The preamble of Indian Constitution proclaims India as a Secular republic. However, interpretation and application of the philosophy of Secularism have caused a certain degree of dissatisfaction among large sections of the population.
It has been alleged that secularism in India neglects interest of majority Hindu community, while at the same time it panders to the Muslim interests. It is a common perception that the Indian politicians actively pursue a policy of appeasement of Muslims, with an eye on their vote–bank.
Author Taslima Nasreen describes Indian secularism as “pseudo-secular” and says ”…most secular people (in India) are pro-Muslim and anti-Hindu… they defend the heinous acts of Muslim fundamentalists …that most Indian politicians appease Muslims, which anger Hindus….”.
Sadanand Dhume, writing in the Wall Street journal has described Indian secularism “…..as a fraud and a failure…a flawed understanding of secularism among India’s left-wing intelligentsia has led India’s politicians to pander to views of Muslim preachers and has led India to take a soft stance towards Islamic terrorism….”.
There is one set of personal law for the Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and others whereas the Muslims are covered by their own personal law which is based on the ‘Shariat’ law. This entitles the Muslims to several abhorrent privileges, like the ‘triple-talaq’. There has been a long-standing demand from civil and human rights activists for the creation of a Uniform Civil Code, however, successive governments have dithered upon the issue, fearing electoral reprisal from Muslims.
Though Indian State professes to be secular, which is said to imply “equidistance from all religions”, it does not have any qualms in subsidizing madrasas, or even other institutions of higher learning like the Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Millia Islamia.
Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen says “…Secularism can be interpreted in two ways. One that State be equidistant from all religions – refusing to take sides and having a neutral attitude towards religions. Second that the State must not have any relation at all with any religion…”.
Critics argue that Indian variety of secularism does not conform to either of the definitions.
India suffered continuous foreign aggressions and subjugation for a thousand years. From about 12th to the 17th century Islamic rulers created governments based on Islamic ideology. The British in the 18th and 19th century brought with them Western value system.
In this period of Indian history, governments were run on basis of alien values. The people of India did not largely identify with the alien ethos, their own lives continued to be run unhindered in traditional ways.
This however created a sense of political alienation among common folk. Even though social, economic and religious lives of people continued almost unhindered, there was little sense of political identification with ruling elite.
In that Sense, though people of India inherited a broken history, of its policy, the legacy was largely unbroken in a cultural, social and religious context.
India’s past has been interpreted in different ways by Hindus and Muslims. While the Hindus regard the past thousand years of history as a dark era – an era of subjugation and humiliation, the Muslims regard it as a golden age, when India was run on Islamic lines.
Secularism has failed to address this perceived communal divide. It has also led to a difficulty in evolving “National Symbols”, so important in defining the heritage and values of a nation, which instills a sense of pride among the people. The case of India’s National anthem may be considered in this light.
A phenomenon which occurs with amazing regularity in India is that a bunch of people start protesting that singing the national anthem is “un-Islamic”. This is followed by a predictable chorus from Muslim clerics demanding that people, especially Muslim children should not be asked to join in the rendition of the national anthem.
Historian Ronald Inden has said, “…after independence, governments implemented secularism mostly by refusing to recognize the religious past of India’s nationalism, whether Hindu or Muslim, while at the same time by maintaining Muslim personal law….”.
The Freedom struggle of India was preceded by a number of Socio-Religious Reform Movements. These popular social movements were led by great Indians, who were all ardent nationalists. They had the reform of Hindu religion at heart, for they knew well that in order to achieve a true modernisation of India, Hindu society would have to be reformed first.
The process of socio-religious reform was first started by Raja Ram Mohan Roy who established the Bramho Samaj in 1828, in Calcutta. He is best remembered for helping Lord Bentinck declare the practice of Sati as a criminal offence, advocating widow remarriage, and protesting against practices such as child marriage and female infanticide.
The work of Bramho Samaj was carried forward by Debendranath Tagore (Rabindranath’s father). Swami Dayanand Saraswati founded the Arya Samaj in Bombay in 1875, Swami Vivekanand founded the Ram Krishna Mission at Belur Math, Howrah in 1897 and Prarthna Samaj was founded in 1867 in Bombay by Atmaram Pandurang.
These great enlightened reformers targeted the Hindu religion and society, in order to achieve a true modernisation of the India.
The Indian brand of secularism has, on the one hand created resentment among Hindus, on the other hand, it has led to differential and a preferential treatment under the law, of Muslims minority community.
In making secularism the basis of the new politico-legal system, the government limited and restricted its role and ignored the reform of both Hindu and Muslim societies. Social reform was an essential prerequisite for democracy to succeed.
As a result, value systems of society remain antiquated and medieval. The result is that political and social systems in India do not harmonize well, leading to friction within the society.
Unfortunately, the process of socio-religious reforms started by Raja Ram Mohan Roy and others has stalled. In the vacant space of socio-religious reform movements have stepped in new organisations, both Hindu as well as Muslim, which are perceived to be more ‘communal’ than ‘reformist.