The Limits of Indian Secularism


A Sickness that Got into Secularism

Indian elephant

Photo credit: Jacqueline Laing

In recent times, a peculiar word has crept into the vocabulary of social network users in India as well as those of the Indian diaspora. The word in question is ‘sickular’ – an amalgamation of the English words ‘sick’ and ‘secular’. It is used disparagingly to highlight the politics of those academics and intellectuals who promote ‘secular’ values in India in a manner that often turns out in the final analysis to be counterproductive and distinctly non-secular. What, we may wonder, prompted  the coining of this term amid the lively democratic discussions that take place on social media? Apart from being a striking linguistic phenomenon, the coining of this curious word must be read in its political context lest it be misunderstood. Used in this pejorative sense, the term gives rise to the suspicion that the user rejects egalitarianism, secularism and democratic fair play. Indeed, in left-liberal quarters it is customary to find any criticism of secularism repudiated out of hand as the rantings of the extreme right. But in the context of India’s recent history, one that confronts a serious threat to the very foundations and possibility of secularism, it is crucial to explore the limits of secularism.


In 1976, during the draconian emergency thrust upon the country, the 42nd constitutional amendment ensured that the word “secular” was introduced into the preamble of the Constitution of India. While the concept of secularism has not been clearly defined in the Constitution itself, it is noteworthy that the Constituent Assembly that drafted the Constitution in 1949 did not deem it necessary to include the qualifier “secular” in the preamble.

Interestingly, the original copy of the Constitution, which was illustrated by the famed Santiniketan-based artist Nandalal Bose (a disciple of Abanindranath Tagore who initiated the artistic movement known as the “Bengal School of Art” around 1905 when Lord Curzon had decreed the Partition of Bengal along communal lines) saw no contradiction between India’s ancient Hindu artistic traditions and the recognition of an essentially secular state. The illustrations draw heavily from the Hindu sacred scriptures such as scenes from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Bhagavad Gita as well as artistic depictions of life in the Vedic age among other things. This neither caused offence at the time nor upset religious sensibilities. It was understood that India was a majority Hindu nation with a magnificent ancient heritage. Had Bose been commissioned for the work in 2017 instead of 1949, however, he might not have enjoyed such artistic liberty.

Pakistan emerged as a state with entirely separate objectives and constitutional foundations. The state had as its purposes those demanded by the Muslim League which involved the creation and transformation of the area into an Islamic state. On 12 March 1949, the Objectives Resolution proclaimed Islamic sovereignty over the area and sought to introduce into law variations of the shariah. The promulgation of the Constitution in 1956 led to Pakistan declaring itself an Islamic republic albeit with the adoption of a parliamentary democratic system of government. The constitution transformed the Governor-General of Pakistan into President of Pakistan (as head of state). Despite wars, coups and political instability, it was always assumed that Pakistan would be an Islamic state with a foundational commitment to Islamic laws, a point of difference with India, a state committed to secularism. It was never assumed that Hindu laws or practices would be imposed throughout the land.

The Islamization of the country’s legal system was perhaps most apparent with the introduction of the Hudood Ordinances in 1979. This was an attempt to merge the Pakistan Penal Code with Hanafi legal injunctions, which is one of the four madhabs or schools of thought of religious jurisprudence (known as fiqh) within the Sunni sect of Islam. It recognized both in principle and in practice grave penalties for a series of offences such as blasphemy, wounding religious feelings, using derogatory language about Muhammed, alcohol consumption and ‘zina’ (sexual offences, not including polygamy and the acquisition of multiple wives). Quite aside from the positive law of the land, scripturally sanctioned capital punishments include beheading, crucifixion, stoning (for zina), amputation of hands or feet (for theft), and flogging (for drinking alcohol, for example). It is sometimes argued that these punishments and offences have been abolished or are not strictly enforced or require impossibly high standards of proof. These assurances are inaccurate. The reality rather is that such offences and penalties either continue to exist in the Islamic world or, far from gradually disappearing, invariably re-emerge as literal and therefore more faithful interpretations of the Koran and hadiths. Accordingly, Iran, Brunei, Egypt (at various points in its recent history), Afghanistan, Turkey and now Indonesia have seen efforts at reversion to faithful interpretations of these scripturally or textually sanctioned offences and punishments. Within the realm of family law, polygamy is still permitted, and although talaq has lost its triple status, its discriminatory unilateral nature undoubtedly remains, leaving abandoned women and children without legal recourse. In 2014, for example, the Council of Islamic Ideology sought to amend existing laws requiring that a man obtain written permission from existing wives before marrying another as an un-Islamic restriction on men and in need of reform. Again, laws prohibiting men from marrying children were argued to be un-Islamic and also in need of reform. The essence of marriage was puberty not the consent of the parties to the marriage, it was proposed. While the recommendations for law reform were not immediately adopted, the shifting nature of political opinion in the context of scripture and tradition, suggests that they remain a real possibility.

By contrast, the idea of secularism, in the sense of equal legal treatment of all religions by the state, was implicit in the preamble to the Indian Constitution and the overall idea of the 1949 text of the Constitution of India which was finally adopted on January 26, 1950. Many argue that the basic tenets of Hinduism which cut across the overwhelming diversity of the religion assume not only tolerance, but acceptance of the ‘other’ as legitimate and equal. This tolerance is arguably a fundamental value long cherished by Hindus, still the majority of India’s 1.3 billion strong population. These are values fundamentally instilled into Indian society not in virtue of its relatively recent constitution but its ancient acceptance and commitment to dharma, the truth that persists throughout time. Indeed, it is at least plausible that India remains non-theocratic at least in part because Hindus make up the country’s majority.

Given this background of tolerance, acceptance of ‘other’ and dharma, it is arguable that the very values of constitutionalism, the rule of law, and the separation of powers form a very natural basis of Hindu and Buddhist religious and political organizations from ancient times. Both the Arthashastra of Kautilya and Manu’s Book of Laws reject tyranny and oppression. Many of the republics which existed since pre-Buddha times democratically elected a ‘Nayaka’ or leader for a head of the republican government. None of these held the divine right to be the source of the chief administrator’s power. Instead they depended on dharma or a righteous rule of law that ensured the well-being of all sections of society and equal treatment in the eyes of law. The great poems of India, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, which have acquired the status of sacred scriptures over the millennia, are arguably about the upholding of dharma in several situations of the human condition.

Minorities, oppression and tyranny

Contrast this with the present state of affairs in Indian democracy: religious minorities can establish and run their own autonomous educational institutions which enjoy the right under the Indian Constitution to reserve seats for their own creed and run the management of the institutions without government control/interference, while the religious majority have none of the same legal rights.

A state in India gives monthly stipends to Islamic clerics out of the exchequer’s pocket and to no other religious affiliates whatsoever. The Sunni Muslim community has its own Personal Law Board which governs the secular affairs of its community such as marriage, divorce, property rights, and the rights of women solely and strictly according to its own interpretation of its own scriptures and not according to the Indian Constitution. Those who dissent or presume to point out the hypocrisy and injustice of competing theocratic legal systems invariably attract a fatwa, suffer physical and economic attack and find themselves under personal threat with little assurance of safety from the state. Where Hinduism is no longer the majority religion, its festivals and customs are banned, serious punishments (including death) for minor matters introduced, dubious offences like ‘religious insult’ or ‘hate’ established, cruel discrimination practised, women and disbelievers subjugated and harsh laws and punishments instituted.

The unfortunate reality is that secularism in the Indian context has come to imply “minority appeasement” for all practical (read electoral) purposes. For it is a hard truth that in certain Indian states a political party can ensure a majority in the legislative assembly by canvassing the entire share of votes from the theocratic minority community only. This distorted secularism turns out, upon analysis, to be one that permits human rights abuse, gross discrimination against women and violence against the local Hindu majority, never mind minorities far less competent to oppose these constitutional and human rights violations. It operates in collusion with a fundamental belief in death for apostasy and death for rejection of its harsh precepts. It is a secularism that imperils its citizens.

It should be understood that accusations of ‘wounding religious feelings’, ‘hate’ and ‘derogatory language’ can be and are, in many states globally, punished with grave penalties including death. Human slaughter, far from being seen as unrighteous or excessive retaliation is, in this context, elevated as a political good. And so it is that we find bloggers, academics, journalists and public speakers murdered in cold blood for critical thinking. By contrast, provocation of the Hindu community by abuse of its sacred symbols, false defamatory accusations, and unsupported slander, is rarely regarded as noteworthy, and certainly not rewarded with the death penalty or physical attack.

Appeasement secularism obscures the fact that the democratic process is often supported by the women of the theocratic minority, who themselves prefer for a Uniform Civil Code that can deliver them from deeply unjust religious prescriptions in relation to marriage, divorce, evidence, inheritance and property. Is it any wonder then that those who claim to have championed the cause of secularism in India by launching scathing attacks on Hindu values and belief systems are derided by innovative pejorative terms in the relatively level playing field of social media?     

The latest resort of believers in liberalism (yes, believers, as it is turning into a not-so-liberal ideology) seems to be the novel invention of the qualifier “post-truth”. This term is used to deride the rejection of left-liberal politics by the majority of Indians and the Indian diaspora in recent decades. Similar phenomena are appearing amid elections all over the democratic world. India has not been an exception to this political trend. While it would be over-hasty, without considering a vast range of economic, cultural and religious factors, to label this political trend conservative, what binds the multiple manifestations of this tendency across continents with a thread of commonality is their emphasis on the autochthon. However much one may deride, in the name of globalisation, political campaigns that prioritize the citizens or economies of one’s own country, one cannot simply turn a blind eye to political reality. There is a widespread yearning, particularly in the democratic world, for those freedoms that permit and prioritize the flourishing of native cultures and traditions. These autochthonous cultural values, social organizations, worldviews and economies have been attacked left, right and centre by liberals and leftist ideologues for too long upon any and every excuse – palpable or otherwise – in India, Europe and North America in the main. Secularism has been offered as one such excuse.

In Europe and in North America, this has manifested as a debate on whether to open borders without discrimination and discretion – especially to those who are known to be unabashedly hostile to the host nation’s culture holding the host nation’s way of life and worldviews in contempt, and nurturing the ultimate ambition of conquering those nations either by cultural domination, blackmail, or outright application of force. While one must resist by all means any indication of the rise of “aristocracy of autochthons” that treats the ‘other’ as nothing but interlopers, what little serves the purpose of maintaining a healthy society is the scorning of perfectly acceptable local traditions. Questioning traditions is one thing, and targeting the same is quite another. In the former, the spirit of enquiry prevails, while in the latter, an obsessive missionary zeal to destroy the best features of religious identity, source of pride and inherited customs through violence dominates. Thus the second attitude runs the risk of turning into paranoia and consequently into yet another form of oppression. The paranoia, being a disease in its own right, cannot see the values of cherishing and nurturing autochthonous cultures and knowledge systems that give a strong organic basis to a society’s identity and consequently adds to its economic, environmental and psychological sustainability in the long run. The mindless attacks on autochthon from left-liberals abuse entire ontological and epistemological frames of reference, shut down all possibilities of dialogue and exchange, and eventually destroy them by means of shaming, condemnation or coercion, both economic and physical.   

This, then, is the practical foundation of India’s secularism in the decades after independence. It is a foundation that has disastrous consequences for the country’s own security and integrity. Oppressive ideologies are able to exploit the tolerance of secularism, and the perversion of that idea at the hands of allegedly free-thinking left-liberals, to sow the seeds of their own violent precepts. It is this reality that needs addressing in modern India. Moreover, it is vital that liberals in academia and the media permit this open discussion. Theocratic minorities that promote the death penalty for critical thinking cannot be relied on to start or maintain this necessary dialogue about the limits of tolerance.

Special thanks go to Dr Jacqueline Laing, Hughes Hall Cambridge, for fruitful discussions and useful suggestions in the writing of this article.


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