Secularism in India

Secularism is the principle of separation of state from religion or religion institutions. It suggests keeping the two things totally apart. It is close to the Vedic concept of ‘Dharma Nirapekshata’ meaning the indifference of the state to religion. As per the Indian philosophy, it is also related to ‘Sarva Dharma Sambhava” i.e. the destination of paths laid down by all the religions is the same, though the paths themselves may be different. In all, it suggests that all religions propagate to have equal respect for each other’s religion as all focus on harmony and love.

In a wider concept, secularism aims to guarantee individuals the freedom to religion with true religious righteousness, tolerance and reasonable limitations for the freedom of faith and worship. Apart from the religious view, the principles of secularism also focus on freedom of conscience and the equality of respect for all the people.

History of Secularism in India

The concept of Secularism has been deep-rooted to the Vedic age when the four Vedas and the explanation of Upanishads reflected the religious plurality of Hinduism which aimed for the integration of different spiritual traditions into a common stream. In Ancient India, Hinduism was labelled as Santam Dharma, which had a similar approach for a holistic religion by the integration of different ideas and beliefs.

Around the third century B.C., Emperor Ashoka became the first great emperor who made the implicit secularism explicit and in his 12th Rock Edict (narratives carved on rocks), he appealed for the forbearance of all religious sects as well as the development of a cordial spirit of respect toward each other’s beliefs.[1]

With the advent and continuing existence of Jainism, Buddhism and later Islam and Christianity in India, the religious toleration and coexistence of varied faiths have developed over some time and has enriched the cultural heritage of India throughout. In medieval times, the movements like Sufi and Bhakti movements were not religion specific; rather they focused on bonding people of different communities together with love and peace.[2]

Further in the fifteenth century, one of the most secular emperors of India, Akbar, formed a religion consolidating the essential features of both Islam and Hinduism. This newly formed religion is still recognised as a great historical event. Back then, it was famed as Din-i-Ilahi. This great emperor also reflected secularism in its policies which aimed for equality towards all. For eg- Jizya, a tax which was levied on the non-Muslims was abolished by him. He had several Hindus as his ministers.[3] So, it is quite evident that the idea of secularism was still embedded in India’s cultural history.

Secular state under the Indian Constitution

During the discussions of the Constituent Assembly, the two major Secularism principles of the United States of America namely “free-exercise clause” and “non-establishment clause” were pondered upon. The free-exercise clause suggested that any individual can adopt any religion of his/her choice without any interference of the state while the non-establishment clause meant that the state shall not interfere with any religion and also cannot establish any church as stated by the court in Everson v. Board of Education.

The members of the constituent assembly agreed for the inclusion of Free-exercise clause fully but negated the insertion of the latter as it would destroy the unity of India as a country. Providing complete freedom of religion with no interference will abrogate all the progressive policies of India as a nation.

For eg- If no positive interference was shown by the government in the abolition of social evils like child marriage and sati which were prevalent and acceptable in a particular religion, it will certainly debar the country from developing. Hence, in India, America’s free exercise provision was adopted fully and the non-establishment clause partially.[4]

In further discussion of declaring India as a secular state and incorporating the word ‘secular’ in the Indian Preamble, Nehru and Ambedkar were of the view that though there exists secularism it cannot be specified in the preamble because the real essence of Secularism has still not been accepted by India.

As mentioned by the fathers of the constitution, the purest form of secularism required no government intervention in matters related to providing any policies with relation to quota, uplifting of minorities, or uplifting the women or abolishing any social evils prevalent in the society. Thus, it demanded absolute independence of the religion with absolutely no intervention of the government. Consequently, along that line, the decision of not incorporating the word ‘secular’ was taken as it cannot be implemented in its true sense.[5]

However, during the two years long emergency in 1976, the term ‘secular’ was introduced in the preamble of the Indian Constitution through the Forty Second Amendment in the era of Indira Gandhi. According to the then head of the government, Indira Gandhi, secularism was an integral part of the Constitution and the introducing the term “secular” was of prime necessity.

Evolution and topical state

With time, the wide spectrum of Secularism was conquered and its scope of interpretation was considered by the courts. The Supreme Court held that Secularism is one of the basic structures of the Constitution for it propagates the idea of positive and equal treatment of all religions and that was a necessity for a diversified country like India.[6]

In the same case, the court laid down that if any party or organisation fights election on the grounds which may proximately erode the principles of the Constitution would be guilty of following an unconstitutional course of action.[7]

India’s test of Secularism was in the recent Ayodhya Judgement, the dispute between two communities, Hindu and Muslims, which have remained at loggerheads since ages and there is no sign of their harmony in near future as the there disharmonized situation has been used as the vote bank for elections.

Ayodhya Dispute

In 1885, Mahant Raghubar Das filed a suit in the Faizabad District Court for the land ownership of the land on which the mosque was built in Babur’s reign in the Fourteenth century. The suit was dismissed by the court.[8]

After the tranquillity of sixty years, in 1934, riots occurred and Hindus dismantled a part of the structure, which was later reconstructed by the Britishers. In December 1949, Hindu idols were found in the mosque and it was contended that the Hindus entered the place and placed the discovered idols. The disputed area was soon shut down by the authorities.[9]

Again, the matter was fueled, in 1992, when the demolition of the Babri Masjid was organised to gain political mileage, by the ruling government of the Uttar Pradesh government of that time. Since then, this particular organisation has not let the fire of communalism blow out.

In 2002, a series of suits were filed and the case went to the Allahabad High Court. The Court ordered the Archeological Survey of India(ASI) to cautiously scrutinize the disputed site and prepare a report. The reports of the ASI were of not much use, however, the court in the interest of all divided the disputed land, amongst the three parties- the Rama Lalla, the Nirmohi Akhara and the Muslims.

The matter was, further, taken to the Supreme Court. The Court tried to settle the case through mediation but that couldn’t help. After referring to the reports of ASI and all the other evidence, the court gave the disputed land of 2.77 acres to Ram Lalla, the Sunni Waqf Board was granted 5 acres of land. The court contended that SunniWaqfBoard couldn’t prove “adverse possession” means the continuous, uninterrupted and peaceful possession of the land.[10]

Anatomy of the SC Judgment

In the longest-running property dispute case of India, there was no major evidence to conclude with the assurance that the site belonged to either of the sides. The report submitted by ASI specified that in the first century, a temple was built by King Vikramaditya and the mosque was erected in the sixteenth century.[11] There is no data about what happened to that place in this gap of fifteen centuries( first to the sixteenth century).

If the temple was demolished for a mosque then how the remains were not removed or reused and found after four centuries. The question of fact was whether there was any existence of symbols of Hinduism before the Babri Masjid. Unfortunately, the court forgot to investigate this question.

The judgment given was not only of a property dispute but of sensitive religious sentiments which have been a delicate affair due to the rough path of the two communities in question. Also, in this particular case, it was collectively fuelled for political mileage. So, the court was confused since all its attempts had gone to waste and no judgement has been laid till now.

In 2019, the determination of the ruling party for judgment on Ayodhya case made the Supreme Court lay down a judgement which was quoted to be the ‘fairest’ judgement that they could have given which led to both the communities. In other words, and in the light of the agenda of the ruling party, it can be said that they did fulfil the promise of “Mandir Wahi Banega” made to their vote bank and will continue to foster it further.


In today’s time, when communal politics serves the major vote bank of the parties, the Idea of India as a secular country is a utopia. India has failed to implement secularism in the true sense and failed to achieve its objective of harmony among the communities in many scenarios. In a country like India, where religion is embedded in every individual and every substance, it is always used for escalating unrest and taking due advantage of it.

Also, secularism cannot be implemented in its true sense as the standards of Nehru suggested that there will be no reservations and minority upliftment programs in a secular country.

Secularism has been misunderstood in many ways. In India, Secularism has an altogether different meaning. It was discussed and introduced for giving complete freedom to an individual and at the same time keeping a check that the rights of the others given by the Indian Constitution are taken care of.

In a pluralistic society like India, the best approach is to harmonize the communities in the aforementioned sense of Secularism, where religious freedom is expanded and state neutrality is persisted. It is of prime importance to ensure value-education to make the upcoming generation appreciate and understand the religious traditions of all the existing religions in the country.

[1] Ranbir Singh and Karambir Singh, Secularism in India: Challenges and its Future, Vol. 69, no.3, THE INDIAN JOURNAL OF POLITICAL SCIENCE, 597, 599.

[2] Secularism, DHRISHTIIAS (June 21st, 8 pm)

[3] Ibid.

[4] Vidhi Marwaha, Yash Dhawan, India’s Secularism- Myth or Reality, Vol 1 Issue 2,LEGALFOXES LAW TIMES, 1,2. (2019) (hereinafter “IS”)

[5] Ibid at 3.

[6] S.R. Bommai v. Union of India (1994) 2 SCR 644: AIR 1994 SC 1918: (1994)3 SCC1

[7] Ibid.

[8] Anonymous, Ayodhya Chronicle: Timeline of the Ram Janmabhoomi land title dispute, HINDU BUSINESS LINE. (June 22nd, 11 pm)

[9] Ibid.

[10] IS at 7.

[11] IS at 7.

Rishabh Gupta from Symbiosis International Deemed University

“He ventures to learn and write on different aspects of law and has a keen interest in Criminal Law.

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