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Secularism in India
Ashgar Ali Engineer

S ecularism in India has unique implications and meaning. In the Indian

context the word secularism has never been used in the way in which it is
often used in Western countries (i.e. a purely this-worldly approach, rejecting
other-worldly beliefs).
India is a country where religion is central to its people’s lives. India’s age-
old philosophy, as expounded in Hindu scriptures called Upanishad, is sarva
dharma samabhava, which means equal respect for all religions. The reason
behind this approach is that India has never been a mono-religious country.
There existed before the Aryan invasion numerous tribal cults from
Northwest India to Kanya Kumari, most of which happened to be Dravidian.
Following the Aryan invasion, people of Dravidian origin were driven south,
and today we find all Dravidian people in the four southern states of India.
The Aryans brought a religion based on Vedas and Brahmins that dominated
the intellectual life of north India. But a section of the Brahmins also migrated
south and evolved new cults, marrying Vedic cults with Dravidian ones. As a
result Hindu Indians worship thousands of gods and goddesses.
Christianity and Islam added religious traditions to the pre-existing Indian
traditions. So it can be said that India is a bewilderingly diverse country in every
respect: religion, culture, ethnicity, and caste.

Caste Over Religion

Caste rigidity and the concept of untouchability have evolved and still play a
major role in religious, social and cultural matters. Caste dynamics in Indian life,
even in Christian and Islamic communities, play a larger-than-life role. Since
most converts to Christianity and Islam were lower-caste Hindus, these two
world religions also developed caste structures. There are lower-caste churches
and mosques in several places.

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Under the feudal system, there was no competition between the different
religious traditions, as authority resided in the sword; generally there was no
tension between people of different religions. Though occasional inter-religious
controversies did arise, blood was never shed in the name of religion.
There was also a tradition of tolerance between religions due to the state
policies of the Emperors Ashoka and Akbar. Ashoka’s edicts clearly spell out a
policy of religious tolerance, and Akbar used to hold dialogues between followers
of different religions; he also followed the policy of tolerance and even withdrew
the jizya tax (poll tax on Hindus), which was an irritant. Thus both Ashoka
and Akbar have a place of great significance in the religious life of India. It is no
wonder that they have been designated as “great” (they are referred to as Ashoka
the Great and Akbar the Great).
Also, India had Sufi and Bhakti traditions in Islam and Hinduism
respectively. Both Sufism and the Bhakti traditions were based on respect for
different religions. The poorer and lower-caste Hindus and Muslims were greatly
influenced by these traditions. Unlike ‘ulama and Brahmins, the Sufi and Bhakti
saints were highly tolerant and open to the truth in other faiths. They never
adopted sectarian attitudes and were never involved in power struggles. Indeed
they kept away from power structures.
Nizamuddin Awliya, a great Sufi saint of the 13th-14th centuries, saw the
reign of five Sultans but never paid court to a single one. When the last Sultan of
his life sent a message requesting him to come to the court, he refused. Then the
Sultan sent the message that if Nizamuddin did not come to his court, the Sultan
would come to his hospice. Nizamuddin replied that there were two doors to
his hospice; if the Sultan entered by one, he would leave by the other. Such was
the approach of Sufis and Saints to the power structure of their time.
Dara Shikoh was heir apparent to Shajahan, the Moghul Emperor, but
he had a Sufi bent of mind and was a great scholar of Islam and Hinduism.
He wrote a book Majmau’l Bahrayn (Co-mingling of Two Oceans Islam and
Hinduism) and, quoting from Hindu and Islamic scriptures, showed that the
two religions had similar teachings. The difference lay in language (Arabic versus
Sanskrit), not in teachings. Thus, Dara Shikoh also contributed richly to inter-
religious harmony in India.
Most conversions to Islam and Christianity were facilitated by Sufis and
missionaries with a spirit of devotion. Today in India, most of the Christians
and Muslims still belong to these lower-caste communities. Even centuries after
conversion, their caste status and economic status have not changed.
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Emergence of Competitive Politics

However, the entire social, economic and political scenario changed after the
advent of British rule in the 19th century. Differences between the Hindu and
Muslim elites began to emerge for various socio-cultural, economic, and political
reasons. The British rulers, adopting the policy of divide and conquer, distorted
medieval Indian history to make Muslim rulers appear as tyrants to the Hindu
elite. This distorted history was taught in the new school system established by
the British rulers.
Economic and political competition also developed between the Hindu and
Muslim elites, leading to communal tensions. The Hindu elite were quick to
adjust to new realities and took to modern education, commerce, and industries.
The Muslim ruling elite resisted the new secular education system and did not
take to commerce and industry. They were thus left far behind in the race for
This secular education system was supported by the perceptive Sir Syed
Ahmad Khan. He understood the importance of a modern education system
and founded Mohammedan Anglo Oriental (MAO) College, which became the
fulcrum of modern education for the North Indian Muslim elite. The orthodox
Ulama, however, vehemently opposed modern secular education and declared
Syed Ahmad Khan a kafir (unbeliever).
Initially, the Hindu and Muslim elites cooperated with each other and Syed
Ahmad Khan emphasised Hindu-Muslim unity. But the competitive nature
of political and economic power drove a wedge between the two elites and
communal tensions emerged. When the Indian National Congress was formed
in 1885, it adopted secularism as its anchor in view of the multi-religious nature
of Indian society. India could not head towards becoming a Hindu Rashtra
(Hindu Nation) as India was not merely a Hindu country. Prior to partition in
1947, Muslims made up 25 percent of the population of the British Raj, and
there were other religious minorities such as Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and
In addition, Hindu society was highly fragmented and far from monolithic.
The dalits (low-caste people) refused to call themselves Hindus; subsequently
their leader, B. R. Ambedkar, adopted Buddhism in protest. Muslims, though
not monolithic, had some semblance of unity, a fact communal Hindus used to
try to unite Hindus as one community.
At the same time, the Hindu elite was more confident than the Muslim
elite in the emerging new power structure. The Muslim elite felt less secure
and hitched their wagon to the British rulers. They wanted to build a power-
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sharing arrangement before the British left the country. But this could not be
satisfactorily worked out and India was divided into two independent states,
with the Muslim-majority areas of the Northwest becoming Pakistan. After
independence and partition in 1947, a large population of Muslims was left
in India; hence, leaders like Gandhi and Nehru preferred to keep India secular
in the sense that it has no state religion and individuals are free to follow any
religion of their birth or adoption.
So, secularism in India is more a political than a personal or philosophical
phenomenon. The Indian National Congress adopted secularism not as a
worldly philosophy but more as a political arrangement among different religious
communities. Thus, India has remained politically secular while its people
continue to be deeply religious. Indian secularism is basically a political doctrine.
All political parties have to conform to secularism as a political philosophy. The
national election commission requires all candidates and political parties filing
nomination papers to declare their acceptance of Indian secularism.

Secular Versus Communal

From the British period and onwards, the main political conflict in India was
not between the religious and the secular forces; rather, it was between the
secular and the communal. In the Western world, the main struggle is that of
the church versus the state and civil society, respectively. But in India neither
Hinduism nor Islam has any church-like structure; so there never was any
struggle between secular and religious power structures. The main struggle has
always been between secularism and communalism. The communal forces from
among Hindus and Muslims mainly fought for a share in political power and
they used members of their respective religions for their power base.
Even after partition in 1947, the communal problem did not die in India.
It reared its head again within a few years. The RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak
Sangh), the mainspring of the Hindu right, remained in existence and spawned
a new communal political outfit called the Jan Sangh. In independent India,
the Jan Sangh was the core Hindu communal faction, continuously denouncing
secularism as a Western concept alien to the Indian ethos.
Jawahar Lal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, was a champion of secularism
and secular politics. Theoretically, the Congress Party was also committed to
secularism. However, the Congress Party contained several members and leaders
whose secularism was in doubt. But Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru, Maulana Abul
Kalam Azad, and B.R. Ambedkar led India to commit itself to secularism and its
constitution was drafted on secular lines. According to the Indian Constitution,
there can be no discrimination on the basis of caste, creed, gender, or class.
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Similarly, all citizens have the right to vote irrespective of religion, gender, or
caste. According to Article 25, all those who reside in India are free to confess,
practice, and propagate the religion of their choice, subject to social health and
to law and order. Thus, conversion to any religion is a fundamental right.
But the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) and the RSS are opposed to this.
According to them, there should be a Hindu Rashtra (Hindu Nation) in India,
and Muslims and Sikhs should be second-class citizens with no political rights.
Since the BJP is a political party, it cannot disagree with the Constitution openly
and publicly. It also has to take a pledge of secularism to contest elections. Yet
since it is an integral part of RSS ideology, it is responsible for RSS beliefs. In
fact, all the truly secular forces in India consider the BJP to be a communal
party. It always takes an anti-minority stance and accuses Congress, supposedly
a secular party, of “appeasement” of minorities. It also describes Congress and
other secular parties as indulging in “pseudo-secularism.”
The RSS and the BJP, also known as the Sangh Parivar, not only reject
secularism but incite violence against minorities. Since independence, several
major communal riots have taken place in India. The first took place in Jabalpur
in Central India, and the last major riot took place in Gujarat (Western India)
in 2002, where more than 2,000 Muslims were killed and several women were
raped. At the time of the Gujarat carnage the BJP ruled Gujarat. The Chief
Minister of the BJP party, Narendra Modi, was allegedly involved in the carnage,
along with the entire governmental machinery, and on this basis the U.S.
government denied him an entry visa in early 2005.
The BJP was also directly involved in high-pitched propaganda against
the historic mosque called the Babri Mosque, and ultimately demolished it,
claiming it to be a birthplace of Lord Ram, a Hindu god. Lal Krishna Advani,
then President of the BJP, spearheaded the campaign against the Babri Mosque;
the mosque was demolished in his presence. He later became Home Minister
in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) administration. He is known as
a hard-line Hindu. Shri Vajpayee, who became Prime Minister of India in the
NDA government, is known as the moderate face of the BJP, though one can say
there is hardly any ideological difference between the two.
There is no doubt India has witnessed much communal violence due to
the involvement of the RSS and the BJP, and occasionally the Congress party.
Communalism is a powerful political weapon used by politicians. The Hindu
masses are generally pawns in these power games. However, fanatics under the
influence of the RSS ideology are involved, along with anti-social elements.
It is also true that on certain major issues, like the birth place of Ram,
people get misled by powerful communal propaganda and may side with the
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BJP, but that does not mean they are for violence and bloodshed. If they are
properly informed, they withdraw their support. But secular forces are typically
not as pro-active as communal forces are in these political-myth arguments.
Communal forces actively work to spread inter-group hatred throughout the
year, while secular forces typically become active only after communal violence
has occurred and once peace is established they become nonchalant again.
Communal forces thus came to power through propaganda, but were
exposed during their five-year rule. They were voted out of power in great part
because they were perceived to be behind the communal carnage in Gujarat in
2002, which even the former BJP prime minister, Vajpayee, acknowledged.
This response clearly shows that people of India are by and large secular
and do not like killing of others just because they are not Hindus. The BJP has
been deserted by many of its former allies as they realize that association with
communal violence is not politically tenable.

Secular and Unsecular People

Since secularism in the Indian context does not mean being “this-worldly,” it
is difficult to divide Indians into believers and unbelievers. In fact, in India an
overwhelming majority of people are religious, but tolerate and respect other
religions and are thus “secular” in the Indian context. Even Sufis and Bhakti
Saints are considered quite secular in that sense. Followers of the RSS and the
BJP are very few, not more than 5-10 percent. Thus India has remained secular
and democratic for its 60 years as an independent nation.
There are some, but very few, rationalists and secularists who reject religion
in its entirety. Though there are no census figures available, one can safely say they
are less than 0.1 percent of Indians. Also, there are extremely orthodox people
who exhibit rigidity and intolerance towards other faiths, not on communal
grounds but on the grounds of religious orthodoxy, but they too are a minuscule
India’s extreme tolerance is perhaps due to the influence of the ancient
Indian doctrine that the one truth is manifested in different forms, and to the
Sufi doctrine of wahdat al-wujud (Real Being is one). This doctrine holds that
there is only One Real Being and all of us are mere manifestations of that real
being. Both of these doctrines breed inherent respect of others’ actions, beliefs,
and existence.
As the ancient Hindu doctrine leads to inclusiveness and peaceful coexistence
so does the Sufi doctrine. For peaceful co-existence, another Sufi doctrine of
sulh-i-ku (total peace and peace with all) is also important. Sufism has left a
deep influence on the Hindu masses as much as on the Muslim masses. Thus,
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the real spirit of secularism in India is all-inclusiveness, religious pluralism and

peaceful co-existence. With few exceptions, it is not religious leaders who divide
but politicians seeking to mobilize votes on grounds of primordial identities like
religion, caste and ethnicity.
In a multi-religious society, basing politics not on issues but on identities
can prove highly divisive. Politicians are tempted to appeal to identity rather
than to offer policies to solve problems. Medieval society in India was religiously
tolerant as it was non-competitive. Modern Indian society, on the other hand,
has proved to be more divisive as it is based on competition. This competition
becomes even more acute if economic development is uneven and unjust.
Thus, in the case of India one can say that it is secular in as much as it
is a religiously plural and tolerant nation. However, presently there are active
and politically divisive forces creating communal pressure and widening the
gap between the various religious communities. This tendency threatens the
underpinnings of the Indian concept of secularism.