The concept of secularism as it had come to India from the west implies a total rejection or exclusion of religion and religious consideration from the sphere of politics. Since religion plays an important role in the lives of the people, the concept of secularism evolved in India as equal treatment of all religions. The Constitution of India mandates that the State must be secular and ensures that one religious community does not dominate another and that the State does not impose any particular religion, or take away the religious rights of individuals. The Constitution guarantees to the Citizens Fundamental Rights that are based on secular principles.
Modern education introduced by the colonial power in India has strengthened the role of religion. Violence between religious communities particularly the Hindus and the Muslims had become a regular feature of the Indian politics. The colonial powers tried to divide the people along the lines of separate religious identities through the politics of demographic enumeration. This led to the making of separate identities on the lines of religious communities. People became conscious of their majority or minority. The colonial practice of categorizing the people of India into different religious communities like the Hindus and the Muslims made people thinkin terms of religions forgetting intercommunity differences. The colonial policy of the separate electorates for the Hindus and the Muslims further strengthened these identities. The Indians were polarized with the emergence of the Hindu Mahasabha and the Muslim League. The former began to talk of a Hindu nation whereas the latter stood for a two-nation theory. The resultant tension led to the partition of the country in 1947.
The national leaders who won us independence from the British were secular in their outlook, and preferred India to remain secular even after the partition of the subcontinent. They were bound by the commitment that all religions in postindependence India would be treated equally. Mahatma Gandhi’s doctrine of ‘sarvadharmasamadbhava’ treated all religions equally. For Gandhi, secularism was not merely a political principle, but also a normative principle that recognized the role of religion in the lives of individuals. Nehru’s idea of secularism is contained in the maxim ‘dharmanirapeskshata’ which preferred that the State would not be influenced by religious consideration in policy or decision making. Yet Nehru was convinced that in the Indian context religion could not be banished from the political and public sphere. Indian secularism is related to the Constitutional values of democracy and fundamental rights.
Secularism is not merely desirable but essential for the healthy existence of a pluralist society like India which is characterised with religious diversity. The concept of secularism in India possesses three substantial components: (1) The State will not attach itself to any one religion, which will thereby establish itself as the State religion, (2) All citizens are granted the freedom of religious belief and (3) The State will ensure equality among religious communities by ensuring that one group is not favoured at the expense of the other and the minorities will not be discriminated in any way.
Secularism is important for a pluralist society like India for the following reason:
- It enables people of different religions to live in civility with respect for all faiths.
- It is a part of democracy, which grants to citizens equal rights.
- It safeguards democracy by limiting the power of the majority.
- It protects the equal rights of minorities.
In spite of the fact that the founding fathers of the nation were committed to the concept of secularism in its true spirit, post- independence India has to face major threats to secularism in several forms. Communalism, caste- system, preferential treatment, politicization of caste, religious polarization, untouchability etc.have posed serious threats to the secular fabric of the country. The later Prime-Ministers of India belonging to the Congress party played the Hindu card. The congress government at the centre remained silent as the Babri Masjid was razed to the ground in an attempt to build a Ram temple in its stead. Such aggressive cultural nationalism is dangerous because it is exclusive; it excludes people who do not belong. Such questions need to be addressed for the healthy co-existence of different religious and ethnic communities in a pluralist society like India.