Given that secularism had not been defined in the Constitution and did not form part of the preamble until the 1970s, given that the meaning Nehru allotted to the concept was not codified in law, and above all given that the concept is neither self-evident nor self-explanatory, the task of defining and elaborating the concept of secularism has fallen upon the shoulders of the Supreme Court.

On 27 October 2016, amidst an acrimonious legal debate on curbing the role of religion in electioneering, the Supreme Court rhetorically asked whether secularism meant the complete separation of religion from politics. The bench concluded that secularism does not mean that the state should stay aloof from religion, but that it should give equal treatment to every religion. Religion and caste are vital aspects of our polity and it is not possible to completely separate them from politics.

The Supreme Court reiterated an earlier ruling in the case of SR Bommai vs the Union of India in 1993. The set of judgments in the Bommai case are lengthy and complex but we can isolate the following themes that are of interest to the argument at hand.

One, secularism is part of the basic structure of the Constitution and therefore cannot be amended.

Two, secularism is derived from the cultural principle of tolerance and ensures the equality of religions. The cultural principle is referred to as “sarva dharma sama bhava”.

Three, the Court reiterated Nehru’s opinion that no religion will be at risk in a secular India, because the government will not be aligned to religion.

Four, Justice Ramaswamy ruled that there is an essential connection between secularism and democracy; the concept of the secular state is needed for the working of democracy, and the realisation of social and economic needs that are essential for material and moral prosperity and political justice. In effect, the highest court of the land extended recognition to and legitimised a public doctrine based on neo-Vedanta which had become one of the creeds of the freedom struggle. This was defined as secularism.

There is perhaps a need to secularise secularism for a multireligious society.

How can we recover secularism in and for a plural society that is wracked with anxieties about its own pretensions to democracy, and about the many injustices that have led to violence and disregard for the human condition?

Let us take stock of secularism within the context of democracy, and see what perhaps a reworked concept of secularism would look like.

If the basic aim of secularism as it has historically developed in India is to secure equality of all religious denominations, the concept of secularism is derived from the principle of equality. In fact, let me suggest that secularism gains meaning and substance only when we see it as legitimate from the perspective of democracy and its core principle of equality. Logically, there is no reason why a society should be committed to secularism, unless it is committed beforehand to the concept of equality.

Secularism can, justifiably, be interpreted as a companion concept of democracy. Both democracy and secularism are constitutive of a just state, a state that ensures equality of status between individuals, as well as between religious communities.

Democracy takes care of the first avatar of justice, the equal right of all individuals to certain goods. Secularism secures the second avatar of justice, that religious groups are not disadvantaged for arbitrary and irrelevant reasons, and that these groups have equal moral standing in society.

Six points might be in order before concluding the argument.

One, secularism per se has little to do with inequality or injustice within religious groups. These fall within the province of democracy. Secularism is concerned about a weak form of equality, or non-discrimination between religious groups. The norm ensures that the state should not be aligned to one group that for this reason acquires dominance.

Two, secularism is part of the democratic imaginary and is not a stand-alone concept.

Three, secularism is not a robust concept like democracy or justice, it is a “thin” and limited procedural concept.

Four, though secularism has been presented as the binary opposite of religion, or in India, communalism, it is the binary opposite of theocratic states bringing together religious and political power in one set of hands, mainly the civilian executive, or the army.

Five, the challenge to secularism has not come from personal faith or religion, but from religious groups that struggle for power or against power and domination.

Six, the challenge is to democracy because denial of secularism catapults issues about the rights and privileges of citizenship and throws into sharp relief the intersections between religion and other concerns such as lack of voice, inadequate distribution of goods, and recognition of the distinctiveness of groups.

The play on the term is neither informative, illuminating, nor particularly interesting. It speaks of narrow and prejudiced minds, of limited horizons and lack of imaginations. It tells us of people who cannot tolerate other communities as fellow citizens because they are caught up in claustrophobic worlds of their own.

More seriously, secularism is today caught in a maelstrom of frustrated expectations and hopes belied.

It is in crisis, not because it is irrelevant, but because it has been subjected to rank overuse and invested with far too many expectations in the past. The concept has been summoned to perform various and arguably too many functions in our postcolonial society, from national integration to gender justice. In the vocabulary of many an undemocratic political leader, it even stands in for democracy. Unable to bear the weight of too many political projects and ambitions, the overburdened concept of secularism shows signs of imploding.

In history, secularism rode to prominence on the back of secularisation. Now that secularisation or the privatisation of religion has been shown up as one of the vanities of modernity, secularism needs a new home. What other home can our world provide secularism except democracy. These are not good times to defend secularism, it is true, but soldier on we must.

Therefore, let us act as the conscience of the nation, and take heart from Jawaharlal Nehru’s words in The Discovery of India. He quotes the chorus from The Bacchae of Euripides, translated by Gilbert Murray: “What else is Wisdom? What of man’s endeavour / Or god’s high grace, so lovely and so great? To stand from fear set free, to breathe and wait / To hold a hand uplifted over Hate, and shall not Loveliness be loved for ever?”

We have to conquer hate through secularism and democracy.

Vision For A Nation: Paths And Perspectives

Excerpted with permission from “Secularism: Central to a Democratic Nation”, Neera Chandhoke, from Vision For A Nation: Paths And Perspectives, edited by Ashis Nandy and Aakash Singh Rathore, Penguin Books India.