Although the word ‘secular’ was not enshrined in the Indian Constitution until the 42nd Amendment in 1976 when it was inserted in the Preamble, it does not suggest that secularism was not one of the core values of our Constitution till then. As a matter of fact, there is unanimity in the opinion that the founding fathers of the nation were particular and clear about the necessity of establishing a secular State after achieving independence.
Several articles were provided for smooth governance of the country along secular lines. The purpose of inserting the word ‘secular’ was to make apparent and re-emphasize what was already imbibed in the life of the nation.
Secularism was important for India from another point of view. The anti-colonial struggle tended to provoke separatist and divisive forces and ideologies just to define themselves and make their individual identity felt and recognized in other quarters. This posed a potential threat to the coherence of the new nation in the infancy of its independence. Secularism provided a way for people to co-exist in civility despite religious disparities.
It was perhaps the only prudent option for reconstructing a nation which had a great cultural heritage but lay fragmented with polarised identities that had emerged and consolidated themselves during the British rule which had thrived on the policy of ‘divide and rule’.
A secular state means that the government shall not formulate policies which discriminate between various religious communities that live in its different parts. All the citizens shall enjoy equal rights irrespective of different religious beliefs. Secularism has three main components, viz.: (i) the grant of right of freedom of religious beliefs and practices; (ii) equality of all religions; and (iii) the distancing of the State from all religious groups.
These components signify that the secular State is not against religion per se. It gives freedom to religious beliefs and practices to each sect. Extending the idea further, it grants equality to all religious groups. This holds a paramount significance because it is based, inter alia on religious tolerance. It is not a mere doctrine but a way of life in a country like ours which is inhabited by people having different religious tenets, where rumours, misunderstandings and religious intolerance can quickly create tension between religious communities and lead to ethnic clashes. Secularism in this case backed with the legal sanction, puts reins on divisive forces and violence.
The equality of religious and the distancing of State from all religious groups also serve the purpose of assuring the minorities that they hold an equally important place in society and country and that they would not be discriminated against. Correspondingly, it is also a message to the majority groups that they would not be treated as privileged class in any manner. Secularism therefore discouraged the pretensions, that the majority religion had any bullying rights in the body politique of the country.
Secularism forms three fundamental rights in Part III of the Constitution, namely: the Right to Equality, the Right to Freedom of Religion and the Cultural and Educational Rights.
Article 14 of the Constitution prohibits the State from denying to any person, equality before law or equal protection of law. Article 15 states that there will be no discrimination against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any one of them. Further, Section (2) says that no citizen shall on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any one of them be subject to any disability, liability, restriction or condition with regard to (a) access to shops, public restaurants, hotels and places of public entertainment or (b) the use of wells, tanks, bathing Ghats, roads and places of public resort maintained wholly or partly out of State funds or dedicated to the use of general public.
Similarly, Article 16 relates to the equality of opportunity to all the citizens of the State in the matter of employment or appointment to any office of the State. Religion, among other factors, cannot be a ground for ineligibility or disqualification. Article 17 declares abolition of untouchability and its practice in any form. Article 25(i) says that subject to public order, morality and health and to other provisions of this part, all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience, and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion. Positively, this right safeguards the right to religious freedom and negatively it prohibits the State from compelling by law any person to practice any particular creed or religion.
The recognition of this right to freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion, however, shall not affect the operation of any existing law or prevent the State from making any law, regulating or restricting any economic, financial, political or other secular activity which may be associated with religious practice (15-2a). Nothing in this Article shall affect any provision of social welfare and reform or throwing open of Hindu religious institutions of a public character to all classes and sections of the Hindus (25-2b).
The reference to Hindus shall be construed as including a reference to persons professing the Sikhs, Jain or Buddhist religious, and the reference to Hindu religious institution shall be construed accordingly. The act of ‘practice’ is concerned primarily with religious worship, ritual and observations. Propagation is concerned with the right to communicate beliefs to another person or to expound the tenets of one’s religion, but does not include a right to forcible conversions.
It is believed that the logic behind constitutional guarantee of religious practices is that they are as much a part of the religion as faith or doctrine. Equality of religions is imperative to promote secularism.
Similarly, there are provisions for equality in cultural and educational rights for different groups without any discrimination. India is a unique country in many respects. Its vastness, abundance, richness and variety have led to the growth of many thoughts and habits. In such a variety, the dominance of one particular thought is not possible. That is why many thoughts, cultural habits and religious practices have co-existed in the country. Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, Buddhists, Parsees and Jews live in India. The people and the government respect the ideas and practices of all peoples which include religions, social, economic and political fields. The people have developed a broad outlook and believe in the concept of live and let live.
The concept of co-existence has not been confined to the geographical and political boundaries of the country. Since ancient times the Indians have been preaching the concept of Vasundhaiva Kutumbakan or ‘the whole world is a family’. Thus, India’s secularism has its roots in the universal outlook of promoting the message of peace and harmony. World peace has been India’s watchword and the high values of humanism its philosophy.
The detractors of secularism in India cry themselves hoarse in alleging that discriminations are rampant, arrogance is widespread among the racial upper classes and castes in major parts of rural India and ethnic clashes between different communities keep on occurring. There are problems aplenty regarding differences between different communities which keep on resurfacing every now and then, etc. They also cite the example of creation of a separate nation of Pakistan out of India as a proof that the Hindus and Muslims could not live together.
We can refute these charges as stray incidents in any society. Even in countries inhabited by a single race or religion there are incidents of violence. Difference of opinion is natural part of human thinking. Discrimination or preference for personal vested interests may be exercised by people who are morally depraved. Such people exist in every nation and society.
Secularism is an integral part of Indian legal system. It is also the thought process of a vast majority of people of different religions because the underlying belief of such religion is that God is one and all men are created equal.