Last updateSat, 22 Jul 2017 6am

You are here: Home | Agenda | Peace-building | Secular rethink

Secular rethink

Is it time to accept that secularism as we have known it has failed India in many ways? Should we begin to redefine ‘secularism’ with the aim of embracing, rather than obliterating, multiple identities based on religion, region, caste, language, etc? Members of Citizens for Peace, a Mumbai CSO, reflect on their 20-year journey from an unquestioning faith in secularism to a more nuanced questioning

Secularism as we have known it has failed India in many ways. The whole idea of secularism needs introspection and fresh thinking to make it more vibrant and relevant for this century.

In the past, many of us who were committed to secular ideals became impatient with any opposition to ‘secularism’, as we perceived it to be the very soul of India. This is certainly true for most of us who are active in Citizens for Peace (CfP). So we began by acknowledging that the diverse, sharp, opposing and sometimes bitter responses to the very term ‘secularism’ need to be understood more deeply and, wherever possible, with empathy.

For instance, for some, India is already a richly plural and secular country; in their view, this heritage must simply be reaffirmed and protected. Others argue that secularism has become a farce, a political ploy, which should now either be abandoned or redefined to ensure unity rather than diversity. The space between these extreme views is rife with powerful and conflicting emotions that, over the last two decades, have bitterly divided not only communities but even families and friends within a community.

Perhaps it is time to look beyond the immediate details of each conflict and reflect on what role all of us, as ordinary citizens, can play in fostering positive energies. 


Secularism can be seen as a construct, a kind of meeting space bringing together diverse faiths, castes and language groups. Some Indians interpret secularism as ‘sarva dharma sambhava’ (equal respect for all religions) and see this as a vital element of civilisations that have flourished on our subcontinent. Others feel that secularism is a term imported from the European experience of separating church from state, and is thus out of place in Indian culture. Additionally, they argue that India is a predominantly Hindu nation which, over the last 1,000 years, was first colonised by Muslims and later by the Europeans. From this vantage point, the demolition of the Babri Masjid is seen as a necessary step towards the empowerment of Hindus -- not only as an act of ‘historical justice’ but to counter the alleged favouritism by state machinery towards both religious minorities as well as disadvantaged castes.

Why should any of this matter to the 50% of Indians who are currently under 25 years of age? Partly because these young people witness and experience a great deal of shadow-boxing between forces vaguely labelled ‘communal’ and ‘secular’. This, in turn, fosters confusion, frustration and fear at a time of proliferating violence, simmering formless hatred, and corrosive tension. 

So where do we go from here -- as a nation and also as individuals who have a sense of identity and affinity for a particular religion, caste, region? 

We can start by accepting that the model and practice of secularism that has emerged since Independence has left many Indians dissatisfied and disturbed. We at CfP, therefore, decided to review the idea and practice of secularism in a fresh, non-reactive manner. Since 2005, we have been examining various dimensions of secularism over the past 60 years, and holding discussions with those who have knowledge and/or strong views on the subject. For instance, some Hindus feel that secularism has been used as a tool by certain political parties to garner Muslim and Christian votes. Among the most bitter issues in this context are: the special status of the Kashmir valley; the subsidy to Muslims towards Haj expenses; state management of many Hindu religious trusts while those of minority communities are left out of state purview; the continuance of different civil codes, above all the Muslim Women’s Protection of Rights on Divorce Act, 1986 following the Shah Bano case which denied divorced Muslim women the right to maintenance beyond the three months of iddat by their husbands as provided in the Indian Civil Code; the existence of some mosques on the sites of destroyed temples.

At the same time, some Muslims feel they have been rendered second-class citizens. In most outbreaks of communal violence a bulk of the casualties are Muslims. And in most such cases, the victims (usually belonging to minority communities such as Muslims and, in some cases, Christians) have found the police to be either passive or colluding with the attackers. After such incidents, victims have more often than not been denied justice in the courts. Muslims experience problems renting or buying homes in many metropolitan cities. They are also discriminated against when it comes to employment in certain private sector companies. The Sachar Committee report documents that a majority of Muslims are socially and economically disadvantaged.

In many parts of India, Hindu groups and Christian groups are caught up in violent conflict over the issue of conversion. Additionally, caste conflicts such as the dispute between Gujjars and Meenas have turned increasingly bitter. The reservation matter has also brought to the surface the sharp divide between what have traditionally been upper castes and scheduled tribes and other backward classes.

For 60 years we have relied on the government to address, mediate and resolve such conflicts. Now there is much greater awareness about the need for creative initiatives by social groups and institutions working both to strengthen grassroots processes as well as to ensure accountability from the powers-that-be.

Secularism, as it relates to the actions and policies of the state, is only one part of the challenge we face. What is really at stake is India’s future, not merely as a nation but as a civilisation that thrives on the pluralism of multiple identities based on professed or rejected faiths (including atheists or non-believers), caste, and regional and linguistic affinity.

Here, pluralism does not mean erasing differences in identity but rather retaining multiple identities on the basis of a fundamental ethical coherence arising from the core values of the right to life and the right to dignity as inalienable rights of every human being. 

The terms ‘communal’ and ‘secular’ are often used loosely and can be misleading. There is an urgent need for open, self-critical reflection which sets aside stereotypes as well as facile assumptions both in relation to specific communities and ideological frameworks. Only then might we have a closer understanding of what really divides people. This endeavour depends on two imperatives: a social process to acknowledge and analyse the genuine angst that different communities feel, rather than dismissing it as imaginary or irrelevant; and a social and political culture of equal respect between communities.

This, in turn, has two vital requirements: (a) dharm nirpekshta: treatment by the state of all faiths on a non-preferential basis, fully ensuring equality of all before the law; (b) sarva dharma sambhava: mutual acceptance of people of other faiths at the level of the individual and civil society. This means that while we don’t always have to be ‘happy’ with each other, or feel a sense of affinity with our neighbour, we are able to cohabit in social, economic and other public spaces in ways where conflict, differences, dissonance and other divisive factors are addressed in collective, peaceful and democratic ways.

Indian society and democracy is in the process of refining the term ‘secularism’ in ways that are uniquely our own and embracing, rather than obliterating, multiple identities -- religious, regional, caste, language, etc.

So how do we move towards a finer, rejuvenated secularism in ways that both widen and deepen our democracy?

Strengths we can build upon

Dialogue is possible even in the face of sharp disagreements, provided we are willing to listen to the grievances or anxieties of the other side instead of dismissing them as invalid, irrelevant or false. Such a dialogue can be an ongoing process in which the mutual angst between ‘communalists’ and ‘secularists’ can at least be expressed in a non-combative manner. This does not mean that answers or a ‘resolution’ are waiting around the corner. But the willingness to talk, listen and understand releases positive energy. A dialogue is vastly different from a debate. A dialogue enables a much broader, multi-faceted conversation instead of two opposing views in a face-off. A dialogue means shared reflection and an open exchange of competing aspirations -- on the basis of reason rather than raw passion and/or prejudice.

The aspiration for secularism is deeply embedded in our country. This is true in both its dimensions -- the separation of religious identity from the exercise of state power, and a cultural ethos of living with differences of every kind: religion, region and caste. The Constitution of India is a sure and steady base from which to engage with a diverse range of people who might otherwise be divided by hierarchy, hatred and/or prejudice. The Fundamental Principles of the Indian Constitution are a sound basis for an egalitarian democracy. The surest protection against the virus of identity-based dissension and violence is to improve the health of the democratic process and bolster the immune system of civil society.

‘Love Thy Neighbour’ is an ideal that has been practised by countless communities that did not like one another. Yes, this subcontinent has seen violent conflicts between many communities through the centuries (Buddhism versus Vedic Hinduism, Shaivite versus Vaishnavite, Shia versus Sunni, Hindu versus Muslim, various religions versus adivasis). But this is only part of the story. There is also evidence of a sustained social ethos in which people of different castes, religions and regions co-existed and interacted constructively.

However, it is not enough to celebrate these traditions of pluralism and diversity. In the 21st century, a viable secular polity and society needs a new negotiation of spaces within the contemporary framework of justice and dignity for all. This would mean rejecting both oppressive domination and/or manipulation by any group, be it a majority community or a minority. It also means a special emphasis on gender justice within each community.

Twenty years ago, many of us were active proponents of a uniform civil code that would ensure social justice, particularly for women, in all religious groups. Over the years, we have realised that this ought not to become a contest between the Hindu majority and various minority communities. Rather, the challenge lies in reforming all civil codes, of all religious groups, in order to make them consistent with progressive definitions of the rights of women and children.

Obstacles on the path ahead

The boundaries, or lakshman rekhas, of basic public norms have been violated too often both by those who occupy public office and non-state actors who deploy brute force in the form of vandalism and intimidation. There can be neither stable governance nor a secular public culture unless these boundaries are re-established and zealously maintained across lines of caste, religion and regional affiliation. This is not merely a challenge to ensure better accountability from elected and other public officials; it is equally, or more, vital that citizens from every walk of life apply the norms to themselves in all situations. The repeated failure of the state machinery to act with impartiality towards all communities is one of the biggest hurdles. In too many incidents, the rule of law has been selectively applied to different communities. In some parts of India, notably Kashmir and the Northeast, the armed forces have repeatedly violated the basic rights of citizens and continue to do so despite appeals, protests and pressure from citizens and civil society. These failures of governance have been vociferously opposed by human rights activists. But mass violence has, disturbingly, found a fair amount of public approval in too many cases -- in Delhi during the violence following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in the Kashmir valley at various points, in Mumbai during the 1992-93 riots and, more recently, in Gujarat in 2002.

Equal respect for all faiths also has its challenges. For instance, patriarchy is a faultline that runs through all faiths, creating conflicts between the orthodoxy of all religions with the more liberal values of modern governance and civil law. A creative secular culture has to contend with the challenge of respecting multiple faiths whilst also standing firmly in favour of values such as gender equality. The fate of India’s adivasis -- their unique sense of identity based on their traditional affinity with ecosystems and other lifeforms -- may well be the most challenging test of whether we can build a plural secular culture. Since the conflicts that afflict adivasi communities are usually posed as ‘development’ versus ‘anti-development’, their place in the national discourse on identity, democracy and justice tends to be obscured.

Taking the secular rethink process forward

This process of reflection and rethinking calls for engagement with a wide range of groups and individuals who hold diverse perspectives. What are some of the more creative and imaginative forms that this engagement could take? Ideally, we need a dynamic and active interface between the dispersed energies of civil society, the electoral process of state power, and the many organised competing pressure groups with their diverse agendas -- be they votaries of Hindutva, Islam, Christianity, dalits, or of linguistic and/or regional separatism. This will, hopefully, create more space for the issues of discontent and self-esteem of various communities to be heard, understood and resolved within the democratic framework -- both within electoral politics and in the non-electoral spaces of civil society.

We are now in a situation where what we would otherwise regard as default commonsense needs to be clearly articulated as a message. This exercise has to be carried out by every sector of society -- business circles, political parties, religious communities, caste- or region-based organisations, and professionals. CfP is attempting to make a small contribution in this endeavour through its PeaceTalks initiative (www.peacetalkscfp.org). The binding energy, and inspiration, for these endeavours comes from knowing that differences can be faced and thereby addressed to foster respect for all.  

(Citizens for Peace (CfP) is a Mumbai-based volunteer group that was born as a response to the communal violence that rocked the city in 1992-93. This text has been drafted by Rajni Bakshi and the other trustees of CfP: Devieka Bhojwani, Dilip D’Souza, Dolly Thakore, Gulan Kripalani, Pervin Varma, Rina Kamath and Titoo Ahluwalia)

Infochange News & Features, October 2011