Today is an important day for India. For it was on this day, eighty-nine years ago, that people of India took the pledge of poorna swaraj. When freedom came, this day became our Republic Day. It was today that the constitution of India was adopted marking a continuity between the struggle for independence and the adoption of the constitution that made India, a republic.
The constitution declares India to be a sovereign, socialist, secular and democratic republic. The Fundamental Rights prohibit discrimination on grounds of religion and right to freedom of religion include freedom of conscience and free profession, practise and propagation of religion, freedom to manage affairs, freedom to pay taxes for promotion of any particular religion and freedom of attendance at religious instruction or religious worship in any educational institution, cultural and educational rights include protection of interests of minorities and their right to establish and administer educational institutions.
The Indian definition of Secularism
The debate on the meaning of secularism in India has been a continuous one. Our secularism is unlike the west where it meant separation of the church and the state. In India, the idea of secularism came after a long struggle with communalism that wanted religion to guide politics.
For the framers of our constitution adopting a secular constitution was not a simple task. Ours was society drenched in religion and many voices rose against the idea of a secular state. Consequently, the constitution makers did not explicitly added the word secular but accepted and protected rights of all religions equally, while granting freedom of religion to all citizens.
In the words of Jawaharlal Nehru, “we call our State a secular one. The word ‘secular’, perhaps, is not a very happy one and yet for want of a better, we have used it. What exactly does it mean? It does not obviously mean a society where religion itself is discouraged. It means freedom of religion and conscience, including freedom for those who may have no religion. It means free play for all religions, subject only to their not interfering with each other or with the basic conceptions of our State” As the first Prime Minister of India and man who played an important role in the freedom struggle, secularism then meant equal protection of all religions by the state and that no religion is favoured at the expense of another and that the State itself does not adopt any religion as the state religion.
The crisis of secularism
While a number of incidents impacted secularism it was events that happened between the 80s and the 90s that were to disentangle secularism as we understood it. Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India, used the Sikh fundamentalist Sant Baba Jarnail Singh Bhindranwala to reassert the Congress’s domination over the growing popularity of Shiromani Akali Dal. The Punjab crisis soon spiralled, resulting in acts of terrorism that ultimately led to Mrs. Gandhi being shot. Then in 1985, the Supreme Court judgement in the Shah Bano case led to uproar from the Muslim community, who saw in the judgement, an attempt to overrule the Muslim personal law. The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986, later nullified the Supreme Court’s judgment. What transpired enraged the majority Hindus who felt that the government was indulging in minority appeasement and that secularism for the ruling party meant a clear Muslim bias. Things only went downhill from here. The rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the Indian political scene and the razing down of the Babri Masjid led to large scale riots in the country. From the day the Babri Masjid fell, there have been numerous events in the country that are non secular and a direct challenge to secularism that was envisioned by the makers of the constitution.
The more recent Assam Citizenship Bill which aims to grant citizenship to religious minorities except Muslims has created protests in the country with many viewing it as just a sop before the elections. The rise of Islamophobia across the world has fanned flames of Hindutva politics in India creating fear and suspicion. To say that only the followers of Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism are true Indian citizens and Muslims do not belong here is not only bad secularism but also a threat to democracy.
Conflicts in Secularism
Indian constitution vowed to protect its citizens from discrimination and grant to them freedom of religion but what about the religions themselves. The existence of personal laws within religions furthered exclusion and patriarchal mindsets. People practising different faiths have different guidelines for marriage, divorce, adoption etc. The dilemma thus is to maintain religious equality among religions and protect the rights of an individual. The events around Sabarimala are an example of the quandary of adjudicating between god and human. Notwithstanding the protests the Supreme Court found no merit in the ban on menstruating women’s entry, asserting that it violated the basic requirement of gender equality and fundamental rights of citizens.
Indian population lacks the understanding to develop a true dedication to secularism with a non-religious outlook. We in India continue to define ourselves with religion and our communities. When the government organizes a bhumi poojan before the launch of a project or scientists visit temples, or tilak ceremonies, before important space programmes it is in the eyes of a non-Hindu a manifestation of Hindu culture and not a manifestation of India culture as its proponents will like to believe. The policies of the state have played an important role in the lack of secular culture in the country and neglecting a truly unifying that brings together all of its religions.
This problematic growth of secularism has been harnessed to garner votes, win elections and promote selfish agendas. At times tensions between communities aggravated to boost popularity at the eve of elections. The recent development has been to nitpick. The debate around Article 48 is an example. Most of the parties are now openly associated with religion. This nitpicking from the constitution on religious lines compromises the secular ideology of the nation.
Why Secularism on Republic Day
Today as we renew our pledge to the constitution let us remember that India’s survival lies in its diversity. A nation survives when all communities feel equal and none are neglected. Secularism is part of the basic structure of the constitution and governments must be accountable for implementing it. The challenge is not easy but crucial. Secularism remains a constitutional value and the need today is to focus on its disagreements and shortcomings and widen its structure because the alternative of a non-secular state would encroach on both equality and fraternity, and thereby on the very idea of India as a nation.