The many shades of Secularism

Assimilation has been the standard practice in Hindustan, or India. A shrill debate clouds many truths.

A civilisation many millennia old

Secularism as a term is one of the most debated in contemporary Indian polity and law. Every camp colours this term in its ideological hues, declaring any dissenter a vile culprit out to destroy humanity. The casualty of this one-upmanship usually is truth itself, as confused onlookers keep guessing what the hidden intentions of each camp are. The Indian society, by and large, does not care for the multiple interpretations, and continues its merry existence without much worry. Actually, the worries of daily existence outshine all other concerns!

Interpretations, coupled with many misinterpretations and forever available re-interpretations are put forward to define the word secularism, particularly in the context of modern India. The religious zeal shown by each camp, including the atheist and communist ones, in forcing others to accept their version of the truth is pretty interesting to observe!

[इस बोधि को हिंदी में पढ़ें, यहाँ],,, Secularism in India

From the perspective of a rational human being, one idea is that for maximum effectiveness, the society should be inherently secular and not the State. In India, however, it seems to be exactly the opposite, leading one to suspect that there are underlying political currents driving the debate. There are many countries in the world who have explicitly declared themselves as Christian states, and many others calling themselves Islamic states. But still, societies in many of these countries are largely secular. They coexist peacefully. If that yardstick is applied to the Indian situation today, all arguments seem to fall apart rather quickly, before the justifying camps hurriedly and aggressively put together another façade.

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    • A deeply religious Mahatma Gandhi & the idea of Secularism
      • Gandhi’s hope was for a state in which truly religious values permeate all aspects of life, including the political sphere. His first public speech in India, at the opening of the Hindu University in Benares had these eye-opening 'religious' statements - “Truth is the end; love a means thereto . . . The Golden Rule is to dare to do the right at any cost. No amount of speeches will make us fit for self-government, it is only our conduct that will fit us for it . . . If we trust and fear God, we shall have to fear no-one, not maharajahs, not viceroys, not the detectives, not even King George.”

A new concept of Islamic state – now perhaps in its terminal stage – was introduced by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Let us ask a straight question – how many Muslim states of the world approve of the idea of an Islamic state in the same way as does the ISIS? Answer – Very few. Perhaps none! So, the basic idea of secularism which can be everlasting should be centred on peaceful co-existence of various communities, with equal opportunities to all, rather than forcing the dogmatic clothing onto the definition of the State itself.

[Read this Bodhi in Hindi, here]

Assimilation all along

    India has had a very long, assimilative and rich history and culture, spanning more than 8000 years! The first urban civilization – one which miraculously used no iron or steel and had no formal irrigation facilities but created 1000+ centres – was the Indus Valley civilization, covering large swathes of southern Asia. Foreign aggressors and conquerors who invaded later added their own social, religious and political flavours, often brutally and without thought as is visible in the destruction of Nalanda, and in the process modified many of its original characteristics.


    In India, the word secularism is now pronounced more in purely political contexts, than in social or even religious ones. Secularism as a theme is always kept alive and vigorously debated in political circles. It is almost a fashion for many political parties to call themselves “secular forces” as if the Constitution of India or the Parliament or the Supreme Court (!) has granted them any such right – obviously, it is a self-assumed positioning which is a branding theme. The whole point is – if you are not one of us, you are not secular; hence you are communal – hence you are irrational, bigoted, dangerous and anti-Constitution. This distortion of historical truth and logic is colouring political discourse daily.

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      • Gandhi’s concept of religion was a pluralistic one
        • “I believe in the fundamental Truth of all great religions of the world. I believe they are all God-given and I believe they were necessary for the people to whom these religions were revealed. And I believe that if only we could all of us read the scriptures of the different faiths from the standpoint of the followers of these faiths, we should find that they were at the bottom all one and were all helpful to one another.”
    Sadly, India’s historical facts have been distorted and speculated to such an extent by modern historians and commentators (many of whom are/were heavy recipients of sponsorship) that they even deny the obviousness of the facts present and alive in the Constitution. They seem to be at peace as long as their speculations and interpretations are not challenged. To the intelligent mind, who cannot accept such aggression in twisting of history, it is a challenge presented daily.

    'Secular' in the constitution

    When the question regarding “the word secular” is raised in the context of the Indian Constitution, a frequently asked question is about its non-inclusion in the original Constitution. Most commentators have tried in their own way to explain it. Possibly the framers of our Constitution sincerely wanted to keep religion completely away from the state and politics. Because, what is out of sight is normally out of mind, hence, possibly they deliberately kept it away from polity. This logic turns the one dished out by today’s vociferous proponents on its head, and obviously they do not like it.

    This argument also assumes importance when we observe that the word has always been kept alive and constantly used ever since it was included in the Preamble of the Constitution through the 42nd Amendment in 1976, and retained during the 44th Amendment.  Perhaps the political classes wanted to make the most of the opportunities offered by this word – although historically, India and Indians have been the most secular in their behavior without being told to be so! The classic speech of Swami Vivekananda at Chicago in 1893 is the best documentation of that.

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      • Swami Vivekananda at Chicago 1893 - Sisters and Brothers of America ...
        • It fills my heart with joy unspeakable to rise in response to the warm and cordial welcome which you have given us. I thank you in the name of the most ancient order of monks in the world; I thank you in the name of the mother of religions; and I thank you in the name of millions and millions of Hindu people of all classes and sects. [Full Transcript in PDF here  ##file-pdf-o##]

    People who profusely talk about diversity and unity of the Indian society, and preach and advocate secularism in this context, themselves conveniently ignore the idea that diversity of thoughts is central to maintaining secularism. If some people look at secularism as non-appeasement of any particular religion or community, why should their thoughts not be accepted as a set of diverse views consistent with the idea of secularism? This very suggestion can prompt the unsheathing of intellectual swords, coloured with the blood of arguments right and wrong.

    Why should these thoughts be considered as detrimental to the fabric of unity of the Indian society and polity? Why should it be considered as polarization? Why can’t we simply accept them as a different way of looking at the subject? These are interesting lines for future debates.

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      • The founder of Pakistan, Md Ali Jinnah said
        • ‘But the Government of Pakistan can only be a popular representative and democratic form of government. Its parliament, and cabinet responsible to the parliament, will both be finally responsible to the electorate and the people in general without any distinction of caste, creed or sect, which will be the final deciding factor with regard to the policy and programme of the government that may be adopted from time to time’

    If only that would have actually happened!


    The leftist ideological impression, directly or indirectly, on modern Indian society has been dominant in the recent past, and secularism requires a leftist vision. Everything else is communal and bigoted. Some will praise China for its spectacular growth conveniently overlooking the rivers of blood that have flown quietly in the process of autocratic transformation through one-Party rule. But the slightest of social upheaval back home will raise their heckles as it all hell has broken loose!

    Dr.Ambedkar's perspective

    Dr Ambedkar, one of the mightiest visionaries India has seen, and an open critic of Hinduism and its practices, did not perhaps deem it proper to include “Secular” in our Preamble.  His vision was rooted in human dignity. Mahatma Gandhi’s public assemblies started and ended with songs dedicated to God. But independent India saw the whole idea turned and designed to perhaps suit a specific political thought. 

    [Read this Bodhi in Hindi, here]
      Is that truly diverse? Or secular? We need a genuine intellectual debate on this issue, rather than politically motivated histrionics. Will India’s true intellectuals rise and shine? India needs genuine compassion and love for the society to focus on progress as suited to the changed reality of the 21st century. 

      And meanwhile, our quest for ever-higher GDP growth rates and job creation continues unabated!

      Here is a comprehensive, factual, information-packed lecture on the basics of Hinduism. For those in need of a one-stop primer on the oldest order of monks (as Swami Vivekananda's 1893 speech put it), here is a bilingually prepared session -

      Do share your views in the Comments thread below. It gives us motivation to see that readers have benefitted, and further adds value to this Bodhi.

      This Bodhi will be regularly updatedKeep visiting. And do share your thoughts in the Comments thread.

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        • Bodhi Links (for deeper study; Caution: some may be external links, some large PDFs)
          •  ##chevron-right## Gandhi and Secularism here ##chevron-right## Preamble of Indian Constitution here ##chevron-right## Was Jinnah secular? here ##chevron-right## Secularism in Indian constitution - an analysis here ##chevron-right## Who destroyed Takshashila? here ##chevron-right## Swami Vivekananda 1893 historic speech here ##chevron-right## Parliament of World Religions site here ##chevron-right## Dr.Ambedkar's views on Hinduism here

      Bodhi Shruti available here (English)


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      Bodhi Booster: The many shades of Secularism
      The many shades of Secularism
      Assimilation has been the standard practice in Hindustan, or India. A shrill debate clouds many truths.
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