Secularism in the Indian context is the positive connotation of the word. It refers to “equal respect for all religions”. In this, it differs from the negative connotation adopted by the western countries, where it means a total separation between the Church and the State, with each of them not interfering in the affairs of the other.
India is a multi-religious society with religion playing an important part in almost all phases of peoples’ lives. It has a millennia long history of syncretism, with Christians, Jews, Muslims and Parsis emigrating and getting assimilated in its composite culture. India itself is the birth-place of the remaining major world religions – Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.
Therefore, at the time of independence, it would not have been possible to strictly divorce religion from the affairs of the State. So our constitution makers adopted the positive connotation.
As per Indian secularism, the State itself does not have any religion – “Dharma nirpekshta”. It gives equal importance and extends equal opportunities to all religions “Sarva Dharma Sambhav”, allowing all of them to co-exist and flourish.
Articles 25-28 in the constitution provide for free profession, practice and propagation of religion, freedom to various denominations to manage religious affairs, and exempt religious institutions from payment of taxes.
At the same time, it lays down constitutional protections to safeguard the religious customs and practices of the minorities and enables them to administer their educational institutions as a fundamental right.
While the Western secularism puts the Church and State into silos, Indian secularism allows the State to interfere in secular affairs related to religion, such as economic, financial or political activities related with religious practices. State thus manages the Wakf boards as well as major temples within the country.
Article 44 of the Constitution also directs the State to enact a Uniform Civil Code to harmonize the personal laws that are religion-based and different for different religions at present.
In the seven decades since independence, there have been incidents which have led to blemishes on the secular fabric of India. Rise of communalism and fringe elements threatens India’s history of communal harmony and peace. However, the culture of tolerance and respect for all religions prevails, and the examples of such culture far outnumber the former incidents.
For example, Hindus celebrate the festival of Makarsankranti by flying kites, and most of the kite-makers belong to the Muslim community. Muslims and Hindus respectfully close down their shops during the processions of Muharram and Ganesh Chaturthi.
Supreme Court rulings over the years have also ensured that the secular ethos of India is maintained, and that religion does not interfere or impinge upon the fundamental rights guaranteed to the individuals.
Thus, Indian secularism is a unique concept that has been adopted and devised keeping in mind the unique needs and characteristics of the Indian culture. It denotes the core principles of tolerance and respect that have been ingrained into the Indian conscience since millennia.