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Buddhist monks at the Sera Monastery during a festival. The monastery was granted asylum by India and relocated to Mysore after the Chinese invasion of Tibet.

The Hindi word that is commonly albeit incorrectly used for "[secularism]" in India is dharmanirapekshata (धर्मनिरपेक्षता) and which ought to mean "indifference towards religion" but actually means "indifference to duty or Justice" The word Dharma is not to be confused with religion, it implies a broader definition encompassing duty,Justice and virtuousness.The correct Hindi term is 'Panthnirpekshta' meaning "indifference towards matters of faith".The state cannot be Dharma neutral as that would imply abdication of duty [1]. The usage itself denotes the understanding of secularism as more a policy of political practice than a philosophy in itself. The other Sanskrit word that is used for it is dharmanirapekshavada (धर्मनिरपेक्षवाद) where the suffix vada is the same as ism and denotes the philosophical aspect of secularism. However, the plurality of religions, religious pluralism (the view that all religions are equally valid), and cultural (and communal) concerns greatly influence the various ways in which secularism has developed and is looked at on in India. Prominently in Indian soil, secularism is more a subject of politics than of metaphysics or even values, at present. The other philosophical viewpoint that is often confused with secularism is religious pluralism, or the view that all religions are equally valid ways of religious expression or salvation.

The Preamble of the Constitution of India declares that India is a secular state.[1] The term secularism in politics refers to the governmental practice of indifference towards religion. Though such bifurcation is not totally possible, still, secular politics attempts to prevent religious philosophies or bodies from influencing governmental policies. The philosophy that the Indian constitution upholds on to is a kind of secular humanism made relevant through a historical development of the ideology within the context of religious pluralism in India.



The history of Indian secularism has roots in the protest movements in the 5th century B.C. The three main protest movements were by the Charvakas (a secularistic and materialistic philosophical movement), Buddhism, and Jainism. All three of them rejected the authority of the Vedas and any importance of belief in a deity.[2]

However, it was in the 18th century, when the British East India Company began to gain total control over India that ideas of secularism began to have impact on the Indian mind. Until then, religion was considered to be inseparable from political and social life. On the other hand, the British codified laws pertaining to practices within religions on the sub-continents. To this effect they instituted separate laws for Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Parsis and others. In doing so they laid the foundation for a civil code which remains largely unchanged to date. This is a major grouse for the Hindu right wing politicians who insist that there should be a uniform civil code for all citizens. For example, believers of all faiths other than Islam are legally bound to be monogamous while those who practice or convert to Islam are permitted up to four marriages.

Religious laws


On conversions

Religious conversions are a contentious issue in India. It is opposed mainly by the right wing organizations like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, and the Bajrang Dal. States such as Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, and Arunachal Pradesh have passed bills that have criminalized forced religious conversions...

On marriage

As the Shah Bano case demonstrated, successive governments have failed to enact a uniform civil code as regards to marriages, and in this case, the dissolution thereof. A significant observation from this case was that despite a direct ruling from the Supreme Court of India, the Rajiv Gandhi government, in pandering to the Muslim vote bank[3] not only failed to protect the interests of a divorced female in a secular and even handed manner (Shah Bano was 62 and a mother five when her husband divorced her), the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986 was enacted, further exacerbating Muslim women's plight[4].


While the pluralist view of Mahatma Gandhi, that all religions are equal, has a strong impact, there are movements like those of the dalits (depressed classes) and the communists who have criticized such a view. Gandhi himself was a devout man and instilled devotion in the Independence Struggle. The Sikhs are as well (except for the Khalistani Sikh Extremists). However, the certain sections of Indian society including the Hindutva movement have always opposed the form of secularism in India as really being pseudo-secularism .[5]

However, there is obvious difference between secularism practised in India and elsewhere. The western model of secularism means that religion and politics are separate from each other (Caesar and God theory). In other words, polity does not enter in religious affairs and religion in political affairs. This also means that political mechanism cannot correct problems inside a religious group. However, Indian society being a mixture of religions, is always prone to dominance and conflicts. Moreover, the issues such as casteism is particularly of religious origin. In order to mitigate the harmful effects of casteism and other source of conflicts and human right violations arising out of religions, it is necessary that polity/government be able to meddle with religious affairs. As a result of several year's efforts to detoxify the religions, Government has been able to reduce the effects of casteism and modernize the Hindu personal laws. However, the country is far from having a common civil code. As far as other religions are concerned, government has only limited success in correcting human right violations such as atrocities against women in Islam.

However, ability of Government to indulge in religious affairs also boomeranged. Religions and castes increased their influence on political parties. As a result, politico-religio-regional chauvinism is becoming more common in contemporary Indian Politics. Thus, practising the Indian Brand of secularism (mutual tolerance instead of mutual respect) in the last 60 years, failed to produce communal harmony and trust. Liberhann Commission which investigated the Babri Masjid Incident, has recommended that religion be delinked from politics and that Politicians must not garner votes preaching religion or caste. The Indian experiment on secularism is here to continue.


  1. ^
  2. ^ Domenic Marbaniang, Secularism in India: Historical Outline:
  3. ^ Thomas R. Metcalf (2002). A concise history of India. Cambridge University Press. p. 257. ISBN 0521639743, 9780521639743. "Rajiv Gandhi cared little about the Shah Bano case himself, and no doubt would have preferred a common civil code; nevertheless he saw in the opposition to this supreme court decision a heaven-sent opportunity to draw Muslim voters to the Congress cause." 
  4. ^ Arvind Rajagopal (2001). Politics After Television. Cambridge University Press. p. 290. ISBN 0521648394, 9780521648394. "When it became clear that Muslim leaders were steering votes away from the Congress, then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi made an about face and supported a February 1986 bill favoring Islamic law rather than the Criminal Procedure Code for divorced Muslim women. The Minister of State for Home Affairs, Arif Mohammed Khan, resigned in protest at the government's volte-face." 
  5. ^ Domenic Marbaniang, Perspectives on Indian Secularism

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