SECULARISM –IDEALITY, IDEOGRAPHY AND IDEOLOGY (Deconstruction of Secularism in the Context of Indian Polity)

Human life is perceived, measured, weighed, assessed and computed in terms of the foot-prints of the communities on the geo-political realities, of physical and material nature, discovered by human race. The oceans of infinity came to be mapped, nay, narrowed down, in distinct and segregated paths for ostensible purpose of safety of the ‘sailors’- the individuals engaged in their journey of life. The infinity came to suffer a meltdown in the power-centric fires of humanity. Thus the immeasurable universality of space for human endeavours and human adventures started shrinking into community-carved or community-recognized paths, within exclusivity and inclusivity of geo-political zones of human life, for any individual adventure or joint expeditions of human race. These community-carved or community-recognized paths came to be socially and politically bedecked with celebratory symbols described as ‘milestones’ to measure the accomplishments of humanity.

The deep silence of tumultuous inwardness of individuals, in isolation from the known physical and material realities, despite its oceanic dimensions, was, before the political cartography of  community-carved or community-recognized paths, was traversed by the individual in unruffled ‘grace of solitude’. Even the self-guided and self-navigated odyssey of an individual in the oceans of inwardness had its own moments of triumph. These ‘moments of triumph’, being aloof from the chartered course on the community carved or community recognized ‘milestone – bearing’ paths, suffered painful obliteration from the historic perspectives of human race.

Then came the age of enquiry, age of sharing the experiences, age of public discourses, age of pedagogy, age of extrovert catechisms , age of joint expeditions and collaborations for discovering solutions, nay, quick solutions. The self-navigated odyssey of the individuals in the infinite oceans of inwardness deflected from the individual-centric course and transited into larger and pre-charted spaces of community. The odyssey in the infinity of inwardness of human life through subtle processes changed its course into community-centric and externally-navigated joint expeditions. The ‘inwardness’  of life of an individual and ‘outwardness’  of community life randomly commingled, while the infinity of inwardness also metamorphosed into definitions of mapped spaces.  Thus externally-navigated and externally-guided community-centric joint expedition to explore the inwardness of the individuals developed as a discipline of learning. This discipline of learning came to be identified as ‘religion’.

The religion, through its own symbolism, translated the silence of inwardness of individuals into sounds of the community. The world changed. Many religions and multiple symbols spread in the society. The fires and conflagrations of power-centric politics transformed the serene thoughts of egalitarian, cooperative and co-existing humanity into rhetoric and narrative of dominance and servitude. The endless years of ‘post-religion’ journey of humanity through the political war zones, leaves us today to face the critical and painful discourse of ‘theocratic-secular’ values.

Religion, as an esoteric energy or an exoteric strength, through politically-structured and politically –harnessed processes, demarcates and establishes independent and exclusive identity groups in any society. The socio-political realities of a multi-cultural democracy are hugely impacted by these inward-looking identity groups. These religiously-shaped identity groups operate as non-cohesive theological sub-cultures, underneath the symbols and structures of a particular religion. The multiple sub-cultures, with politicized notions of community-specific loyalty coupled with deeper vice of bigotry form a fragile foundation of a holistic cultural identity of the nation. The entire foundation of theological sub-cultures is deeply entrenched in the ‘imposed beliefs’ and externally-reinforced faith amongst the followers, which is rejuvenated through the multiple means and methods of indoctrination.

These exclusive identity groups, with exclusive modes of worship, exclusive symbolism, exclusive scriptures, exclusive rituals, exclusive practices, exclusive vestibules, exclusive theories (Cosmogony, Theogony and Anthropogeny) and exclusive loyalties perpetually strive for more and more political and social space for the propagation, profession and practices of their respective faiths.

From these self-centered theological colonies, all the Supreme organs of the mighty State, by strength of an exalted political philosophy, dislocate themselves, lock, stock and barrel, except for the peripheral roles only to maintain, public order, public morality and public safety. This political philosophy is known in the constitutional domain as secularism.

Thus the political philosophy of minimal statehood in the theological realities of a society, the political paradigm of self-practiced extinction of statehood in religious affairs of the society , the  avowed political practice of  ensuring equanimity and pursuit of ideals of equality in the universe of  State-Religion functional coordinates  as well as  the constitutional value of benign neutrality to all religions and all religious identities, constitute, in letter and spirit, the ‘ideality’ of secularism.

Secularism in the realm of philosophy was found by the court in Ziyauddin Burhanuddin Bukhari vs Brijmohan Ramdass Mehra (AIR 1975 SC 1788), being based on utilitarian ethics to maximize human happiness or welfare, quite independently of what may be either religious or occult.

In A S Narayanan Deekshitulu vs State of AP (AIR 1996 SC 1765), the Court , while distinguishing the non-religious penumbra from the essentiality of religion arrived at a conclusion that secularism consciously denounces all forms of supernaturalism or superstitious beliefs of actions and acts which are not essentially or integrally matters of religion or religious beliefs or faith or practices. The Court also distinguished secularism from secularization and held that ‘secularization’ essentially is a process of decline in religious activity, perversion in beliefs, changes in the ways of thinking.

The segregation of the values and practices having a symbiotic relationship with a particular religious form led to transformative effects of judicial activism in the recent years. The judgments of the Supreme Court in the famous Sabrimala Case (Indian Young Lawyers Association and Others v. The State of Kerela and Others 2019 (11) SCC 1) and Triple Talaq Case (Shayara Bano v. Union of India 2017 (9) SCC 1) are path-breaking in the context of upholding the quintessential concept, practice and values of the religion and rejection of the chaff from the grain.

The ‘ideography’ of secularism is founded on the totality of abstract and subtle forms and hovers around the community sensitivity and community responses of the different religious communities to other religious identities , symbols, representations, forms, emblems, practices , liturgy, pictures , sculptures and Architecture of the different faiths. The ideography of secularism delineates and explains the inter-religion community strengths, inter-religion political strengths and inter-religion tolerance paradigms.

The ‘ideography’ of secularism, in letter and spirit, is the concept and practice of hypostatizing, in the  functional value-domains of the polity, Foucauldian  interdictions (refer: the noted work ‘Discipline and Punish’ of Michel Foucault) as well as categorical imperatives (refer : the philosophy of Ethics by  Immanuel Kant ) to politically forbid any evaluation of any religion-based subculture de hors the religion-specific belief system and  to politically desist from patronizing  any particular faith. The secular ideography facilitates the uninhibited public display of all religious symbols, representations, forms, emblems, practices, liturgy, pictures, sculptures and Architecture which may directly or indirectly signify any religion-related subculture.

In the realm of theology, the semantic fold of term secular bears a muted shade of profanity.  Gabriel Vahanian speaks of theological saeculum, which he describes as the shared world of human experience or an idolatrous concern about secular matters. In his thesis the said author treats secularism as mere idolization of religion and an unmistakable abdication of faith to ‘reason’ or ‘unreason’. Other scholars of religion are also not euphemistic in their veiled discomfort with the term secularist.

However, as the word secular transited from its theological domain to political domain, it was hailed politically as an exalted idea to glorify the constitutional values of equality and dignity. Thus the idea and ideology of secularism as embraced in the text of Constitution stands and shines as a transformative constitutional value.

The Western and Eastern hemispheres across the political map of the planet also hold and expound distinct notions about secularism due to deep-rooted cultural and civilization value-systems.  In the West, secular and theocratic thoughts are pointedly antagonistic and more radically entrenched against each other. In the East, especially in India, such secular-theocratic public discourse is comparatively well-moderated and not centered upon diametrically opposition to each other.

In the context of Indian Constitution, a broad spectrum of views provides an insight into the philosophy and practice and ideology of secularism in India elucidate the dimensions of conceptual layers of secularism.

Dr Ambedkar (Parliamentary debates 1951, Vol III, Part III) states: “It does not mean that we shall not take into consideration the religious sentiments of the people. All that secular State means is that parliament shall not be competent to impose any particular religion upon the rest of the people.

An eminent member of Constituent Assembly and the First prime Minister of India Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru,

expressed the following thoughts about the concept of secularism;

“There must be the most perfect freedom of faith and observance.. But when religion comes in the garb of vested interest and exploits people, it is not religion.”

“We have laid down in our Constitution that India is a secular State. That does not mean irreligion. It means equal respect for all faiths and equal opportunities for those who profess any faith.”

H V Kamath (Constituent Assembly debates Vol VII, pp 825, 831 ) another member of Constituent Assembly opined as under ;

“When I say that State shall not identify itself with any particular religion, I do not mean to say that State should be anti-religious or irreligious. We have certainly declared India to be a secular State. But to my mind a secular State is neither godless nor anti-religious State. In short, by a secular state is meant that a state shall not make discrimination whatsoever on the ground of religion or community against a person professing any particular form of religious faith. This means in essence that no particular religion will receive any patronage or protection.”

Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, former President of India very succinctly explained the concept of secularism through these elegant words;

“When India is said to be a secular State, it does not mean that we reject the reality of an unseen spirit or the relevance of religion to life or that we exalt irreligion. It does not mean secularism itself becomes a positive religion or the State assumes divine prerogatives… The Indian state will not identify itself with, or be controlled by, any particular religion. We hold that no one religion should be given preferential status or unique distinction, that no one religion should be accorded special  privileges in life or international relations for that would be violation of the basic principles of  democracy and contrary to the best interests of religion and Government. This view of religious impartiality, of comprehension and forbearance has a prophetic role to play within the national and international life. No ground of citizens shall arrogate to itself right and privileges which it denies to others. No person should suffer any disability and discrimination because of his religion, but all alike should be free to share to the fullest degree in common life”.

It is worthwhile to note that M.C. Setalvad in his lecture on secularism (Patel Memorial Lectures – 1965) points out that after affirming the ideas of religious liberty and adequate protection to the minorities at its Karachi Session (1931), the Congress party asserted emphatically that “the State shall observe neutrality in regard to all religions”.

The same idea is put forward by Gajendragadkar, J., (in his inaugural address to the Seminar on “Secularism; to its implications for Law and life in India”) through the following apt expression:

“It is true that the Indian Constitution does not use the word “secularism” in any of its provisions, but its material provisions are inspired by the concept of secularism. When it promised all the citizens of India that the aim of the Constitution is to establish socio-economic justice, it placed before the country as a whole, the ideal of a welfare State. And the concept of welfare is purely secular and not based on any considerations of religion. The essential basis of the Indian Constitution is that all citizens are equal, and this basic equality (guaranteed by Article 14) obviously proclaims that the religion of a citizen is entirely irrelevant in the matter of his fundamental rights. The state does not owe loyalty to any particular religion as such; it is not irreligious or anti-religion; it gives equal freedom for all religions and holds that the religion of the citizen has nothing to do in the matter of socio-economic problems. That is the essential characteristic of secularism which is writ large in all the provisions of the Indian Constitution”.

The views of Prof. Upendra Baxi on that “Secularism”, in his paper ‘The Struggle for the Re-definition of Secularism in India – published in Social Action Vol. 44 – January, March 1994’ were noted with approval by Hon’ble Supreme Court in S R Bommai v UOI (AIR 1994 SC 1918). Prof. Upendra Baxi summarises the discourse through the concept in a pragmatic manner;

“(i) The state by itself, shall not espouse or establish or practice any religion;

(ii) public revenues will not be used to promote any religion;

(iii) the State shall have the power to regulate any “economic, financial or other secular activity” associated with religious practice (Article 25(2)(a) of the Constitution);

(iv) the State shall have the power through the law to provide for “social welfare and reform or the throwing open of the Hindu religious institutions of a public character to all classes and sections of Hindus” (Article 25(2)(b) of the Constitution);

(v) the practice of untouchability (in so far as it may be justified by Hindu religion) is constitutionally outlawed by Article 17;

(vi) every individual person will have, in that order, an equal right to freedom of conscience and religion;

(vii) these rights are however subject to the power of the state through law to impose restrictions on the ground of “public order, morality and health”;

(viii) these rights are furthermore subject to other fundamental rights in Part III;”

The full Bench of Kerala High court in Tharamel Krishnan Vs. Guruvayoor Devaswom Managing Committee and Ors. (AIR 1978 Ker 68 FB), inter alia dwelt upon the historical perspective of the secularism as laid down in The Ahmedabad St. Xaviers College Society v. State of Gujarat (AIR 1974 SC 1389):

“Before we deal with the contentions advanced before us and the scope and ambit of Article 30 of the Constitution, it may be pertinent to refer to the historical background. India is the second most populous country of the world. The people inhabiting this vast land profess different religions and speak different languages. Despite the diversity of religion and language, there runs through the fabric of the nation the golden thread of a basic inmate unity. It is a mosaic of different religions, languages and cultures. Each of them has made a mark on the Indian polity and India today represents a synthesis of them all. The closing years of the British rule were marked by communal riots and dissensions. There was also a feeling of distrust and the demand was made by a section of the Muslims for a separate homeland. This ultimately resulted in the partition of the country. Those who led the fight for independence in India always laid great stress on communal amity and accord. They wanted the establishment of a secular State wherein people belonging to the different religions should all have a feeling of equality and nondiscrimination. Demand has also been made before the partition by sections of people belonging to the minorities for reservation of seats and separate electorates. In order to bring about integration and fusion of the different sections of the population the framers of the Constitution did away with separate electorates and introduced the system of joint electorates, so that every candidate in an election should have to look for support of all sections of the citizens. Special safeguards were guaranteed for the minorities and they were made a part of the fundamental rights with a view to instil a sense of confidence and security in the minorities. Those provisions were a kind of a charter of rights for the minorities so that none might have the feeling that any section of the population consisted of first-class citizens and the others of second-class citizens. The result was that minorities gave up their claims for reservation of seats. Sardar Patel, who was the Chairman of the Advisory Committee dealing with the question of minorities, said in the course of his speech delivered on February 27, 1947:

‘This Committee forms one of the most vital parts of the Constituent Assembly and one of the most difficult tasks that has to be done by us is the work of this committee. Often you must have heard in various debates in British Parliament that have been held on this question recently and before when it has been claimed on behalf of the British Government that they have a special responsibility–a special obligation–for protection of the interests of the minorities. They claim to have more special interest than we have. It is for us to prove that it is a bogus claim, a false claim, and that nobody can be more interested than us in India in the protection of our minorities. Our mission is to satisfy every interest and safeguard the interests of all the minorities to their satisfaction. (The Framing of India’s Constitution, B. Shiva Rao, Select Documents, Vol. II, P. 66).’

It is in the context of that background that we should view the provisions of the Constitution contained in Articles 25 – 30. The object of Articles 25 – 30 was to preserve the rights of religious and linguistic minorities, to place them on a secure pedestal and withdraw them from the vicissitudes of political controversy. These provisions enshrined a befitting pledge to the minorities in the Constitution of the country whose greatest son had laid down his life for the protection of the minorities. As long as the Constitution stands as it is today, no tampering with those rights can be countenanced. Any attempt to do so would be not only an act of breach of faith, it would be constitutionally impermissible and liable to be struck down by the courts. Although the words secular State are not expressly mentioned in the Constitution, there can be no doubt that our Constitution-makers wanted establishment of such a state. The provisions of the Constitution were designed accordingly. There is no mysticism in the secular character of the State. Secularism is neither anti-God, nor pro-God; it treats alike the devout, the agnostic and the atheist. It eliminates God from the matters of the state and ensures that no one shall be discriminated against on the ground of religion. The Constitution at the same time expressly guarantees freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion. The Constitution-makers were conscious of the deep attachment the vast masses of our country had towards religion, the sway it had on their minds and the significant role it played in their lives. To allay all apprehensions of interference by the legislature and the executive in matters of religion, the rights mentioned in Articles 25 – 30 were made a part of the fundamental rights and religious freedom contained in those Articles was guaranteed by the Constitution.”

The full Bench of Kerala High court in Tharamel Krishnan Vs. Guruvayoor Devaswom Managing Committee and Ors. (AIR 1978 Ker 68 FB) after discussing the historical perspective of secularism, observed:

“Thus the real purpose and intendment of Articles 25 and 26 is to guarantee especially to the religious minorities in this country the freedom to profess, practise and propagate their religion, to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes, to manage its own affairs in matters of religion, to own and acquire properties and to administer such properties in accordance with law subject only to the limitations ‘and restrictions indicated in those Articles. No doubt, the freedom guaranteed by these two Articles applies not merely to religious minorities hut to all persons (Article 25) and all religious denominations or sections thereof (Article 26). But, in interpreting the scope and content of the guarantee contained in the two Articles the court will always have to keep in mind the real purpose underlying the incorporation of these provisions in the fundamental rights chapter. When a challenge is raised before a court against the validity of any statute as contravening the fundamental rights guaranteed under Articles 25 and 26 it is from the above perspective that the court will approach the question and the tests to be applied for adjudging the validity of the statute will be the same irrespective of whether the person or denomination complaining about the infringement of the said fundamental right belongs to a religious minority or not.”

India, as a civilization, is a globally unique habitat for the vibrant secular values. In this regard, the resonance of the following apt and luminous words of Arnold Toynbee, a renowned historian known also for his magnum opus ‘History of the World’,  when he reverentially mentions India, cannot be ever ignored ;

“It is already becoming clear that a chapter which had a Western beginning will have to have an Indian ending, if it is not to end in the self-destruction of human race…..At this supremely dangerous moment in human history, the only way of salvation for mankind is the Indian way- Emperor Ashoka’s and Mahatma Gandhi’s principles of non violence and Sri Ramakrishna’s testimony to the harmony of religions. Here we have an attitude and spirit that can make it possible for the human race to grow together into a single family- and, in the Atomic age this is the only alternative to destroying ourselves.”

Secularism is indeed the soul of Indian civilization and of India that is Bharat.  The stray political events, the power-centric street shows, cannot ever touch this immortal and immutable soul. A ‘soul’ is not a locus of the body politic, where footprints of political turmoils or toils can ever reach, much less, ever leave their mark. The issues in the political streets are issues of public order, public morality and public safety. The quintessential issue of secularism eternally shines in the triumphant constitutionalism of India – a great nation with infinite values of a proud and ancient civilization.

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