Recently, Union Minister of State for Employment and Skill Development Anantkumar Hegde, addressing a forum of Brahmin youth, criticised “secular people”, and spoke of changing the Constitution to recognise caste and religious identities.

Hegde ignored the fact that India’s Constitution already makes room for identity-based laws, in the form of personal religious codes and quotas for historically deprived caste groups and women. But his speech was useful in sparking a meaningful discussion about the idea of a secular state.

I, for one, wish the word “secular” had never been inserted into the Constitution and would be happy to see it removed. The way things stand, members of Hindu religious groups employ the term contemptuously, usually twisting it to “pseudo-secular”; politicians from non-religious parties pay lip service to it without much conviction; and leaders of Muslim outfits uphold it to protect various unjust religious practices, but abandon it when it threatens such practices, as when a secular civil code is mentioned.

The context of the word’s insertion into the Constitution is reason enough to render it illegitimate. “Secular” was made part of the Constitution’s Preamble through the infamous 42nd Amendment, enacted during the Emergency. The amendment severely curtailed the fundamental rights of Indian citizens and imposed a number of fundamental duties upon them. Much of the 42nd Amendment has been rolled back through court verdicts and succeeding legislation, but the word secular remains.

The Emergency’s worst excesses, driven by Sanjay Gandhi, a sociopath who remains the most dangerous person to have wielded extraordinary power in India’s modern history, involved the forced sterilisation of millions of citizens as a way of defusing what Gandhi took to be a demographic time bomb. The poor were specially targeted by the sterilisation drive, as were Muslims. Those who resisted faced police bullets. Considering the insertion of “secular” was concurrent with a disproportionate victimisation of Indian Muslims by the Congress party, it is strange that it came to be seen as an emblem of the Congress’s supposed pandering to minorities.

Secular constitutions

Secularism has taken a number of forms based on the history and culture of the nation adopting it. The United States and France, the first countries to consider the formal separation of religion and politics, did so for almost opposed reasons. The US, founded by Protestant fundamentalists who had fled religious persecution, enacted the separation primarily as a way of protecting faith from the intrusion of politics. France, dominated by the Catholic Church for large chunks of its history, did it to protect politics from the pressure of faith. In the end, judicial interpretations ensured that the separation of church and state works in broadly similar ways in the two countries, but cultural differences persist. Politicians in France say very little about their personal faith, while those in the US wear their religion on their sleeve. The two Indian-Americans to make it to a state governor’s mansion in the US, Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley, are both converts to Christianity and could hardly have been elected in conservative southern states otherwise. Religion keeps pushing itself into political discourse in the US, and the state keeps trying to hold expressions of religious faith at bay in France. French bans on crucifixes, yarmulkes, turbans and burkhas have been controversial, and a number of right-wing mayors have removed non-pork options from school meals, in effect telling Muslims students, France mein rahna hoga toh suar ka maans khana hoga.

Turkey under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk followed the French model of secularism, but the particular nature of Islam induced the secular Turkish state to go even further than its model. To prevent faith from invading government, government invaded faith. All imams of mosques were made public officers to ensure compliance with government policies.

The most important Arab iteration of secularism came through the Ba’ath party, founded by a Muslim, Salah ad-Din al-Bitar, and a Christian, Michel Aflaq. The party or its offshoots went on to gain power in Iraq and Syria, and still holds sway in the latter nation. Iraq under Saddam Hussein and Syria under Hafez al-Assad developed into totalitarian states, demonstrating, as the Emergency did in India, that formal secularism doesn’t serve as a guarantor of citizens’ rights.

Secularism versus Liberalism

While a number of secular regimes have been authoritarian, most affluent democracies that are not formally secular have guaranteed freedom of worship and belief to all their citizens. These nations went through rapid secularisation of their societies, even as the polity retained its religious basis. For example, Britain’s head of state, currently Queen Elizabeth II, is also the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, but she is merely a figurehead in both roles. There are British laws, such as one related to blasphemy, which apply exclusively to Christianity, but most British citizens would prefer to eliminate blasphemy trials entirely rather than extending the law to cover other faiths.

The conclusion to be drawn from these examples is that liberalism, based on the protection of fundamental rights and civil freedoms, is far more far reaching and essential than secularism. India’s Constitution is reasonably strong in its protection of fundamental rights, as are the highest courts with a few aberrations like the recent Hadiya case. As long as we strive to build the foundations of liberalism in India, we need not worry about secularism at all, because a liberal society is necessarily secular, while a secular society is not necessarily liberal.