The Myth of Indian Secularism

In the contemporary Indian political landscape, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has frequently been criticized for his role as the chief architect of the Hindutva project; a sociopolitical movement that seeks to establish Hindu nationalism as India’s distinctive identity. However, despite critics of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) continuing to argue against discriminatory policies, the promotion of narratives aligned with Hindutva ideology, and how they allegedly undermine the country’s “secular fabric” by favoring specific religious groups, it is noteworthy that secularism in India has always been more of an ideal than a concrete reality. The country’s constitutional framework approaches secularism by protecting the right of individuals to freely practice the religion of their choice while maintaining the state’s neutrality and treating all religions and beliefs equally. Nonetheless, the implementation of secularism in practice has been far from ideal, with numerous historical instances revealing the system’s inconsistencies and biases.

Personal Laws and Uniform Civil Code

The Indian Constitution’s Articles 25 to 30 promote religious freedom and grant particular rights to linguistic and religious minorities. These articles establish a constitutional foundation for the protection of separate personal laws for various religious communities; the majority of which pertain to Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and Parsis, in a provision that can be seen as contradictory to the idea of a uniform civil code and equal treatment under the law.  Based on religious customs and traditions, these personal laws are specific to matters such as marriage, divorce, inheritance, and adoption, and they are codified and enforced by particular legislation and acts.

However, this calls into question the concept of equality before the law and produces a scenario where people of various religious communities are subject to various legal systems, resulting in disparate treatment and societal inequality. Therefore, it is not surprising that the concept of a uniform civil code has been debated in India with suggestions for an integrated set of laws that would apply to all citizens, irrespective of their religious affiliations, guaranteeing fairness and uniformity in the law.

Notably, one of the strongest rationales against separate personal laws is their role in perpetuating gender inequality and discriminatory practices in the country, as demonstrated by the famous Shah Bano case. In India, for example, Muslim personal law enabled the unilateral divorce practice known as “triple talaq,” in which a husband could merely pronounce the word “talaq” three times to divorce his wife. The practice, which denied women the opportunity to have any input in the dissolution of their marriages was widely condemned as unfair and discriminatory toward women. Finally, on August 22, 2017, the Supreme Court of India ruled that the practice was unconstitutional, and the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Act, 2019, which outlawed instant talaq, went into effect retroactively on September 19, 2018, following the President of India’s assent on July 31, 2019.

Indian Secularism
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In a similar vein, discriminatory practices in Hindu personal law have generated controversy. The Hindu Succession Act, for example, gave preference to male heirs in inheritance matters prior to certain amendments, which disadvantaged women and promoted gender disparities. Even though some of these inequalities have been addressed through alterations, there are still differences and debates regarding personal laws that may result in discriminatory treatment. These concerns stemming from personal laws have resulted in major debates and judicial challenges.

In order to promote equality and eradicate unfair practices, activists and reformers have advocated for the adoption of a standardized civil code.

However, there are differing viewpoints on this matter, with some contending for the maintenance of religious diversity and the freedom of religious communities in relation to personal laws.

Article 25(2)(b) and Restriction on Religious Practices

The freedom of individuals to adhere to their own religious views, opinions, and convictions is recognized in Article 25 of the Indian Constitution. It guarantees everyone freedom of conscience, implying that they are entitled to the right to subscribe to and believe in any religion or non-religious belief system of their choosing. Additionally, it gives people the freedom to openly profess, practice, and publicize their faith.

In stark contrast, Article 25(2)(b) limits this right to religious freedom by allowing the state to regulate or restrict religious practices in the interests of social welfare, morality, and health. Although these restrictions are purportedly aimed at maintaining public order and ensuring the welfare of society, they have the potential to interfere with religious liberty and pose concerns regarding the state’s secular identity.

One of the most prominent objections to these restrictions is that they offer a legal foundation for state intervention in religious matters. According to critics, the government should ideally remain impartial and abstain from meddling in the affairs of religious communities unless there is a blatant violation of human rights or public order. Moreover, the sweeping phraseology of Article 25(2)(b) may be interpreted in a way that permits excessive governmental action, resulting in disputes and controversies.

Indeed, cases of state intervention in religious matters have generated controversies and conflicts in India. The Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi controversy, which concerned the ownership of a religious site in Ayodhya that was claimed by both Hindus and Muslims, is one popular example. The involvement of the state in the matter, particularly the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, caused widespread communal unrest and violent confrontations.

The legislative oversight of religious conversions is another sensitive subject. The government must provide its consent before someone can convert to another faith, according to regulations that have been passed in nine Indian states. Although the primary objective of these laws may be to forestall coerced conversions or unscrupulous practices, they have been chastised for undermining the right to religious freedom. Such limitations have sparked worries about religious prejudice and government meddling with people’s personal convictions and preferences.

In addition, debates and issues surrounding gender equality and religious customs have also been ignited by the interference of the state in religious practices. Prolonged court disputes and demonstrations have followed incidents like the Sabarimala temple admission controversy, when limitations on the admission of women of menstrual age were contested. These instances demonstrate the difficulties in establishing a balance between religious beliefs and the ideals of equal treatment and impartiality.

Concerns have also been expressed about the state’s regulation of religious institutions and the management of those institutions. It has been claimed that government regulation of religious institutions’ operations and financial matters, such as Hindu temples, compromises their degree of autonomy and impinges on religious freedom.

Indian Politics and Religion
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Religion-based Reservations

The system of caste-based reservations, another subject of extensive and heated debate, was instituted by the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950, which initially offered reservations for Scheduled Castes (also referred to as Dalits) in education and public employment. The reservation system has grown over time to accommodate more marginalized communities, including Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Backward Classes (OBCs).

While these reservations have been described as a type of positive discrimination designed to overcome systemic social and educational disparities and elevate and empower socially disadvantaged people that have endured centuries of marginalization and caste-based discrimination, they pose questions about the idea of equal opportunity for all and the secular underpinnings of the state.

The application of reservations based on Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in India serves as an illustration of religion-based reservations in effect. The Janata Party government, led by Prime Minister Morarji Desai, established the Mandal Commission, also known as the Socially and Educationally Backward Groups Commission (SEBC), in 1979 with the goal of “identifying the socially or educationally backward classes” in the country. It was led by the Indian Parliamentarian B. P. Mandal, who employed eleven social, economic, and educational variables to gauge the lack of progress in order to examine the issue of reservations for individuals in order to alleviate caste discrimination. In 1980, the commission’s report proposed that members of Other Backward Classes (OBC) be granted reservations to 27% of positions under the Central government and public sector ventures, bringing the overall share of reservations for SC, ST, and OBC to 49.5%.

According to critics, caste-based reservations appear to give preferential treatment to some groups solely on the basis of their caste affiliations by categorizing people based on their caste identities, which runs contrary to the idea of equal treatment and non-discrimination enshrined in Article 15 of the Indian Constitution.

The quota system also reinforces caste-based divisions and issues by classifying people into distinct castes and offering incentives that correspond with those categories, undermining the ultimate goal of a harmonious and integrated community.

State Control of Religious Institutions

The right to administer religious affairs and run religious organizations in India is principally secured under Article 26 of the Indian Constitution. The article provides religious denominations or any segment thereof with the liberty to form and operate institutions for religious and philanthropic reasons, as well as the ability to regulate their particular religious affairs. However, the role of the state in administering and controlling religious institutions in India, especially Hindu temples, has been the subject of controversy and critique. The authority that the government exercises over the management, finances, and administration of these institutions prompts reservations concerning both the impartiality of the state and the autonomy of religious entities, both of which violate the principle of state neutrality. Several instances of state intervention in religious affairs have been deemed incompatible with the principles of secularism.

A number of state governments in India have enacted laws and control mechanisms governing the administration and management of Hindu temples. These laws grant the government discretion over the appointment of temple trustees, the management of temple property, and the expenditure of temple funds. A typical justification for such control is to ensure transparency, prevent poor management, and safeguard temple resources.

Critics, however, maintain that the state should not interfere with the internal affairs of religious organizations unless there are evident breaches of human rights or public order. In addition, such interference is viewed as contrary to the notion that the state ought to uphold religious neutrality and not endorse any particular faith or religious community.

More importantly, it has been argued that the state’s authority over religious institutions infringes on their right to autonomy. As religious and cultural entities, temples have historically been administered through religious bodies and communities. Thus, the state’s involvement is seen as an infringement on the fundamental freedoms of religious communities to oversee their own affairs and practice their religion without unwarranted interference.

The administration and oversight of temples have often been the subject of disputes, which illustrate how a number of individuals have considered state involvement in religious activities incongruous with secular values.

For instance, the Supreme Court of India’s interference in the administration of one of the country’s most prosperous temples, the Shree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Kerala, sparked debates regarding the scope of judicial and government authority over religious institutions. Another contentious issue is the management of temple finances and the permissible use of these funds for anything other than the welfare of the religious community. There have been reports of temple funds being misappropriated or exploited, including a recent allegation made by activist T. R. Ramesh that the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) Department used temple properties and funds to build offices, purchase luxury cars, and other purposes.

Detractors argue that a genuinely secular state should maintain an unambiguous distinction between religious and governmental affairs; permitting religious communities to exercise control over their respective institutions without unreasonable interference.

Influence of Religious Identity on Politics

The intersection of religion and politics in India is an integral as well as complicated feature of the country’s sociopolitical landscape. Given its numerous religious groups, India has an extensive tradition of religious considerations impacting political conversations, election campaigns, and policymaking. This convergence frequently results in identity-based politics, when religion plays an essential role in voter turnout and the outcomes of elections.

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The Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi controversy is among the most prominent instances of political parties and figures using religious affiliations to ignite public fervor while advancing their electoral objectives. The Babri Masjid, thought to have been erected at Hindu deity Ram’s birthplace, was at the forefront of the dispute. With numerous parties exploiting religious sentiments to invigorate their supporters, the subject became increasingly politicized. The BJP tapped into Hindu nationalism and advocated for the building of a Ram temple at the contentious location. Consequently, the BJP’s ascent and ultimate electoral triumph were aided by this politically motivated religious campaign.

Similarly, public policies are often influenced by religious factors as well. For instance, religious conversions have frequently been at the center of debates over policy. Some states have passed anti-conversion legislation with the express purpose of reducing the number of Hindus who abandon one faith to embrace another. These regulations are supported by the idea that conversions erode the predominant religious identity and fuel societal unrest. The passage of such legislation is indicative of the way religious factors affect policymaking, frequently at the expense of individual rights and secular ideals.

The discourses surrounding the protection of cows and the corresponding concerns about beef consumption and slaughter in India are another illustration of how religious factors drive political campaigns and policies.

Hinduism accords cows sanctified status, and a significant segment of the Indian population has strong sentiments for the same rooted in their religious convictions. Unsurprisingly, many political parties have capitalized on this inclination in order to win over the Hindu voter base and consolidate their support.

Laws prohibiting the killing of cows have been enacted or strengthened in a number of Indian states, with heavy penalties for anyone who violates them. These policy decisions have had far-reaching social and economic consequences, particularly for marginalized populations that depend on the beef industry for their sustenance. Additionally, the stringent enforcement of cow protection legislation has resulted in violent incidents and episodes of vigilante behavior, in which self-appointed organizations use force to uphold their own interpretations of cow protection.

In a nutshell, the degree to which religious identity influences society at large deviates from the proclaimed secular nature of the state and contradicts the principles of inclusive governance and equal citizenship. Hence, the Indian democracy is yet to overcome the challenges of striking a balance between religious aspirations and the fundamentals of secularism to nurture a cohesive and heterogeneous society.

Reflections in Indian Society

The disparities in the interpretation and implementation of secularism under the Indian constitution have negatively affected religious harmony, social cohesion, and individual rights. The Gujarat Riots of 2002 serve as an important case study of how these contradictions have contributed to religious conflicts, prejudicial attitudes, and violence.

In response to the burning of a train at Godhra, which resulted in the deaths of 58 Hindu pilgrims returning from Ayodhya, the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) demanded a nationwide strike. Despite the fact that such strikes have been deemed unconstitutional and illegal by the Supreme Court of India and that such strikes frequently result in bloodshed, the state did nothing to avert the strike. Moreover, the government did nothing to quell the initial wave of violence that erupted across the state. According to unofficial accounts, Rana Rajendrasinh, the state’s BJP president, had approved of the strike, and Modi and Rana employed hostile rhetoric that exacerbated the situation.  Local media outlets and state officials contributed to the incitement of violence against the Muslim community by asserting—without providing sufficient evidence—that Pakistan’s intelligence agency was responsible for the train fire and that local Muslims had collaborated with them in order to attack Hindus in the region.

Although the 2002 events were formally classified as a communalist riot, many academics have referred to them as a pogrom. Some observers have claimed that the attacks were premeditated and that the attack on the train was merely an engineered catalyst for what was, in fact, intentional carnage. Other commentators have asserted that these actions met the legal criteria for genocide, or have called them ethnic cleansing or acts of state terrorism.

More importantly, the events must be contextualized in light of the fact that, under Article 19(2) of the Indian Constitution, the state has the authority to restrict freedom of speech and expression in the interests of public order, incitement to an offense, and state security. Incitement to violence is subject to these reasonable constraints, and the state could have limited any speech or expression that explicitly incited violence or threatened to undermine public order. Moreover, allegations of inaction and negligence by state authorities in preventing the violence and protecting the affected individuals demonstrate that the state’s duty to safeguard its citizens as well as maintain law and order, as stipulated in Articles 21A and 355 of the Constitution, was not efficiently performed throughout the riots.

Image Source: GetReligion

In conclusion, the fallacious idea of secularism has long plagued India, despite Prime Minister Modi receiving criticism for his alleged role in furthering the Hindutva project in the country.

While the Indian Constitution portrays the state as being secular in nature, many of its provisions have come under fire for being inconsistent with the concept of secularism in actuality.

For instance, the existence of different personal laws for various religious communities, limitations on religious expression under Article 25(2)(b), reservations based on religion, state oversight of religious institutions, and the impact of religion on politics all indicate a departure from the supposedly secular character of the state.

Such disparities have had serious consequences for Indian society, including gender inequality, discriminatory actions, religious conflicts, and violence. It is crucial that additional debates and reforms occur in order to ensure that secularism is implemented more practically and consistently in India. This entails reexamining personal laws, striking the right equilibrium between religious freedom and state interference, reevaluating reservations based on religion, honoring the independence of religious institutions, and promoting a political structure that embraces the diversity that gives the principles of equality and secularism the highest priority in both letter and spirit. Only through such measures will India be able to adequately fulfill its constitutional pledge toward a secular and harmonious society.



The views expressed in this article are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of the South Asia Times.


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