Between Tradition and Modernity

dharma_wheelThe nature of Indian secularism [2/3]

"The Secular State, rising above all differences of religion, attempts to secure the good of all its citizens irrespective of their religious beliefs and practices."

Judge M.H. Beg, Ziyauddin Burhanuddin Bukhari v. Brijmohan Ramdass Mehra


To read the first part of this article: Introducing Indian secularism and its uniqueness [1/3]

My previous paper which focused on the historical background of Indian secularism aimed at presenting it as an indigenous principle. This was meant to counter some well-known criticisms which could be used to discredit Indian secularism as an interesting object of study. It has enabled us to think about the possible evolution of a so-called Western concept in a non-Western environment. Nevertheless, even though the nature of this notion may already have been partially grasped, the present article will specifically focus on the nature of Indian secularism. We will therefore distinguish between secularism, tolerance and "laïcité" before encountering the defining aspects of the concept of Indian secularism.

Choosing the right word...

Rhetoric, regarding secularism in India, plays an important role. Words such as secularism, tolerance or "laïcité" (in a French situation) have to be carefully chosen and should not be taken as exact synonyms as they do not refer to the same reality. We will thus closely scrutinize them in order to highlight their differences.

Secularism and tolerance

secularism_httpwww.newatheistmovement.comAshis Nandy, in criticizing the implementation of secularism in India, opposed it to the notion of tolerance, whose acme supposedly lay in the Gandhian Sarva Dharma Sambhava, meaning "equal respect for all". Indeed, tolerance is an attitude of leniency towards different religious beliefs, philosophical opinions and so on, which exist without being shared by all. This is an almost philosophical principle, a virtue. Secularism, although integrating this aspect, goes a step further by giving tolerance a frame of legal rights which can be called upon before the law. Tolerance, as pointed out by Rajeev Bhargava, despite preaching non-interference into one's beliefs, does not actively prevent inequalities nor "the adamant refusal to respect someone else's religion" (Bhargava, 2007: 145). Rajeev Dhavan further indicates that tolerance, and especially as manifested in Indian history was a mere concession made by necessity. Coexistence of numerous cultures and religions in India was a state of fact with which monarchs - although some of them tried to impose their beliefs - had to cope. Many of them thus governed with little interference in religious affairs. This was particularly true during periods of Muslim domination as Hindus were more numerous . The same observation can be drawn for the colonial period: the British codified what would then be the law applicable in India, but they set aside the so-called "personal laws" referring to domains which seemed mostly /too delicate to secularize and which therefore remained ruled by religious practices (Dhavan, 2001).
Secularism and "laïcité": the long lasting problem of finding the appropriate translation

Formal differences

laicitAnother distinction needs to be made between "secularism" and "laïcité". Indeed, the word "secularism" does not exist in French, although several academics, scholars or researchers sometimes refer to "sécularisme". All the same, "secularism" cannot be translated into "laïcité", which, often thought to be a synonym, is a clearly distinct term, far more restrictive in its application.
Etymologically, "secularism" comes from the Latin word "saeculum" which means "age" or "generation". On the other hand, "laïcité" comes from the Greek "laos", "the people" or "laikos", "profane" which designates the existing distinction between the clergy and the layman. Considering dictionaries' definitions will help us to understand a slight difference in the understanding of these two words. Indeed, the Larousse dictionary gives the following definition of the word "laïcité":

1) A conception and organization of society based on the separation of Church and State and which excluded churches from the exercise of political or administrative power, and, especially, from the organization of education. The principle of laïcité is to be found in the second article of the 1958 French Constitution.
2) Characteristic of something "laic", independent from religious or partisan conceptions: the "laïcité" of education."
Quite interestingly, the definition of "secularism" in Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary of 1990 is very broad: "secularism n (1851): indifference, rejection or exclusion from religion and its religious considerations." Neera Chandhoke however gives a more detailed understanding of secularism, considering it as a concept in which: "a) the sphere of politics and that of religion is separated, b) the State will not adopt a religion as the State religion, and c) no one shall be discriminated on the grounds that he or she belongs to a particular religion" (Chandhoke, 2009: 289).
With regard to such definitions, it appears that, even though "secularism" and "laïcité" both refer to the attempt of regulating connections between the State, religious institutions and citizens, they differ.

Secularism: a multivalue concept

Secularism can /assume? various forms. It is, according to Seval Yildirim, a discourse which enables the reconstruction of the public space in order to bring religion and the State to coexist (Yildirim, 2004). Two contradictory examples can be used to embody this concept. In the United States, according to the 1st amendment of the Constitution, the government has no right to interfere with any religious institution. On the contrary in Turkey, the State participates and centralizes religious organizations. Thus, an institutional separation can signify either a complete exclusion in which there is a refusal of any kind of contact between religions and the State - and which can generate reciprocal hostility -, or, it can be a system in which the State is neutral in its relation towards religions and in which terms of commitment and disengagement are decided.

the_gap_of_secularism_httprotikapdamakaan.wordpress.comIt is interesting, in order to clarify the word "secularism", to confront it with non-secular regimes such as theocratic regimes or regimes which establish one or more religions - a strategy used by Rajeev Bhargava in Indian Secularism: An Alternative, Trans-cultural Ideal, a chapter of The Promise of India's Secular Democracy published in 2010. There is no secularism without differentiation of the State and religions. Yet, in theocracies, the State is of divine essence and it is ruled by a divinely commissioned clergy. Besides, in a regime whose State establishes a specific religion, thus gaining a legal status, a formal alliance is passed between the State and this religion although their institutions are separated. The establishment of one religion does not mean the establishment of a church: the State can either recognize one church, or none , but it can also establish several religions. An example of this was to be be found in India during the 14th century, when the Vijayanagar kingdom established Sivaites, Visnuites and Jains religions. In these two situations - the establishment of a religion and theocracy - there is a tight relation between the State and the religion.
In a secular State, the institutional separation between the State and churches is necessary: in its modern sense - and even more when considering French "laïcité" - a secular State is separated from religious ends. It is distinct from churches in its laws and public policies. The modern State has the duty to protect values of peace, freedom and equality in the religious, and the economic, political or social spheres. With regard to this, the separation of the State and churches is considered as the most efficient means to guarantee religious freedom and equality among citizens.

These distinctions having been made, we will consider the Indian specific mode of "religious management" through its application in the Indian Constitution.

Indian secularism in the Constitution

Considered as the "Founding fathers" of Independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi are without doubt the true designers of Indian secularism. Although we often - mistakenly - oppose them as having contradictory conceptions of secularism (Amaladoss, 2004), so-called Indian secularism actually epitomizes a compromise between their views on religious matters in the public sphere.

Indian secularism, fruit of the Gandhian Nehruvian compromise

gandhiThe personalities of these two members of the Congress Party differed in many aspects. Gandhi was a deeply religious person and believed that tolerance was to be found through the mobilization of tradition's resources. On the other hand, Nehru promoted rationality; he was an agnostic himself and promoted the idea of a composite nationalism which would integrate all Indians, regardless of their religion. Nevertheless, the growing influence of the Congress Party from the 1930s on and its transformation into a mass party was largely due to Gandhi's charisma and power of mobilization. During the 1940s, Nehru and Gandhi influenced each other. They agreed not to accept the recognition of a specific legal regime for each community as they believed that this would enhance their political distinctiveness based on religious criteria. On the contrary, they supported the State guaranteeing the same set of fundamental rights for everyone. Indian nationality, they believed, should not rest on any particular religion. It is in this regard that Gandhi declared, in 1948: "the State should undoubtedly be secular" (Madan, 1993: 677). Following this, the All-India Congress Committee passed a resolution in which freedom of thought and the freedom to profess one's religion were recognized.

Gandhi and Nehru refused to justify Partition on the sole basis of religious division: "why only two, I don't know, for if nationality was based on religion, then there were many nations in India" Nehru once said (Sangari, 2002: 9). Nevertheless, Nehru considered secularism as a unifying factor in a divided country. The Congress approach which claimed the existence of a common culture and common interests despite of the communities' religious differences allowed it to rally some Muslim organizations. The discourse highlighted key concepts that were to be fought for during the nation- building process : democracy, public space, fundamental rights being the most important.
For three years, the Constituent Assembly framed the Indian Constitution which was adopted on the 26th of January, 1950 and thus shaped the implementation of secularism in India.

Constitutional framework of secularism in India

The third chapter of the Indian Constitution is entitled "Fundamental Rights". It contains the sum and substance of legal dispositions regarding religious matters and therefore it shapes Indian secularism. Besides, the seventh chapter gives the citizens some fundamental duties. Promoting secularism at the individual level, article 51A(e) explains that it shall be the duty of all Indians: "to promote harmony and the spirit of common brotherhood amongst all the people of India transcending religious, linguistic and regional or sectional diversities [...]".

republic-dayThe first guarantee given by the Indian Constitution is the equality of all in front of the law (article 14), followed by the equality of opportunity for all in matters relating to employment under the State (article 16). Article 15 prohibits all kinds of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex and so on. Civic equality is further completed by the article 29(2) which gives to all the right to access any educational institution maintained by the State or receiving aid out of State funds. Moreover, article 325 (chapter XV related to the elections) establishes that no one shall be denied their right to vote.
This concern for equality and non-discrimination led the Constituent Assembly to abolish untouchability. The 17th article is the work of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, first Law Minister of India and Chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee, and it declares that "‘Untouchability' is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden [...]".

Equality is essential in order to guarantee further rights such as freedom of thought, beliefs and the right to freely propagate religion. However, the Indian Constitution identifies special dispensations to the principle of equality in order to secure minority rights. The 4th paragraph of article 16 anticipates the implementation of a system of reservations for the "backward" classes. In 2007, 15% of seats in universities and public schools were reserved for the Scheduled Classes (at that time more than 160 million people) and 7,5% were reserved for the Scheduled Tribes (Agrawal, 2007). Besides, articles 29 and 30 of the Constitution give minorities the right to conserve their own language, their script, their culture and to manage their educational establishments.

Referring specifically to religious freedom, articles 25 to 28 are the most important ones concerning secularism. Article 25(1) states that "subject to public order, morality and health and to the other provisions of this Part, all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion". Every religious denomination is thus entitled to the right to manage its own affairs in matters of religion even though the State may intervene into religious affairs when its intervention is motivated by the common interest. The Indian Criminal Code further protects places of worship (article 295).

Beyond the Indian Constitution, the Supreme Court through its cases, is the most appropriate body to protect and to clarify the scope of Indian Secularism.

Summing up the nature of Indian secularism

There is not one model of secularism: it is a "moral-political" (Pantham, 1997: 536) and flexible activity which can be adapted to various social situations.

When India gained Independence in August 1947, the events of the Partition were? (and still continue to be) very traumatic. Secularism, as supported by Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and adopted in spirit by the Constituent Assembly three years later, aimed at avoiding any further separatism and at reassuring religious minorities which feared discrimination. Engaging in secularism was a testimony of the will to recognize as Indian all cultures and populations of the subcontinent; in other words, it was a refusal to oppose to Pakistan a Hindustan where Hindu culture would prevail. Indeed, while India hosts around 80% of Hindus, Indian secularism is a shield against any institutionalized religious domination.

A synthesis of the Gandhian and Nehruvian influences, Indian secularism rests on four core elements: a principled distance between the State and religions which does not prevent their interaction; equal respect towards all beliefs; recognition of rights specific to minorities and the taking into account of a particular context. Judge Reddy describes secularism as being "more than a passive attitude of religious tolerance. It is a positive concept of equal treatment of all religions". This notion of a positive action makes sense in India where the State does not only respect all religions but may intervene to favor one belief or another whenever it seems necessary. This attitude is made possible because of the lack of hierarchical structure in all "Indian religions" which, therefore, cannot oppose to the State a sole representative. In India, religious practice takes precedence over faith; it comes under a social practice in the public space. The State recognizes this importance and therefore can subsidy religious foundations such as the Hindu university of Benares or the Muslim university of Aligarh., or can even contribute/even contributes to the organization of major pilgrimages.

Read "Introducing Indian secularism and its uniqueness [1/3]"

Read "What teachings are to be drawn from the indian experience of secularism ?"

About the Author

bbBrunelle Battistella est étudiante en Master Affaires et Relations Internationales à l'Institut d'études politiques d'Aix-en-Provence. Elle a étudié une année au département de Science Politique de l'Université de Delhi et a travaillé dans un centre de recherche, le Centre de Sciences Humaines, à New Delhi. Brunelle Battistella a rédigé, en 2011, son mémoire de Master sous la direction de Pierre Langeron et Max Jean Zins sur le « secularism » indien.

Brunelle Battistella is studying International Affairs within the Institute of Political Studies in Aix-en-Provence. She spent one year working in the political science department of Delhi university and at the Social Science center in New Dehli.



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