Secularism is predominantly considered as a Western concept, probably because the word “secularism” was coined by a British philosopher in 1851.
However, several countries have practiced the concept of Secularism many centuries ago, such as India and China, and even some countries in the Middle East. In simple terms, the government will treat all religions from an equidistant manner, and will not allow religions to dictate government policies – in essence, separation of powers between the state and religions.
The concept of Secularism also allows freedom to practice religion of one’s choice without any influence, favour or interference. All religions then become equal in the eyes of the state.
However, the concept has been twisted by politicians and political parties to suit their own agenda, especially in the context of the development of Indian democracy. If personal religious laws can be allowed to override parliamentary laws, then the equality of citizens in front of the state or a court of law comes unstuck. The politicians make use of this idea to gain favour with electorate, who can be swayed with pointers which sustain their faith at the cost of equality.
The development of equality based democracy gets impacted in the process.
And that is what we see on the ground. The state should vigorously defend the equality of citizens as the representatives of the state are not supposed to be aligned with any one religion, and are expected to maintain equality of religions while pursuing governance. This is better said than practiced by state ministers or officials in real life.
There is a huge societal impact and cost to society if Secularism is not followed in spirit and in principle. It is not just a mention in the Constitution. The citizens get divided as time goes on, religious extremism rears its head strongly, violence brews, and unequal citizens feel that the state governing them has not done its job. We see such things around the world in many countries, not just in India.
When the highest court in the land rules on matters such as Secularism, the state tries to reverse politically unpalatable court rulings. This has happened several times. As courts become more activist, they take on the role of the state sometimes, especially when fundamental edicts of the Constitution are threatened.
Secularism will always be a touchy, sensitive subject matter due to the misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the concept. Debates will continue. But, we cannot forget two core principles – all citizens of a state are equal to each other in their treatment by the state, and all religions are equal in their treatment by the state, and these principles are sometimes interpreted by the highest court of law due to legal challenges by individuals or institutions. But their legality and validity persist and sustain. There is nothing like a “majority” or a “minority” religion – all religions are equal, period.
There is possibility that certain political factions will dismiss Secularism as a Western-influenced concept or even as “Westernization”. That is not correct, as there is historical evidence that the concept was practiced even as late as the 19th Century by Sikh kings in India. And of course, there is evidence from the reign of King Ashoka, some 2,300 years ago as well. So, let us not cheat ourselves.
At the end of the day, all people are equal, notwithstanding their professed religious faiths, or hobbies, or job roles. The state should not allow any religion to dictate its policies.
That is the simple concept of Secularism.
4th October 2015