Western Secularism vs Indian Secularism

Before getting into what is western secularism and Indian one. Firstly, let’s see what does this word means. In general the idea of secularism is based on the idea that state and religion are different and they must work on its own. Secular derives from the Latin word ‘saeculum,’ which meaning age, period, century, this age, etc. and indirectly signifies the world of change, samsar, and is used indiscriminately both in the West and in India. According to the Random House Dictionary, the term “secular” refers to “worldly things that are not considered religious, spiritual, or sacred.” A comparable definition can be found in the Encyclopedia Britannica. Although India’s 42nd Amendment to the Constitution called the country a “sovereign, socialist, secular democratic republic,” the country’s position as a fully secular nation is still up for debate. Secularism is accepted as freedom of religion in many Western countries, implying equal treatment regardless of religious affiliation and separation of church and state.

The only criterion of Indian secularism is that all religions are treated equally. This is not to imply that India should follow the Western secularist model. Multi culturalist paradigms are under assault even in Western countries where religion and state are legally separated. For example, France’s ban on burkinis, xenophobia in the post-Brexit United Kingdom, and backlash against Angela Merkel’s pro-migration policy all reflect unresolved tensions in the secular-religious balance. Nonetheless, understanding India’s secularism is essential for achieving better levels of equality and harmony in a country that is battling to maintain its pluralistic unity.  Secularism emerged as a byproduct of market morality as capitalism grew. It was founded on the need for individual freedom in the market, which would neither be limited by one’s religious beliefs, nor would religion block the market’s functioning. To put it another way, “secularism” was a requirement for people who, because of their mobile riches, sought market and profit. Following the 1640s, this new aristocracy gained political power.

Western idea of secularism:

The United States has a secular state, but not a secular society. The United Kingdom is a secular culture, but not a secular state. Only Australia has a secular state as well as a secular society. Furthermore, even when equivalent results have been accomplished in different Western societies, the pathways taken to get there have often been extremely different. The United States and France have both formed secular governments. However, in France, this was accomplished through the mobilisation of violent anti-religious forces, but in the United States, it was accomplished without such mobilisation. Similarly, both the United Kingdom and France have predominantly secular civilizations. However, in France, secularisation was accompanied by enormous clashes between Church and state.

Firstly let’s go through the history of secularism or this concept arose. Because of the religious and political order, a reform known as the Protestant Reformation upset the religious and political order in places like Europe in 1517. Furthermore, there were a succession of religious wars in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, the most prominent of which being the Thirty Years War[1].

The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) was a civil religious conflict in Germany between Protestants and Roman Catholics. This conflict began when Ferdinand II, Holy Roman Emperor, attempted to enforce religious conformity on the populace by pushing Roman Catholicism on them. This conflict began as a religious civil war, but it quickly evolved into a power fight. This conflict becomes one of the deadliest in history, and it concludes with the establishment of a new system based on the peaceful coexistence of sovereign nations, as well as a norm to prevent involvement in another state’s domestic affairs, all of which is known as the Peace of Westphalia. According to some experts, this Westphalian system established the foundation for the international system that we use today[2].

A philosopher’s idea began to emerge, and the most prominent of these was John Locke, also known as the “Father of Liberalism.” It was just a thought, but he was aware that one of the implications of state-sponsored religion is that states will go to war for religion. After that, the western concept of secularism begins to evolve, although the name “secularism” has yet to be coined. The endeavour of “Thomason Jefferson” crystallised the Western concept of secularism, which is also known as Jeffersonians secularism because he played a vital part in instituting secularism in the United States via the first amendment. The total separation of the religious institution from the state institution, as well as the freedom of conscience for all individuals limited only by the need for public order and the respect for the rights of others, are some of the tenets of western secularism. The state will not discriminate against individuals based on their beliefs. Despite the fact that the term “secularism” had not yet been coined, it was finally coined by George Jacob Holyoke in the nineteenth century. Secularism, according to him, is a social order distinct from religion that does not overtly condemn religious belief. Because Jacob was a British reformer, the concept of secularism has spread throughout India thanks to colonisation. 

Secularism in pre capitalist Europe:

Religious intolerance and non-secular praxis characterised Europe’s pre-capitalist social structures and cultural legacies. In the lack of civil society, such activity was an intrinsic component of social life for the bulk of the population, notably in many pre-capitalist social formations. It was a historical social category, with several global analogues, in which religious dissenters were persecuted for centuries. John Locke was fighting for religious tolerance in England not long ago, in the latter half of the 17th century. It’s worth reading his A Letter On Tolerance (1689). That was written against the backdrop of the bourgeois democratic revolution, which had weakened the English landed nobility politically. However, it remained a culturally hostile culture, unwilling to accept differing religious ideas and practises. The many Christian faiths were at odds with one another, with the Protestants dominating[3]. Once victims of Catholic control, the Protestants were now in a position of power following the victory of the civil war of the 1640s. The publication of Locke’s Letter and the passage of the Act of Toleration by the British parliament, which offered dissenters some freedom, happened to fall on the same day. Separation of religion concerns of persons from governance, as well as separation of religion interests of two individuals, was established by the act. The government would be limited to “their worldly matters,” while people would be responsible for their religious problems.

The rise of civil society and secularism, i.e. the growth of tolerance and freedom to pursue one’s salvation, was not without bumps. As Antony Black has shown, their progress was not pre-programmed into Christianity or European civilization. The Greco-Roman ‘Civilitas,’ according to Black (2001), was a “”In contrast to the umma of Islamic west Asia, there was an expressly secular dimension to the conception of society,” which was present in European civilisation as shown in Dante’s umana civilta. In fact, it’s possible that secularisation was built into Christianity from the start.” Black’s claims that Christianity has a built-in mechanism for advancement are not new. A minor clue of expanding freedom under Christianity can be found in Hegel. However, he noted that it progressed in the era of global history, and Marx explicitly mentions either early Christianity or Christianity under capitalism as a progressive force [Dickey and Nisbet 1999: Marx and Engels 1978]. Their ways to comprehending Christianity, however, were not the same as Black’s. Hegel and Marx never considered Christianity to be “superhistorical.” Rather, for them, it was a historical category that played both reactionary and progressive roles in various contexts.

The case of U.S.:

The instance of the United States is particularly intriguing. For there, as in India, we may investigate what occurs when an ostensibly secular state reigns over a strongly religious population: a society in which religious concerns constantly erupt and strive to impose themselves on the political arena. Many of the major political conflicts that have shaped the United States can only be understood in this light: the mid-nineteenth-century abolitionist struggle against slavery, the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century prohibitionist struggle against the production and consumption of alcohol, the anti-abortion crusade since the 1960s, and even  (though it is hardly in the same league) the struggle over the president’s sexual morality today.

These were not only significant conflicts in American hisotry, but all of them defined conflicts that absorbed millions of activists and voters’ energy and ingenuity and played a major role in the definition of their political loyalties. As we will see, everyone is a demonstration of a recurring fight between the heritages of a Puritan Protestant tradition, which seeks to make the US a godly society by the State and a ‘secular’ coalition that denies any government activity that aims to encourage a certain kind of godliness. The United States is also particularly interesting, as the concept of the “fundamentalism of religion” was invented. It was first used in the 1920s, not to refer to Islamic, Hindu or other foreign zealots, but to mention home-grown evangelical zealots fighting secular humanism in all its forms and particularly in the classroom, where a ‘fundamentalists’ mass movement attempted to ban Darwinian theory and replace it with ‘creation’ science based on the ‘historical fact’ revealed in Theology. In fact, these zealots invented the term “fundamentalist” for self description [Marsden, 1991][4].

Indian secularism:     

In India, secularism means that all religions are treated equally. According to Dr. Radha Krishanana, no religion should be given preferential status or unique distinction, and no religion should be given special privileges in national life or international relations, as this would be a violation of democracy’s fundamental principles and contrary to religion and government’s best interests. Dr. V.P. Luthra explains the three systems that are common in western counties. To begin with, there is a secular system, which implies that religion is treated as a private matter in which the state is uninvolved[5].

The Indian constitutional framework tried, by establishing a state that would guarantee citizens’ rights while creating the conditions for democratic citizenship, to link its new state to ideas of modernity and liberalism.. Balancing the two goals was especially challenging with respect to religion, as illustrated by the emergence of a peculiar Indian understanding of laicism, which requires religious failure but not separation. Supporters argue that this brand of secularism best suits the specific social and historical conditions of independent Indian countries. Indian secularists, on the other hand, accurately recognise the Indian state’s unique approach to religion-state interactions as fitting for the Indian environment and consistent with India’s constitutional purpose.

Because of the tortuous path to secularism that has characterised contemporary India’s history, an explanation of how religious sects evolved into majority or minority populations during the colonial period’s modernisation process is required. Due to the fragmentation of political authority present throughout the subcontinent, religious identities in India were originally linked to sects within local communities that had a balanced and largely autonomous relationship with states[6]. Multiculturalism has been passed down through the years in India. India is a melting pot of faiths and cultures. Because of its pluralism, India has a distinct identity over the world. A country must have a single language, culture, and history, as well as one religion and one history. India, on the other hand, is an exception. People of diverse religions and cultures live in India, but the country continues to exist as a nation. India’s religious diversity is well-known all across the world. India’s multiculturalism stems from the fact that it is the cradle of numerous religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, and Jainism. In a country like India, religion is significant since it is the most essential component of our cultural society and customs.[7] Because of the diversity of religions, we need to create a platform that allows people of all faiths to coexist peacefully while also ensuring fairness among all religious groups, which is why the notion of secularism was included in the constitution.

Previously, the term “secular” was not specifically stated in the Indian constitution, but with the passage of the 42nd amendment, India is now formally recognised as a secular nation, as the preamble declares. In India, everyone has the right to use public facilities such as hospitals, schools, police, fire, and transportation, regardless of their religion. Because of their religious views or practises, no one has the right to be denied access to these services. The state is also unable to impose a tax on any individual or any group, and it is prohibited from promoting specific religious ideas in educational institutions.

The separation of religion and governmental concerns is at the heart of secularism. It assures religious organisations that the state will not interfere in their religious affairs and that the state will refrain from adopting any particular religious viewpoint. However, secularism has recently been thrown into disarray. “India is a secular country,” Justice Virkamjit Sen stated, “but I don’t know how much longer it will be.” In today’s world, secularism has devolved into vote-bank politics, in which religious minority, particularly Muslims, have been “appeased” at the expense of and against the interests of the Hindu majority.

What does the court says:

The Supreme Court has often stated that secularism is the most crucial factor and that it is an inherent feature of the Indian constitution that cannot be changed in any way. The Supreme Court stated its views on the Constitution’s secular nature for the first time in “Sardar Syedna Taher Saifuddin Saheb v. the State of Bombay[8],” declaring that “Articles 25, and 26 reflect the notion of religious freedom.” The Supreme Court ruled in Mohd. Hanif Qureshi v. the State of Bihar[9], often known as the “Qureshi Cow-Slaughter Case,” that “the State ban on cow slaughter did not violate the religious rights of Muslims.” In the case of “S.R. Bommai vs Union of India[10],” his view was enshrined in the decision of Kesavananda Bharati v. the State of Kerala[11], which reaffirmed that secularism was a component of the essential framework. “The Indian Constitution’s idea of secularism is broadly compatible with the First Amendment of the United States Constitution,” the justices in the S.R. Bommaies case go on to say.

Nature and practice of secularism in India :

Some argue that the guarantee of a secular state in the Indian Constitution is merely a showpiece, and that India is not a secular state. They believe the government should become involved in religious concerns. The Indian constitution gives financial assistance to all religions in order to help them prosper. Government representatives attend religious festivals and celebrate the birth anniversaries of religious leaders, declaring a holiday on behalf of the government on that day or the next day. Religious leaders’ programmes were carried on TV and radio by the government. In the guise of classification, state legislation can discriminate between adherents of different religions and change the laws of diverse religions in the public benefit. In truth, India isn’t entirely natural when it comes to religion. The state takes interest in the religious matters. It cannot, however, discriminate between religions and adheres to the equality principle. India is a secular state in this sense since it does not construct a religious organisation. “Secularism rests on two things: religious freedom and equality before the law,” Smith writes, “and the constitution of India meets these two prerequisites.” India is, in this sense, a secular state. In the same manner that India is a democratic country, it is also a secular one.[12]


While the revolutionary masses in classical western secularism separated religion and state, the ties between them remained intact in India, despite the fact that the state was non-theocratic. Second, unlike India, religious minorities in the West did not develop as a distinct constitutional group with its own set of rights and laws. These two contrasts had their own set of consequences. In the first scenario, while a segment of the radical bourgeoisie in the west became anti-religionist, it was universally refuted in India. In the second situation, whereas the western world developed an uniform civil code, India did not. Marriage/succession/property connections were still governed by old mediaeval ecclesiastical regulations. The constituent assembly authorised these measures to be implemented as part of governance, which were later acknowledged as an Indian type of secularism, rejecting the previous pre-Tilakite Congress beliefs that opposed the formation of religious minorities.

Secularism is a verifiable truth, not a concept created by the educated. If secularism is not implemented, the country will be divided into many regions, with individuals demanding independent states based on religion, ethnicity, caste, race, language, and economic conditions, among other things. “His conclusion is that reservations were used as a tactic to get votes, and the country had to pay a very hefty price for this,” says Amar Chandel. It has nearly divided the country along caste lines, completing the divide-and-rule disaster begun by the British in 1857.

[1] Western Secularism and Colonial Legacy in India, Economic and Political Weekly , Jan. 14-20, 2006, Vol. 41, No. 2 (Jan. 14-20, 2006), pp. 158-165

[2] Dickey, Laurence and H B Nisbet (eds) (1999): Hegel, Political Writings. CUP, Cambridge, p 197

[3] Bramstead, E K and K J Melhuish (eds) (1978): Western Liberalism: A history ​of Documents from Locke to Croce, London, pp 182-84.

[4] American Communalism and Indian Secularism: Religion and Politics in India and the West, : Economic and Political Weekly , Apr. 10-16, 1999, Vol. 34, No. 15 (Apr. 10-16, 1999), pp. 887-892.

[5]SECULARISM IN INDIA : CHALLENGES AND ITS FUTURE, The Indian Journal of Political Science , JULY – SEPT., 2008, Vol. 69, No. 3 (JULY – SEPT., 2008), pp. 597-607

[6] B. Stein, A History of India , Oxford, 1998, p26

[7]The question of secularism ,The question of secularism – iPleaders( last visited june 16,2021)

[8]  1962 SCR Supl. (2) 496

[9]  1958 AIR 731

[10]  1994 SCC (3) 1

[11] (1973) 4 SCC 225

[12] 13. Dr. B.L. Fadia, Indian govt. and politics, s.b publications, 2003 p 199

Author: Raghav from B.R. National Law University, Haryana.

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