"I do not expect India of my dreams to develop one religion, i.e., to be wholly Hindu or wholly Christian or wholly Mussalman, but I want it to be wholly tolerant, with its religions working side by side with one another.''
          —Mahatma Gandhi
On paper, India is unquestionably a secular State with secure constitutional guarantees for all citizens. Yet, at a social and political level secularism seems an abstraction. There is a serious contradiction between the secular goal of the Indian Constitution and the growing communalisation of its polity.

Secularism cannot be defined without relating it to the socio-political context. What is true in the western context, may not be necessarily valid in Indian context and vice versa.

Secularism, in philosophy and politics, is rejection of religious and sacred forms and practices in favour of rational assessment and decision-making. In Europe and North America, secularism can be traced to the 18th-century Age of Enlightenment or Age of Reason. Enlightenment thinkers attacked classical traditions and religious authority. In particular, they argued that the separation of Church and State would enable the free exercise of human intellectual capacities and imagination, and would bring about government by reason, rather than by tradition and dogma.  The State, which was subservient to Church, till then, was able to free itself from domination of papal authority, after a long struggle.

Western dictionaries define "secularism" as the absence of religion, but Indian secularism means a profusion of religions, none of which is privileged by the State. Secularism in India does not mean non-religiousness, rather it means multi-religiousness.

The Indian society was very different from the European society in its socio-religious structure and could not, therefore, imitate the western model of secularism. It had to evolve its own model of secularism from its own experimental context. Since there was not any struggle against any established religious authority, there was no question of any resentment against religion. Also, India was rich in pluralistic traditions, and mainly relied on them for developing its concept of secularism.

Indian pluralism is best summed up in two maxims: ekam sad vipra bahula vadanti (That which exists is one; sages call it by various names) and sarva dharma sambhava (All religions should be equally respected).

Thus, right from the beginning, Indian secularism drew its strength from pluralism. It was the religious community, rather than the religious authority, which mattered in the Indian context of secularism. The saner leaders of both the communities emphasized justice in power-sharing, without questioning the religious authority of either community.

In fact, the leaders of minority communities feared domination by the majority community and interference in their religious affairs. The leaders of the majority community, on the other hand, sought to assuage the feelings of minority communities by assuring them they would be free to follow their own religions. Such leaders were called secular, while those of the majority community who resented unrestricted religious freedom for minorities were called communal. (a loose definition) Thus, in Indian secularism an anti-religious attitude did not play a part.

When the concept of secularism came to be accepted in Indian politics, beginning with later part of 19th century, Indian society was deeply religious and people jealously guarded their religious rites as well as religious identities. Even the modern reform movements by Raja Rammohan Roy and Sir Syed, in the Hindu and Muslim societies, respectively, were launched within the framework of respective religions.

The leaders of freedom movement, like Tilak, Mahatma Gandhi, Maulana Azad and others were all believers themselves and adopted the religious idiom to mobilize the Indian masses for the freedom struggle.

For Gandhiji, the basis of Hindu-Muslim unity was also religion. The political unity, in his view, should also be based on one's religious duty to unite with other human beings. He wrote in the Harijan of July 6, 1947 that "....by trying to befriend Muslims I have only proved myself a true Hindu and have rightly served the Hindus and Hinduism. The essence of true religious teachings is that one should serve and befriend all". To strengthen his point then he goes on to quote a couplet-from Iqbal's famous poem Naya Shivala: Mazhab nahin sikhata aapas mein bayr rakhna", meaning, religion does not teach us to bear ill-will towards one another.

Constitutional concept
Differing views of national leaders meant that the form of secularism that found expression in the Constitution after independence was ambiguous. The result was that the Constitution sought to do several things. It made some allowance for the role played by religion, especially Hinduism, in Indian life. It also gave statutory recognition to minorities, thereby implicitly accepting the existence of a majority. It aimed to foster a common civic identity, but then compromised this by the provision of reserved seats in legislatures to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (initially meant to last 10 years, no Parliament has contemplated doing away with this and its regular extension has become a formality).

Though our Constitution is secular, originally the word 'secular' found only a single casual mention in the document of 1950. The reference was to "economic, financial, political or other secular activity" in Article 25(2a) and the usage followed the standard dictionary meaning.

It was only during the emergency in mid-seventies, during Congress party rule, that the words "secular and socialist" were added.  The secular objective of the State was specifically expressed by inserting the word 'secular' in the Preamble of the Constitution (42nd Amendment) Act, 1976.

But the word 'secular' was not defined, although it was given official (not Constitutional but operational) expression in the State practice of maintaining equi-distance from all religions, or paying equal respect to all religions, not favouring one at the cost of another. Thus, the unity and fraternity of the people of India, professing numerous faiths, was sought to be achieved by enshrining the ideal of a 'secular State', which means that the State protects all religions equally and does not itself uphold any religion as the State religion.

Thus, the spirit of Indian secularism is not denial of any religion or religious practice, but religio-cultural pluralism. It is certainly better than atheistic secularism as the latter does not admit the right of citizens to believe.

Uneven benefits of modernization and industrialization, on one hand, and marginalization of religious traditions, on the other, have led to strong reaction, lending legitimation to the reassertion of religious and ethnic identities, and putting more and more pressure on the secular State.

During eighties, right-wing politicians mooted the concept of positive secularism, putting a question mark on the Nehruvian concept of secularism. The advocates of 'positive secularism' argue that all those who follow Nehruvian secularism are following a 'pseudo secularism' or 'false secularism', as they are indulging in 'minorityism' by unduly favouring the minorities.

Religion in India, whether pre- or post-Independence, has never been dissociated or de-linked from State institutions at any level: legal, institutional or cognitive. Rather, the modern Indian State has been involved in regulating the religious affairs of society, more to secure political goals than to "modernize" the social structure of Indian society. As a matter of fact, its various policies have promoted and strengthened the religious identity of people and provided State patronage to religious institutions and leaders.

Secularism became not a creed of radical separation between religion and politics, but of spiritualising politics itself, which often took the form of mutual accommodation of orthodoxies.

The crucial question would be what should be the relationship between the State and religion? Should the State play a part in religious affairs?

Many argue that it is not possible to do away with religion from politics in India. It must be noted that though the Constitution provides for citizenship on individual basis, irrespective of one's religion or caste, one can hardly forget that our existential reality is communitarian, rather than individual-oriented.

The Constitution had to take note of this existential reality. Thus, our Constitution tries to imbibe elements of both as an honourable compromise.

Strictly speaking, the ruling elites do not rule in the name of religion, or for a particular religion. However, politics of the ruling elites has always found it convenient to negotiate with various communities, rather than individuals. Religion has firm presence within the communities, and it is a reference point for the communities to define themselves. The Indian State, therefore, continues to interact and deal with communities, and in the process, constantly legitimises and reinforces the communities through its acts.

The meaning of religion varies from one person to another. All religious people are not dogmatic, narrow-minded, ignorant, superstitious and intolerant. Dogmatism and narrow-mindedness or fanaticism are psychological rather than religious categories. In that way, even an atheist or agnostic can be dogmatic or intolerant and even fanatic.

The role of religion has often varied, from being an instrument in the hands for enforcing abject subjugation of the toiling masses, to that of inspiring the revolt against tyranny or racial oppression.

Religion for toilers generally steps in to cement the strong bonds desired. It provides values and meaning to their lives. It is their hope. Religion acts not only as a substitute to science in explaining the universe and its laws, it also acts as a popular philosophy for even the most ordinary person to be able to appreciate.
The ordinary or powerless need stronger, collective existence to give meaning and purpose to their existence. The collective social existence through which the individual seeks to compensate his or her powerlessness is to have common social values, culture, and a world-view.

Some social scientists in India have argued that the serious threats to social tolerance and diversity in India today come either from an anti-democratic, majoritarian, ethnic nationalism or from a homogenising and modernising nation State, and the imposition of alien values on Indian society. Such theorists prefer a State which does not claim procedural neutrality and separation of State from religion but is, instead, guided by an encompassing indigenous culture, although they oppose the interpretations of Indian culture which are being marketed by right-wing forces today. Minorities could be protected, they argue, by the tolerance and modes of coexistence which have evolved in the society over time, rather than by a modernising nation State with alien values. The State should be prepared to devolve some of its powers and functions on to communities.

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