The principle and definition of secularism has always been a subject of intense debate in India. It has manifested itself in the form of a guideline or a supra-policy in our political and administrative establishment. After the 42nd amendment, the preamble of our constitution reads :

“WE, THE PEOPLE OF INDIA, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a SOVEREIGN SOCIALIST SECULAR DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC…”

The dominant and the popular reading of this line assumes that these ideals are exclusively for the Indian ‘state’. But it is important to ask ourselves this question, ” Can we constitute a democratic Indian state if the Indian population continues to wallow in feudal values and thinking ? Will such a structure be meaningful at all ?”. My answer is, a clear NO. Similarly the ideal of secularism, should be something that either draws it’s meaning and understanding from the popular sentiments or something that is deemed essential to be percolated down from the state to the society. India did not choose to be a democracy for the sake of democracy. India chose so because it was in line with the larger goals before our nation and it was deemed prudent that a democratic form of government would serve as the proper means to establish a stable and responsible government machinery which would work in the best interests of the people and the nation. The principle  was chosen to aid the pursuit of larger goals. If India had decided to be a democracy for the sake of democracy, if the means were to transform to ends themselves, it would clearly mean that we have lost sight of our larger goals. We must examine and question the principle of secularism from this standpoint, that is of it’s correctness and utility as a means. If we were to accept that we must secular for the sake of secularism, it would mean that secularism is now no longer a principle,but a dogma.

No principle can be placed beyond scrutiny, because there isn’t just one principle in this world, there are principles and, there are more principles. More often than not, these principles conflict with each other. For example, if equality is a principle then hierarchy is also a principle, the conflict between them is straight forward for all to see. Any functioning society needs a fair bit of both these principles – as they are both essential as means to achieve a stable, prosperous and functioning state and society. It is the focus on larger goals that brings in the necessary objectivity and focus to harmonise these mutually conflicting principles. Before we start defining the term ‘secularism’, we must be clear in our heads and bring about a consensus on what would be the purpose of such a definition. Until and unless we reach such a point, the prevailing state of confusion and disagreements will continue.

Is the principle of secularism a means to ensure a sense of safety and confidence among the religious minorities in India ? If yes, why does that need arise despite the Indian constitution having ensured fundamental rights to each of it’s citizens irrespective his religion. Freedom of religion, right against discrimination and the right to practice and propagate one’s faith etc have been enshrined in the constitution in no uncertain terms. Especially with the right to cultural and educational rights and with the minorities being allowed to administer educational institutions, there should be no room for such anxiety – unless they are stoked by vested interests.

Is the principle of secularism a means to define the majority-minority and state-minority relations in a special way ? Is it based on a certain imagined suspicion of the majority community ? If yes, it means something qualitatively different from it’s popular understanding of “Sarva-Dharma Sama-Bhaav”. It is this understanding which is deployed by the left-liberals to perpetuate the fault-lines in the Indian society by constantly pedaling the victimhood narrative. This definition of secularism lends itself to various forms of perversion and entrenchment in the social and political circles. It dilutes the mandate of the state to focus on citizens as individuals and on their development.This lack of clarity defines a new status-quo, where ones secular credentials are measured by what one did to forward the particularistic interests of community A as opposed to community B. It further entrenches the fault-lines in our society by – a) raising the stakes to much higher levels than before, b) permanently casting the communities as adversaries and painting development as a zero sum game, where one can only gain at another’s cost and c) by enabling the most regressive voices in every community.

You know that the nation lacks clarity on an issue when the political leaders constantly yell -“Dharma-nirapeksh, Dharma-nirapeksh” while the Supreme Court of the land declares “Yato-Dharmaha Tato-Jaya”. The absence of clarity allows those with access to authority and medium to perpetuate a version of secularism convenient to them as the one we must all aspire for. In my opinion, we must ask ourselves the question – Why Secularism ? Before we ask – What Secularism ? It will touch upon many other crucial and fundamental questions, so be it. We must not shy away from asking fundamental questions and accept every “ism” as a fait accompli. 

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Manohar Seetharam

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