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A Short Discourse on Indian Secularism

Credits: Siddesh Gautum (IG: bakeryprasad)

History has been witness to the horrors of right-wing nationalism that arises out of creating a false sense of threat or instilling insecurity in a group of people along the lines of race or religion. The events that unfolded in Nazi Germany should forever remain evidence of the State's responsibility to remain positively neutral among its peoples; for when the State itself turns its back on a certain group or community, and defines and demarcates its enemies, nothing but State-sponsored violence can ensue. Out of the ideas of liberalism emerges freedom of thought and expression. Freedom of belief and the liberty to individuals to choose an idea of God to believe in is a tenet of secularism. Indian secularism is different from the secularism that developed in the West.

While the idea is Western, it does not function in a manner similar to how it does in the West. For starters, Indian secularism is not a total inaction of the State in matters related to religion. Given the undemocratic nature of many religions and their oppressive laws which have existed particularly in our society, the Indian secularism model, along with the far progressive Constitution of India, is of a reformative nature: in the Indian context, it is the duty of the State to further the process of social justice and equality of opportunity—necessary in a democratic society. This endeavour cannot be made possible if the secular and democratic laws cannot intervene to facilitate reforms in the religions to make their nature less oppressive and more egalitarian. 

The Constitution of India provides in no uncertain terms that India is to be a secular State. However, in reality ample evidence exists of Hindu right-wing mobilisation by political parties; and use of the secular nature of the State and intertwined policies of positive discrimination provided by the constitution as instruments of minority appeasement to secure votes. This has created inter-religious as well as intra-religious hostilities among various communities as identity politics on religious grounds deepens, and has further moved the discourse of Indian politics towards a more right-wing focussed narrative, as one group seeks the vote of the majority and another group seeks the votes of the minorities. This was supposed to be prevented under the secular state. While the State granted ample freedom of conscience to all persons to believe in a religion that they wanted to, and no favour was given to any single religion, this has not been the general feeling among the masses who have felt that their faith was threatened by attack from an "outsider" that could erode their system of belief.

The colonial policy of divide and rule pitted Hindus and Muslims as mutual antagonists who were perpetually locked in a struggle to win favours and be considered more favourably so as not to be oppressed at the hands of the British. The British put forward several policies including separate electorates, introduced with the Morley-Minto reforms. The idea was that only Muslims could protect the rights of Muslims and therefore they alone shall have separate Muslim representatives voted to power by Muslim voters. If Hindus and Muslims kept fighting with each other, they could never be united under a common identity—that of Indians.

This colonial divide on communal lines seems to have translated fairly easily into the modern-day politics. Right-wing Hindu nationalistic parties have been propagating for over 30 years now that India is a land of Hindus in an effort to unite them against a common enemy—Islam—with the RSS at the head of this. All of this is to create a solid and unfailing electorate that has been brainwashed into thinking that, were they to lose their unity and not stand together against this common enemy, Hindus would be subject to the wishes of the minority and be dominated thereof. In a country with about 80% of population following Hinduism, the antics of religious divide used by the British play very well to create a communal electorate that would help elect that party to power that claims to work to protect the community from the said enemy. And when such party is elected to power, then the Government, as well as the State has a clear enemy. 

This is against the spirit of secularism enshrined in the Constitution of India. A secular State cannot and should not have space for such right-wing mobilisation. However, there is evidence this exact strategy coupled with riots on communal lines has led to increase in popularity of the BJP. A Yale study states that BJP leaders benefitted in state elections from communal riots. The riots polarised the electorate and saw an increase in the Hindu majority vote of the BJP while the same situation caused reduced votes for the Indian National Congress, which relied on minority support for winning elections. While the Congress has been accused of minority appeasement, and to some extent it may be true, there is also merit to policies that look after the interests of the minorities since the same study proves that due to such policies by the Congress, it had resulted in more communal harmony overall. And, had the Congress lost in these elections, there would have been an 11% increase in communal riots and thousands more would have died. 

In an attempt to secure electorates, parties have been reckless in identifying with different religious groups, demarcating the “us” and “them” for different communities—mainly Hindus and Muslims in the Indian context. All in all, mobilising religious communities and polarizing secular societies on communal divides is a deeply unsecular and unconstitutional practice taken up by politicians. Rhetorical speeches to create communal divides, indirect instigations, etc., have been long included in political campaigns and otherwise, even more so by the BJP government since 2014

At this point, it requires to be asked: What is the threat to a said community, that right-wing politicians capitalise over in order to gain the support of the electorates? The Constitution of India in Part III guarantees equality to all persons without discrimination on the grounds of, but not limited to, religion. Moreover, provisions for affirmative action in the form of reservation are also provided within the Constitution. Moreover, the Constitution provides for freedom to profess one's religion of choice. Meaning that, the State does not enforce on the people to adhere to any particular faith. Therefore, virtually speaking, no religious community is under any kind of threat in/from the Indian State, as the Constitution thoroughly safeguards their rights, and any correction can be made with help from the due process of law.     

India has failed to be a truly secular state as it does not separate the State from religion. For all major religious communities exist their own personal laws, which mean that the Constitution and laws of the State are not the sole authorities, with the civil society is being governed by religious personal laws. This, therefore, expands religion to take the form of a governing authority over the citizens, whereas, religion should not exist beyond the scope of faith and personal belief as enshrined under the Constitution in Article 25, which offers no explicit right to be governed by individual personal laws. Religion therefore, needs to be reduced to a mere personal identity and personal belief, away from the governing authority in the Indian State that it is today. Across all religions exist oppressive, misogynistic, and paternalistic laws that enforce dogma and morality. The Indian State has no religion. And therefore, citizens of India should only be governed by secular laws of the State. One way to do this is to introduce a Uniform Civil Code, so that religion is only reduced to a personal identity that cannot be weaponised by politicians to cause communal disharmony and gain votes by polarising electorates.

Moreover, religious organisations like the RSS should not be allowed to control political parties like the BJP. RSS members go on to join Hindu-nationalist parties like the BJP. When organisations carry a sectarian goal like that of the RSS, naturally their members carry those same ambitions. And, when such members are allowed to contest elections and form the Government, the Government then carries the same goals as the political leadership. Slowly, the whole state machinery succumbs to the hidden agenda and all wheels are turned to carry out said agenda and achieve specific goals. Therefore, a ban on religious organisations from contesting in elections would mean an en masse eradication of hidden communal agendas. Politicians would be encouraged to talk more in terms of secular and constitutional values of nation-building rather than frenzied rhetoric of a Hindu rashtra.  

In a secular State such as India, ample space still remains for right-wing polarisation due to factors ranging from religion being weaponised as more than a mere personal faith and identity, and the admission of religious organisations into politics and governance. Parties polarise the electorates to gain benefits in the elections at the cost of the Indian peoples and tear the democratic fabric of the nation. True separation of the State from any religion is only possible if the only governing laws of the society are the secular and egalitarian laws tested on the anvil of constitutional morality. Therefore, it is imperative that a Uniform Civil Code should replace the personal laws that govern the Indian society as of now.    


By Akshansh Singh

Akshansh Singh is a full-time Law student and a part-time meme-monger. You can always find him captivated by a book or passionately voicing his political outlook. He enjoys playing video games while being engaged by some intellectual podcast. He has several research papers to his name and is always looking forward to broaden his horizons.

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