Secular, an adjective, used in its current form since around 1300, means “living in the world, not belonging to a religious order” or “belonging to the state”. It has been derived from the Old French “seculer”, from the Late Latin “saecularis”, meaning “worldly, secular, pertaining to a generation or an age”, from the Latin “saecularis”, or “of an age, occurring once in an age”, from “saeculum”, the word for “age, span of time, generation”.

According to one theory cited in the etymology dictionary, its Proto-Indo-European roots lie in the word “sai-tlo”, where “sai” means to bind or tie, “extended metaphorically to successive human generations as links in the chain of life”. It is also the source for the French word “siecle” and for “ludi saeculares”, an Ancient Roman festival celebrated once in 120 years. In English, since the 1850s, it has stood for humanism, and for leaving god out of morality or ethics.

It does not strictly translate into the term “sect-neutral” in Hindi, as Home Minister Rajnath Singh suggested in Parliament on Thursday. Though in the political life of nations since the 19th century, it has come to mean a separation of religion from the state.

Of an age

“Another word is thrown up a good deal, this SECULAR STATE business. May I beg with all humility those gentlemen who use this word often, to consult some dictionary before they use it? It is brought in at every conceivable step and at every conceivable stage. I just do not understand it. It has a great deal of importance, no doubt. But it is brought in in all contexts, as if by saying that we are a secular State we have done something amazingly generous, given something out of our pocket to the rest of the world, something which we ought not to have done. We have only done something which every country does except a very few misguided and backward countries in the world. Let us not refer to that word in the sense that we have done something very mighty.”

 – Jawaharlal Nehru, Constituent Assembly debates on August 12, 1949.

“The specious, oft-repeated and nauseating principle of secularity of the State. I think that we are going too far in this business of secularity.”

 – PS Deshmukh, Constituent Assembly debates on August 11, 1949.

Evidently, the Constituent Assembly argued a lot about secularism during the three years that it hammered out the Indian Constitution. There was general consensus that they were writing out a secular state, but not about much else.

During one session in 1949, HV Kamath moved an amendment to have the Preamble start with “In the name of God”. He was shot down – even if the god was not specific to any religion, it left out unbelievers. Brajeshwar Prasad, another member, proposed that “socialist” and “secular” be introduced in the Preamble. “Socialist” was ridiculed and “secular” fell by the wayside along with it. But the idea of a secular state still retained a powerful imaginative pull.

The Constituent Assembly debates somehow refract back to the origins of the word secular, to the living human choice made in a particular time and place, in a longer historical continuum. The debaters took an inherited Western idea and tried to work out what it meant to be secular, how best to be secular in caste-ridden, Partition-scarred, newly independent India. The version that emerged was peculiarly of an age.

Scholars through the decades have pointed out how it diverged from accepted definitions of secularism. Perhaps that is why the Constituent Assembly stopped short of using the word in the first place.

No concern or equal respect

“It would have been enough if it had been said that the State should not interfere with any religion. Or, we could have said that the State should have a spiritual and moral outlook, instead of saying that it should be secular. The introduction of these words has created a lot of misunderstanding.” – Jagat Narain Lal, Constituent Assembly debates on November 25, 1949.

As Shefali Jha has pointed out, much of the debate was a struggle between two theories of secularism, “no concern” and “equal respect”. The first dictated that the state stay away from religion, that faith be a private matter or, more radically, a matter strictly confined to the private sphere. It privileged the rights of the individual citizen over the recognition of separate communities. Nation states that evolved in the 19th century, Jha says, promoted individual rights so that older allegiances withered away, leaving behind only the loyal citizen.

But it was argued that such a state could not adequately represent a society with deep traditions of religion. Besides, the West, with its arid conception of secularism, was in crisis. It was for India to show the regenerative potential of spiritual and mystical streams of thought. The state that took shape would not interfere in religion. But it would respect all religions, which would also find a place in the public sphere.

The wellsprings of tolerance that allowed this plurality were often cast as a Hindu tradition. But it was also conceded that all faiths had inner resources of tolerance. JB Kripalani defined tolerance as the “acceptance, to some extent, of someone’s beliefs as good for him”. It was this acceptance that would prevent religious conflict.

There were several arenas in which the debate between the two models of secularism played out. For instance, the assembly had to choose between freedom of religious worship, or the individual’s private right to belief and prayer, and freedom of religious practice, which involved the public performance of faith and the right to propagate it; between a uniform civil code which erased the personal laws of various faiths and a jurisprudence that allowed for variations in civil law.

Jha shows how the Constituent Assembly gravitated towards the equal respect theory, but how the borders between the two forms of secularism were often blurred. So we got a state which allowed freedom of religious practice, provided protections for personal laws, recognised linguistic minorities and allowed religious instruction in schools, but which rejected political safeguards for minorities.

National integration, it was felt, would take care of it by absorbing minorities into the political mainstream. “I want to tell the House, Sir, that there is no minority in this country,” said Tajamahal Husain. “I do not consider myself a minority. In a secular State, there is no such thing as minority.”

Principled distance

“The draftsmen seem to be torn between two rival ideals: one suggesting the Constitution for a wholly secular State, in which religion has no official recognition. On the other hand, there seems to me to be a pull – somewhat sub-conscious pull, if I may say so – in favour of particular religions or denominations, whose institutions, whose endowments, whose foundations, are sought to be protected.”

 – KT Shah, Constituent Assembly debates on November 30, 1948.

As secularism evolved in India, equal respect did not always mean equal distance from all religions either. Rajeev Bhargav points out how Indian secularism has had to defend itself against charges of differential treatment. There were two main contentions.

First, the state insulated Muslim personal laws but reformed the Hindu code, abolishing child marriage and polygamy, modernising laws of inheritance. Several articles of the Constitution directly acted against the caste system of the Hindus. Not only did it muddy  the lines of separation between faith and state, it clearly showed different degrees of familiarity towards the two religions, which could be read as discriminatory towards Hindus and protective of Muslims or vice versa. Second, the Constitution allowed for group-specific social rights for religious minorities. They enjoyed, for instance, enjoyed certain autonomies over educational institutions run by them.

To both objections, Bhargav puts forward the rationale of principled distance, which distinguishes between equal treatment and treating everyone as an equal. The state could not be blindly neutral or equidistant from all religions. To achieve certain constitutional ideals of equality, it had to act on behalf of discriminated populations. Religious minorities had to be protected, just as the entrenched inequities of the Hindu caste system had to be wiped out.

Choosing secularism

This, then, was the sum of our secularism, born of violence, oppression and mistrust. Born also of the hope that India could be a plural, equal society, in spite of the appalling evidence of Partition and the brutalities of the caste system. Secularism in India has been about making this choice, over and over again, in spite of all odds. To hold it to preconceived formal standards or to quibble about the absence of the word in the original Preamble seems pedantic.