The legacy of secularism

Secularism means equal respect for all religions and sects, and tolerance. Discrimination, overt and covert, on the grounds of religious belonging is discountenanced. In the light of the Constitution, the right to freedom to practice one’s religion is not carped at and any infraction, indulging in violence and vigilantism, criminalizing belongingness to minority religions are unconditionally a violation of fundamental rights. History and dictionary meaning of the word ‘secularism’ offers itself to a lot of quibbling, rhetoric and jeopardy to peace. In a spirit of real participatory democracy, we have to organize our politics, policies, agenda and elections so that harmony and camaraderie prevails among all sections of people. Any hurdle to this ideal is inventively discovered and remedied by the government and civil society through laws and civilized conscientious conventions, public opinion and action. The practice of secularism has high political and social priority.

Secularism is a legacy even from ancient India, though the word is from the vocabulary of recent centuries. Emperor Ashoka, known for his extensive edicts carved on pillars and tablets, said, “other sects should be duly honoured in every way on all occasions; they all deserve reverence for one reason or another.” He also said, “he who reveres his own sect while disparaging other sects, wholly from attachment to his own sect, in reality inflicts, by such conduct, the severest injury on his own sect.” Even as Europe was seething with intolerance and practiced inquisition, Giordano Bruno, philosopher and independent thinker, was declared an impenitent heretic and was burnt at the stake (one of many to suffer that fate), in India, Emperor Akbar was making official pronouncements on religious tolerance in the 1590s. He arranged systematic dialogues between Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jains, Parsees, Jews and others, and said no man should be interfered with on account of his religion. Taking note of religious diversity of his people, he required the State to be equidistant from different religions and to not treat any religion with special favour — a four-century-old practice of secularism. Though the word is prejudicially despised as un-Indian and is unpalatable to votaries of majoritarian politics, the idea is very much Indian and canonical.

After the advent of the British, India was set to become politically one regarding the needs, aspirations, sufferings and social, religious and cultural practices, which in turn consolidated as a part of the anti-British platform through the freedom movement. Parallel to this was the inexorable dawn of the idea of religious, cultural and ethnic pluralism; move towards scientific, technological and political modernism; and liberal democracy lent the idea of secularism or non-supremacy of any particular or majority religion in thinking about the affairs of the country, its administrative norms and constitutional make up. Life appurtenances became decisively freed from considerations of ritual/religious belonging. And Queen Victoria’s 1858 Proclamation resolved that the government abstain from all interference in religious practices and beliefs.

With this in the background and the 1946-47 decision of the British to free India and, tragically, divide the country into India and Pakistan, there were preparations to form or further crystallise the Constitution. The leaders of the freedom movement earnestly believed in the politics of pluralism, notwithstanding the all too frequent pockets of Hindu sectarian supremacist hegemonic intentions. The Constituent Assembly deliberations decisively chose to make the country secular in content, though the word itself was not used (it was incorporated in 1976 through the 42nd Amendment). Several examples may be recalled affirming faith in secularism among the leadership. In reply to a letter (June 5, 1947) gloating over Partition and desiring that India hence forward would turn out to be a Hindu state, just as Pakistan would definitely be a Muslim state, Sardar Patel replied (June 10, 1947) readily that there are minorities and the State exists for them all, irrespective of caste or creed, an early formulation of inclusive politics and articulation of secularism as policy.

All through the debates in the Constituent Assembly, members took secularism for granted as State policy. In the course of the debate, the consensus was that the State would not discriminate on the ground of religion or community against any person professing any form of religious faith. This means, in essence, that no particular religion in the country would receive any patronage whatever; no citizen in the country will have preferential treatment or will be discriminated against simply on the ground of his faith or religion. The Supreme Court has also held that secularism is a part of the basic structure of the Constitution. It is against the country’s political ethos to express pride that secularism stands sidelined or wiped out from the country’s political discourse during the past five years: a pulpit declaration on May 23, 2019, immediately after the victory in general elections. Indeed, it is against the country’s hard-won success during the freedom movement and its modern day political consensus/evolution embodied in the Constitution. 

(The writer is a former Professor, Maharaja’s College, University of Mysore)

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