Is Secularism Dead in India?

modi speech

Prime Minister, Narender Modi, in his victory speech delivered on 23.5.2019, made a remarkable statement on Secularism. He said in this election not a single party could dare to wear the mask of Secularism. In fact, what he meant by saying this is that he and his party succeeded in making all other parties bow down before their agenda of ‘appeasing majority’—which was symbolically present in the entire election campaign in all hues, from visiting temples to organizing havans/puja or from raising slogans such as Jai Shri Raam in election rallies to invoking Hindu pride and so on, and significantly it was practiced by almost all parties. It must not be inferred here that Prime Minister expressed his worry about Secularism being ‘misused’ by other political parties—to appease minority—and that he wanted to bring in Secularism with its true meaning. Rather, Narendra Modi and BJP has always been opposing Secularism considering it an obstacle for themselves to ‘appease majority’, which they have now successfully removed from political discourse. Just a work on paper now remains to be done. Thus, Narendra Modi has declared his half victory vis-à-vis Secularism.

The right wing’s opposition to Secularism—or their belief in ‘appeasing majority’—is premised on the fact that Secularism talks about equal treatment to all religions based on the philosophy of Sarva Dharma Sama Bhava, which is not acceptable to Hindus since Hindus being a majority community must be treated preferably and specially apart from being given a ‘distinct status’ by the state. This view of right wing, in due course of time, has further fuelled because they believe that Indian state, on many occasions, has not only failed in practicing ‘equal treatment to all religions’ but also meted out ‘preferential treatment’ to minority. For example, when the state reformed Hindu personal laws and brought a series of new Hindu code bills, and allowed Muslims to practice their personal laws, the right wing, despite the fact that it was a boon for the community, alleged that on the one hand it talked about equal treatment to all religions, while on the other hand, it went on to pamper minority community. It is needless to say that Indian State and successive Congress governments at centre have certainly misused Secularism on several occasions for vote bank politics. Shah Bano case is a fine example in this connection. What is interesting to note is that, on the one hand, the right wing’s opposition to Secularism is based on the hatred towards minority or on the assumption that it benefits them (pampers them) greatly; however, on the other hand, the truth is that nothing but Secularism itself has caused great damage to the community. This is also interesting to note that Narendra Modi himself, who until now had been advocating that Secularism was nothing but an apparatus to appease minority, admitted—in his speech delivered in central hall of Parliament on 24.05.2019 after having been elected leader of NDA—that minority has not been pampered but deceived and cheated by other parties. With this, fake Secularism was given a different meaning—it does not pamper but cheats minorities, which minorities themselves were complaining for years. However, it remains to be seen whether this admission will facilitate the coming in of true Secularism. Further, it is also interesting to point out that it is the same BJP which had no objection when Secularism had been compromised to ‘appease majority’ in the case of Babri Masjid-Ram Janam Bhumi dispute since beginning and ultimately at the time of demolition of mosque (by Congress governments at centre).

Hence, significantly, the right wing, since beginning, has been objecting to the idea of minority rights enshrined in Indian Constitution (Article 29 and 30) under a false allegation that Indian state was not practicing ‘equal treatment to all religions’ or maintaining ‘equidistance’—and meting out ‘preferential treatment’ to the minority—as mandated in Secularism as per the explanations presented by Constitution makers. In fact, the right wing happened to muddle Secularism with the idea of minority rights. And, the irony is that this has hardly been debated/questioned or rebutted. It is deplorable that Indian State has failed to educate its citizenry that granting minority rights was in line with the idea of ‘democratic equality’ and to save the polity from turning into a majoritarian society, and that it was not in the name of Secularism. Attempts made by intelligentsia in this regard have also not yielded. For example, the answer to this criticism by Rajeev Bhargava—that Indian Secularism is actually not about ‘equidistance’ but ‘principled distance’—has been hardly accepted.

It has been an irony that when reservation is provided to OBC/SC/ST etc. in the name of providing special protection to weaker section of the society, nobody sees it as a threat to Secularism, despite the fact that in the name of minority rights, Muslims hardly get any monetary benefit except freedom to practice their cultures and religion.

Thus, the question at this moment is this: Has Narendra Modi announced the demise of secularism? Who, then, should be held responsible for this demise?

To answer the first question in affirmative would mean a shot made in haste. Although BJP has won in the sense that it has made Secularism disappear from political discourse, but it is still difficult for them to delete the word from Indian Constitution. Regarding deletion of the word Secularism from Indian Constitution, Faizan Mustafa, has written that although Hindu Right argues that what can be added by an amendment can certainly be deleted, but the fact is that a 13-judge Bench of the Supreme Court in Keshawanand Bharti (1973) has declared Secularism to be the basic structure of the Constitution, and since the Preamble itself is the part of the basic structure, it cannot be amended by way of deletion but it can certainly be amended by way of addition. In 1976, three words were indeed added to the Preamble—secular, socialist and integrity.

Indian National Congress is the obvious answer to the second question. INC is the only political party which has been in power most of the time after Independence. Hence, larger onus certainly lies on them. It is INC and no one else who let the communalization of society happen. There is no doubt that the party was empowered enough to check the communalization brewing in the society since the beginning of 20th century. For instance, despite being powerful enough, Congress party never tried to rein in right wing organizations such as RSS, VHP, Bajrang Dal and so on. Bipan Chandra, in his book ‘Communalism’, has pointed out that Secularism, in India, came to mean, above all, opposition to communalism. However, this is painful that Indian state, in general, has made no attempt to curb it. Resultantly, we have reached such a stage wherein communalism has been institutionalized and that too under the garb of mandate given by people.

Then, what is the way out? It is to note that although we are going through a phase wherein Secularism seems to be dead, the hope has still not vanished. There is a strong hope that the idea of Secularism enshrined in the Constitution would remain untouched, as explained by Faizn Mustafa. And, therefore, it is just a matter of time. One day it will again triumph, provided opposition parties, civil society and intelligentsia learn a lesson at this juncture.


Hence, to see secularism emerge once again, we, as a citizen, have to focus on secularization rather than secularism, at least for the moment. It is pertinent to point it out that today Secularism seems to be dying largely for one main reason i.e. the idea of Secularism has neither been promoted ‘horizontally’ nor ‘vertically’. Simply put, neither state practiced it honestly nor was the society allowed to be secularized. In other words, Secularism in India was kept limited to the state policy. It was never adopted as a social philosophy for its people. Ajay Gudawardi, in this connection, has rightly pointed out that “secularism is not merely about how religious groups are treated by the state. What it meant in essence was how to forge positive and proactive solidarity between religious groups in their everyday social and cultural life. The role of the state was key but not of exclusive significance.………secularism in essence is the ability to forge friendships with unlikely social groups or the ability to express solidarity with strangers. It is, in a sense, the opposite of xenophobia, which means phobia of strangers. If the idea is to strike at the root of xenophobia and build friendships, not merely tolerate the differences, then surely secularism needs to have a wider canvas than merely being obsessed with the way state deals with the issue of religious differences.”  Romila Thapar, in the same plain, argues that “when the term was first used in 1851, secular had only one basic meaning. It described laws relating to morals and social values as having been created by human society in order to ensure the well-being and harmonious functioning of the society.” She further argues that “to support the secularizing of society does not mean subordinating ourselves to a western concept but rather trying to understand a process of change in our contemporary history……….and a secular society and polity does not mean abandoning religion. It does mean that the religious identity of the Indian, whatever it may be, has to give way to the primary secular identity of an Indian citizen.”

Therefore, what is to be done at this juncture is that Civil Society and intelligentsia class take a lead to ensure that secularization of the society begins urgently. The state is obviously not interested in this task, as government of the day is undoubtedly opposed to the idea itself. Hence, the responsibility to save Secularism lies with no one but the citizen of India.

Syed Kashif is an independent research scholar.


Join Our News Letter



Support Countercurrents

Countercurrents is answerable only to our readers. Support honest journalism because we have no PLANET B.
Become a Patron at Patreon

Join Our Newsletter


Join our WhatsApp and Telegram Channels

Get CounterCurrents updates on our WhatsApp and Telegram Channels

Related Posts

Join Our Newsletter

Annual Subscription

Join Countercurrents Annual Fund Raising Campaign and help us

Latest News