Chapter 3: Meanings of Being a Secular State: A Critical Evaluation

The Church’s Mission and Post-Modern Humanism
by M. M. Thomas

Chapter 3: Meanings of Being a Secular State: A Critical Evaluation

A talk at the Seminar on the topic at Kottarakara, Kerala on 18 November 1995


The word “Secularism” is used in India usually in relation to the idea of the Secular State which has been established in the religiously pluralistic context of India. The Constitution of India when formulated by the Constituent Assembly did not have the word “secular” to denote the character of the State in independent India, but it was assumed in several of its clauses. But the word was added later in the seventies through an amendment. The Supreme Court of India has declared it to be a basic character of the Indian state which should not be changed.

It essentially aims at avoiding the medieval pattern of state which was “theocratic”. All traditional states and societies in the medieval period have been theocracies. State and society were integrated with the authority of one or other single “established” religion whose sanction determined the law of citizenship and social structure. In medieval Europe it was Christendom, and in the Arab countries it was Islamic, and in India it was Hindu or Islamic. A theocracy gives first class citizenship only to the adherents of the established religion; the others are legally restricted in their religious practices and discriminated adversely in social life and in the provision of social opportunities. The Secular State is anti-theocratic in the sense that the State has no special relation to any one religion. Therefore the adherents of all religions and no religion have the same status and rights of citizenship including freedom of religion/belief and freedom from discrimination in civic life on the basis of religion/belief. It gives all citizens in the land, irrespective of their religious or ideological belief or affiliation,

1 This historical part has already been given in essay No. 2

2 Characterised as “Closed Secularism” in Essay No. 2

the right to cooperate in the building of the national community as a “fraternity” of individual persons and peoples on the basis of equality before the law of the land.

In the Indian national movement, from the time national struggle for freedom became militant, there has been a conflict between “secular” nationalism and “theocratic (Hindu/Islamic)” nationalisms. Gandhi with his reformed Hinduism and Nehru with his secular humanist belief reinforced the secular idea of politics and state, against the theocratic. Though partition of India and the communal (Hindu/Muslim) killings at the time of Independence and the Hindu ideologist assassination of Gandhi showed the strength of the theocratic ideology in Indian politics, the Union of India established itself as a secular nation-state1. Even today the secular versus theocratic political ideology is an important part of the Indian political scenario.

There are various approaches to religion and religions which have gone into the make up of Indian secularism. The advocates of each of these approaches have their own interpretation of the political meaning of it. Three of these deserve special mention.

1. The idea that secularism confines religion to the private realm and bars it from any relation to the public life which is to be guided purely by secularist ideologies which deny any religious view of reality2

2. That secularism is based on the doctrine of the equality of religions.

3. That secularism means that the State guarantees the security of the laws and structures of family and society of religious communities which have the sanction of traditional religion.

We shall evaluate these critically to point out their lopsidedness in the light of a more adequate definition of secularism. A positive idea of secularism will, I hope, get clarified in the process of this critical evaluation.

Firstly, the approach of anti-religious philosophy of secularism. The early Liberal Rationalist Nehru and Dialectical Materialist E.M. Sankaran Nampoothiripad have maintained the position that Secularism means that religion is a “private” affair, of individual’s belief and worship and that it should not have anything to do ultimately with “public” life of state or society. EMS often quotes Jesus’ words, Give to God and Caesar what belongs to each, with this interpretation.

There is a good deal of truth in this interpretation if we look historically at the emergence of the idea of the secular state in Europe and India. In the former, the Catholic-Protestant War to secure domination of public life lasted three decades before they listened to the rationalist proposal to build nation-states which were common to all who lived in the territory irrespective of their religious affiliation or their atheistic faith. The Hindu-Muslim communal riots in India also made a certain separation of religion from public education and party-politics a necessity for public peace in India. And if we look at the dominant influence shaping modern Indian public life, it has been the impact of Liberal or Marxian secular humanist ideology. The Preamble of the Constitution of India speaks of “We the People” committing ourselves to build a nation-state as the instrument of a new society based on liberty, equality, fraternity and justice. The first three comes from the slogans of the French Revolution and the last is inspired by the Russian revolution.

Nevertheless, the logical goal of this “secularist” (as different from an “open secular”) interpretation is that the State should be a sort of anti-theo “theocracy” with some anti-religious ideology as its established “quasi-religion”, promoting secularization of all public life. Kamal Pasha tried this in Turkey, Stalin in the Soviet Union and Mao in China. In these countries the right of individual to practice religion in the privacy of their religious group was legally granted, but the right to propagate it (either to educate children and youth in it or to make its insights the basis of a prophetic role in politics, economics or society) was constitutionally banned. That right of propagation was given only to the official ideology. Of course the attempt failed.

In any case, no religion worth the name would accept this interpretation of religion as limited to individual’s piety. If religion is concerned with ultimate Truth or God, it cannot but have its implications for the whole of life, private and public, and therefore the fundamental human right of religious freedom should include the right to express religious faith in prophetic ministry in society and politics in the name of justice. Gandhi has given expression to his position that he cannot conceive of religion and politics in separation.

In fact, the religious view considers the secularist “mechanical materialist view of reality as too reductionist and as leaving out the “organic” and “spiritual” dimensions of human being and history and therefore as unable to renew the values of humanism and its reverence for life and the dignity of the human person in society in the name of which secularism started to protest against religious authoritarianism. Hitlerism and Stalinism have proved beyond doubt that even secularism can be authoritarian, even totalitarian which leaves no room for any other effective stream of thought and life. Further. secularist ideologies have created a spiritual vacuum in the life of the secularized people. leading many to return to religious fundamentalism and communalism in militant forms. The only answer to such a situation is the witness of the relevance of reformed religions with their holistic view of reality for public life.

Pandit Nehru himself, though remaining skeptical of institutionalized religions, had in later years. given expression in his Interview with Karanjia. to the idea that material advance, if it is to become meaningful and to enhance the quality of life, should recognize the spiritual real iii of eternal values towards which religions point. The Socialist Lohia spoke of the necessity of a synthesis between Indian spirituality and dialectical materialism. Jai Prakash Narain in his last phase, gave up materialism and accepted Gandhian spirituality as the basis of his politics of the Total Revolution.

But that does not mean that religion must enter politics for the purpose of securing power for the religious community. Religion is concerned with the meaning of life and with faith expressing itself in bringing forgiving love in inter-personal relations and justice for the poor and the weaker sections of society in inter-people power-relations of public life. If religions thus eschew separate “communal power” and seek justice in society, there is no reason why for this purpose, they should not bring their specific faith-insights regarding public morality into dialogue and common action through secular multi-religious groups open for faith-interaction among themselves as well as with secular ideologies. Of course, religions should have their separate explorations of their separate theologies of public life, and also their education of the laity for their ministry in the realm of secular public society and state. In institutions of service to the poor, where no issue of power is involved. separate action is legitimate. But in public action involving power, especially in politics, it is better that they work through open multi-religious political parties rather than through political parties confined to the adherents of one religion which runs the risk of falling into the danger of being swayed by religious communal self-interest and search for communal power over against other religious communities. What is called for here is that the religious concern for public life be expressed through the faithful laity and not through the institutional authority of religions, that is. in a secular and not the traditional theocratic manner in a religiously pluralistic situation.

In fact, religions will also be more truly religious if they are not tied to the State and its exercise of power. The insight of the Free Church traditions that the Constantinian establishment of Christianity has perverted the Christian church is important for Christians to remember.

What is called for is a spiritual reinforcement of “Open Secularism” by the renascent religions.

A second interpretation of Secularism is by the advocates of Gandhism and other ideologies of Liberal Hinduism like Radhakrishnan. It declares that the idea of Indian Secularism is an expression of the toleration based on the traditional Hindu doctrine of the equality of religions. Gandhi’s opposition to the two-nation theory of the Muslim League based on religious difference between Hinduism and Islam and the partition of the country arising from it was indeed religious. Gandhi said. Partition means a potent untruth. My whole soul rebels against the idea that Hinduism and Islam represent two antagonistic cultures and doctrines. To assent to such a doctrine for me is a denial of God....we are all, no matter by what name designated. children of God”. Radhakrishnan says, that secularism is based, not on irreligion or atheism, but on “the universality of spiritual values which may be attained by a variety of ways”. Unity is the ultimate reality and not Plurality

Donald Smith In his study of Indian Secularism points out the significant contribution made to the idea by the attitude of toleration arising from the Hindu doctrine of equality and unity of religions.

However, this toleration of plurality is on the spiritual assumption that plurality, (that is, all differences). is unreal. It is a characteristic of the religions which elevate mystic realization of the formless and nameless Spirit as the ultimate human destiny; they consider historical religions with their nama and rupa as belonging to the world of maya to be transcended. For this reason, they cannot comprehend the prophetic religions (the Jewish, the Christian and the Islamic) which emphasize that the ultimate destiny of human beings is to serve God’s Purpose in human history, which Purpose He has revealed in some unique historical Person. Law or Event with nama and rupa. Since Hinduism as a mystic religion cannot comprehend this historical nature of prophetic missionary religions, it gives them also a mystic interpretation; so much so, Hinduism cannot tolerate them until these religions themselves accept the mystic interpretation of the unity and equality of all religions. (This has been clarified by Fr. Sebastian Kappen in his booklet on Understanding Communalism, about which reference is made in several essays.)

Of course democratic toleration is toleration of real plurality and differences. That also requires a doctrine of equality. But it is equality of “persons” and not equality of “gods” or even “ideas”. Persons who in their moral integrity pursues truth may come to accept one religion or another or may reject all religions and acknowledge the truth of atheism; and they should be free to propagate and give expression to the truth as they differently see it. It is in the freedom before the challenge of ultimate Truth and penultimate truths, human persons are equal, an equality that should bc recognized by the law of the state so long as a person respects the same freedom of other persons.

This does not preclude the exploration of mystic and prophetic religions to dialogue with each other regarding the character of interfaith relations. There is a common recognition of the religious dimension of human selfhood in which they are united. Beyond that there must be mutual interpenetration as a result of living together. Certainly equality of religions is one doctrine of inter-religious relations which needs to be discussed among religions. Missionary and prophetic religions have been quite intolerant of other religions in their history; and Hindutva is Hinduism taking into itself the worst inhuman features of that Semitic intolerance which these historical religions are now seeking to shed.  Indeed, all prophetic religions have to learn a great deal from the mystic religious approach which emphasizes unity and equality. But when many in India are attracted by atheistic ideologies and their emphasis on the historical dimension of human destiny, mystic religions can also learn a great deal from prophetic religions which affirm the religious significance of the historical dimension. In fact, all religions and secularist ideologies have a common task which unites them, namely the humanization of the modern technological culture through the development of a common post-modern humanism which incorporates the valid insights of all religions, ideologies and the sciences.

The third interpretation of Indian Secularism is from the point of view of the minority communal consciousness of the Muslims of India. They consider the constitutional right of religious freedom given to all citizens under the Secular State as guaranteeing all religious communities the right to follow their traditional “personal” law regulating family and community relations which are sanctioned by religion. It is on that basis that the Muslim authorities guarding their family laws opposed the judgment of the Supreme Court in the Shabano case and continues to oppose the idea of a Uniform Civil Code which will entail modification of their religiously sanctioned Shariat Law. I suppose the advocacy of Sankaracharya of Pun to preserve laws of untouchability and sati which were religiously sanctioned in Hinduism also come from the same interpretation of the religious freedom under India’s Secularism. The opposition of Christian bishops to the revision of the family law of the Christian community also arises from the same source.

This however is a clear misinterpretation. The Constitution in guaranteeing religious freedom to citizens spells out clearly that it will not preclude the state from recodification of family and community laws which go against the principles of liberty, equality, fraternity and justice in man-woman and inter-caste relations even if they are sanctioned by religion. These social relations are declared secular areas calling for change in new directions. In fact the fundamental rights of the citizen require that all traditional communities change, breaking traditional hierarchies and patriarchies, to bring about social justice by giving the dalits, the tribals and the women who were excluded from the traditional power-structures of society, fuller participation in the power-structures; and the State is called upon to assist it by suitable legislation and other means.

Of course that does not mean that the diversity of social codes related to diversity of cultures should be destroyed. But all have to acknowledge the common framework of egalitarian justice and recodify their traditional civil codes which were formulated in other times and under other principles. This is by no means an infringement of religious freedom which is given under Secularism.

In fact, all religious communities in all parts of the world have been making changes to respond to the new conceptions of egalitarian justice to which the subject peoples have been awakened. Religions can rightly claim that these new democratic values which Secular Humanism has brought to light are derived from the religious conceptions of the dignity of human beings in society but which they neglected in the past; and that therefore in assimilating them into their religious reformation they are only claiming their own and preventing their getting perverted in the secularist framework of Materialism and Individualism.

Summing up. one may say that Open Secularism and Renascent Religion are allies and need to reinforce each other in public life to redeem the new human values of freedom, equality and justice and enhance the quality of national fraternity in a situation of religious and ideological pluralism.