Secularism in Indian context



Secularism in India has very different meaning and implications. The word secularism has never been used in Indian context in the sense in which it has been used in Western countries i.e. in the sense of atheism or purely this worldly approach, rejecting the other-worldly beliefs.

Can India survive as a secular democratic country? It can and it must! With the country beset with political turmoil, violence, and polarization, the solutions, although sometimes not apparent, can be found if will and vision permeate and overpower vested interests.

King Ashoka, who ascended the throne of Magadh in the year 273 B.C., had a vision for the future. A vision that we would be wise to emulate. During his reign, diverse religious sects, such as the Brahamas, Sramanas, Nirganthas, Ajivakas, etc., bore great hostility and sectarian rancor against one another. Ashoka’s formula for peaceful coexistence, for the elimination of mutual mistrust and hatred, and for tolerance and concord consisted of several fundamental directives:
Firstly, All sects must dwell at all places so that they could know one another and develop tolerance for each other.

Secondly, All sects must observe restraint of speech and purification of heart when they deal with each other.

Thirdly, The exaltation of one’s own religion and condemnation of others’ creed is not permitted.

Fourthly, Different sects should study of the scripture of other sects and develop concord among themselves.

Fifthly, All people must practice Ahimsa (non- violence) towards each other and towards animals.

Sixthly, Ashoka renounced the policy of conquest by sword and urged people to adopt the policy of conquest by law.

To find that this wisdom was formulated as early as 273 B.C. is amazing indeed but even more amazing and so terribly troubling to me is that in this age of scientific enlightenment, we have forsaken this vision. Although our society has continuously evolved since then, it has undergone what might be called retrogressive evolution. Can we stop this aberrant evolution? We can but only if we come together as a people and as a nation and believe as Ashoka believed. We owe this to our country, to ourselves, and to our children.

Time is running out! If we, the silent majority, do not wake up now and fight for what we believe India is all about, I am afraid that when we do wake up, it will be too late!! We don’t want another Rwanda, or Kesovo, or Bosnia in India!! My fear is that if we do not earnestly work to make India a better country for all its citizens irrespective of race , religion, caste or creed, we will cease to be!

By separating the state from the church and advocating tolerance for other faiths, the West is accredited for gifting secularism to the world. The fact is that what it introduced is pseudo secularism while Indian ethos is of true secularism.

Religions such as Christianity and Islam are monotheistic in as much as those who do not profess them are regarded as non-believers. Indian ethos is of henotheism, that is, oneness of various manifestations of a supreme super-consciousness. It thus totally accepts, not merely tolerates other faiths.

Krishna says in Gita that he comes again and again whenever injustice becomes unbearable. Thus in the Hindu psyche, Christ, Mohammad and such other great souls, all are manifestations of god. Self-seeking priesthood however fostered social ills, and subjugation and religious intolerance by invaders created a backlash of intolerance in some sections of the Hindu society. All these distortions have got frozen in time and space because of subjugation of the human spirit first under colonial rule, and now under abusive “colonial self-rule”.

As and when empowerment is restored to local entities, the society will get reconnected with its glorious past. This is what Gandhiji believed and advocated.

India is a country where religion is very central to the life of people. India’s age-old philosophy as expounded in Hindu scriptures called Upanishad is sarva dharma samabhava, which means equal respect for all religions. The reason behind this approach is the fact that India has never been a mono-religious country. Even before the Aryan invasion India was not a mono-religious country.

“I do not expect India of my dreams to develop one religion, i.e., to be wholly Hindu or wholly Christian or wholly Mussalman, but I want it to be wholly tolerant, with its religions working side by side with one another.” So said Mahatma Gandhi.

The basic feature is that, in many areas, and on many occasions, religion has played no part in public affairs. For example, a large number of appointments that have been made or continue to be made in the country to various positions, are made on a secular basis. There is an increasing tolerance of inter- religious marriages, and we have a substantial number of highly vocal and influential people who are truly secular in their outlook – just as there are large number of those who are just the opposite.

What about our weaknesses in this regard? One of the greatest of our weaknesses has been that the practice of secularism has been often identified or equated with tolerance. Secularism as practiced in India has been far from negation of religious dogma. It has not even been real tolerant or equal or has regard for other religions; it has been, in fact, a respectable licence for practicing and propagating one’s own creed without any bar or restraint. The architect of secularism as practiced in India today was one of the most distinguished citizens of the world, Mahatma Gandhi. Ironically, he did not realize that regarding all religions as equal was a contradiction in terms, as the dogma of one religion often stood in direct contradiction to the dogma of another religion.

Identifying oneself with one religion totally, therefore, cannot but make you antagonistic to another religion; any claim to tolerance can only be superficial.
The multi-religious society can function well, without invoking religion-based emotional responses that can be destructive, only to the extent to which people are willing to give up their beliefs in their religion’s dogma. Similarly, teaching religion as a fact of history is one thing, while teaching religion, with all its dogma, as a desirable way of life is another. The former is a part of liberal education; if such a teaching is coupled with teaching of science and the scientific method, one is left free to make one’s own judgment and arrive at one’s own decision in regard to beliefs; the chances are that if one is thus left to one’s own wits, most people would find it difficult to accept most of the religious dogmas that circumscribe our thinking today.

On the other hand, if religion is taught as a package, which along with all its dogma, is considered as the desirable way of life, implicit in such teachings is a denial of science and of all other religions, and the talk of equality of all religions in such teachings becomes a mere farce. From this point of view, unfortunately, we have failed.

The entire concept of reservations as practiced in the country today is unscientific and non-secular. In fact, continuance of such reservations in service after many decades of Independence is an indication of the failure of the government and the political machinery in respect of universalizing the concept of secularism within the State. In fact, it looks like a virtual conspiracy, for whatever reasons there might be, to keep the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes very nearly where they have been before Independence, instead of closing the gap between them and the rest of the people of the country. If we were truly secular, our efforts would have been to provide the under-privileged with at least equal opportunities if not greater facilities, and not to perpetuate inequality in regard go standards through the system of reservations.

In the present times, a person belonging to Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe knows that he does not have to achieve high standards that the others would need to for obtaining a certain position or privilege. Therefore, what would be the source of his/her motivation for achieving excellence? The fact is that, in the long run, real success in life is related to merit and meritorious performance. The system of reservation is an insurance against effort which would lead to the development of such merit and, eventually, to meritorious performance. By lowering the standards for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, we are only relabelling them, rather than removing the label. Even the highly restrictive meaning attached to secularism generally in our country would not justify such discriminatory policies.And then, much of our politics is based on considerations of religion, caste or sub-caste. We still permit religion-based organizations and political parties, and the right to religious teaching in minority institutions; our text-books often have a religious bias.

Religious leaders have, often, an important say in public matters, and we thus allow Shankaracharya of Puri to get away unscathed in spite of his open and vocal support to Sati. We still willingly consign crores of rupees to fire to appease our gods, be it for rain or political benefit. Most of our holidays are religious holidays. Even state functions have religious overtones; for example, government buildings are lit on Diwali day. We provide indirect support to religion by supporting institutions that are founded and run by religious fanatics, who practice large-scale public deception.

In spite of more than four decades of Independence, and commitment to secularism, we still do not have just one law for all the people of our country. We let our laws be significantly determined by religious considerations. Muslims can have more than one wife, and Sikhs carry Kirpan on the basis of their personal law. We still often require people to identify their religion in our application forms, and our political leaders openly and publicly participate in and encourage religious practices, rather than secular ones. The situation is made worse by the support and publicity of such practices by our media. There has been much unauthorized encroachment of public land for shrines and religious practices that has been condoned by the State.

Therefore, it is no surprise that the first identity that people seek in our country even today, is an identity based on circumstances of birth, such as religion, language, the State they come from, or the caste or the sub-caste they belong to, or their social status. The national identity or the identity as a citizen of the world gets relegated far into the background. We have not realized that poverty and communal or religious identity go hand-in-hand in the world of today. Religion is the opium of the poor.

What has not been understood is that secularism is their salvation. Why this situation if one were to record one important reason, it would be the lack of scientific temper. And scientific temper is not something that you inculcate overnight. It is something that grows on you and grows with you. It is something that we imbibe from the environment – the environment in the house, in the family, and at school.

Unfortunately, such a climate does not exist in our country. Indeed, this has been one of our greatest failures. India cannot be secular without its people having a spirit of secularism. This can only be achieved and sustained in an environment of scientific temper. Today, divisive forces in our country have become the greatest single threat to our integrity, unity and, in fact, our very existence as a sovereign nation. The most effective weapon we have to fight these forces with is scientific temper. The sooner we learn to do so, the more assured would our future be.Under these circumstances, is it enough to merely state that the State has no religion and, thereby, lay a claim to secularism?

In a multi-religious society, if politics is not based on issues but on identities, it can prove highly divisive. Politicians are tempted to appeal to primordial identities rather than to solve problems. The former case proves much easier. The medieval society in India was thus more religiously tolerant as it was non-competitive. The modern Indian society, on the other hand, has proved to be more divisive as it is based on competition. This competition becomes more acute if development is uneven and unjust.

Thus in case of India one can say by and large it is secular in as much as it is religiously plural and tolerant but there are politically divisive forces quite active and create communal pressure and widen the gap between religious community thus bringing Indian secularism under threat.

In the end, secularism begins in the heart of every individual. There should be no feeling of “otherness” as we all have is a shared history. India being a traditional society that contains not one, but many traditions owing their origin in part to the different religions that exist here, has so far managed to retain the secular character of its polity. Ours is a society where Sufis and Bhakti saints have brought in a cultural acceptance for each other. Are we going to let it all go to waste and listen to people who have concern for their careers as politicians or leaders rather than our welfare at heart? Let us instead concentrate our efforts at making India a powerful and progressive nation.

Religion is the science of ethics. It cannot be jettisoned and then society expected to be ethical. We need to redefine secularism. First, it should mean total acceptance, not mere tolerance, of other faiths. Secondly, being a social issue, religion should be, along with all other social issues, in exclusive local jurisdictions. The national and state governments should have no jurisdiction over the administration of religions. Finally, at the grassroots level, where there is a confluence of community and governance, grassroots assemblies may decide how religions may be practised and education in them imparted. Social discords, if any, should be dealt with and settled within the local level, first by the sub city or sub district, and finally the city or district government.

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