IAS Gyan

Daily News Analysis

The future of Indian secularism  

12th August, 2020 Editorial

Context: Secularism has paid a heavy price in our country for being at the centre of public and political discourse. It has been persistently misused and abused. Distinguishing it from constitutional political secularism, it has become a ‘party-political secularism’.


Respect and critique

Constitutional secularism is marked by at least two features.

  • Critical respect for all religions. Unlike the secularisms of predominantly single religious societies, it respects not one but all religions.
  • However, given the virtual impossibility of distinguishing the religious from the social, as B.R. Ambedkar famously observed every aspect of religious doctrine or practice cannot be respected. Respect for religion must be accompanied by critique.
  • Second, the Indian state abandons strict separation but keeps a principled distance from all religions. It cannot tolerate untouchability or leave all personal laws as they are.
  • Thus, it has to constantly decide when to engage or disengage, help or hinder religion depending entirely on which of these enhances our constitutional commitment to freedom, equality and fraternity.


Advent of opportunism

  • Party-political secularism, born around 40 years ago, is a nefarious doctrine practiced by all political parties, including by so-called ‘secular forces’.
  • This secularism has dispelled all values from the core idea and replaced them with opportunism.
  • Indifferent to freedom and equality-based religious reform, it has removed critical from the term ‘critical respect’ and bizarrely interpreted ‘respect’ to mean cutting deals with aggressive or orthodox sections of religious groups.
  • It has even been complicit in igniting communal violence. This party-political ‘secular’ state, cozying up alternately to the fanatical fringe of the minority and the majority, was readymade for takeover by a majoritarian party.


Two crucial moves

  • First, a shift of focus from a politically led project to a socially driven movement for justice. Second, a shift of emphasis from inter-religious to intra-religious issues.
  • R. Ambedkar dispassionately observed that when two roughly equal communities view each other as enemies, they get trapped in a majority-minority syndrome, a vicious cycle of spiraling political conflict and social alienation.
  • R. Ambedkar also claimed that when communities view each other as a menace, they tend to close ranks.
  • As the focus shifts from the other to oneself, it may allow deeper introspection within, multiple dissenting voices to resurface, create conditions to root out intra-religious injustices, and make its members free and equal.


Inter-community relations

  • The political project of secularism arose precisely because religious toleration no longer worked.
  • Needed today are new forms of socio-religious reciprocity, crucial for the business of everyday life and novel ways of reducing the political alienation of citizens, a democratic deficit whose ramifications go beyond the ambit of secularism.