A very crisp definition of DHARMA is THE PATH OF RIGHTEOUSNESS.


Recently when the Home Minister Shri Rajnath Singh said that Secularism is the most misused word in the country…This must stop. Because of the rampant misuse of the word, there have been instances of tension in society”, he was not only right but perhaps the first one to nail it.

 India’s constitution came into being on 26th November 1949, after nearly 3 years of discussions. Dr. B R Ambedkar deserves full credit for drafting a progressive constitution that brought an ancient civilization into the modern world with the stroke of a pen. Of the 389 members in the constituent assembly, 208 belonged to the Congress, 73 to the Muslim League, 93 to princely states and the remaining 15 to other political formations. Muslim Leaguers obviously quit the constituent assembly once Pakistan came into being, leaving the Congress Party in an overwhelming majority in the assembly, hence removing the possibility for diametrically opposite political views to be present in the assembly. The constitution of India is one of world’s most amended, having been amended roughly thrice in every two year’s duration. The words secularism and socialism were added to the Preamble of the constitution through an amendment process in 1976, at the height of Indira Gandhi’s emergency. This is not to say that Ambedkar or other makers of our constitution intended India to be a theocracy of any sort. However, it was this introduction of Secularism in the preamble that has proved to be controversial in India’s political discourse.

Let us examine the theory of Secularism and its origin.

 One must understand the origins of the word secularism and its relevance in the Indian civilization to discuss this issue better. The term secularism arose in European politics in the aftermath of the French revolution that sought to undo the powers of the church and replace them with the powers of the state. In simple terms, Secularism became the war cry for separation of church and state. In medieval Europe, Church was an all powerful institution that possessed land, maintained armies, levied taxes and could throne and dethrone Kings. Secularization was an attempt to break the power of the church and create an alternate power centre in the form of the state. Europe went through a catastrophic process of wars and wanton violence to replace the power of the church. In India, there was hardly any institution that could mirror the power of the church. During the medieval ages, India was ruled by invaders and while the majority of the population might have looked towards local priests or god-men, there was no single entrenched religious structure that towered over them. Added to this was the inherent Indian tolerance for foreigners with varied beliefs and ideologies, which made it very difficult for a single orthodox interpretation of Hinduism to persist. It is probably because of this that India tends to be very confused as far as the terminology of secularism is concerned.

France was one of world’s first secular countries. It enforced Secularism after the French revolution, when it drowned priests in the middle of the ocean, in a rite known as Noyades de Nantes. This was the French way at curbing the church. As early as 1905, France established Laïcité whereby there is absence of religious involvement in government affairs. It especially prohibits religious influence in the determination of state policies. It is because of this policy that France is able to ban religious symbols such as Naqab or Burqa, Skull cap, Christian crosses etc. with relative ease as individuals must appear as simple citizens in public sphere, as opposed to what they do in their private lives. Another example of a Secular state in Turkey that in 1924 abolished the Caliphate and ushered in an era of secularism that continued till almost 2000s when an Islamic party took power. Even now, Turkey is still officially a secular state. Islam, which is the largest religion, is controlled by the state to the extent that Friday sermons have to be state approved. Bans similar to France in terms of open public expression of religious symbols are still in place. Contrast this form of secularism with the one practised in the United States. In the US, the constitution bans governmental interference with the free exercise of religion and at the same time disallows the declaration of a State religion. The Indian form of secularism mirrors the US variant closely in practice. However, the historical context which led to the establishment of secularism (many of the first settlers in the US were victims of religious intolerance in Europe) was missing in India. The western world, in general gravitated towards being irreligious, at least publicly, as a means of undermining the church. Being irreligious eventually became a higher order virtue in Western society.

Coming back to India, there is a difference between being Atheistic and Irreligious in the Indian context. Indic terms will convey this sentiment better. As a person, I may choose to be Panthnirpeksh (free from any sect), but I would not want to be Adharmi. The concept of Dharma in Indic religions is vastly different from what religion means in the Western world. This is where the first discrepancy between Indian secularism and secularism worldwide lies. This is what Rajnath Singh spoke of, when he said the correct translation of Secularism should be Panthnirpeksh (Free from a panth) and not Dharmnirpeksh (Free from Dharma). That he was still booed down is another matter. The bigger problem however is that in India secularism has been reduced to pandering the needs of vote banks. In line with this ideology, majority religion must be limited and curtailed, while minority religions should be appeased at all times as they provide lucrative vote banks. Theoretically speaking, there is nothing wrong with the Indian variant of secularism (except for the Dharmnirpeksh part), but it is the practice of Secularism that has been prostituted to meet electoral requirements. Successive governments (mainly Congress and/or Congress supported) of the day has for years now pandered to vote bank politics. It has used the flag of secularism to indulge in scare mongering among minorities. There lies a very powerful lobby of intellectuals that has been fed and inculcated for decades to sing along these lines, the song of secularism that is not.

If we look at the Indian history, we know that India was never one single country but federation of smaller kingdoms. Chandragupta Maurya & later Ashoka were the ones that brought large tracts of the country under one umbrella kingdom but never the whole geographical land. Even under British rule, India was never one country with small kingdoms and other European settlements scattered all over the geography of the country (see maps).

Under such a scenario, there was never one philosophy that could enjoy the similar power that the Churches in Europe enjoyed in the medieval period.  The Secularism has been an inherent feature in the deep philosophies that shaped the modern India. We have, if not with open arms, but peacefully accepted all faiths into our folds, made them part of our socio-cultural life. This is one land where not one or two but a number of philosophies viz. Buddhism, Jainism, Zoroastrian, Sikhism, Islam and Christianity has not only survived but thrived through the centuries. We are as individuals or group very much tolerant and secular in our outlook without the politicians shouting it out at us at the drop of a hat.

Jai Hind.


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