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COLUMN: What is Indian Secularism?

By Sanjal Shastri

The recent Supreme Court judgement forbidding the use of religion, caste or creed to seek votes did not come as a surprise. The preamble of our constitution clearly marks India as a 'Sovereign, Socialist, Secular, Democratic Republic'. In the ideal sense in a 'secular' democracy, religion must be kept out of all political discourse. On the face of it the debate will appear to be an open and shut case. Indian democracy however is anything but straightforward. The system has multiple layers and is a highly complex process. The Supreme Court judgement forces us to relook at what Indian secularism really is. Secularism has multiple meanings and interpretations. Given India's multi-cultured, multi-religious and multi-linguistic makeup, can we afford to divorce religion and politics?

What is Indian Secularism

More than sixty years after Independence, there has been no national consensus regarding what Indian secularism would entail. The Supreme Court verdict spells out secularism as divorcing state and religion. The verdict also exposes several contradictions. Firstly, we have separate Hindu, Muslim and Christian family laws. Going by what the court has said, if secularism means divorcing state and religion, then we cannot be having separate family laws for different religions. The debate over triple talaq touched on this aspect of the discourse. The demand for a universal civil code is based on this very idea of secularism. In this sense in a secular democratic country, one cannot have laws, which are derived from religious teachings. The second contradiction arises from the reservation system. Going by the Supreme Court verdict, along with religion, caste and creed should also be kept away from election campaigns. The reservation system, however, allocates a certain number of seats for SCs, STs and OBCs. This goes against the Supreme Court's interpretation of secularism.

An idea open to interpretation

While making sense of these contradictions, one needs to take into account that not all interpretations of secularism have advocated a complete divorce of state and religion. Maulana Husain Ahmed Madani, proposed a form of secularism were the state would be impartial and

support all religions equally. The popular perception of secularism in India also looks at secularism as a system where the state engages all religions impartially. When drafting separate family laws for Hindus, Muslims and Christians, the idea of secularism was that the state would not divorce itself from religion totally, but would rather be impartial and give equal space to all religions.

The Supreme Court's vision of secularism follows the American and French interpretation that a secular state has noting to do with religion. In France, the ban on burqa in public places stems from the idea that religion is something that is restricted to the private sphere. Since the burqa is seen as a religious symbol it cannot be worn in a public space like a beach or a shopping mall.

Deciding what Indian secularism means will require us to understand which of the two interpretations would be most suited for the Indian context. Compared to France or US, India is a far more diverse country with several layers of identity. In India's cultural context, the division between the private and public sphere, on which French secularism is based on, is different. The Supreme Court's interpretation of totally segregating religion and politics poses several challenges. In a religiously heterogeneous state like India, the democratic system is what guards the rights and liberties of minority groups. By taking religion away from politics, the court is taking away an important tool in the hand of minority groups to ensure their rights are not trampled upon. Democracy is about representation, in a multi-religious society like India, it will be difficult for a minority group to have a political voice if the state and religion are separated.

Development and economic prosperity has not been evenly distributed. Certain castes and communities have had enjoyed the benefits of India's progress while others have not enjoyed their share. When introducing the system of reservation, the goal was to ensure groups that had previously not had a chance to gain access to education and government jobs get a chance. While there are challenges faced with the reservation system, there is no doubt that some element of positive discrimination is going to be key to ensure that all groups of people enjoy the benefits of India's progress. If religion, caste and creed is divorced from the state, then it is will be difficult to

ensure equitable progress. For this the government will have to introduce policies, which are targeted at specific regions or communities.

A matter of distinction

In Indian culture there is very little distinction between the public and the private. The personal life of a person holding a public office is carefully scrutinised. Personal habits or behaviour impacts the

social image of an individual. Social or group identities often are as important as individual identity. In a country were the line between private and public does not exist, the French model of secularism, which restricts religion to the private sphere, will not be feasible.

If we are to define an Indian model of secularism, it would be one were the state gives all religions equal importance. It is not a system where the religion and the state are two separate entities. It is not a system where religion is restricted to the personal space. Given the layers of diversity and identities Indians have, interaction between religion and political discourse will be here to stay. For any minority groups, the democratic system is the means by which their rights are safeguarded and their voice is heard. Removing religion entirely from the political discourse will not be in the interest of our representative system. India's secular democratic system will be one where different religions have a separate family law. Our current civil code is the most suited to ensure the freedom to practice one's religion. Positive discrimination and reservation system are here to stay. Successive governments in the future will have to device special policies which target specific groups in order to ensure that benefits of India's rise is distributed amongst all. While it is tempting to adopt the American or French brand of secularism, we have to account for their adaptability in the Indian context. Indian democracy has been designed as a secular system where the state gives equal space to all religions. Over the past seventy years, this system has served us well. If there is any way Indian secularism can be defined, then this must be the way.

The author is an academic associate at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. He can be contacted on sshastri93@gmail.com.

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