What does secularism mean for India today?

“Has secularism in India today become associated with the politics of convenience and tokenism? Who can really claim to be secular? And will this define the tone of the campaign for the next elections?” This was the subject of the discussion on NDTV dated July 17, 2013.  

The discussion was interesting and relevant. However, it was similar to those debates in the Ayodhya campaign 20 years ago and one wondered whether anything had changed since then. For example, the demand of secularism was an argument to dismiss the BJP state governments following the destruction of the Babri mosque in 1992.[1] Then, the Supreme Court ruled that secularism was a basic feature of the Indian constitution with the 1976 constitutional preamble.

In India, there is no viable consensus on the term secularism and, therefore, interpretations vary to a great extent. On the one hand, secularism is said to represent the Indian spirit of tolerance and to be equal to the development of Hinduism and, therefore, to be eternal in the Indian context. Justice H. N. Tilhari, J., for example, rules that Lord Rama is the personification of that culture and that Rama is “to produce ethos of character building and nation building.”[2] On the other hand, Justice K. Ramaswamy,  J.  defines secularism as “an understanding between man and man. …, as (a) vehicle to establish an egalitarian social order (for all sections of the society … and) to secure all its people socio-economic needs essential for man’s excellence and of moral well-being, fulfilment of material prosperity and political justice.”[3] Also, individuals such as Bhagat Singh and Jawaharlal Nehru can be quoted in this context.

For a long period of time, secularism is seen as neutrality by the state vis-à-vis religions: the state proper has no religion. Equally, it does not negate religion or rather discriminates against religions. Yet, secularism is often reduced to a state technique to grant concessions to minorities, i.e. Muslims. All in all, the Indian state is said to be not unreligious.

The most important explanation for the importance of religion in India seems to be the historic definition of Hinduism as majority religion with the advent of the census in the 19th century. This triggers off a debate who is a Hindu and who is not and, therefore, to whom the respective Civil Code applies. “Hindu Marriage Act, 1955”; “Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act, 1959”; “Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act, 1956” and “Hindu Succession Act, 1956” are result of this development. And although personal belief is not relevant to be a Hindu, the Indian state is also asked to define Hinduism.

On the subject of this, the state standardizes and unifies religion. The Supreme Court judgment relating to the Swaminaranyanan sect in 1966 is a mile-stone. Accordingly, Hinduism is characterised by “a kind of subtle indescribable unity”[4] which begins with the Vedas, which holds to karma, rebirth and moksha. The Supreme Court confirms this in 1995[5] by saying that Hindus affirm the absolute authority of the Vedas and subscribe to the varna jati (caste) system.[6] Many politicians also contribute to this debate, for example  Chakravarti Rajagopalachari (1878-1972) and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975).

The administration of religious endowments is a means by the Indian state to influence and regulate religion and vice versa. Generally speaking, religious endowments are administered by the state because they are considered public good. In detail, the administration varies from state to state.[7]  However, it is an object of political dispute and it shows that there is “no wall” [8] or rather separation between state and religious institutions. What is more, the Indian state takes up the task to organize religion. By doing so, it negates the image that Hinduism has no organization (church) and, therefore, the demand of secularism as such would not apply.

It seems that growing disenchantment of Muslims in pre-independent times and the continued rivalry between Indian and Pakistan after independence is one result of these developments. Discussions on the term secularism often move in circles. The debate in Indian parliament about to end the use of religions in politics in summer 1993 is one example.

Every party in India uses religions to a certain degree. Religion plays an integral part in the strategy of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). This party uses religion even at the expense of other religions and communities or rather religious neutrality. After the demolition of the Babri mosque, the building of a temple at Ayodhya is one important programmatic point of the BJP.  In 2002, the party succeeds to a certain degree when the then Prime Minister, Vajpayee (BJP), declares that “(India) had been a Hindu nation for thousands of years.”[9] In 2003, L. K. Advani (BJP), Home Minister understands that the links between present religion and politics are not considered to be in contradiction to the ideals of secularism.[10]

Considering this, one asks whether India can take new directions for secularism.


Baird, Robert D. (Ed.), Religion and Law in Independent India, New Delhi: Manohar, 1993

“Bhrahmachari Siddheswarbhai & Ors. Vs. State of Bengal & Ors. Case”, Supreme Court, Judgment of J. N. Venkatachala on behalf of the Court, in: Supreme Court Almanac (SCALE) 1995, p. 4

Committees and Commissions in India 1947-73, ed. by Virendra Kumar, Band IV, 1960-61, New Delhi: Concept Publishing Company, 1977

Derrett, J. Duncan M, Religion, Law and the State in India, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999

Desai, Sunderlal T., Mulla: Principles of Hindu Law, Bombay: N. M. Tripathi Private, 1990

“T. M. A. Pai Foundation & Ors. Vs. State of Karnataka & Ors.”, Supreme Court, Writ Petition (Civil) No. 317 of 1995, Judgement, New Delhi, 31.10.2002

Tilhari, H. N., Judgement delivered in the Writ Petition No. – 1992, Vishwa Hindu Adhivakta Sangh Vs. Union of India & others. – Allahabad /Lucknow, 1.1.1993

[1]see S. R. Bommai v. Union of India. In: All India Reporter 1994 Supreme Court 1918-2113. Nagpur 80u.81(1994)969u.970; “Any profession and action which go counter to the (…) creed (of secularism) are a prima facie proof of the conduct in defiance of the provisions of the our Constitution. (…) the Government in the three States could not be carried on in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution. The consequences of such professions and acts (…) are evidently against the provisions of the Constitution. … The common thread of breach of secularism ran through the events and with prognosis action was taken”, 2003, 2044

[2]Tilhari Judgment

[3] SC Judgment on Article 356. In: S. R. Bommai v. Union of India. All India Reporter 1994 Supreme Court 1918-2113. Nagpur 80u.81(1994)969u.970, 2014,2020

[4] in: Baird 1993, p. 52 and “Bhrahmachari Siddheswarbhai & Ors. Vs. State of Bengal & Ors. Case”,  p. 207 u. 213

[5] “Bhrahmachari Siddheswarbhai & Ors. Vs. State of Bengal & Ors. Case”, p. 113-228

[6]  Smith, Brian K., “How Not to be a Hindu: The case of the Ramakrishna Mission”, in: Baird 1993, p. 338-350, 56-58.

[7] “Hindu Religious Endowments Commission, 1960 – Report, Delhi: Manager of Publications, 1962”, in: Committees and Commissions in India 1947-73, p. 47

[8] Judgment by Pal, Ruma, J., in: “T.M.A. Pai Foundation & Ors. Vs. State of Karnataka & Ors.”

[9] “Beware Of Enemies Abroad’, PM discounts all talk of Hindu rashtra”, The Hindu. Delhi. 25.12.2002, p. 1.

[10] “Advani’s Art of Living”, New Delhi, Indian Express, 19.1.2003, p. 4



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