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The concept and practice of secularism has come under heavy criticism and attack during last decade or so. With the onslaught of Hindutva movement, a movement targetted towards the goal of 'Hindu Rashtra' (Hindu Nation) various question marks have been put on secularism as a state policy, secularism as a cultural attitude and on'practice' of secularism by the ruling party.

During freedom struggle itself secularism was emerging as the most dominant principle. The leaders of Indian National Congress Gandhi, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Nehru and others were deeply committed to the ideal of secularism though its expression was very different in all of them. It is not to be denied that some of the Hindu Nationalists also joined Congress and some other leaders in Congress were having ideologies colored by communalism of different hue, but it is undoubted that Congress did represent secular ideology to a large extent. The constituent assembly debates made it amply clear and secular principles were enshrined in our constitution. The social dynamics was very complex. The process of secularisation/industrialisation was going on at slow pace. At this stage also though constitution was secular, state apparatus: bureaucracy, judiciary, army and police, was infiltrated by Hindu communal elements, government of Congress though predominantly secular was having many leaders in important positions who were influenced by Hindu communal ideology. This resulted in a social development which was mixed, on one hand secularism thrived and on the other though communalism remained dormant, was never dead. With social changes during late 70's and early 80's communalism got a strong boost and it started attacking secularism in a big way. Its expression surfaced first through the policies of Indira and Rajiv, but the `Hindu Party' (B.J.P.) was quick to take up the mantle of 'the' communal party, riding on the wave of post-mandal upper class/caste backlash.

The Hindu communal outfit, the party of Hindutva quickly mushroomed and poisoned the social space with communal rheotoric, the agenda of Hindu Rashtra. It was quick to capitalise on the decades of 'molecular permeation of Hindutva' through the RSS network, and making that as a base launched an ideological, social and political onslaught on secular ethos, syncretic culture and composite nationalism. It was quick to doctor the mass consciousness leading to opposition to secularism, and infiltration of Hindutva, Hindutva masquerading as 'positive secularism'. Due to the marathon exercise by Sangh Parivar, theocratic concepts are being sold as genuine secularism, and persecution of minorities and subalterns is being palmed off as 'equal treatment to all and appeasement of none'. It is in this backdrop that one has to understand as to why for so many decades after the independence 'secularism' was never on the firing line, as to why only during last decade and a half secularism has come under cloud and the concept of Hindu Rashtra is being asserted aggressively. Myth: Secularism is a new mask of fundamentalism. Fact: This myth has been manufactured by the ideologoues of Hindu right to denigrade the secular policies, which are a hindrance to Hindu Right's unobstructed march to subjugate the oppressed in general and minorities in particular. As we have seen secularism introduces science, technology, rationalism in the society and forms the base of modern secular state. In the process it has to oppose and struggle against the clergy and entrenched vested forces in the society. As such the fundamentalist communal onslaughts are the 'other' of secularism and secularisation. The oppressed sections join the secular movement to wrest the accompanying liberal space which can be the base for launching the struggles for their (oppressed section') rights. While fundamentalism is the regressive reaction of feudal elements and sections of middle classes in league with the clergy, to crush the aspirations of subalterns, whose movements for their rights are a big source of tension for them (Rich peasantry, sections of middle classes and clergy). The secularisation process and accompanying movements of oppressed increases the insecurity of fundamentalist forces.

How come Hindu right is able to equate fundamentalism with secularism which are exactly contrary-phenomenan? Hindu right is able to fabricate this myth in two stages, step one :Equating Fundamentalism with Islam, step two:Equating the policies of Indian rulers with secularism and highlighting the appeasement of mullahs by the congress as being synonymous with secular policies. Further, Hindutva forces are accusing that because of secularism the muslims are being pampered, muslims are synonyms with fundamentalism, therefore asserting that the Indian state is appeasing fundamentalists in the name of secularism. As pointed out in FAM #1,93 the social and economic condition of Muslim community is dismal. If at all the opportunist political policies of Congress have struck compromises with religious leaders of minorities and kept the minorities in abysmal conditions, in that sense the govt. policies have been anti oppressed, as such and most of the muslims have adversely suffered (socio-economically) at the hands of the Congress governments. To conclude, secularism is the outcome of a long drawn out process of secularisation and fundamentalism can be construed as a backlash against the process of secularisation. Indian society is struggling to attain secular goals and the Fundamentalist/Fascist forces of Hindutva are trying to put a brake on that.

Myth: Secular state pretends to be neutral but is partial to minority. FACT: Hindutva onslaught wants to make maximum capital of the fact that successive congress regimes have made compromises with the religious fundamentalist leaders of muslim community. One has to distinguish between secular policies of the state as enshrined in the constitution, their implementation through different arms of the state and the politics of the successive governments. They are not overlapping terms. The constitutional provisions are ultimately to be handled by the arms of the state and govt. The policies of Congress govt. cannot be equated with the principles of 'state' and the constitution.
The myth that minorities are being appeased is the old grouse of Hindu communal politics and it is precisely on this charge that the Father of Indian Nationalism Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by one of the votaries of Hindutva. Now since the Hindutva bandwagon wants to discredit secularism, it is inputing to it the misdeeds of the government of the day. Myth: Because of secularism a hindu society is saddled with an anti hindu state.

FACT: Both components of this myth (a) Ours is a hindu society (b) The Indian state is anti hindu are far from true.
To begin with ours is not a hindu society. It is plural society which has evolved over centuries where syncretic traditions and plural ethos are the very life and breath of the society. Ours is a society were Sufis and Bhakti saints brought in a cultural acceptance for each other. Though it is a fact that hindus of different denominations do constitute majority, but this majority has lot of holes in it. First, the large section of downtrodden dalits, though formally a part of hindu society, have been kept away from the society and even now one can find their enforced segregation. While adivasis are considered hindus by default, despite the fact that their traditions, gods and rituals have nothing in common with the other sects of hinduism, and least of all with the upper caste hindu ethos.

Indian state adopted a constitution, drafted by the constituent assembly. The founding fathers represented the aspirations of different sections of society and it is due to the struggles of different people that secular principles got enshrined in the Indian constitution.
Myth: B.J.P. is a party of 'positive secularism' while Congress is a 'pseudosecular' party.

FACT: The first part of this myth that the BJP is a party of 'positive secularism' has been propogated to gain respectability (on this, please see Rajiv Bhargav's contribution in Arslan and Rajan (ed.) Communalism in India: Challenge and Response) despite its central agenda being that of Hindu Rashtra, religion based nationalism. BJP is part of Sangh Parivar and is guided by the political needs of Hindutva politics (see FAM Feb 96, vol.11, no.11). The central tenet of their credo is "Hindu and Hindus constitute Indian nation, since they are the original inhabitants and sole creators of its society and culture. Hinduism is uniquely catholic and tolerant, and hence superior to any other faith .... The subsequent entry and take over by foreigners created the illusion that India was a land of many different and equal cultures .... only a 'truely secular' Hindu Rashtra will afford protection to non Hindus." (11)

Despite being the vehicle for the politics of Hindu Rashtra, BJP began its political career with 'Gandhian Socialism' as an electoral ploy. The compulsions of electoral politics have led the Sangh Parivar ideologues to operate at multiple levels (a) First they have tried to delegitimise the concept of secularism on the grounds that it is a concept originating in Christian West and that Indian state was always secular. We have demonstrated above the falsity of this concoction. (b) They have tried to bring in the Indian meaning of secularism as the Sarva Dharma Sambhav not the Panth Nirpekshata and Laukik which are the meanings given in the Hindi version of Indian constitution. Both these meanings make it clear that the state cannot be guided by religious clergy, bigotry, dogmas and rituals, while ethical core of religions having a lot of overlap, (essentially being humanist in its content) is dealt with differently. We have also argued above that Sarva Dharma Sambhav, operates at personal and social level while Panth nirpekshata or Secularism per se is the state policy. (c) Modern states try to adopt affirmative actions for weaker sections of society. The ideologues of Sangh Parivar found fault with pre-independence Congress since it could mobilise large sections of poor muslims along with it, and called it appeasing muslims. SP accused Mahatma Gandhi of encouraging muslims, which resulted in the formation of Pakistan, while what Mahatma was trying to do was to adopt a 'religion neutral' politics (see quote, ref. 10). This possibility of affirmative action, got converted into 'adjustment' 'bargaining' with the obscurantist muslim religious leadership. In post 1980 communalisation of social polity, the Congress of Indira and Rajiv did compete with BJP to garner the Hindu vote bank. (d) As most of the policies of SP are multipronged and aimed to win over different sections of society, they also stick the label of 'positive secularism' on their own forehead. To sell this image of theirs they do a complicated exercise involving the following steps in social manoevering (1) .... when Hinduism is not a religion and is a way of life, to say that a Hindu state is anti-secular is wholly incorrect.... Hinduism is secularism par excellence (Organiser, Jan. 2, 1996, p.2). We have dealt with on this in FAM, vol.II, 11. (2) Since affirmative action of the state is meant for subalterns, [why not the dispossessed or the underprivileged] (including minorities), which is not the constituency of this upper caste/class outfit, they can assert `equality for all and appeasement of none' and from here go on to proclaim `The party shall be committed to positive secularism' that is Sarva Dharma Sambhav.

The second part of this myth is a concoction of truth and falsity both. Congress began as an expression of Indian Nationalist sentiments, drawing into its fold all the elements committed to secular, democratic Indian Nationalism. The communal nationalists had their own outfits in Muslim league and Hindu Mahasabha - RSS combine. Given the incomplete secularisation of society some of the Hindu Nationalists were also a part of the Congress. But overall during pre-independence time and decades after independence congress tried to retain its secular character. Its commitment to minorities did not yield the desired results, but all the same, its direction was a secular one. In 80's Indira and Rajiv sensed the electoral potentials of Hindu communal plank and did compromise hugely to destroy the secular components of its character.


1. Tahir Mahmood "'Hindutva', Constitution and Legislation" Religion and Law Review, vol.V, 1996, page 1.
2. Jawaharlal Nehru, Foreward in Raghunath Singh, 'Dharm Nirpeksha Raj' (New Delhi 1961).
3. J. Nehru, Quoted in V.D. Chopra, Religious Fundamentalism in Asia, Gyan, New Delhi, 1994, page 26.
4. Anandhi S. "Collective Identity and Secularism", in Secularism and Liberation (Ed. Heredia and Mathais). Indian Social Institute, New Delhi, 1995, page 183.
5. Saral Jhingran, 'Secularism in India', New Delhi 1995, page 79. 6. ibid, 'Secularism in India', New Delhi 1995, page 95. 7. Quoted in T.N. Madan, 'The Crisis of Indian Secularism', TSI Vos. No.1, 1997, page 3.
8. Keller, Albert, 1970, "Secularisation" Sacramentum mundi, Herder and Herder, New York, Vol.6, pp.64-70.
9. Quoted in 7, page 4.
10. Ibid, page 6.
11. Basu, Datta, Sarkar, Sarkar and Sen, "Khakhi Shorts Saffron Flags", Orient Longman, New Delhi 1993, page 37.

Box 1

Box 2

Box 3

The Indian Constitution is a liberal law which provides for a secular polity. The Constitution cherishes and promotes pluralism through two conceptual instruments, namely, secularism and federalism. Although the Constitution as it was enacted in 1950 did not contain the word "secularism" in the Preamble, (that word was inserted in it by the Forty Second Amendment), its provisions contained the spirit of secularism. Unlike in the West, where secularism came mainly out of the conflict between the Church and the State, secularism in India was conceived as a system which sustained religious and cultural pluralism. Secularism as understood in Indian politics today means anti-communlism.

S.P. Sathe; 'Secularism and Supreme Court of India', The Lawyers Collective, August 96, page 5.
Secularism in Indian context should imply respect for pluralism and non-coercive, voluntary recourse to change. One should be extremely wary of BJP slogans like `One nation, one people and one culture'. Respect for diversity not only embodies the demcoratic spirit, it is the real guarantee of unity. We should value democratic not fascistic unity. No democratic society can downgrade diversity and pluralism in the name of unity.

Asghar Ali Engineer, `Lifting the Veil', Sangam Books, Hyderabad, 1995, Page 272.
[Line drawing of Gandhi]

I swear by my religion, I will die for it. But it is my personal affair. The State has nothing to do with it. The State would look after your secular welfare, health, communications, foreign relations, currency and so on, but not your or my religion. That is everybody's personal concern!!

Mahatma Gandhi (Quoted by T S Madan, TSI Vol.3. Jan97 page4)

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Last updated: February 23, 2000 .