Crisis in Indian Secularism

India Opinion

By Aarif Rashid Malik

While discussing the concept of ‘Secularism ‘ in India, it is fundamentally necessary for us to know where did the Nationalist leaders borrow this concept of secularism from. What does the word ‘secularism’ mean in the context of India? How is it different from western secularism? The fundamental difference between the western secularism and Indian Secularism is simply this: In the west, the state is separated from the functioning of all religious institutions and groups. Secularism in India means that the state is neutral to all religious groups but not necessarily separate. In west, the state believes in total non-interference with religions. The state is allowed to curtail the rights of citizens if the religion is causing hindrance in the functioning of the state. In India the concept is not restricted to the question how religious groups are to be treated. Instead the essence of secularism lies in forging a positive relationship between the state and religion. In west, the state treats all religions with equal indifference. It does not aid any religious institution through financial means or taxes them. In India the state gives financial aid to religious institutions and taxes them as well.

Framers of the Indian nation had adopted secularism to shun the communal violence that triggered in India during the time of partition and also they had adopted it to maintain communal fabric in India, so that minorities communities could be protected from the onslaught of “majority community ” to preserve and sustain the spirit of diverse culture in India. Doctrine of ‘secularism’ was also incorporated with this notion that state will not give priority to any religion in India. The state will not discriminate any religion in the country and will give full rights to minorities in India to profess and propagate their religion in secular India. Pandit Nehru was also committed to this thing that the state needs to maintain distance from the religion. It was because of frenzy communal violence that burst-up during the Partition of India which created a space for religious prejudices more than religious sensibilities in India and Pakistan.

Nehru’s understanding of secularism was much closer to the notion of Sarva Dharma Sambhava. For Nehru, the concept of the secular state justifies three meanings: 1) Freedom of religion or irreligion for all. 2) The state will honour all faiths equally. 3) State will not be attached to any faith or religion, which by that act becomes the state religion. The creed of secularism therefore discouraged fears that one group had the right to stamp the body politics with its ethos, even if it is in a majority.

Conversely, a religious group would not be dispriviledged in any way even though it happened to be in a minority. The constitution of India also describes India as a ‘secular country’ not because of the word “Secularism” that was inserted in constitution by 42 amendment, but also because of the secular nature that is essentially found in Fundamental rights: Right to Freedom oF Religion.

Secularism in India had functioned very well at least, for four decade because of stalwart and charismatic leadership. Secular nature of Indian society was greatly maintained by Nehru to large extent and incidents of communal violence was very low in Nehru’s era as compared to other Prime

Ministers of India. After the period of 1980, the concept of secularism began to erode in India. It was because of the communal violence that began to outburst very sharply in India. On the other hand,

Indian state has failed very badly to provide security to minority communities such as in communal riots of Delhi in 1984, in which three thousand Sikhs were killed after the assassination of Indira

Gandhi. Jisha Menon in her book Titled as “The Performance Of Nationalism: India ,Pakistan and the Memory of Partition” says, how the fear and anxiety were developed in the minds of Sikh community by the Hindu mobs over the killing of Indira Gandhi. She further said “The memory of ‘1947 came flooding back ,except that I feared this might be much worse .When the Hindu mob shouted “Traitor get out” I asked myself, “Is this what I sang songs of Independence for? Was handcuffed at the age of 6? Shock was not 1947, but shock is now, when Sikhs were considered traitors in India.” She says this implies that the killing of a reputed leader by some miscreants of a particular community will create doubt about the loyalty of entire community, who were not  involved in the killing of Indira Gandhi. Which has created panic, disillusionment and apprehension about the belongings of a particular community due to some obnoxious incidents .Crisis of political institutions leading to breakdown of channel of communication in the political arena which defines political community. This has inevitably lead to the growing appeal of sectarian politics at the grassroots level. State has lost its legitimacy to counter “Communal discourse” that is deeply embedded in the politics of India and it is “communal discourse” that is shaping the minds of Indian citizens in the country, instead of “secular discourse”. Secularism as a public ideology of political parties has least relevance right now because on the practical ground, it is only acting as a proxy and mirage for public. Credentials of secularism is losing its coherence to large extent in India. After 1980, scholars of Indian politics began to raise questions about the secular essence of India such as Ashis Nandy, T.N.Madan etc because of the new version of secularism that was emerging very strongly in India that is the idea of ‘Hindutva ‘in India and this version of secularism has gained too much publicity in India in 1990 because it was based on ‘Mandir – Masjid identity ‘. Since then, Religion was used excessively for political gains by political party in India especially by BJP, who began to display religion openly in the public. They began to follow the belligerent and confrontational approach, instead of accommodative approach. After 1980 Hindu Nationalists began to directly attack minorities especially Muslims, whom they consider the real enemies of India. The illegal immigration to India of thousands of improvised job seekers from Bangladesh and Pakistan every year and they were portrayed by the BJP “as an organized Muslim conspiracy to infiltrate into India”. It became a standard element of BJP by creating a discourse that Muslims want to destabilise India and want to snatch jobs from Hindu and want to exploit them. They have framed this discourse regarding Muslims in a well organized and planned manner. They make it clear to people that delay in construction of Ram Mandir was because of congress’ lingering weakness and subservience to Muslim pressure. They also highlighted this thing that construction of the Babri Mosque was a traumatic wound in the nation and Hindu civilization-that could be healed through removal of Babri Mosque and construction of Ram Temple in Ayodhya. For them, the construction of Ram Temple in place of Babri Mosque was not any kind of injustice to Muslim community. According to their discourse, till the invasion of Baber on India, there had been Ram Temple that was demolished by Babar, when he had attacked India in 16th century.

This majoritarian discourse was organised around metaphors that sought to infuse a sense of radical rupture: of the awakening of the dormant, hitherto silent Hindu majority, rejuvenation of the Indian nation, and the beginning of an epochal change from the old humiliating order to a new ,proud ,and bright future. Hindu Nationalists give priority to this thing that Hindu serials like Ramayana and

Mahabharata has to be shown to develop aggressive and masculine strategies among the Hindu people, so that they can take retribution against their enemies that is: Muslims, who have exploited and oppressed Hindu people in India, for a long period of time. The two big incidents that really crashed and jolted secular fabric of Indian society: One was, the demolition of Babri Mosque in 1992 and the communal violence that outburst in Gujarat in 2002, in which more than two thousand innocent Muslims were killed by the Hindu mobs blatantly. Instead of punishing the culprits, who were involved in Gujarat massacre of 2002 were overtly supported by the state govt. of Gujarat at that time. Since then the Muslims are living in constant threat, because of the insecurity they face there.

The secularist identity which was the heart and soul of the constitution is crumbling under Modi govt. Religion has been used as an important political instrument by Hindu Nationalists for the sake of vote bank politics and which really worked on ground level and helped them to get thumping victory in two successive elections. It has been a fundamental policy of Modi govt. to target the largest religious minority group in India. To ‘demonize ‘and ‘traduce ‘ minorities group have become  a state centric and legitimate discourse in India, the support of which is being extolled not only by the govt. but also by the media which is acting as a junk of ruling party in India. In the last few years, political representation of Muslims is declining massively. On the other hand, crimes against the Muslim community is increasing very fastly such as mob lynching, hate speeches etc. Even the various laws passed by the Modi government is discriminatory in nature and violates the basic structure of Indian constitution such as Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB). This bill provides Indian citizenship to non-Muslim minorities from three countries: Pakistan,Bangladesh and Afghanistan. It includes six communities: Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Parsis and Christians. Only the Muslims were excluded from it. Abrogation of Article 370 and 35a in Jammu and Kashmir and the introduction of new Domicile law is clear indication of these things they want to change the demography of Muslims in India through these illegal legislation.

There has been a surge of Hindu Nationalism in India with the BJP serving as a hegemonic power governing all aspects of Indian politics using the extremist ideology of ‘Hindutva ‘given by V.D.Savarkar. This govt. is trying to destroy the roots of secularism in India completely and want to convert India into Hindu rashtra. Those who are trying to raise their voices are being trolled or threat by mobs or police so that they can suppress the voice of people very easily and anyone who dares to speak against govt. is being either imprisoned or being tagged as anti-national. In India, the atmosphere of fear, anxiety and insecurity pervades from everyone and there is no place for dissent and discussion in India right now. BJP govt. have hijacked everything. They are soft and lenient for those who support and propagate their ideology. The process of marginalization is functioning in India very quickly, instead of representation under Modi govt. Secular values are withering away very fastly from India. This new wave of desecularization is evident and pernicious for India. The various discriminatory steps taken by the Modi government has increased the cleavages between both the religious communities. Such kinds of discriminatory steps will result into massive polarisation and there are chances of rampant violence in future in India.

While concluding my article I will mention two political scientists of India: One is Ashis Nandy and other T.N.Madan. Ashis Nandy rejecst the notion of secularism that we have borrowed from West. Nandy asserts that the communal nationalism is itself a product of modernity, owes its very existence to the oppositional but at the same time internal dialectical relation it bears to the other products of modernity and Nehru secularism. The argument is that secularism is an alien principle imposed upon a people who have never wished to separate religion from politics in their everyday life and think in and therefore has left the people no choice but to turn to the only religious politics available namely Hindu Nationalism. Thus secular tyranny breeds Hindu Nationalist resistance, which threatens its own form of tyranny. He says further that in order to sort out such harm of society, we need to follow the indigenous religious tolerance as the best mean to preserve and maintain a pluralistic and multi-religious Indian society that has existed here for ages.

T.N.Madan is often lumped together with Nandy as anti-secularist. And his critics quote one of his aphorisms as evidence of the fact -‘I believe that in the prevailing circumstances secularism in South Asia as a generally shared way of life is impossible, as a basis for state action impracticable, and as a blueprint for the foreseeable future impotent’. Madan cites three reasons for this belief: One, that the majority of people living in the region are active adherents of some religious faith; second,

Buddhism and Islam have been declared as state religion; and third secularism has failed in countering religious fundamentalism. From these things the Modi administration needs to revise the true spirit of secularism where everyone can practice its religion without any fears and religion should not be intermingled with politics in order to promote hate politics regarding other communities who are in minorities and they have to treat every citizen equally and they have to respect the diverse culture of India and need to follow principle of tolerance and accommodation. One more thing that is important for Modi govt. is to listen to the grievances of the people very sensitively and to leave the hawkish and rapacious stance, which they are following from last six years and they need to work for the betterment of the citizens. One more thing which is important for Modi govt. is to accept the constructive criticism from opposition, so that they can correct the flaws in their policies and further they have to make institution more accountable and responsible such as Judiciary, executive etc. instead of making them subservient of govts. If the Modi administration will not think over these issues seriously and sensibly then the future of India lies in complete chaos and confusion, about which nothing can be said with certainty and surety.


The author has pursued his M.A. in Political Science from Kashmir University and can be mailed at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *