For the Day:

Secularism Defined

The mask of a developmental regime promising rapid industrial expansion and millions of jobs for the mass of unemployed youth – ‘acche din’ for everyone – is being exposed. we are witnessing a hideous explosion of the cultural politics of the Extreme Right, overt acclamations of a Hindu rashtra; a wide-ranging takeover of educational and cultural institutions by the RSS; a rampant culture of violence targeting freedom of expression, freedom of religion, intellectual freedoms, even the freedom of the young to love; a calculated drive to communalise voters in North India with hate campaigns that have led to the horrid lynchings at Dadri and Udhampur; a shocking subversion of the judicial system through a concerted drive to secure the release of elements indicted on fake encounter and terrorism charges; fabrication of evidence to crush a handful of individuals who have campaigned for justice for the victims of the Gujarat violence; and of course the brazen murder of anti-superstition crusaders. Yes, as Irfan Engineer says, the fabric of India’s democracy is today being torn to shreds.

What is secularism?
I begin by explaining what I mean by the terms secular, secularism, and secularizing. Secular is that which relates to the world but is distinct from the religious. Secularism involves questioning the control that religious organizations have over social institutions. It does not deny the presence of religion in a society but demarcates the social institutions over which religion can or cannot exercise control. This distinction is important. Secularizing is the process by which a society changes and recognizes the distinction.
When the term was first used in 1851, ‘secular’ had only one basic meaning. It argued in support of the fact that laws relating to social ethics, values and morals had been created by human society in order to ensure the well-being and harmonious functioning of the society. They were neither the creation of divine authority, nor did they require the sanction of divine authority. Religious authority may claim such a sanction but in effect the laws can exist without it.

Authority lay in reasoning out what was best for society by those who constituted that society. Authority was exercised through laws. Social values, therefore, frequently had their roots in reasoning and rational thinking. This was especially needed where the intention was and is to establish a moral code that required the agreement of the entire society and was not linked to any particular religion.

Civil laws
What this means is that the laws and social values that govern society should be observed as laws in themselves and not because they carry divine sanctions. They have their own authority distinct from religion or caste. Religion, involving belief and faith in a deity and in an after-life, and such like, continued to exist. However, civil laws were promulgated and upheld by the secular authority. Secularism, therefore is not a denial of religion. But it is a curtailment of the control that religion has over social functioning, a control exercised through diverse religious organization.

This theory had a variety of consequences. One was that it allowed people the freedom to think beyond what was told them as being religiously correct. Again, this did not mean throwing religion overboard, but disentangling the codes of social behaviour from religious control. This did not make people immoral as some had feared, since the threat of punishment for breaking laws was enforced, and punishment came immediately in this life. It was not postponed to the next life as in religious codes. So it made people think about the purpose of their laws and that is always useful. The observance of the law is strengthened when people understand why it exists.

Most people are socialized into religion from childhood and do not question it. It gradually becomes a psychological support and as such there is even less need to question the belief. Having to reason things out is never as easy as just accepting what one is told. It means that people have to learn to think independently. This can be facilitated if the kind of education they were given enabled them to reason out their decisions.

The alternative
The alternative is to make them dependent on an unknown supernatural power. The explanation of everything being part of divine plan and sanction was not always the answer to simple questions. Therefore, education involves searching for explanations other than those based on faith and belief, or possibly even honing these if there is evidence. But preferably social laws begin to be drawn from enquiring into both the natural and human world in which we live. So the explanations for social laws become an essential part of education and of thinking about the implication of being secularized.

Religion had originated as a personal, emotional need. For many it remains so. This extended to explanations of how the universe functioned, which was attributed to a supernatural power that was held in awe. Gradually, however, this personalized religion became a complex organized religion and took the form of institutions ambitious to control society and politics. With this change, religion became powerful both as the focus of belief and as an authority controlling social institutions through various religious organizations.

In some places its power paralleled that of the governing authority – the state. It is this particular aspect of religion that the secular person wishes to see curtailed and kept separate from the functioning of the state. This makes it necessary to concede the presence of the secular in the constitution of a democracy. The distinction between religion and the religious control over social institutions is important because we often overlook it in saying that secularism denies religion altogether.

Additional meaning
Secularism, then, takes on an additional meaning. The State having authority over the making and observing of laws by human agencies should be distinct from religion since religion has its sanction from another source, namely faith and deity. The authority of each is clearly different.

Let me repeat, the secular is not a denial of religion. It is not the equivalent of atheism. Secularism does not mean expunging religion. But the control of religious organizations over social laws and institutions has to be limited.

Civil laws
Civil laws are the spine of a society. They should protect the rights to human life, and they should ensure that there is no discrimination that affects life and work. This is crucial to protecting the points of change in a human lifetime necessitating laws – birth, marriage or even its break-up, processes of education by which a child is socialized into society, occupation and employment, and inheritance particularly of what is thought of as property. These come under the jurisdiction of the civil law.

To make this effective, such laws relating to the functioning of society and the social life of humans, have necessarily to provide the basic aspects of welfare in a modern state – the absolute minimum of which are: food and clean water, equal access to education and to health-care for all members of society, and to employment. And this is to be irrespective of religion and caste. If civil laws are to be universal and uniform, as they would be in a secular society, then they must guarantee this. Discrimination on any count would be unacceptable.

So religious authority remains in a secular system. However, it is restricted to governing religious belief and practice. It has been argued that there should be no rigid barrier between religion and the State, but that there can be a negotiated principled distance between them. This can allow for new alignments within the religion, or between the religions, or between religion and the State.

The overall relationship would disallow the dominance of any one religion since each would have equal rights on the State and equal status before the law. Nevertheless, there would be a degree of stipulated separation in this arrangement, in as much as religious authority would no longer be controlling social laws.

Indian definition
The Indian definition of secularism envisages the co-existence of all religions. Rulers in the past that supported this idea, such as the two who are always quoted – Ashoka and Akbar, are spoken of as providing a kind of prelude to secularism. However, the mere coexistence of religions is insufficient as they can still be treated as unequal and some remain marginalized.

When we speak of the religions of India today, we are seldom conscious of the religions of a quarter or more of the population who are at the lower edges of the Society. The acceptance of co-existence together with equal status before the law can certainly be a first step. But we do have to ask how far it goes and what should be the next step.

This definition is incomplete since the question of the jurisdiction of religious authority over society, that is crucial, remains unanswered. The intention would, in any case, be not to put up barriers between state and religion. It would, instead, be to demarcate the activities that come under a civil jurisdiction and those that would continue to be controlled by the organizations representing religious authority. In a democratic system the equality would be essential, as essential as spelling out who controls which laws.

Secularism confronted
In contemporary India the co-existence of religions already exists but the secular is less evident and some might even say, virtually absent. Political and State patronage does not invariably distance itself from religious organizations. In fact the two are sometimes closely tied.

Some oppose secularism by arguing that it is a western concept, not suited to India. Should the same be said about nationhood and democracy, both new to postcolonial India? And surely our internalizing of the neo-liberal market economy is a far stronger imprint of the west. To support the secularizing of society does not mean subordinating ourselves to a western or an alien concept, but rather trying to understand a process of change in our history after independence.

Being a nation is a new experience of modern times, and is current now in virtually every part of the world. We have chosen democracy as the most feasible system despite its being a new experience, and a secular society is essential to democratic functioning.

Secularism and social change
Secularism is the necessary manifestation of a social change that comes with societies that begin to function with modern institutions that are the channels of new political, economic and social forms. It is a concept that accompanies modernization. It assumes new directions in the functions of law and ethics and the relations between religion and the state. We should not look for it in its current form in our pre-modern history.

But what we can search for and of which we have evidence was a long and evident tradition of questioning orthodoxies of various kinds, including religious orthodoxies in Indian religions. This began in the first millennium BC and continued unbroken to the present. A deeper study of these schools of thought would make reasoned thinking more familiar to us and would puncture the idea that Indians never questioned orthodoxy.

When laws are recognized as made by human societies and not divinely dictated, negotiating changes in these laws because of social change that has happened continuously in the past, also gets facilitated.

Romila Thapar
Distinguished historian, author
New Delhi