Indian Secularism: A Contested Concept mired in Controversy

India officially became a secular nation in 1976 with the incorporation of word ‘secular’ in the preamble through the 42nd Amendment of the Constitution. But, what does secularism mean to and in India? Even the Supreme Court of India, in one of its judgments, has stated that secularism is a complex and a very difficult concept to define. In the West, there is no such confusion.
Secularism has three core features: equal citizenship to each citizen irrespective of his or her religion, freedom of religion and the separation of state and religion. However, in India, secularism is always perceived as anti-minority and pro-majority; that is why, majority of the people and policy makers in India perceive secularism through a religious conflict prism. In other words, secularism in India has come to mean pro-majoritarian that is, slanted in favor of the dominant group fed by a narrative of Minority-phobia.
The question is: why is there such confusion in India with regard to secularism? Why is the entire discourse around secularism so confusing and puzzling in India? To understand secularism in the Indian context, we need to explain secularism in general- its origins in Europe and its different forms. Like cricket or the English language, secularism in India is a borrowed notion. Although many historians claim that India was a secular nation in its earlier times but the fact is there was no idea of nation. It was only in the recent past, due to the legacy of many intellectual thinkers and political movements against colonial power that the term nation and secularism emerged as a political discourse in the sub-continent. While as in Europe, secularism started with the fights and intense debates among Protestants and Catholics. But, in the Indian context, it was only a legacy of the British who gave birth to new types of political institutions and ideas in India.
Officially and constitutionally, India is a secular state, where the rights of religious minorities are enshrined in the constitution. But, history suggests the obverse especially in terms of how minorities were treated in post-colonial India by the so called the secularist and liberal elite. The sense of marginalization that accrued has increased since 1980s-90’s, when Babri Masjid and Ram Janmabhoomi issues were used to sharpen religious divisions in India. The main principles and features of this movement include protests against the so-called ‘love jihad’ and ‘Ghar Wapsi.’
The three main phases of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement were ‘Shilanyas Yatra’ of 1989, BJP’s L.K Advani’s ‘Rath yatra’ of 1990 and the demolition of the ‘Babri Masjid’ in 1992. The ideology of Sangh Parivar and other communal organizations dates to pre-independence India. It made its appearance even during the freedom movement when many a nationalist leaders made the fatal mistake of giving an anti-British movement a Hindu cultural touch. The emergence of Muslim separatism before and after the partition partly sprung from apprehensions of Hindu communalism that was passed off as cultural nationalism. The two nation theory and the birth of Pakistan were substantially the failures of Indian secularism to address the issues of religious minorities. After the assassination of Gandhi at the hands of a Hindutva zealot, Hindu communalism that had already crept in remained dormant for some time. However, this dormancy was in effect its incubation period. The environment was sufficiently poisoned with communal hatred 1990’s when the ugly monster appeared and razed 16th century Babri Mosque to ground in less than a day. It was the climactic fruition and culmination of Advani’s ‘Rath Yatra’ . The day spelled the death of Indian secularism yet again.
Sadanand Dhume, a leading scholar has criticized Indian secularism in a Wall Street Journal article and called it a ‘fraud’. Indian Muslims have always been taken for granted and a offered minimal political deal in return for their votes. Thus, mainstream, liberal politics in India has deliberately failed to treat the Muslim as an Indians. The most important ways of sustaining nations are secularism, democracy and promoting equitable regional developments. However, the problem with the present government led by Modi, under the banner of RSS and other communal organizations, is that it lacks inclusiveness and fair participation of minorities.

—The author is a Doctoral Fellow at the Department of Political Science Aligarh Muslim University, UP, India. He can be reached at: and his twitter handle is: @Javid786Ahanger