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Slow death of liberal democracy

Context: Prime Minister Narendra Modi strongly condemned on Thursday the recent terrorist attacks in France, including the heinous attack inside a church in Nice, and asserted that India stands with the country in the fight against terrorism.


GS Paper 1: Communalism, Regionalism, Secularism;

GS Paper 2: Historical underpinnings & evolution; Features, amendments, significant provisions, basic structure; Comparison of Indian constitutional scheme with other countries’

Mains questions:

  1. How the Indian concept of secularism is different from the western model of secularism? Discuss. 15 marks
  2. What can France learn from the Indian Constitution’s approach to secularism? 15 marks
  3. Indian secularism cannot be captured by the phrase “equal respect for all religions”. Critically comment. 15 marks
  4. French tradition of secularism is based on the strict separation between church and state. Elaborate. 15 marks

Dimensions of the articles:

  • What is secularism?
  • Why is the secularism important?
  • What is secular state?
  • The western model of secularism.
  • The Indian model of secularism.
  • French’s definition of secularism and related issues.
  • Way forward

What is secularism?

Secularism is a normative doctrine which seeks to realise a secular society, i.e., one devoid of either inter-religious or intra-religious domination. Put positively, it promotes freedom within religions, and equality between, as well as within, religions.

Why is the secularism important?

Inter-religious domination: The Indian Constitution declares that every Indian citizen has a right to live with freedom and dignity in any part of the country. Yet in reality, many forms of exclusion and discrimination continue to persist. Consider three most stark examples:

  • More than 2,700 Sikhs were massacred in Delhi and many other parts of the country in 1984. The families of the victims feel that the guilty were not punished.
  • Several thousands of Hindu Kashmiri pandits have been forced to leave their homes in the Kashmir valley; they have not been able to return to their homes for more than two decades.
  • More than 1,000 persons, mostly Muslims, were massacred during the post-Godhra riots in Gujarat in 2002. The surviving members of many of these families could not go back to the villages in which they lived.

These examples show that the basic freedoms of a set of citizens are denied. Some might even say that these incidents are instances of religious persecution and they reflect inter-religious domination. Secularism is first and foremost a doctrine that opposes all such forms of inter-religious domination.

Intra-religious domination: Within the community, the religion doesn’t treat all the people equally. Therefore secularism is much helpful to address such problems.

  • Religion has its share of some deep-rooted problems. For example, one can hardly think of a religion that treats its male and female members on an equal footing.
  • In religions such as Hinduism, some sections have faced persistent discrimination. For example dalits have been barred from entering Hindu temples. In some parts of the country, Hindu woman cannot enter temples.
  • Religious fundamentalism in parts of the US has become a big problem and endangers peace both within the country and outside. Many religions fragment into sects which leads to frequent sectarian violence and persecution of dissenting minorities.

Thus religious domination cannot be identified only with interreligious domination. It takes another conspicuous form, namely, intra-religious domination. As secularism is opposed to all forms of institutionalised religious domination, it challenges not merely interreligious but also intra-religious domination.

What is Secular State?

A secular state must be committed to principles and goals which are at least partly derived from non-religious sources. These ends should include peace, religious freedom, freedom from religiously grounded oppression, discrimination and exclusion, as also inter-religious and intra-religious equality. To promote these ends the state must be separated from organised religion and its institutions for the sake of some of these values.

Western model of secularism: The western model of secularism is mainly followed the American model which is separation of religion and state is understood as mutual exclusion:

  • The state will not intervene in the affairs of religion and, in the same manner, religion will not interfere in the affairs of the state.
  • Both state and religion have has a separate sphere of its own with independent jurisdiction.
  • No policy of the state can have an exclusively religious rationale. No religious classification can be the basis of any public policy. If this happened there is illegitimate intrusion of religion in the state.
  • The state cannot aid any religious institution. It cannot give financial support to educational institutions run by religious communities. Nor can it hinder the activities of religious communities, as long as they are within the broad limits set by the law of the land.
  • For example, if a religious institution forbids a woman from becoming a priest, then the state can do little about it. If a religious community excommunicates its dissenters, the state can only be a silent witness.
  • If a particular religion forbids the entry of some of its members in the sanctum of its temple, then the state has no option but to let the matter rest exactly where it is. On this view, religion is a private matter, not a matter of state policy or law.

This common conception interprets freedom and equality in an individualist manner. Liberty is the liberty of individuals. Equality is equality between individuals. There is no scope for the idea that a community has the liberty to follow practices of its own choosing. There is little scope for community-based rights or minority rights.

Finally, this form of mainstream secularism has no place for the idea of state supported religious reform. This feature follows directly from its understanding that the separation of state from church/ religion entails a relationship of mutual exclusion.

The Indian model of Secularism: Indian secularism is fundamentally different from Western secularism. Indian secularism does not focus only on church-state separation and the idea of inter-religious equality is crucial to the Indian conception. Followings are the main difference from mainstream western secularism.

  • The Indian secularism resulted in equal focus on intra-religious and interreligious domination thus Indian secularism equally opposed the oppression of dalits and women within Hinduism, the discrimination against women within Indian Islam or Christianity, and the possible threats that a majority community might pose to the rights of the minority religious communities.
  • Indian secularism deals not only with religious freedom of individuals but also with religious freedom of minority communities. Within it, an individual has the right to profess the religion of his or her choice. Likewise, religious minorities also have a right to exist and to maintain their own culture and educational institutions.
  • A secular state must be concerned equally with intra-religious domination, Indian secularism has made room for and is compatible with the idea of state-supported religious reform. Thus, the Indian constitution bans untouchability. The Indian state has enacted several laws abolishing child marriage and lifting the taboo on inter-caste marriage sanctioned by Hinduism.

Indian secularism allows for principled state intervention in all religions. Such intervention betrays disrespect to some aspects of every religion. For example, religiously sanctioned caste-hierarchies are not acceptable within Indian secularism. The secular state does not have to treat every aspect of every religion with equal respect. It allows equal disrespect for some aspects of organised religions.

French’s definition of secularism and related issues:

French secularism, or laicite, sees no place for religion in the public sphere. In this way, it is the opposite of how India has practised its secularism. Because of it, France if facing following problems like:

  • Over the years, French secularism has been in confrontation with the religious practices of many immigrant groups in France, including the Sikhs.
  • Most French Muslims of today were born in France, descendants of first-generation immigrants from former French colonies in north Africa. The French constitution demands that those seeking citizenship must commit themselves to integration.
  • In 2011, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons triggered angry reactions in the Islamic world, but the French hold the right to blaspheme as an absolute individual freedom, equally available to those who want to insult Jesus Christ as those who will blaspheme Islam.

Way forward

France should learn from Indian model of secularism which allows freedom of worship, freedom to profess and propagate your religion, freedom of expression, minority rights, and equality of all citizens, are all part of the basic structure of the Constitution. This model of secularism gives sense of security and sense of justice to every individual so that they can live without any fear.


Secularism in Indian constitution:

  • 42nd constitutional amendment three words “Socialist” ‘Secular” and “Integrity of Nation was added in the Preamble.
  • Article 15 says that the State cannot differentiate its people based on religion, caste, birthplace and gender.
  • Article 16 says that there is an equal opportunity for everyone in the recruitment of job under the State, and State cannot differentiate based on religion.
  • The articles 25 to 28 are especially focused to give more religious Freedom to the citizens.
  • Article 25 allows every citizen to follow and promote any religions they want with total freedom. Whereas section 26 allows conducting any kind of religious functions, they want.
  • Article 27 restricts the State or government not to spend the taxpayers money in religious activity. Since all the religions are the same, the government cannot fund any particular religion.
  • Article 28 provides Freedom from attending the religious activity at the educational institutions.
  • Article 29 and 30 of the Indian constitution protects the religious minorities from conserving their educational institution.
  • In directive principles of state policy, article 44 orders the government to bring the Uniform Civil Code as per their continence.
  • Secularism is embedded in the Basic Structure Doctrine of the constitution of India.
December 2023