Secularism in India - A work in progress

India presents a unique example of secularism in front of the world. However, the journey of Indian secularism has not always been smooth. There have been periodic ups and downs. Yet, the nation as a whole seems to sustain a belief in this concept. Read this article to know more about this topic.

25. Freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion.-(1) Subject to public order, morality and health and to the other provisions of this part, all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion.
- The Indian Constitution, Article 25 (1)

"The majority community should not boast of their national outlook …They should try to place themselves in the position of the minorities and try to appreciate their fears."
-Sardar Hukum Singh, Constituent Assembly Debates

Through the annals of time

Historically, India had been a multi-religious country. It is still unknown what kind of religion the earliest settlers in this country followed. But as early as the 3rd century BCE, we find evidence of various religious sects and philosophies. We find Brahmanism, Buddhism, Jainism, and even Atheism developing side-by-side. Often there was tension, as there necessarily will be. But there was also an outstanding degree of tolerance, perhaps a level of tolerance which is unseen in any ancient society of that remote period.

As time progressed, new strands were added to this beautiful fabric. Islam came in the early centuries after Hijra. We happily interacted with Arab merchants who settled on the West coast. Some of these settled in Kerala and even adopted the local traditions of matriliny and matrilocal residence. In a way, Islam became Indianized and in other ways, India became Islamized. When Sufism came, its influence was also seen in varying forms. The small community of Zoroastrians who sought shelter after the conquest of Persia were also granted the safest possible refuge. The great reformer, Guru Nanak, and his followers then added another major strand, as did the Christians, both migrants as well as local converts. The great fabric of this land was now filled with strands of varying hues and shades.

What happened under the Raj

In the absence of communal politics, we might have naturally developed trust and respect for each other. We might have developed a policy of give-and-take and present a shining example to the world as we did with the creation of Urdu, the language symbolising the fusion of two great civilisations. We might have developed the greatest possible unity, so great that no power in the world would have dared to break up this land.

But then the entry of a colonial power completely changed everything. The partition of Bengal in 1904 and the 'Reforms' of 1909 was only the beginning of a tragedy. The Hindus as well as the Muslims, rather certain Hindus and Muslims fell into this trap and then divided the country, resulting in fratricide of a level that would shame any civilised society.

The ideal of pre-partition secularism was perhaps bought out in the greatest possible way by Gandhi himself. A devout Hindu, Gandhi was also assertively secular, thus proving how happily secularism and religion can go with each other. The constitution of India, drafted in the tumultuous years immediately after partition, contained no ringing proclamation of secularism (it did not even use the word 'secular' in the preamble). Yet through provisions like those enshrined in Article 25, the freedom of each person to follow his or her religion was clearly established.

As an independent Nation

An obvious fact is that constitutions are only as good as the people who are responsible for making it work. To ensure that India truly became secular, a quality leadership at the centre was of prime necessity. And in the Indian case, Pandit Nehru provided that. Nowadays, it is hardly possible to point out the good in Nehru, especially considering how much false propaganda there has been in his name. But, the fact that equality between religions became facts of life and not just pretty words, a major part of the credit has to be given to Nehru and the leadership of that era. Individuals like Patel, Rajaji, Azad and others have also not been given enough credit for this achievement.

In the very first General Elections, the major plank of Pandit Nehru's campaign was against communal parties. This was extremely necessary at that point. Considering the ghastly violence during the partition, India needed to provide whatever assurance was necessary to allay the fear of the minorities. In almost every rally he participated in, he spoke out against the Hindu communalists (Muslim communalism was then non-existent), particularly singling out the Jana Sangh and the Hindu Mahasabha. The results reflected the national opinion against communalism. In fact, Nehru's India saw very less disturbance on the communal front. The parties which used religion as the basis for collecting votes remained perpetually on the margins. Communal pressure groups like the Sangh did exist (they were earlier banned for a brief duration following Gandhi's assassination) yet their activities were more or less restricted.


During the 1960s and 1970s, there were several sporadic riots at various times. However, the first major setback to secularism came in 1984, ironically during the rule of the party which had played a historic role in defending secularism. Sikh extremists had made the holiest Sikh shrine their shelter. In what was called the 'Operation Blue Star', the army was called in to flush out the extremists. Yet the Operation culminated in a disastrous end, despite the militants being killed. What happened in the next few months or so went down in history as the first pogrom of independent India.

The 1980s were by far the most disheartening as far as maintaining a secular polity is concerned. This decade saw a rebirth of the erstwhile Jana Sangh, albeit in a more venomous avatar. All of that resulted in the demolition of a structure which was a symbolic demolition of the tradition of tolerance. Violence erupted yet again in the very beginning of the century, as the action of a few and the inaction of many in Gujarat turned the state into a hellhole.

But secularism continues to exist in our country, despite the threats issued to it from various quarters. A nation is, after all, greater than any religion and humanity is greater than any nation. For our nation to remain a united whole, rather than a divided one, we need to fight communalism in all its manifestations, whether it be in the form of harmless-looking stereotypes or in the form of communal political parties.

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