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Here’s Why India’s Idea Of Secular State Is Better Than Western Secularism

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Usman Khan argues that secularism adopted by India, where state looks after all religions, is ‘far superior to the western definition of state indifference’ to religious groups. 

For the last decade, India and the region itself has been home to a great debate about secularism within India and whether the Republic of India was truly ever secular? With the existence of Hindu Personal Law and Muslim Personal Law patriots, located in Pakistan and in India, have argued that secularism in India was a lie and the country was religious from the start.

This argument has been used in India to justify the growing right-wing movement as well as the rising threat of Hindutva. Many have even gone as far as to say that the country was naturally tilted towards Muslims in its appeasement and rather than being secular, the Indian state was more like a front supporting Muslims and suppressing Hindus. Anybody that has taken an opposing stance to this thinking has been targeted and severely criticised.

Certificates of patriotism and declaration of traitors have become a common method in suppressing any voice of dissent that looks to criticise the above views. Needless to say that the thinking of such ideas is absolutely wrong and is not based on factual grounds.

When secularism is spoken in the western world, then it is immediately taken to be as a synonym to separation of state and religion. This doctrine is considered as the most basic and most encompassing ground in a secular state. 

Examples of the ‘Establishment Clause’ in the US First Amendment is often given as the basic secular structure of a modern state. Many intellectuals that peddle the above argument highlight that secularism is exactly like the secularism witnessed in the western world and there exists no other secular concept and the moment the state undertakes religious tones, it has abandoned its secular credentials. This is indeed true for the western definition yet the region of the subcontinent had its own definition for secular.

The region of the subcontinent is home to various religions and ethnicities and historically kings could not openly declare any religion as a heretic. They could claim the superiority of their religion but they had to support other religions as well. This was especially true for large empires such as Guptas and the Mughals where even Aurangzeb is said to have built temples and provided funds for their renovation, wherever he felt necessary for his influence and power. The Guptas and Kushans patronised religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, as well and played an important role in their growth.

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The region has a long history of secularism that is very different. The diversity of the region made it abundantly clear to any ruler that, if its empire is to survive for a long time, then it cannot declare other groups heretic except one nor could it separate state from religion and bring forth a singular code to be followed by all. That would only agitate the situation even more and break the empire with a religious fire. This fact was well known as the British as well, who immediately started to bring forth the concept of Personal Law.

The British rule, if seen from the definition of Western secularism, was not secular at all since they have adopted multitudes of religious laws rather than implement a single secular code which neither established nor favoured any religion. In 1947, the Indian leadership was well aware of two very important things. That religion cannot be ignored from state affairs nor can state display the religious indifference found in the western world. If that is done then events like the partition would be repeated in India yet India could not become a religious state, since unlike Pakistan, it had sizable minorities of Muslims, Christians, Parsis, Buddhists, and many other religions that demanded their own personal laws and their separate legal code.

To put one legal code based on a single religious tone would have broken the country or would have led to riots similar to the partition violence. The state could not bring forth an indifferent legal code born with concepts of natural justice and natural law, which again would have been seen as an act against all religions and the results would have been the same.

This great debate saw India adopt another form of secularism. This form was the exact opposite of Western secularism and it focused on the state taking the burden of all religions. Rather than indifference, the Indian state decided to treat all religions equally and pass their relevant laws and answer their concerns to create religious harmony where the state would patronise all religions and through that create equality as well as formulate the state as an important part in the lives of the people.

It looked to bridge the gap between state and people and it bridged the gap between all religions. This was a monumental task, taken by a nascent country but it had to be done. There was no other away available to the founding fathers of India. This form of secularism crushed the state under the burden of religion and allowed for a situation where nobody was happy by the state’s effort and the right-wing which had repeatedly, in fiery speeches, told the populace of how the state has suppressed Hindus, saw a great opportunity to gain power by highlighting the religious nature of the state and how it was making overtures to Muslims whilst conveniently ignoring how it had also codified Hindu dharmic law, something which was not seen in the region ever.

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Today the Indian state is under siege where the so-called patriots desire to trample down on everything the founding fathers had worked so hard to maintain and eradicate the most basic form of secularism that is formulated in our multi-religious societies which ranged from Northern Africa to the seas of Japan.

The beauty of these regions is the diversity and how states produced their own definition of secularism and became some of the largest and most prosperous nations in history and frankly, this definition of secularism, where state looks after all religions, is far superior to the western definition. Whether India continues to stand with this secularism, or bow down to the whims of the extremists, that is for the future to decide but it can be stated that if such failure is witnessed then it would be a sad chapter to write in the pages of history.

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2 Comments

  1. Ahmed July 23, 2020

    It’s amazing how in order to promote secularism you change the definition of it. It is exactly how it has been defined in the English language. Indifference to all religions.
    Muslims in India have their own laws. This is accepted by the state. This thing of a state allowing people to have their own laws/courts is a part and parcel of an Islamic state. Now would you call that secular? No.
    Also I want to about how Islam is allowed to be practiced in a secular state. Islam required that the state laws be those of the Quran and Sunnah. Will you allow this in your secular state?

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  2. Mr Avidya September 13, 2020

    The argument that India was never a secular state and the political parties are appeasing the Muslims is completely valid. The best example of this is the Shah Bano case and this the trigger point for BJP to rise.
    There is no such thing called dharmic law in Hindusim that’s why it was never seen in the region. Hinduism is pretty democratized and does not dictate people’s personal choices. Hindus Kings never declare Hinduism as state religion because religion was never a center point for gaining influence, unlike Mughal.
    British use Personal law as a tool to thwarting rebellion, and gain the favor of a religious community.

    The state’s recognition of personal laws has also the legitimate discriminatory treatment of women in the name of religion. The Muslim personal law in every manner is discriminatory against women.

    In the modern world, we can’t have different laws based on religion. The western model of secularism is the perfect model for the growth of the nation. The countries which have state religion most of them are failed state or have a very serious problem which hinders their growth the best example is Pakistan.

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