Although the Constitution of India’s 42nd Amendment declared India a “sovereign, socialist, secular democratic republic,” India’s status as a truly secular nation is still debatable. In many countries in the West, secularism’s acceptance as freedom of religion means equal treatment regardless of religious affiliation and separation of religion and state. However, Indian secularism’s only stipulation is that all religions are to be treated equally. 

This is not to say that India ought to emulate the Western model of secularism. Even in Western countries, where religion and state are separated by law, multiculturalist paradigms are under threat. For instance, the banning of ‘burkinis’ in France, xenophobia in the post-Brexit United Kingdom, and backlash against Angela Merkel’s pro-migration policy all signal unresolved tension in the balance between secularism and religion. Nevertheless, analyzing India’s practice of secularism is critical to achieving higher levels of equality and peace within a country struggling to retain pluralistic unity. 

Origins of the Dilemma 

Drafting a secular constitution in India, a society deeply infused with religious sentiments following its independence from Britain, was no easy feat. Majoritarian religious members of the Constituent Assembly objected to the idea of a religiously neutral state. Thus, the constitution that ultimately resulted recognized and protected rights of all religions equally, while granting freedom of religion to all citizens did not maintain religious neutrality. 

Nevertheless, for the first few decades following independence, the Indian National Congress followed secular principles closely. However, a series of events in the 1980s began to unravel the secular framework. Indira Gandhi, the prime minister at the time, turned to a violent Sikh fundamentalist preacher to reassert the Congress’s dominance over the increasingly popular Shiromani Akali Dal party. This resulted in bloody acts of terrorism, and violence continued to escalate even after Gandhi’s assassination until the army was finally able to restore order. A few years later, the Indian Supreme Court overrule of a Muslim personal law to mandate a husband to provide his ex-wife with alimony enraged many Indian Muslims. To placate turmoil, Rajiv Gandhi, who had succeeded his mother as prime minister, overturned the Court ruling, in turn leaving citizens of the Hindu majority feeling vulnerable with the impression that the secular Indian government favored minority groups. The third event contributing to the growing tide of anti-secularism concerned Ayodhya, the site most Hindus claim to have been the site of an earlier Hindu temple where Lord Rama was born, later torn down by Muslims to build a mosque. The leading anti-secularist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), started a national campaign to raze the mosque and build a Hindu temple in its place, gaining numerous Hindu votes along the way. Meanwhile, Gandhi and the Congress failed to reaffirm secular principles, instead allowing the BJP all the leeway it needed to further its anti-secularist agenda. Following the demolition of the mosque, riots erupted across northern India. 

Since then, there has been no shortage of anti-secular episodes in India. The All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMLB) has been organizing conferences titled Save the Constitution, Save the Religion, clearly showing that the constitution is not separate from Islam for them. In March 2017, the head Hindu priest of Gorakknath Math, Yogi Adityanath, was also appointed chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. Meanwhile, violent Hindu nationalists claim that only followers of Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism are true Indian citizens, as their holy lands are located within the Indian subcontinent. Hindu revivalist sentiments have only strengthened following the rise of Islamic radicalism in India and around the world. 

Consequences of the Conflict 

India’s version of secularism leads to a catch-22; the Indian government is constitutionally bound to uphold freedom of religion and freedom from discrimination, but religions have fundamentally inegalitarian practices. Most religions are inherently patriarchal and practice exclusion, and Hinduism, the predominant religion in India, is no exception. Inequality in other forms persist as well: discrimination on the basis of gender under religion, the existence of personal laws that vary with each religion, and the replacement of education provided by schools with religious education. For instance, Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists are governed by Hindu code bills like the Hindu Marriage Act and Hindu Succession Act; Muslims are covered by the Muslim Personal Law; and Christians follow the Christian Personal Law. As such, members of different religious communities have different guidelines for marriage, divorce, adoption, and a number of other aspects of life. In an effort to maintain religious equality, the protection of individual freedoms has been neglected. 

The attempt to protect all religions equally by designating Muslims as a ‘minority’ contributes to the religious schism in Indian society. The conceptualization of the ‘Hindu majority’ and ‘Muslim minority’ came to fruition in the context of granting representation for local self-governance, leaving the Muslim community feeling threatened by the more politically powerful Hindu majority. Indeed, the Constitution of India explicitly acknowledges the concept of minorities: Articles 29 and 30 delineate minority rights to conserve language and culture and to establish and access education. Of particular interest is the specification of “minority rights” as opposed to “human rights.” Recognition and protection of minority groups is a crucial part of a secular state. However, India is historically a society that places strong emphasis on distinctions, as evidenced by the caste system that dictated nearly every aspect of life for a Hindu. Additionally, the Muslim population can hardly be considered a minority; India has the second largest Muslim population in the world after Indonesia, reaching almost 50 percent of the total population in some areas. Yet this differentiation between ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ is dividing India along religious lines. Further aggravating the situation is the disparity in the laws that apply to the two groups. For instance, while majority schools are mandated to reserve a quarter of their seats for economically disadvantaged children, minority schools are exempted from this regulation. This had led Hindus to develop the notion of minority privilege, which, again, fuels religious discord. 

Perhaps one of the most notorious repercussions of the secularism debate is the dispute over the Kashmir Valley, which has been contested since Pakistan’s creation in 1947. This dispute is commonly understood as a religious dispute between Pakistan, a Muslim state, and India, a Hindu state. An alternative view of the Kashmir conflict suggests that it reflects India’s struggle to prove its secularism by maintaining a Muslim province within a predominantly Hindu state. These two interpretations are not mutually exclusive, nor are they the only explanations for the conflict. Furthermore, if India were to relinquish the region, it would set a precarious precedent for other areas in India striving for independence. However, the Indian public, which is convinced that Muslims are inherently religious, cannot view Kashmiri politics as a secular, political movement, and instead sees a religious Islamic movement. This supports their conviction that the Kashmiri dispute is the result of a Muslim uprising against Hindus. This interpretation is not entirely without merit: the protests have been conducted entirely by Muslims, and cries of “Allahu akbar!” have been heard during demonstrations. Nonetheless, the point of interest here is that the Indian media did not find it necessary to investigate the secular commitment of the Muslim protestors, for secularism is an ideology that they only associate with Hindus; the notion of a secular Muslim is unimaginable. 

Obstacles in the Face of Secularism 

Attempts to reform the core ideology of any nation’s public would be fraught with resistance and opposition, but India faces some unique complications in this endeavor. For one, much of India’s population lacks the education that is necessary for developing a non-religious perspective and a commitment to secularism. Instead, people continue to define themselves in terms of religious groups and communities. While religiously based identities are not detrimental in and of themselves, the way they affect people’s perceptions of others and their own nationality can be problematic. For instance, there is a lack of distinction between Hindu and Indian. Certain rituals and ceremonies, like bhoomi pujan, aarti performances, and application of tilak are considered expressions of Indian culture to Hindus, but in the eyes of non-Hindus, these same acts are merely aspects of Hindu culture. The development of a truly secular culture has been neglected, and thus India lacks a unifying culture and system of values that combine all of its religious subcultures. 

Drawing upon the largely religious public, political parties have a tendency to utilize religious factors to garner voter support, rise to power, and promote their agendas. Though this is not actually permitted, the government has not been able to enforce this prohibition. In 2014, accusations that Narendra Modi of the BJP exploited religious tensions to boost his own popularity by promising to build a Hindu temple at the site of the Babri Masjid mosque demolished in 1992 surfaced. Religious exploitation historically played a significant role in the BJP’s rise to power, and the BJP has associated itself with Hindutva, the Hindu nationalist political ideology. Despite the opposition that the pro-Hindu policy initiatives elicited from the Muslim community, Modi won the election for prime minister and took office that same year. In the past, Muslim votes were united while Hindus were divided along caste lines. However, it appears that religion has superseded caste as the most influential voting factor, with the majority of Hindus casting their ballots for the BJP and granting the party large electoral victories. 

Not only do political parties remain religiously affiliated, but some laws also clearly have religious sentiments. In particular, the question of whether Article 48, which prohibits the slaughter of cattle, can be justified on any basis other than Hindu sentiment has been publicly debated. Not only is such a policy blatantly not secular, it is causing distress to farmers, particularly in areas blighted by drought. Article 48 is one of several compromises regarding secular ideology scattered throughout the Indian Constitution.

Why Bother? 

The question of secularism in India is an important one, as it is a society where personal identities are deeply rooted in a wide set of religions. Indeed, India’s survival as a heterogeneous society is dependent on it. A society in which significant portions of the population feels neglected or discriminated against cannot thrive or sustain itself. As the former Union Home Secretary Madhav Godbole said in a speech delivered at the Indian Institute of Public Administration in Mumbai, “since secularism has been declared as a part of the basic structure of the Constitution, governments must be made accountable for implementing it.” There is no easy solution to this dilemma interlaced with politics, culture, and religion, but nonetheless, it is crucial to maintain an active discourse on the state of secularism and its execution.