India famously claims to be a secular state. What is the basis for this claim? The claim rests on the grounds that the present Constitution of India declares it as such in the Preamble. Two objections could be raised against this claim. The first, that the original version of the Constitution did not contain this word in the Preamble and it was inserted into the Constitution during Emergency (1975-1977) imposed by Mrs Indira Gandhi. Emergency is generally regarded as a dark period for Indian democracy and therefore the insertion remains questionable. The second could be that although the Constitution claims to be secular, some of its provisions favour the minority religions over the religion of the majority, and therefore cannot be accepted as a genuinely secular document.
These are heavily contested points, so let me make it clear that, for the purpose of this column at the moment, we will accept the statement that at face value India is a secular state.
The point to note then is that the concept of secularism arose in the Western world, in a context in which religion dominated the public square. Religion in the Western world, as a term, connotes exclusive religious identity. In the broader context of the Abrahamic religious traditions, one cannot be a Jew, a Christian, and a Muslim at the same time, although all of them are monotheistic religions and believe in only one God. In the narrower context of the Christian world, one cannot be a Catholic or a Protestant at the same time, although both accept Jesus Christ as their Saviour. Such exclusive religious identification, in the Christian world, did not pose a problem so long as Roman Catholicism remained the dominant form of Christianity, but the situation changed with the Protestant revolution ushered in by Martin Luther (1483-1546). The Reformation, as it was called, ultimately led to enormous political conflict when different principalities in Europe started espousing the cause of different sects. The idea of the separation of the church or religion from the state, which is the key conceptual element of secularism, then arose as a way of dealing with the religious conflict generated by these developments.
This concept was then applied to India, where the dominant concept was one of dharma, which does not insist on an exclusive religious identity. One could challenge this point by insisting that the concept of religion, as a replacement for dharma, had been successfully introduced in India during the British period through the decadal censuses; that the introduction of the Western concept of secularism was therefore justified to deal with the problems of religious life in India. More than seventy years have passed since secularism was adopted as a possible solution to the problem, but it does not seem to have produced the desired outcome so far.
This raises the question: What went wrong? Could it be that the close connection between European secularism and Christianity was overlooked when the concept was applied to India? Was Indian reality perceived through a European lens and the European solution applied to an Indian problem unthinkingly, thereby creating or aggravating the very problem it was meant to solve in Europe, in India; that the treatment created the disease? Was the fact also overlooked that Europe faced a sectarian problem, not a religious one? That is to say, Europe faced the problem of conflict among different sects, all of whom professed Christianity, while India faced the problem of conflict among various religions. Could a solution meant to resolve an inter-sectarian problem, be applied to an inter-religious problem, such as the one faced by India?
Let us, however, adopt a historical approach to the issue for a moment. Then it becomes clear that just after World War II, when India became Independent and the Constitution was framed, the key term invoked in matters of religion was secularism. Let us now fast-forward to our own times. Is the word secularism still the flavour of the season? To a certain extent it is, but there has also been a new development. In the interval, the West has witnessed what has been sometimes referred to as “marbling”. The word refers to the fact that the West, which was previously monochromatic, has changed. The West, which was overwhelmingly Christian until the end of World War II, has now sizable minorities following religions other than Christianity within its borders, with the result that it finds itself as much in an inter-religious situation as an inter-sectarian one. The word now increasingly being used, as a response to this new situation, is pluralism.
What then is the difference between secularism and pluralism? Secularism wants to keep religion in general, and any religion in particular, out of the public square; pluralism wants to find a place for all of the religions, and ideologies, in the public square. Both want to avoid the public square being dominated by any religion (or sect or ideology); secularism wants to achieve this result by keeping religion out of it altogether, pluralism wants to prevent it from being dominated by any one religion by allowing all an equal place at the table.
Perhaps our Constitution would be more in sync with the dharmic traditions of India if it adopted pluralism rather than secularism as its guiding principle. Perhaps it is not too late to make the change.
Arvind Sharma, formerly of the IAS, is the Birks Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill University in Montreal Canada, where he has taught for over thirty years. He has also taught in Australia and the United States and at Nalanda University in India. He has published extensively in the fields of Indian religions and world religions.