Does the Indian State answer to the description of “secular”? According to the Indian Constitution, it does: Articles 25 and 26 deal with freedom of religion to all, and the right to form religious institutions, respectively. Under Article 27, no person can be compelled to pay special taxes on the basis of religion. Article 28 prohibits religious instruction in wholly state-funded educational institutions. Articles 29 and 30 set forth certain cultural and educational rights for minorities, and are aimed at prohibiting discrimination against religious minorities in cultural and educational areas of life.

The religion-as-faith anti-secular argument

Different religious groups have co-existed in harmony in this country. There has been free public and private worship by men and women of faith. Religion-as-faith is what has characterised peaceful coexistence in the past, when traditions were kept alive within communities.

This was the time when religious boundaries were blurred, and people saw no contradiction in calling themselves “Hindu–Muslim” or “Hindu–Christian”. There were no religious fundamentalists or fanatics in traditional society.

When the first Prime Minister of India, the late Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, stressed the importance of “a scientific temper”, he was somewhat privileging rational values over religious ones, and modern values over traditional ones. In effect, Nehru was saying that religion should be relegated to the private sphere, and should not interfere in an individual’s public life.

For secularists like Nehru, faith in science replaces religious faith. Those individuals who lead a public life devoted to religious faith are outside modernity, as it were. Religious or traditional values, then, become the culture of the non-literate or the superstitious. And yet, these are the values that have proved to be the most humane, tolerant, and accommodative in this country. Today, these old cultural values are consistently depreciated by secularists and modernists alike.

The problem persists when modern secularists keep opposing religion-as-faith and call for secular values like state neutrality and wall of separation between religion and state. Since the state, anyway, has very little moral authority left, it cannot be expected to play well the role of moral arbiter of secular values.

What is more, as long as secularists continue to oppose or devalue religion-as-faith, there will be an expansion of a new phenomenon called religion-as-ideology. Hard-core secular ideology begets hard-core religious ideology.

Religion-as-ideology is a modern ideology. Religion-as-ideology is the political exploitation of religion, by believers and non-believers alike. It advocates the hardening of community boundaries along religious lines. Another word for religion-as-ideology in India is “Communalism”.

A secular state is also a democratic state. According to the argument, the problem today is the modern secular and democratic state, which promotes the values of the individual self, rationality, and democratic equality. In modernity, many traditional values like group solidarity, religious cohesion, and peaceful coexistence are lost. In a way, this argument celebrates pre-modernity, where religion-as-faith could flourish.

The secular response

It is wrong to assume that religion-as-ideology or communalism is a recent, post-Independence phenomenon, and a reaction to the secular policies of the government. The British colonial government contributed considerably to divisions between religious communities, as for instance, the manner in which it conducted Census data collection. This exercise began in 1871–72 and took place every ten years. Questions of identity, such as, “Are you a Hindu or a Muslim?” polarised communities as never before. Answers such as, “I am a Hindu–Muslim”, were simply unacceptable.

Around the same period, in the last quarter of the 19th century, there was an attempt by some Hindu scholars to “purify” the Hindi language, by denuding it of Persian and Arabic influence, and by enhancing its Sanskrit flavour. In order to counter the proselytising activities of Christianity and Islam, Hindu organisations like the Arya Samaj talked about re-converting Indian Christians and Muslims to Hinduism.

The argument here is that Christianity and Islam are “foreign” religions, and that individuals who had converted to these so-called foreign religions were “originally” Hindu. The process of re-conversion to Hinduism was therefore given the colourful phrase, ghar wapasi or “homecoming”. There has been a revival of this process of ghar wapasi in recent times.

Apart from the fact that communalism began several decades before Indian Independence, there is a serious problem with the definition of secularism in Argument II. In a communal society, there is constant strife between religious groups. In a communal state, the state institutions and machinery are responsible for promoting strife and divisions between religious groups. There is an erosion of secular values.

According to this Argument, a secularist is someone who simply opposes all religious activity.

Communist leaders like VI Lenin, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Tse-tung and public intellectuals like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens oppose all religious activity. In fact, leaders like Lenin and Ataturk used the coercive powers of the state to promote secularism. Religion in the Soviet Union was viewed by Lenin as “false consciousness” and as “the opium of the masses”.

“False consciousness” is a Marxist term that explains why institutional and social processes prevent the oppressed from blaming their oppressors. Being religious, for Marx, was “false consciousness” because religiously devout persons seldom realised that all religions act as opiates to deaden their spirit, and that religious authorities used religion to prevent the masses from rising against the exploitative classes and the state.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the first President of the Republic of Turkey, passed several reforms in order to modernise the country. He abolished the Caliphate in 1924, the religious orders in 1925, the Sharia courts in 1926, and Islam as a state religion in 1928. He embarked on an aggressive policy of promoting women’s education in the 1920s and 1930s. In a sense, these measures recall the secular policies of Jules Ferry in 19th century France. But Ataturk also abolished the Islamic veil for women.

The point is that men like Lenin and Ataturk cannot – strictly speaking – be called secularists, because a secularist is not anti-religious by definition. A secularist not only upholds the value of state neutrality, but, more crucially, believes in expanding religious freedoms for all – including the freedom to wear the Islamic veil.

In other words, the Argument is mistaken in its claim that the secularist’s opposition to religion-as-faith has led to the emergence of religion-as-ideology.

The neutrality-is-impossible anti-secular argument

This Argument claims that the Indian State cannot be neutral towards the innumerable castes, sects, and religious creeds in this country. In fact, the Indian State has intervened far more in the case of what is broadly defined as “Hinduism”, by enforcing legislation against the practices of sati or widow-burning, dowry, polygamy, animal and bird sacrifice, child marriage, and preventing Dalits from entering temples.

Article 17, which calls for abolishing untouchability, Article 25(2), which requires the state to intervene in religious affairs, and Article 30(2), which commits the state to giving aid to educational institutions established by religious groups – all these violate the principle of strict state neutrality.

At the same time, the Indian State has permitted the existence of personal law codes in all minority religions, including those pertaining to polygamous practices. This has opened the state to the charge of “pseudo-secularism”, or “appeasement of minorities”, by some Hindu political groups.

Who is a pseudo-secularist, according to the Hindu Right ideologue? A pseudo-secularist is concerned about appeasing the religious minorities, and is anti-Hindu. The Hindu Right ideologues believe that they alone are the “true” secularists, because they support majoritarian Hindu rule or governance.

Argument III does NOT call for the exercise of greater state neutrality or for a wall of separation between religion and state. It merely informs us of the impossibility of state neutrality in a pluralistic and diverse country like India. It recommends the expansion of religious freedoms and a “no interference” policy by the state in the religious practices of all groups in society.

According to the argument, when a Western secular state, like the United States of America, restricts religious freedom (say, in the 1986 yarmulke case, Goldman v Weinberger, or in the 1990 peyote case, Employment Division v Smith), it does so in the name of expanding state neutrality. When the Indian State restricts religious freedom, by banning animal sacrifice, or child-marriage, or even polygamy, it has nothing to do with expanding state neutrality.

Restricting religious freedom in India merely militates against the interests of the lower castes and poorer sections of society – the “underdogs”, so to speak – who are viewed by the state as being one step behind modernity, and on the margins of a modern, secular, democratic state, which appears to be the prerogative of the elite classes in society.

The elite upper castes and classes are able to master the requirements of modernity in public life – namely, individualism in the economic and political spheres, rational belief in the values of science and technology, and patriotism or faith in India as a sovereign nation. These same castes and classes retain traditional values of religious belief and caste ideology in their private lives. Needless to add, the lower castes and classes are marginalised in modern public life as well as in the mainstream traditions of the private realm.

The secular response

Admittedly, India is a pluralistic country, and it would be a grave mistake to try and condense its diverse creeds and sects into single entities like “Hinduism” or “Islam” or “Christianity”.

Secular states, like France or the USA, face many crises in the context of “managing” a multi-religious society. If the major challenges to Western secular democracies are racism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Islamism, the major challenges to the Indian secular democracy are casteism and communalism.

Despite the difficulties of establishing state neutrality in India, one can call for contextual secularism and principled intervention in religious affairs from the Indian State on a case-to-case basis.

Often enough, though, it is possible for state neutrality to be maintained by adherence to the principles laid down in Articles 25–30 of the Indian Constitution.

The point in the argument is well taken: whether it is the West or India that we are discussing, expanding religious freedom rather than state neutrality may be a better option, even for the cause of furthering secularism, particularly in the context of a pluralistic society.

However, there is a major flaw in both these arguments that needs to be noted. Anti-secularists believe that the Indian secular modern nationalist is usually Brahminical or upper caste, and that there is little difference between such a secularist and a Hindu Right ideologue, who accuses the former of being a “pseudo-secularist”.

There is a problem with classifying the Westernised Brahmin or upper caste individual as “secular”, mainly because such an individual is not committed to the democratic principle of equality in his or her personal life. He or she will continue to marry within their caste group, and is likely to be guided by caste-based rules of conduct within the household. How can such a person be viewed as the repository of secularism?

A senior leader of the Hindu Right, Manmohan Vaidya of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, recently pointed out that the Hindu Right – far from endorsing true secularism – rejects it altogether by claiming that it is a Western concept. According to Vaidya, India is a Hindu nation and therefore rejects secularism. In other words, neither the Westernised and Brahminised Indian, nor the Hindu nationalist is committed to the ideal of secularism in a serious manner.

If there is a future to secularism in India, it lies with the lower castes and classes. These are the groups that get more involved in the democratic process of voting than any other, every four to five years or so. These are the groups that demand English education on par with the upper castes and classes. And these are the groups that are most likely to benefit from the fruits of modern secularism in India.

Published with permission from The Story of Secularism: 15th-21st Century, Nalini Rajan, published by Paranjoy Guha Thakurta.