Indian secularism - Place of religion in human life - The Statesman S K Chaube 21 January 1997
If knowledge is power, ignorance is a sure way to slavery - of the body and the mind. One sure way to ignorance is belief in myths. In the great debate on secularism in India a number of cultivated myths abound even among well intentioned people bearing no malice against other communities. "Indian society is secular", "Hindu society is secular", "The Indian Constitution is secular" and "The Indian State is secular" are some of them.
The myths are raised to a theoretical plane by asserting that "Our secularism is different from secularism in the West". From this absurdity one moves to the confusing array of "our definitions" of secularism and exchange of abuses like communalism and pseudo-secularism.
This myth-making started in the Constituent Assembly. K. T. Shah, a radical Congressman, moved an amendment to the draft Constitution seeking to declare India to be a "secular, socialist" sovereign, democratic republic. It was turned down on two different grounds. On the question of socialism it was held that a Constitution is a political document and need not reflect any social philosophy. On the question of secularism it was asserted that the Indian Constitution embodied secularism as Indian - Hindu - society is essentially secular. This illusion ran through social scientific literature as well as several judgements of the top courts of this country ending up with the judgement that Hindutva is compatible with secularism.
Social science is also a science or, at least, an aspiring one. The minimum requirement for attaining the status of a science is an agreement on the terms that are used. Otherwise, if people mean different things by the same word, their words are bound to lose precision. Social science is not poetry that thrives on mystery and obscurity. One simple way to attain descriptive precision is through the fundamental principle of philology - meanings being derived from roots.
Secularism is a word derived from the word secular which means this worldly, mundane, profane. As such it is contrasted with "sacred". Secularism means attachment to this wordliness. The distinction is ancient - going back to the Roman period. In the Middle Age, the parish courts, controlled by the church, tried ordinary civil cases of the villagers while serious offences were tried by "secular courts" controlled by the King. The demand of the Protestants was that the church should not dabble in secular affairs that were governed by the State. The bloody civil strife between the Protestants and the Catholics in Europe led to a further prescription that the State should keep away from secularian conflicts in the domain of the sacred. The English monarchy went to the extent of establishing its own Church of England. The first amendment of the Constitution of the USA prohibited the U.S. Congress to make law on religious establishments. This meant that government funds could not be spent on any religious cause.
Secularism is thus a political doctrine and not a social one. It cannot be counterposed against communalism as communalism is a social doctrine. It is not true that a communally tolerant population is automatically secular.
On the other hand, in a society where communal intolerance is high, there is a strong case for having a secular State as the State, in order to preserve its moral authority, must wash its hands of sectarian conflicts. It should not be partisan. If, on the other hand, the State is seen to be taking side in a sectarian conflict, there is a civil war, as in the cases of many countries in medieval Europe. Secularism is a cultural laissez faire.
The opposite view - the cultural welfarism patronizing all religions equally - is dangerous. For no State can fully satisfy all the contending communities. The serve dharma samabhava philosophy that allows the Government to build temples or repair mosques and churches, arrange religious festivals or pilgrimages will inevitably give scope to complaints of unequal treatment.
The crucial question is not whether Indian society is essentially secular because the majority community in India - the Hindu - is secular. For a society is made up of the entire web of human relationship, including the religious. No society can be secular for every society contains religions. In fact, except the perfect atheist, no individual is secular for there always is a place of religion in human life. But there is a secular domain of human fife, just as there is a sacred domain. This applies to social life too. A secular State is one which confines itself to the secular domain of society.
This distinction is clearly made in Article 25 of the Constitution which authorizes the State to regulate "economic, political or other secular activities associated with religious practice". And yet, having made such a clear distinction between the sacred and the secular, if the fathers of the Indian Constitution rejected the proposal for declaring India a secular State, they must have made a conscious decision.
According to Article 27 the State shall not impose any tax for the benefit of a particular religion. There is, however, nothing in the Constitution that prevents the State from spending money for the benefit of a religion. On the other hand, according to Article 290A, sums of money are charged on the consolidated funds of the States of Kerala and Tamil Nadu for payments to the Devaswom Funds for the benefit of the Hindu religious Institutions.
Funding is the major means of patronage and contributions to religious establishment are the major irritants with sustained effect. Allegations of State partisanship are occasionally heard in case of communal riots. The Babari Masjid demolition has been cited as an instance of State connivance at violation of the religious rights of a community. Such allegations are not easily amenable to verification. But an attempt of the State to mediate in a religious conflict is either stupid or motivated by ulterior considerations. HVK Archives: Indian secularism - Place of religion in human life
Indian Democracy at the Turn of Century edited by S.K. Chaube and Susheela Kaushik. 1999, xii, 299 p., tables, ISBN 81-7391-312-9.
Contents: Preface. 1. In defence of parliamentary democracy: a case study of India/Subrata Mukherjee. 2. India's republican democracy/S.K. Chaube. 3. Elections and Indian political process/Susheela Kaushik. 4. Regional aspirations and national cohesion: federal coalitions in the 1998 Lok Sabha elections/Balveer Arora. 5. Twelfth Lok Sabha elections (1998) and coalition making/Susheela Kaushik. 6. Ideology and politics in India: (The Lok Sabha elections: 1996 and 1998)/S.K. Chaube. 7. Voting behaviour of the southern electorate in India (1952-1998)/Noorjahan Bava. 8. New political trends in U.P.: Lok Sabha elections 1998/Sudha Pai. 9. The Lok Sabha elections in North-East India: 1996 and 1998/S.K. Chaube. 10. Electoral outcome in Punjab: identity consolidation or pragmatism/A.S. Narang. 11. The 1998 elections in West Bengal: the dwindling of the left front?/Bidyut Chakrabarty. 12. Electoral and party politics and determinants of voting behaviour in India: an essay in interpretation and reforms/M.P. Singh. 13. 1998 Lok Sabha elections: BJP forges ahead in the national capital territory of Delhi/Geeta Puri. 14. Politics in Tamilnadu: rise and fall of the Giant/Susheela Kaushik and N.S. Sankara Raman. 15. 1998 elections in Bihar: a socio-historical analysis/Subrata Mukherjee & Chandrachur Singh. 16. Electoral violence during 12th Lok Sabha elections in India/Abhay Kumar. 17. Political empowerment of women and recent elections/Susheela Kaushik. 18. Police and criminal justice system in India: some ethical concerns/R.B. Jain. 19. India's foreign policy in an era of change/Shanta Nedungadi Varma. Index.
"This volume carries contributions of distinguished political scientists who take stock of the Indian political process over the five decades since independence. It deals with the controversies over the constitutional and legal institutional system, the ideological scenario, the public policies, the political parties, the electoral process, regional politics, coalition government formation, foreign policy issues and violence. It, thereby poses the issues before India as it enters the next millennium. The authors bring their considerable expertise into their fields, reflect on the political realities and contemplate into the future possibilities." (jacket)
[S.K. Chaube is Professor of Indian Politics in the Department of Political Science, University of Delhi. His books include Constituent Assembly of India: Springboard of Revolution and Electoral Politics in North-East India.]