Secularism in India: How secular are we

When I think of the term secularism, our country to me seems like a practical lab. The theoretical concept is taught, discussed and debated all over the world, but it is only in India that its practicality can be checked and questioned.

Some think of secularism as the western concept of separation of state from religion, as it was done in the case of The Church. But in a country as religiously diverse and embedded in tradition as ours, this never was and never would be possible. For here religion is a way of life, a code of conduct, ones social identity and even linked to their individuality.

So what is the Indian notion of this term? It could be put as ‘co-existence of different religious faiths and beliefs in society; freedom for each faith to grow, prosper and retain their values; and at the same time cultivate equal respect and tolerance for all religions.’ It may seem as a utopian idea, and to an extent it is, if one takes into account India’s current situations.

So has our country failed to uphold the ideal it solemnly promised in the Preamble? To say a blatant no would be unjustified. Incidents in our recent history such as the Babri Masjid issue or the Godhra riots or the more recent Jammu- Kashmir land issue and the anti-Christian movements in Orissa are haunting examples of the failure of secularism. Religious commitments took over national peace and security, over homes, over families and over the lives of people. And tolerance was probably burned down as houses in Gujarat were torched. Today the scenario is such that religious leaders and groups believe growth of other religions means degradation of their own faiths. But more than that, it’s the people’s deep rooted commitment to their religion that plays a key role in fashioning the marginal success of secularism.

But before we conclude, and declare secularism the loser and separatism or communalism the champions let us change our perspective and reconsider the issue in a new light.

Had India been a communal state and antithetical to secularism, states like Goa and Kerala (which have over 26% Christians and 27% Muslims respectively) would not have such high percentage of religious minorities in a majorly Hindu nation like ours. Our secularity lies in the fact that although we have over 80% Hindus other religions continue to exist and thrive in our country. Our country, as we all know, swears by its film industry and cricketing passion. Its stars are treated as demi-gods and worshipped irrespective of their religions. A popular dialogue of a popular film says “ In our country a woman of Catholic origin stepped down to let a Sikh man become the Prime Minister, who was sworn in by a Muslim president in a majorly Hindu nation” These are examples of our secularity.

And while experts believe that for people their religion is their primary identity (which to an extent is true), their religious sentiments are more often than not mixed with tolerance and respect for other religions. Across India, from rural villages to crowded chawls in metro cities people have been and would continue to live in harmony. An article in a popular national daily gives us the proof: Hindu and Muslim taxi drivers who live on border between Jammu and Kashmir are not allowed to cross over while ferrying the passengers. So they have rather innovatively decided on a deal. While the Hindu drivers of Jammu take you up to Kashmir, their collaborators i.e. the Kashmiri Muslim drivers would take you further into the state. This episode shows that there is always a time when hunger and need supersede religious sentiments. In a country like India where one and all are bound together by their sweat, labor and hunger; religion is not always the primary agenda.

But that brings us back to where we started. Are we secular or not?

The mere survival of India for 61 years with its religious diversity is proof our secularity. That inspite of communal forces winning at several occasions, the larger battle is still in the favor of secularism. That India has managed to not have a state religion and not let separatist groups split it apart, is a sign of success for secularism. Though lot has to be done to extinguish the sparks of communalism that threaten to burn of nation, the resilience of our people and the unity of our country in the face of communal divide, assure us all is not lost and the ideal that are Preamble speaks of is still alive.

Aishwarya Padmanabham

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