionalism need to be made stronger to promote secularism.