Enshrined in Law: Secularism Became a Vital Part of the Indian Constitution after Independence, but It Is Now under Threat

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The French writer Andre Malraux once asked Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, what his greatest challenge had been since independence. "Creating a just state by just means," he replied. Then, after a pause, he added: "Perhaps, too, creating a secular state in a religious country."

India has always been a deeply religious nation. Four of the world's major faiths--Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism--emerged there. Today, it has the third-largest Muslim population on earth, at roughly 150 million, and there are also about 30 million Christians. Though four out of five Indians are Hindus, each of the other major faiths constitutes a majority in one or more of the country's provinces: for example, the Sikhs in Punjab, the Christians in Nagaland and the Muslims in Jammu and Kashmir.

But more than six decades on from independence, India remains an avowedly secular nation state. The preamble to its constitution says: "We, the people of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a sovereign, socialist, secular democratic republic ..."The word "secular" was inserted in a 1976 constitutional amendment, in order to make the position explicit.

The constitution does not, however, define what it means by "secular", and nor have the judges of the country's Supreme Court ever settled on an official definition. The Hindi word that is commonly used for secularism in India is dharmanirapekshata, which means "indifference towards religion". In the words of the political scientist Ashutosh Varney, this indifference translates--in theory, if not in practice--"into religious equidistance, not non-involvement". Religions are cherished and valued, and are part of public life, but they have no claims over one another, nor to state or political power.

"In the Indian context, secularism means something quite different from what it does in Europe," Soumya Bhattacharya, editor of the Mumbai-based Hindustan Times, tells me. "Over here, it connotes a tolerance of all religions and actively working towards the coexistence of different religions. In India, a religious person can, and should, be secular."

Divide and rule

Such a view might seem odd in Europe, where the French model of laicite, for example--often described as the most extreme interpretation of western secularism--is based on a strict separation between state and organised religion. In contrast, the Indian model does not see a wall of separation between politics and faith but, instead, insists on the neutrality of the state towards religion. Indian secularism does not require the state to be irreligious or anti-religious; nor does it ban religion from the public sphere, as is the case in France.

But does such a model of secularism work in practice? "India shows that it is possible, warts and all, to have a functioning, secular judiciary and legal system and to refuse the idea that one religion or sect-be it Hinduism in India or Anglicanism in the UK-gets to set the terms of debate," says Priyamvada Gopal, the Indian-born author and Cambridge University lecturer.

Some in the west assume that the British bequeathed to India its secular fabric, along with democracy, the rule of law and the railways. But this simplistic view ignores the Raj's "divide-and-rule" strategies, which tended to exacerbate rather than reduce tensions between faiths, particularly Hindus and Muslims. The reality, Gopal argues, is that India's state-sponsored secularism "found subcontinental resources to draw on in the form of an existing heterogeneity and traditions of tolerant, everyday coexistence" between communities.

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Separation between faith and state is an ancient feature of Indian society. According to Hindu tradition, there is a split in authority between priest and ruler, the Brahmin and the Kshatriya. "It is an undoubted fact that in India, religions and philosophical thinkers were able to enjoy perfect, nearly absolute freedom for a long period," wrote the sociologist Max Weber in The Religion of India in 1915. …