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Secularism and India

Adapted from a letter to the editor.

Economic and Political Weekly, Jan. 1, 2005

The 45th Amendment Bill 1978 (C.B. 45) to the Constitution of India introduced by the Janata Party government contained some significant features including a definition of the term 'secular,' introduced by the earlier Congress government via the 42nd constitutional amendment in 1976. C.B. 45 sought to define 'secular republic' as a 'republic in which there is equal respect for all religions.' The Congress had a majority in the Rajya Sabha and voted down the proposal. Hence the word 'secular' remains undefined even now. Its very undefined status means that the word 'secular' has been interpreted by all in a manner that suits them. In a judgment, former chief justice A.M. Ahmadi recorded that 'the term 'secular' has advisedly not been defined presumably because it is a very elastic term not capable of a precise definition and perhaps best left undefined' (S.R. Bommai v. Union of India, A.I.R. S.C.W. 2946 pp. 2992).

In his edited book Reforming the Constitution Subhash Kashyap writes, '. . . Ambedkar while speaking on the Hindu Code Bill in parliament made it amply clear that he did not believe that our Constitution was secular because it allowed different . . . laws for different communities.' The Constitution recognises various religions and religious organisations. Also, it can extend financial assistance to religious institutions, change, regulate and end certain religious practices. The word 'secular' however, means different things to different people. In Germany every Christian pays tax to the Church; if one is not a Christian, she can disclose this and this amount will not be charged. Even a Christian can decide not to pay this amount but then she might face social problems such as difficulty in arranging her marriage at the Church. Yet does anybody call Germany a communal or anti-secular nation?

In Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh most temples are controlled and managed by the state governments. This means that contributions by devotees to the temple go to the state treasury. On the other hand, contributions made to churches and mosques do not become part of the state treasury. In another instance, the Maharashtra government's recent takeover of the management of the Sai Baba Trust at Shirdi is deemed to be secular act but a government's taking over of a mosque or church would be considered an infringement of minority rights.

Religion is a Semitic concept and as a faith is distinguished by its belief in a historical prophet and a holy book. Sanatan Dharm, otherwise known as Hinduism, does not have a prophet or holy book nor does it claim to know the only way to self-realisation.

The Indian Constitution in theory and practice has wholeheartedly adopted the alien concepts of religion and secularism. Therein lies the root of our problems. We talk of 'rights' instead of 'duty' - with an emphasis on 'what is in it for me' instead of 'what is it that I can do for you.' As Sri Aurobindo wrote, 'It has been said that democracy is based on the rights of man; it has been replied that it should rather take its stand on the duties of man; but both rights and duties are European ideas. Dharma is the Indian conception in which rights and duties lose the artificial antagonism created by a view of the world . . . [They must] . . . regain their deep and eternal unity. Dharma is the basis of democracy which Asia must recognise, for in this lies the distinction between the soul of Asia and the soul of Europe.'