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Indian secularism in global perspective


Unless the size of the civil society enlarges to encompass most of the Indian citizenry, the psycho-cultural idea of the nation and the politico-legal concept of the state are unlikely to reinforce one another. 

True to the spirit of the political system, multi–religiousness and the Indian National Movement, the framers of our Constitution envisioned a secular India. Although the word ‘secular’ was not initially incorporated explicitly in the Preamble, the inherent spirit of our Constitution is secular in nature. It denies any special treatment or preference for a particular religion and lays stress on an equal approach towards all the religions of the land. Unlike the Western concept of secularism, which means a total separation between the religion and the state, secularism in India is not opposed to religion as such. It is rather opposed to the use of the religious institutions and religious motivation in the legal, political and educative processes. It neither endorses nor disapproves of religiousness.

Theme of Indian Constitution

Under our Constitution, secularism has been safeguarded by providing several restrictions on religious chauvinism and separatism. Though there may be attempts for positive discrimination towards the deprived and minority communities, (as guaranteed by our Constitution), no one is denied any office on the grounds of religion. The essential basis of the Indian Constitution is that all citizens are equal and that the religion of a citizen is irrelevant in the matter of his fundamental rights. The Constitution ensures equal freedom for all religions and provides that the religion of the citizen has nothing to do in socio-economic matters.

Further, the secular objective of the state has been specifically expressed by inserting the word ‘secular’ in the Preamble by the 42nd Constitutional Amendment Act 1976. Again in 1976, the meaning and content of secularism were clarified which meant that the state shall not make any discrimination whatsoever on the ground of religion or community against any person professing any particular form of religious faith. Thus, the Republic of India, established in 1950, is the home of Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, Christians, Zoroastrians, Jews, and Muslims living together under the protection of a secular constitution which guarantee, by law, the absolute equality of the faiths. Secularism does not mean that one cannot practise one’s religion. It means that the state will have no religion.

The past 75 years of Independent India indeed show that secularism is the only policy that can hold our country together and take it to the path of prosperity.

Post-Independence works

Nation-building was a huge challenge post-independence from Britishers. The 1947 Partition sparked riots all across the country. Thus, the time immediately after independence was very tenuous. We embarked upon an experiment which never tried before. A form of secularism which the world had never seen before. The strategy of nation-building in India commenced on the basis of secularism, parliamentary democracy, meaningful debates and consensus-making, federalism, democratic decentralization, and others that could make the Indian republic strong, effective and purposeful for centuries to come.

For the people, democracy is a pattern of experiences. The experience of its two facets is at sharp variance. The impressions derived from its abstract side, like the norms, values, or procedures; and the concrete experiential side, of those in charge of giving these democratic institutions a shape is a stark contrast. The difference originates, perhaps, from the societal character of India at the time of independence.

Unless the size of the civil society enlarges to encompass most of the Indian citizenry, the psycho-cultural idea of the nation and the politico-legal concept of the state are unlikely to reinforce one another. 

The factors like caste, religion and language play strong roles in fostering sub-national identities in the Indian society. Horizontal and vertical cleavages have made it difficult for the civil societies to develop the cohesion necessary to face the political and economic power of the state. Unless the size of the civil society enlarges to encompass most of the Indian citizenry, the psycho-cultural idea of the nation and the politico-legal concept of the state are unlikely to reinforce one another. 

Similar to the plural societies of the United States, Canada, Belgium, and Holland, the political parties in India have had a base of support that cut across the horizontal and vertical cleavages of the society, from the very beginning. Horizontal dispersal of caste groups, further subdivided by the sentiment of village and kin, compelled the competing party organizations to build support structures for themselves across these divisions.

But the Indian experience differs from that of Western democracies in the sense that the ethnic groups in the former stood in a hierarchical relationship. This difference indicated a corresponding gap in economic, political and educational attainments, particularly in the lower strata of society. This gap handicapped such communities in their exercise of electoral choice in the initial years following the independence of the country.

System in perspective

Each developing society, like India, which is struggling to modernize itself politically, registers its own peculiar, complex, and often internally self–contradictory processes. An average Indian citizen born to any ethnicity, makes his living, by and large, in the class of his birth, and shares the perspectives of his generation. In contrast to this inherent instinct, the electoral processes, mass movements and the search for better economic returns force him to make secular decisions on issues which lie outside the primary groups to which he belongs. While he continues to live his social life within the primary groups to which he was born, the constraints imposed by such groups, on his thinking and movement, tend to become increasingly weaker in the face of his need to act effectively in conjunction with others.

In 1950s, the newly established system of Indian secularism was much advanced to the then shattered social, economic, and cultural life of the Indian people. The introduction of Western rationalist education in India bifurcated society’s common sense and divided Indian culture in a radically different and unprecedented fashion. It was done through the rationalist premises common in nineteenth-century Europe. It created a strange dichotomy of the inside-home and the outside-world, of the rationalist world of politics and the sentimental world of domesticity.

The Indian secularism forged a new sense of national identity among the people of India. The Indian Constitution embodies in itself the aspirations of all Indians to place humanity above everything and live together, peacefully and harmoniously. India was an experiment of the kind never done before anywhere in the world. It was an experiment of weave the people from strikingly diverse cultures into one fabric of national identity – India. It continues to remain an experiment which the whole world looks at to solve its social problems, especially in this era of extensive globalisation. Though the experiment of India remains quite successful, it should not be taken for granted. The experiment continues to be a live one! It requires continuous and earnest efforts from all sections of society, polity, economy, geography and cultures to add to it various reagents of love, peace and harmony to make the experiment of India successful for centuries to come!

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are of the author solely. TheRise.co.in neither endorses nor is responsible for them.

About the author

Dr. Rajkumar Singh is Professor and Head of the University Department of Political Science at B.N.Mandal University, Madhepura -852113. Bihar, India.


Rajkumar Singh

Dr. Rajkumar Singh is Professor and Head of the University Department of Political Science at B.N.Mandal University, Madhepura -852113. Bihar, India.

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