Secularism as a concept evolved as a politico-religious philosophy in the socio-cultural societies of modern world. The word secularism was first used by a British writer George Holyoake in 1851 to promote a social order separate from religion without criticizing the existing religious beliefs.
It is deeply rooted as a concept in the human civilizations. However, it emerged as a consequence of Renaissance movement in the west. It reformed the civil society with drastic changes in the culture. The philosophers and scholars revived the classical Greco- Roman culture that influenced the development of new ideas of humanism. This gave rise to secularism that shifted the society from the domination of Church (religion) and kept State away from traditional religious societies. It gave birth to simple secular paintings along with religious images.
The object of secularism is to assert the right to be free from religious rules and religious teachings. In other words, the State declared to be neutral on matters related to belief and faith. The government shall not impose any religious practices upon its people. Thus, it ended the integration of political activities with religion in which religious leaders dictated the terms of administration.
The conflict between religion and politics encouraged the reforms that strengthened the values of humanism, secularism and democracy. Secularism may be defined as an “approach to the ordering of communities, nations and States that places human subjects above other ideas.”
Objectives of Secularism:
One religious community does not dominate other communities
Few members of a religion do not dominate other members of the same community
The State does not enforce any particular religion nor does it take away the religious freedom of any individual
State has no religion.
Types of Secularism:
In the modern democratic societies secularism has evolved into three types:
Philosophical Secularism: It seeks to interpret life on principles taken solely from the material world without recourse to religion and focuses on temporal and material concerns. It promotes the spirit of tolerance and cooperation and establishes peaceful coexistence.
Social and Cultural Secularism: It is a system of social organization and education where religion is not allowed in civil societies.
Political Secularism: It emphasizes on keeping religion away from State. It provides religious freedom and religious equality. Thus, it implies that the state is neither religious nor irreligious nor anti-religious.
Features of Secularism:
To treat all religions as equal
Accept freedom of religion and equality as integral part of the society
Freedom of worship without damaging the social fabric and the cultural heritage
Encourage rational thinking and promote scientific temper
However, the secularism in the west is different from Indian secularism due to the variations in the socio-cultural environment with politico- economic status. In the west, secularism emphasizes freedom of religion, citizenship and separation of religion from state. Indian secularism on the other hand encourages spirit of tolerance in matters of religion and promote peaceful coexistence. The western secularism believes that religion is purely personal and has no role to play in public life, but Indian secularism implies religious equality and insists on absence of discrimination on the grounds of religion in public life.
Secularism in the west emphasizes on non-interference of religion in matters of State and viceversa. Whereas, secularism in India protects religious equality and encourages peaceful coexistence. West conceived as separation but in India the state is allowed to curtail the right of citizens whenever religion causes hindrance and disharmony. One must remember western nations are homogenous religious societies with different approaches in their belief, we in India live in a heterogenous society with multi religious structure.
India is a birth place of many religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism and accommodated many religions like Jewism, Christianity, Islametc. These religions adopted Indianness and Indians not only accepted but also assimilated these religious faiths. Thus, the fabric of India is unique. Secular traditions in India are deep rooted in its history and culture which is based on various traditions and movements binding together and established a rich and varied heritage. Since times immemorial these faiths lived together along with spiritual traditions and social movements.
Indian religious beliefs evolved together with human history and coexisted ever since the civilizations established on the river banks. The practices and faith of Indus valley people were secular in the sense they worshiped Male Gods and Female Goddess of their choice in their personal life. In the same manner Vedic people worshipped nature as their Gods and Goddess. In course of time Hinduism evolved as a child of history, it inherited the spirit of tolerance and peaceful living. Gradually many divisions took place on Varna ashrama dharma along with different cults of same belief. The deep-rooted divisions gave birth to Buddhism and Jainism with its divisions.
The rulers of ancient India patronized a religion of their choice but promoted all other religions with spirit of tolerance. In the History of ancient India there has been no state religion except Ashoka who declared Buddhism as state religion. However, by the end of 12th century Muslim invasions introduced Islamic faith in India. Some of them like Md.Ghajini, Delhi Sultanates determined to spread their own religion that gave rise to conflicts. With the rule of Akbar once again the secular fabric regained on the Indian soil.
He encouraged all religions and patronized Hindus in his court He even maintained matrimonial alliances. Unfortunately, after his death it was not continued by later Mughals and Aurangzeb even declared Islam as the state religion. During this period the West entered in the name of trade and spread Christianity in the country and became the rulers of India. Thus, India adopted many religions into its fold along with the religions that were born in the land. As a result, India is the only multi religious nation in the world.
The British rule has resulted in the concept of popular democracy and gave raise to three different ideologies viz:
communist ideology that believed in atheism
racist ideology based on theism, and
Reformers like Raja Rammohan Roy, Ishwar Chand Vidyasagar, Maharishi Devendra Nath Tagore, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and many others, who insisted on rationality, truth and justice to strengthen tolerance and peaceful coexistence inspired Gandhi along with the other National leaders to lead the freedom movement that derived its strength from oriental scholars and missionary movements of colonialism that spread freedom of expression, religion and equality.
Secularism entered into Modern Indian polity due to universal education, social and religious reforms and western democracy. Thus, the freedom struggle in India included all religions and strengthened the Hindu Muslim unity by preserving the spirit of secularism and demarcated the relation between government and religion that played an important role in preserving the diverse culture of India, this helped the constitutional framers to frame the constitution as a secular nation.
Accordingly, the constitutional framers of India focused on secularism. There is no official religion in India as a state religion. Educational institutions and public organizations owned and managed by government shall not discriminate on grounds of religion nor impose any tax on any religion nor impose any religious instructions. Part III of Indian constitution on Fundamental rights provides equal status to all religions, freedom of religion, and equal protection to all religions along with religious tolerance. Secularism was further strengthened by 42nd constitutional amendment by incorporating the word SECULAR in the Preamble in addition to emphasizing to respect the rights, opinions and beliefs of all people. Being a heterogenous society India believes in confluence of all religions that is what is known as SARV DHARMA SAMABHAVA. The State shall not interfere in religious matters of its people but must intervene when religion hinders peace and instigate communal violence. The state must able to decide when to engage or disengage, help or hinder basing on the constitutional values.
However, state or government alone cannot enforce these principles, the committed and impartial judiciary, vigilante and scrupulous media, civil society act as external vigilantes.
The present Indian polity is deviating from the Bonafide principles of secular philosophy. Has it been ignored or erased from our country? No, it is not possible for a country like India which has a long and vast secular history, the voices may have been suppressed and silenced or forced to go underground but it cannot be erased.
The present conditions are the persistent misuse of power by political parties for electoral benefits. The developments are politically motivated whether it is Shah Banu case or demolition of Babri Masjid or Gujarat Riots. They are systematically destroying the plural society. One must see the ordinary people of India who continue to work together and adopt 'live and let live' policy. Recent violence at Bengaluru and the protection of a Hindu temple by Muslims is a master piece of Indian secularism.
A secular India alone is a true India that can survive. Perhaps India that is not secular does not deserve to survive. Thus, India is neither religious nor irreligious nor anti-religious. It is secular in word and spirit keeping religion away from public life.
Retired P.G.T, Political Science
Oxford Senior Secondary School