In a deeply religious society, struggling to balance modernity with tradition, is it is a mistake to consider religion a private business that has nothing to do with the state? Or should we concede that religion is too important a subject to be treated as an item outside the purview of the state?

Let us consider a few examples of how modern states have dealt with religion.

The United States is secular in construct. Yet Christianity pervades the State and inflames its politics. The secular divide is alive and well in the US. Right wing Christianity is the bedrock of the Republican Party, and a secular, liberal outlook informs the Democrats. Yet in daily life – with some broad exceptions – race matters more than religion. A black Christian man may find it difficult to get a job in some cases even though he is Christian, because of his skin colour. The Constitution, the Courts, the Bill of Rights and the system of Government do not acknowledge any religion and are willing to be tested on it – as indeed has been done over the past 150 years.

The United Kingdom – and indeed most of Western Europe – can safely be described as post-Christian societies. Though the majority of the population are born or descended from Christian parents, people today hardly practise it, and indeed, the Church struggles to keep places of worship open and staffed. Despite the Head of the State in the UK being the Defender of the Protestant Faith, no one in their right minds would describe the UK as being anything other than firmly secular.

China bans any form of organisation that could supplant or supplement the role of the Communist Party in Chinese society. Though the country is no longer Communist in practice, it controls religious practice and frowns upon those religions that have a focal point outside China. It regulates the Catholic Church, and it actively suppresses Islam. The State is determinedly secular (unless you consider Chinese Communism a religion it itself).

India was born in the middle of the worst religious strife seen anywhere. A theory that the two nations – Hinduism and Islam – were incapable of existing in the same political entity was floated, supported and given action to – all in 10 years time. But that did not solve any problem. The newly independent India ended up with more Muslims than the new State of Pakistan. Muslim majority states went to Pakistan. Hindu majority territories went to India. And those that had a mixed population were ruthlessly divided in the middle. Millions were displaced. Millions died. And the wounds are raw to this day.

It would have been natural for India to hew to a quasi-Hindu state structure. After all, the Father of the Nation was assassinated by a Hindu extremist and the nation was raw from the wounds of partition. Many members of the Congress were strongly pre-disposed to being Hindus first – Sardar Patel, K M Munshi, Babu Rajendra Prasad, for example. But the collective decision was to declare India a secular Republic.

Seventy-odd years on, the secular dispensation is under threat and I think it is because the weight of reality that challenges the ideological position. Secularism has also been grossly misused and misinterpreted. It is time to consider a modified version of the same philosophy, that may better reflect the Indian reality. Specifically, the Indian State seems to wish to renegotiate its relationship to its largest minority – Islam. So lets talk a bit about Islam.

A detailed reading of the Quran is revelatory. It is safe to say that many Muslims have not read it. I relied on translations and also commentaries (the one I used was by Barney Rogerson). In the middle of all the injunctions to kindness, brotherhood and love, there is much that can be taken literally by the ignorant and feed hate. Those parts of Christian scripture that are extreme in view are not taken seriously by 99.9% of its followers (except some crackpots in the United States). But Islam does tend to be black and white – and mullahs who do not understand the Quran re-inforce these contrasts instead of mediating them for the modern world. Perhaps this is part of its origin myth. The TopKapi Museum in Istanbul used to have letters written by the Prophet, saying to the receiver – “Convert Or Die”.

Islam has not been able to deal with the sudden and precipitous loss of temporal power from the 18th/19th Centuries. Examples – the end of the Mughals in India in 1857 (largely symbolic by that point), the humiliations heaped on Persia, the gradual then sudden destruction of the Ottomans and their significant satrapies (like Egypt), the Balkan Wars, the re-creation of the myth of Greece into Greek Independence —- I could go on. Wahhabi Islam and the Barelvi/Deobandi school start with this as the basis. Islam would have remained a quiescent religion for the rest of the 20th Century, nursing its grievances and lashing out once in a while, but for the discovery of oil in the desert sands.

Post the OPEC Oil Shock, and the abandonment of Bretton Woods (leading to the petro-dollar), real economic power now rests in the hands of Muslim nations. Combined with the resentment of the past 200 years, fed and kept alive by mullahs, and the ability to fuel that resentment with money, the world has become a dangerous place for anyone who is not Muslim – in greater or lesser degree.

The Muslim believes in Dar-Ul-Harb and Dar-Ul-Islam. Dar-Ul-Harb is a land where Muslims live that is not ruled by Muslims. The aim of a good Muslim (according to the Quran) is to be a good citizen but work towards the creation of a Dar-Ul-Islam (a land ruled by Islam). India used to be Dar-Ul-Islam and is now Dar-Ul-Harb. This loss is felt keenly by the extremist Mullahs.

In spite of these well-known ideological issues with Islam, what do we do about the huge Indian Muslim minority – largely law abiding, and largely in peaceful co-existence with the Hindu majority. Would extremism towards them help? I am not sure. It might have the opposite effect, and we would be handed with an administrative and law and order problem of a huge magnitude. Do we tell them “You are second class and by definition suspect because you touch your head towards Mecca five times a day and read the Koran”? What is the probability that this could lead to the creation of more extremists? This is akin to the view the Nazis had on Jews. They are suspect by race. There is no argument, no recourse, no redemption. Only death.

I started to wonder recently if secularism in the Indian context was, in hindsight, a mistake. I do not believe for a moment that there was any kind of mala fide in this. Indeed, decisions have to be understood in the context of the time and times during they were made. Given the ghastly riots in 1947, the reaction of Patel and Nehru was to banish religion from the State. This separation of Church and State, had it been done the proper way, would have resulted in many benefits. I can make a short list – the Uniform Civil Code, Right to Property, Right to Education, Regulation of Religious Places, Blindness to Faith in Citizenship. You may agree or disagree with the list, but you will agree that we have not been able to achieve what an ideal secular state should achieve. Perhaps it is because the ideal is never attainable; but I am willing to accept that many of the distortions were deliberate and conscious, and in cases, totally mala fide.

I think making India a Hindu State would not have been the right answer. Had India declared Hinduism as the State religion, it may have lead to worsening unrest and more bloodshed, as other Muslim areas of the country asserted identity over citizenship. It is too frightening to contemplate.

What if, in a counterfactual world, India had indeed accepted that faith formed a huge part of the lives of our vast uneducated millions. What if we had declared as follows: India is a religious state that is home to the great religions. It is home to Hinduism – that most tolerant and peaceful of faiths that has always allowed in people of all faiths and let them make their home here, regardless of how they came to this land and why. But in a poor, diverse, largely illiterate State like ours, the concept of citizenship in a modern state is likely to be misunderstood or not understood by many people. Therefore India needs to ensure that its religions work in the interest of the State. To do so, the government set up independent bodies answerable to the President, that would guide religious practices to ensure they serve the State. There would be a Hindu Council, and Islamic Council, a Council for the Christian Faiths, A Sikh Council and a Council for Smaller Faiths. Without getting into the how of it (which I am happy to attempt), the Council would provide guidance on how Hindu children (depending on language and area) would learn about their faith, ensure that the religious teachers of each faith were available in schools and colleges, that the teaching in each establishment would not educate against the State (thus addressing the big issue with Islam), that faiths that had transnational loyalties (Islam and the Catholic faith) were able to guide themselves to be Indian first (without going the Chinese Communist way in terms of regulation).

I think the big mistake that we are discovering is that rather than co-opt in the fact that religion is important, we have taken the western way and designed it out. Though the US is secular it is Christian in politics. Western European countries have lost their Christianity, and are now grappling with Islam. Their model also does not work. Pushing religion outside the State in India means that non-state actors take control. This is true of Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. All the distortions taking place today are because of non-state actors. The reason leftist liberals take umbrage against the BJP today is because the BJP is incorporating Hinduism into its political message. Technically, unconstitutional by definition. But what if we change the definition?

The more reasoned opponent of the current secular framework believes an un-modernised faith cannot co-exist with a modern state. There are many things that our founding fathers could have done differently. We should remember that the poison of religion had infected Indian politics by the 1920s. A secular opposition to British Rule was easily fragmented and exploited by the British. Jinnah seized the initiative in 1940 and proceeded to define the terms of India’s Statehood in terms of what it could not be. It could not be a religious state just when one part of an ancient whole had decided to part on the basis of religion – leaving more Muslims in India than in Pakistan. The only sane response to this ridiculous state of affairs was to state clearly, that the new Indian State had no religion. Patel, Nehru and Gandhi could have done differently, but I look at the larger picture – toward the extraordinary lives they lead – and remember that mistakes made were not mala fide.

We are now at the cross-roads. We need to have an urgent debate about this. We need to sit down with our Muslim and Christian and Hindu friends, and discuss how to renew the Indian State.

4 thoughts on “Rethinking Secularism in India

  1. A wonderful post – reasoned, learned, articulate. I continue to be amazed by each of your posts and am firmly of the belief that you are wasting your time doing anything else but writing !

    Agree with everything you have said diagnosing the “problem”. Particularly impressed that you have actually read the Quran in detail; that is a feat. This is why you are a brilliant writer. You know of, or research into, facts before putting them into paper.

    Disagree with the “solution”. I actually think the current status quo is the least bad of all positions. In an ideal world, all people would keep their faith at home and abolutely forbid it from leaving their doorstep or the doorstep of the temple, mosque, church, whatever. But the ideal world isn’t going to be a reality for a long time.

    Short of the ideal world, the best option is to completely ban religion from the state. As you observed, it wasn’t done at the time of independence. To your list I can add existence of a religious entity (HUF) in the tax code, universities explicitly religious (BHU, AMU), etc etc. But as you have obserbed at the time of independence with all the incredible problems the country faced, our leaders did a magnificent job , even if it had some warts. I don’t think complete elimination of religion from the state would even have been possible at that time.

    Given that position, I am very against bringing religion back into the state in the manner you have outlined. It will be hijacked by extremists and rabble rousers and will only lead to a deterioration from current state I believe. If and when you write that post , detailing the process, I will argue against it !

    Sure, there is currently pressure from the Hindu extremists. But in a diverse cacophonic society like ours, these pressures will get tempered. If you actually see the developments of the last 20 years there have been lesser communal riots, lesser flashpoints based on religion and lesser tensions on the ground. Rabble rousing by some politicians, bans of cow slaughter, etc have been provocations we could do without, but on the whole this hasn’t led to disastrous consequences. The BJP is being elected not because of the religious slant (although that does help with some votes), but because of perceived better governance and being a better alternative than the others. If that changed (if for example a Muslim of great stature became the leader of the Congress), voters would desert the BJP in droves.

    Long comment, but my position is to best keep religion far far away from the state. Unfortunately, religion in an organised form has rarely done any good in history.


  2. Thank you for your kind and generous comments Ramesh.

    I passionately believe that complete separation of Church and State is the only solution for a modern State to function. If anything, we must address the distortions through Constitutional mechanisms than change the structure in order to address the distortions. You will be surprised how many people today feel that the Constitution does not protect Hindus. I think this is nonsense (and have offended good friends by telling them so). But we have an ideology that is extremist in shape that is available to anyone from a particular faith. We cannot change their faith, nor can we suppress it or ban it from practice. These things are impractical and only possible in China.

    I am looking for a way to impartially bring this ideology into the purview of the Indian State without resorting to Chinese style strong arm techniques. The nature of religious teaching needs to be examined to ensure that the message of the teaching is within the construct of an already liberal, secular Constitution.

    You are right that the gross instances of communal violence have declined in numbers but communal tensions exist, and increasingly it is Hindus who feel that they are short-changed. To call this paranoia or victimhood is seen as being cruel and insensitive – I mean, how can you be a victim when you are in the majority?

    We need to find some kind of solution to ensure that no one feels threatened by the majority, the minority or the State. If this means fresh thought towards a new political order that is very Indic in nature, we should find it. But we certainly should not abdicate the search.


  3. Your article is a lesson in itself to the less informed like me. Your knowledge and your research is impeccable. Besides, I am compelled to pick a side simply because of the persuasive power of your language. You urge, nay, demand that I do so here’s my tuppence worth.

    The India I knew was a land where religion was deeply embedded in the Indian psyche. I dare say that it still is. Say what you will about separation of state and religion but every move that a politician makes is aimed at influencing and appeasing a particular religious group. So, when you say that religion has been designed out, the key question is, is that even possible? Very simply put, you can take religion out of the state but can you take religion out of the people. The people are the state!

    So really, it is a dance that the politicians do between the 3 influential religions in India, favouring in many cases, the majority and the minority are left to simmer. While you say that unrest is at a negligible number, nevertheless it does exist. Why so? The secularism that is practised in the governing of the state is not all encompassing and religion has poked its head in enough to cause the unrest.

    So, separation of state and religion…yes by all means, but not in India. I don’t think it is possible! Do you pander to the majority and let the minority be bullied or do you play the fair game and be voted out! The choice is obvious.


    1. I am honoured that you took the time to visit the blog and leave such a simple, wise comment.

      You have summarized the situation perfectly – “You can take religion out of the state but can you take religion out of the people? The people are the state!”. The State was designed to ensure religion does not play a role in public affairs, and this “design” is incorporated in India’s Constitution. However the reality of affairs is very different. As you say, in practical terms, secularism is practiced in the breach.

      My natural, technocratic, impulse is to try and design something that solves for the present difficulty. In India’s case, these are not minor difficulties because of the populations involved. I am not sure I have a coherent solution. My friend Ramesh has politely told me my proposal is not worth the paper. Your own view is that in a state with a large majority of a particular religion, the design of the state does not matter, the majority will always prevail.

      That is the nature of democracy. The issue is, how will the majority learn to be fair to a minority when they feel threatened by it? Many Hindus feel threatened by Islam. In fact in Tamil Nadu many Hindus feel threatened by the new Christian churches. And Christians are some 3% of the population. I think we will see more and more unfairness as democratic majorities become majoritarian dictatorships.

      Religions are wonderful – helping ordinary people achieve an ethical and moral life, and make sense of eternity. Karl Marx’s famous remark about religion is often quoted out of context. What he actually said was “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

      But when religions use their interpretation of eternity to get human beings to behave in a tribal manner, the results have been terrible. The Crusades. The various jihads. Today’s ISIS and other offshoots. So far Hinduism has been relatively benevolent. It has suffered political and religious pressure as well as some unnecessary demonizing. But reactions have been coming. The Hindu Muslim riot as we know it started after 1857. The slow morphing of the Hindu faith is something that upsets me deeply.

      I do not have the answer. But this issue troubles me deeply. I am a big believer in the idea of India and I want India to be the moral and intellectual compass of the world. We need to think about this problem seriously.

      Thanks again Metilda for a simple but incisive comment.


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