The Curious Case of Indian Secularism

by Siddharth Khatri

Secularism is the belief that the state should not interfere or get involved in the organization of society or government. Secularism in India existed in practice since ancient times, as Sarva Dharma Sadbhav. This apart, secularism in India’s context was never clearly defined by either our constitutional experts or political class. As a matter of fact, the Indian society has always been a religiously oriented society. Every definition of secularism doing the rounds on the internet and in books however focuses on total exclusion of religion from the political arena in the Indian context.

There are several problems in defining secularism in the Indian context. Both during colonial and post-colonial periods, the Indian society has been a traditional society dominated by various customs and traditions with a deep religious orientation. For the liberal and progressive intellectuals, on the other hand, secularism meant the total exclusion of religion from the political arena.

The Preamble of the Indian Constitution, in its current state, declares India to be a Sovereign, Socialist, Secular, Democratic republic. The Preamble, as adopted in 1950, did not have the words “Secular and Democratic”. Dr. Ambedkar held that the Assembly should leave the policy of the state, and other socio-economic matters to the intellect of the people, as including the word secular would make future India undemocratic. Moreover, it was widely agreed upon that since India has been a secular country all along, it would continue to remain so in the future as well. So adding this term would be no more than a time-wasting exercise. The secular nature of the State was, however, reflected through various articles in the Indian Constitution. It was much later in 1976, that the word secular was added in the Preamble to the Constitution vide the 42nd Amendment Act, 1976).

Secularism as a well-defined ideology emerged in the west, and to that effect, may well be called a western construct. George Holyoake coined the term secularism to define an ideology accommodative of all religions, an ideology thus attracting both theists and atheists. In mid-nineteenth-century England, George Holyoake coined the term “secularism” to name an orientation to life designed to attract both theists and atheists under its banner. He advocated secularism which is accommodative of religion, secularism that would emphasize diversities and co-existences in matters of faith. Around the same time, Bradlaugh believed in secularism which rejected religion and made science his deity.

Secularism in India is a shade different from both strands of secularism mentioned above. Indian secularism calls for maintaining the principled distance between religion and the state. Maintenance of principled distance does not mean that the state will not and cannot intervene in religious affairs. On the contrary, it underlines that any intervention by the state must be within the limitations set down by the constitution.

Secularism as one of the inherent guiding principles of the Indian constitution was challenged at the time of the drafting of the Indian Constitution. In contemporary times, calls for a relook over the relevance of secularism in India have arisen simply because secularism in India has since long been misused and very often misemployed by the ruling elite. Well until the passage of the Triple Talaq Bill, Indian Constitutional and legislative history was wrought with the anomaly of the usage of legislation to bring about reforms largely in the majority religion. The clamor of reforms in the minority community, especially from the oppressed sections, was tactfully swept under the rug, allegedly for political gains.

Take for instance the Shah Bano case of 1986, wherein the Parliament, vide the Muslim Women Protection of Rights on Divorce Act, diluted the judgment of the honorable Supreme Court. This was a clear overriding of the Constitution of India and the principles enshrined therein, those of secularism, equality, and justice.


In a truly secular state, all citizens irrespective of religion or gender are governed by a single set of laws. India is an exception as it has different Codes and Acts which govern different communities.  While Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists are covered by the Hindu code bills (Hindu Marriage Act, Hindu Succession Act, etc.), Muslims are covered by Muslim Personal laws, and Christians are covered by Christian Personal laws. So, Hindus, Muslims, Christians & Parsis inherit property differently and have different rules for marriage, divorce, and adoption among other things. A Uniform Civil Code based not only on religion but also on gender can undo all past un-secular anomalies. A lot, however, depends on the political will and maturity displayed by the Indian political class. There have been instances wherein the politicians have resorted to making unwarranted and unsolicited statements to prove their secular credentials, which ironically end up exposing their inherently communal mindsets.

Secularism is not inherently flawed if practiced in the truest sense. It should be practiced in letter and spirit, instead of using it as a potential tool to score potential brownie points. At the end of the day, India must become a truly secular country where a single set of rules govern all Indian citizens, irrespective of religion, gender, caste, or creed. Thus, a Uniform Civil Code is the need of the hour to make India a truly secular state.

About the Author:

Siddharth Khatri is pursuing Ph.D. in Russian and Central Asian Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University.  He loves to write on a variety of issues, ranging from societal issues to domestic and international policymaking.


  1. Appreciated bro ♥️👌👍

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