- You must have come across the commentaries on Indian secularism for the last couple of years in various newspapers, blogs and magazines. It’s the hot topic right now and it’s in crisis. This question is based on that theme, albeit with a little bit of change. It’s not asking about crisis in secularism in isolation but in the context of state-religion relationship in India. So the question asks: what is that crisis; why is that crisis and what can be done in order to separate state and church completely.
- Start with intro of Indian secularism, its distinct features that will have state-religion relations in main focus. Then in the next part, explain what is the problem with this state-religion mix. The main answer is the last part, where you will discuss what needs to be done to improve upon the situation – that we need new secularism and what would that be.
Nehru’s view was that there should be equal protection by the state to all religions. He wanted a secular state to be one that protects all religions but does not favor one at the expense of others and does not itself adopt any religion as the state religion. Therefore Indian secularism is fundamentally different from western secularism. It does not focus only on Church-State separation and the idea of inter-religious equality is crucial to the Indian conception. But contemporary political and social history is replete with incidents which compel us to revisit our secularism.
Features of Indian Secularism and State-Religion interaction:
- A distinctive feature of Indian secularism is that it rejects the ‘wall of separation’ between state and religion but demands that the state keep a ‘principled distance’ from all religions.
- Unlike the ideology of the American wall of separation, in India legitimate principled intervention of the state in religion and vice versa is constitutional.
- The two are distanced but not completely separated.
- The Indian Constitution allows the state to play a legitimate role in the affairs of religion. e.g Article 25 permits the state to regulate/restrict the secular activities of the religion
- Likewise, it permits religious considerations to sometimes enter governance.
What is the problem with the present secularism:
- India is facing challenges to keep secularism alive in the form of communalism (communal violence), politicization of caste and religion, the rise of fundamentalism and obscurantism, etc.
- Our brand of secularism, based on states’ active engagement amid stated religious neutrality, has led to the appeasement of a few, but empowers none and brings injustice for all.
- Lack of separation of religion and state has eaten away at India’s religious amity.
- Governments engage in all sorts of religious activities and play favorites.
- They own and operate places of worship, fund religious schools, grant tax exemptions to religious outfits, award them government contracts, allot them public lands, and take people on religious pilgrimages.
- Instead of uniting our society, it has fomented fragmentation and alienation among our diverse religious communities.
- The majoritarian sentiments have now risen against what they perceive as years of over-accommodation of the minorities. This puts the country at risk of losing its tolerant and pluralistic democracy.
- Without constitutional restrictions on state sponsorship of religious activities, Indian secularism turned into a carte blanche for governments to do as they pleased.
- They began exploiting religious communities with special treatment, sops, and populist slogans.
Steps needed to remedy the present crisis of state-religion conundrum:
- India today desperately needs a new definition of secularism, one based on freedom of religion, equality before the law, and separation of religion and state.
- This time we must adopt genuine secularism, with all three essential ingredients: freedom, equality, and separation. Freedom of religion is already enshrined in India’s Constitution. Work is needed on the other two, and they must be enacted through legislation.
- For religious equality before the law, we must pass a uniform civil code.
- Ensure that all government benefits (subsidies, aid, welfare, etc) are distributed under uniform rules.
- Repeal all religious privileges granted under the Criminal Procedures Code of the country. This would ensure that states’ police powers and assistance are applied on a uniform basis.
- India should pass a constitutional amendment along the lines of the First Amendment of the US Constitution: that Parliament “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Any attempt by anyone to say that separation of religion and state is not needed because their religion is secular by nature, is disingenuous. And even if that were true, the community would have nothing to lose or fear if the law of the land reaffirms its secular credentials. Religion is surely a personal matter, in which politicians, legislators, and bureaucrats do not belong. Our current variety of secularism has only led to abuse by our politicians, violence on our streets, and mischief in our courts. It is time for India to adopt secularism 2.0.