Journey of ‘Indian secularism’

“It is an ideal to be aimed at and every one of us whether we are Hindus or Muslims, Sikhs or Christians, whatever we are, none of us can say in his heart of hearts that he has no prejudice and no taint of communalism in his mind or heart,” said Nehru. Supporting the first PM, Dr. Ambedkar who was also against including the word “secular” in the preamble stated “what should be the policy of the state, how the Society should be organized in its social and economic side are matters which must be decided by the people themselves according to time and circumstances. It cannot be laid down in the Constitution itself because that is destroying democracy altogether.”

After a heated debate by the drafting committee in 1949  on the addition of the word “secular”, the makers of the constitution came to a notion that even though the word is not formally inserted, the principles of secularism are imbibed in the constitution through Articles 25,26 and 27.

It was later included in the year 1975 during the emergency proclaimed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi through 42 nd amendment.

Indian secularism fosters a positive relationship between the government and religious groups and at the same time is neutral to all beliefs. This character is unique to the subcontinent because the western model of secularism connotates the complete separation of the state (government) and religion.

This positive engagement between the ruling governments and religious sects has evolved over the period.

Though the term “secularism” was coined in late medieval Europe, the ideology of being neutral to all beliefs and faiths has been one of the foundational principles of the country since ancient times.

 Indus Valley civilization marks the beginning of ancient India. It has been found from archaeological excavations in the late 1890s that different beliefs have co-existed in the sub-continent right from the Harappan civilization. India also dubbed “Bharath Varsha”(the first name given to the sub-continent), was the birthplace of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. Among the four religious groups, Hinduism is believed to have originated during this civilization, supported by the carvings of Lord Shiva sitting in a yogic posture also called “Pasupathi” in a seal. Hindu epics- Mahabharat and Ramayana, which were written way back in the 4th and 5th century have mentioned the progressive society of the Indus valley civilization.

Founders of Buddhism and Jainism – Vardhamana Mahavir and Gautama Buddha were born during the Vedic period in ancient India. Their teachings and beliefs were preached throughout the country eventually leading to the formation of wider social patterns and kingdoms. Great rulers like Ashoka and Chandra Gupta, who were followers of Buddhism preaching Dhamma and patrons of Bhagavatism respectively, never discriminated against other faiths and were also tolerant towards other religions. Kings and chiefs encouraged the growth of different faiths through literary works and inscriptions because the concept of temple and worship institutions was not in vogue in ancient India.

Parallelly, the practice of dividing people with respect to their occupation called the Varna system (Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras) came into existence and gained momentum in the later Vedic period and early medieval India. This later became the caste system among the Hindus.

With the fall of native rulers, the Muslim invaders came to India to make it their home. The spread of the Islamic religion marked the beginning of medieval India. There was cultural and traditional exchange between Hindus and Muslims in respect to clothes, food, and values as something like the Varna system was followed by the Muslims too. By this time, the caste system was fully embedded in society. The lower castes were deprived of education and scaling up the economic ladder. This encouraged them to convert to other religions such as Buddhism and Jainism. Because of widespread conversion and oppression by the upper caste, Bhakti and Sufi movements were launched by learned saints and Sufis parallelly in different parts of the country. Spreading the message of the oneness of God and unity among religious groups, they aimed to break the barriers in Hinduism and Islam. They preached the philosophy behind the different religions through poems, short stories from epics, and holy scripts so that every common man can understand that the philosophy behind all religions is almost identical.

Among the Muslim rulers, Akbar was the one to capture the hearts of many people by standing out as a secular ruler of medieval India. He was the first Mughal emperor to start a faith called Din-i-Illahi, which comprised ideas from various religions. He nurtured harmony among his subjects and his policy of liberalism and tolerance was continued by his successors. However, Aurangazeb abandoned them and introduced religious-based taxes.

Though the Bhakti and Sufi movements laid the foundation for our society by promoting the principle of brotherhood and contributing to the enormous growth of regional languages and literature, it could not cease entirely the practice of social evils such as Sati, polygamy, and untouchability, which were the byproducts of caste and religion-based discrimination and conflicts in the country. Eventually leading to political vacuum and instability in the country which paved the path for the Westerners to establish their forts.

The British East India Company ruled the subcontinent for 420 years. The Britishers capitalized on the class division and multitude of faiths coexisting to perpetuate their rule by strategizing divide and rule policy in the country. This turned into riots and rebellions.

Some of them are :

  • Indian Rebellion of 1857
  • Partition of Bengal 1905
  • Moplah Rebellion 1902
  • Partition of British India in 1947

This exploitation of differences between the communities degraded Indian society’s future.

On the contrary, it is worth noting that many reforms such as Widow remarriage, Inter-caste, and inter-communal marriages were introduced during British rule. And social evils which had crept into the society such as infanticide, Polygamy, and untouchability were prohibited. Thanks to the introduction of the English education system in India, for seeding and educating people on social reforms and transformation. Though these reforms created awareness and got widespread support, because of intellectual backwardness and social idiocy imbibed in the minds of many, it could not be fully erased from society.

On the midnight stroke of August 15th, 1947, we got back a nation that needed structural reforms in the society for economic growth and development and political stability. 

To rebuild the country, the makers of the constitution imbibed the “Right to freedom of religion” through articles 25-27 reinforcing the ideology of brotherhood, secularism, and unity in diversity, which were the core principles of the Bharath Varsha.

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