In India, the idea of secularism is ever present in public debates and discussions, yet there is something very perplexing about the state of secularism in India. On the one hand, almost every politician swears by it. Every political party professes to be secular. On the other hand, all kinds of anxieties and doubts beset secularism in India. Secularism is challenged not only by clerics and religious nationalists but by some politicians, social activists and even academics.

What is Secularism?

In our own country, the Constitution declares that every Indian citizen has a right to live with freedom and dignity in any part of the country.

Yet in reality, many forms of exclusion and discrimination continue to persist.

There is discrimination in one form or the other and members of one community are targeted and victimised on account of their religious identity. In other words, basic freedoms of a set of citizens are denied.

Secularism is first and foremost a doctrine that opposes all such forms of inter-religious domination. This is however only one crucial aspect of the concept of secularism.

An equally important dimension of secularism is its opposition to intra-religious domination

Religious domination cannot be identified only with interreligious domination. It takes another conspicuous form, namely, intra-religious domination. As secularism is opposed to all forms of institutionalised religious domination, it challenges not merely interreligious but also intra-religious domination.

As a general idea, secularism is a normative doctrine which seeks to realise a secular society, i.e., one devoid of either inter-religious or intra-religious domination.

Put positively, it promotes freedom within religions, and equality between, as well as within, religions.


All secular states have one thing in common: they are neither theocratic nor do they establish a religion. However, in most commonly prevalent conceptions, inspired mainly by the American model, separation of religion and state is understood as mutual exclusion: the state will not intervene in the affairs of religion and, in the same manner, religion will not interfere in the affairs of the state.

No policy of the state can have an exclusively religious rationale. No religious classification can be the basis of any public policy. If this happened there is illegitimate intrusion of religion in the state.

Similarly, the state cannot aid any religious institution. It cannot give financial support to educational institutions run by religious communities. Nor can it hinder the activities of religious communities, as long as they are within the broad limits set by the law of the land.

Finally, this form of mainstream secularism has no place for the idea of statesupported religious reform.


Indian secularism is fundamentally different from Western secularism. Indian secularism does not focus only on church-state separation and the idea of inter-religious equality is crucial to the Indian conception

Indian secularism deals not only with religious freedom of individuals but also with religious freedom of minority communities. Within it, an individual has the right to profess the religion of his or her choice. Likewise, religious minorities also have a right to exist and to maintain their own culture and educational institutions. A third difference is this. Since a secular state must be concerned equally with intra-religious domination, Indian secularism has made room for and is compatible with the idea of state-supported religious reform. Thus, the Indian constitution bans untouchability. The Indian state has enacted several laws abolishing child marriage and lifting the taboo on inter-caste marriage sanctioned by Hinduism.


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