The term secular was not included in the original constitution. But, the spirit of secularism was ever found in the constitution. The Preamble declares that the constitution secures ‘to all citizens liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship’. The 42 Amendment Act, 1976 inserted the term ‘secular’ in the Preamble.

Secularism: Western View

The concept of secularism refers to guaranteeing every individual the liberty of managing his religious affairs, embracing a religion and worship. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘secularism means being non-spiritual and having no concern with religious matters. It is used in the sense of being opposed to religion. However, secularism and religion are not hostile to each other but are mutually exclusive. Secularism does not oppose religion or advocate the abandonment of religion. Religion and secularism can perfectly coexist. It refers to being neutral to religious affairs.

Secularism in India

The western view of secularism is not acceptable in the Indian context. The founding fathers of the constitution sought to establish India as a secular state. It is ‘the state that is not going to make any discrimination whatsoever on the ground of religion or community against any person professing any particular form of religious faith. This means, in essence that no particular religion in the state will receive any state patronage whatsoever. The state is not going to establish, patronize or endow any particular religion to the exclusion of or in preference to others and that no citizen in the state will have any preferential treatment or will be discriminated against simply on the ground that he professed a particular form of religion. In other words, in the affairs of the state the professing of any particular religion will not be taken into consideration at all.’

The constitution guarantees the following freedoms to all persons in India:

  1. Freedom of conscience and the right to profess practise and propagate a religion of his faith
    (Article 25).
  2. Freedom to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes and administer their affairs (Article 26).
  3. Freedom to own and acquire properties (Article 26).
  4. The right not pay any tax for the promotion of any particular religion (Article 27).
  5. Prohibition on imparting religious instructions in the state-run/state-funded educational institutions (Article 28).
  6. Prohibiting discrimination with regard to places of public importance (Article 15).
  7. Providing equal opportunity in matters of public employment (Article 16).
  8. Right of the minorities to conserve their language, script and culture (Article 29).
  9. Right of the minorities to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice
    (Article 30).

This clearly indicates that secularism in Indian context is based on ‘freedom, equality and tolerance’. The constitution does not erect a wall separating state and religion. It requires the state to be non partisan. The state will not identify itself with any religion. The state is neither theistic nor theocratic nor an atheistic state. The state is envisaged as an ‘Irreligious State’. Moreover, the constitution guarantees the right to religion subject to reasonable restrictions so that equality is established. Thus, Indian secularism is a ‘progressive’ concept.

Every individual is guaranteed with the right to conscience that is, one can embrace any religious faith, or remain agnostic or even atheistic. The state shall keep itself away from ‘man–God’ relations and shall only regulate the ‘man–man’ relations. The Supreme Court has held that the right to conscience is an absolute right and must not be subject to regulation. Irrespective of this the state shall treat every individual equally and must not treat any one preferentially or discriminate any of them. The state must keep equidistance from all religions. In case of any privilege or patronage accorded to any religion shall be available to all religions equally. All religions must be provided with equal opportunity for development. The provisions of Articles 14, 15 and 16 guarantee equality by prohibiting any discrimination on the ground of religion. Towards promoting equality, Article 44 directs the state to secure a uniform civil code for all citizens.

The religious denominations/groups are guaranteed the freedom to manage their religious affairs and establish institutions for that purpose. They also have the right to acquire and own property as a fundamental right even after the constitution (44 Amendment Act) which repealed the right to property as a fundamental right. On the same lines the educational institutions established by the minorities also enjoy the right to property as fundamental right. Further, the constitution guarantees the right not to pay tax if the proceeds of such tax are to be used for the promotion of any particular religion. This is a towering feature of Indian secularism. Tax is compulsory exaction of money and the power to impose tax is an important feature of sovereign power.

The state-run or state-funded educational institutions are prohibited from imparting any religious instructions. However, the institutions set-up by the religious groups, imparting religious instructions are permitted but no one should be compelled to receive them. In case of minors, the consent of their parents or guardians is essential for imparting religious instructions. This is fully in conformation with the Preamble and Article 25 (1) which guarantees the right to conscience as an absolute freedom.

Given the complexities of Indian culture, the debate on secularism is different from that in other countries. In India the religion happens to be the basis for the caste and the associated discriminatory practices. Traditionally the social evil practices such as untouchability, gender disparity, etc., were justified on ground of religion. Hence, the restrictions on this right are essential. Further, the state needs to be empowered to regulate the right in order to promote social reforms. It is also essential to regulate the economic, financial, political or other secular activity which may be associated with religious practice. Similarly, the educational institutions established by the minorities are also subjected to the regulation of the state with respect to the quality of education. The state must prevent any regressive education in the garb of religious freedom.

The constitution guarantees the right to the individuals and conferred power on the state to create conducive conditions for the smooth and harmonious exercise of the same. Thus, the concept of secularism in India is a progressive one.

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