By Bhanu Dhamija
India’s ambitious experiment with freedom of religion has failed. Our insipid brand of secularism, based on states’ active engagement amid stated religious neutrality, has led to the appeasement of a few, but empowers none and brings injustice for all. Instead of uniting our society, it has fomented fragmentation and alienation among our diverse religious communities.
The Hindu majority has now risen against years of over-accommodation of the Muslim minority. This puts the country at risk of losing its tolerant and pluralistic democracy. India today desperately needs a new definition of secularism, one based on freedom of religion, equality before law, and separation of religion and state.
All of these requirements are essential for secularism to work in any country. Indian secularism fails because it allows governments to grant religious freedoms, but not to treat religions equally. The biggest failure in this regard began in the early years of the republic, when the government codified Hindu social customs into law but allowed Muslims to continue practising Sharia law. For seven decades, the requirement of a uniform civil code has remained a Directive Principle in India’s Constitution.
This lack of separation of religion and state has eaten away at India’s religious amity. Governments engage in all sorts of religious activities and play favourites. They own and operate places of worship, fund religious schools, grant tax exemptions to religious outfits, award them government contracts, allot them public lands, and take people on religious pilgrimages. Both central and state governments are engaged in this free-for-all because the Constitution places “religious institutions” in the Concurrent List.
Many of India’s founding fathers opposed such government involvement. They wanted to place separation of religion and state provisions in the Constitution, but were ignored. HV Kamath suggested in the Constituent Assembly that a clause be added, stating, “The State shall not establish, endow, or patronise any particular religion.” KT Shah wanted to add that “the State in India being secular shall have no concern with any religion.” But BR Ambedkar refused their amendments outright, saying he had “nothing to add”. When Kamath objected to being so summarily rejected the Speaker responded “we cannot compel Dr Ambedkar to give reasons.”
Without constitutional restrictions on state sponsorship of religious activities, Indian secularism turned into a carte blanche for governments to do as they pleased. They began exploiting religious communities with special treatment, sops and populist slogans.
Nehru saw secularism as a tool for bringing about socialism. The word “secular”, he wrote in a 1952 letter to Congress chief ministers, meant more than the “free play of all religions … [and] conveys the idea of social and political equality. Thus a caste-ridden society is not properly secular.” Granville Austin, famous chronicler of India’s Constitution, wrote, “Nehru’s inclusive definitions of ‘communalism’, and of ‘secularism’ as its remedy, were widely shared, which made their semantic trap all the more insidious. They created more difficulties than they resolved.”
Today, the Modi wave among the Hindu majority has shattered the Nehruvian concept of secularism. And for good reasons; Nehru’s approach was impractical in its denial of all communal identities, and it was open to abuse by governments. Now the majority is flexing its muscle and taking revenge for years of minority appeasement. This makes it all the more necessary that India adopt real secularism, lest the pendulum swing too far, and allow Hindu chauvinism to take over India’s democracy.
But this time we must adopt genuine secularism, with all three essential ingredients: freedom, equality and separation. Freedom of religion is already enshrined in India’s Constitution. Work is needed on the other two, and they must be enacted through legislation.
For religious equality before law, we must pass a uniform civil code. India can make progress by persuading the Muslim minority in two ways. First, ensure that all government benefits (subsidies, aid, welfare, etc) are distributed under uniform rules. For example, subsidised ration is made available to each household on the basis of one husband/ one wife.
Second, repeal all religious privileges granted under the Criminal Procedures Code of the country. This would ensure that states’ police powers and assistance are applied on a uniform basis. So if a Muslim woman seeks assistance in a divorce, she is treated the same as a woman from any other community.
As for the separation of religion and state, India should pass a constitutional amendment along the lines of the First Amendment of the US Constitution: that Parliament “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Any attempt by the Hindu majority to say that separation of religion and state is not needed because their religion is secular by nature, is disingenuous. And even if that were true, the community would have nothing to lose or fear if the law of the land reaffirms its secular credentials. If Hindutva is Bhartiyata and is inclusive and plural, as they say, then let it be expressed in statute.
Religion is surely a personal matter, in which politicians, legislators, and bureaucrats do not belong. Our current variety of insipid secularism has only led to abuse by our politicians, violence on our streets, and mischief in our courts. It is time for India to join the league of great nations, and adopt true secularism.
Times of India, August 9, 2017