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Practice Question –   "Secularism was an outcome of 20th century humanistic radicalism." Comment on this statement. (20 Marks) (UPSC 202o) 

Approach – Introduction, Define Secularism, Explain the causes for the evolution of the concept, Connect it to humanistic radicalism, Give criticism, Conclusion. 



The early man, curious of the events of nature, was desperate to seek an answer. Curiosity about the natural phenomenon along with the desire to control them drove our ancestors to shelter under the belief of a supernatural power, which gradually evolved to religion. Religion is not merely the belief in God, but a way of life, a provider of direction to confused humans, a unit to distinguish between the right and wrong. But the civilizations underwent the modernization process, that changed the mode of thinking in men. The modern man is not as dependant on religion to direct his life. The detachment of modern man from religion has given rise to the comparatively new concept of secularism.



The term secularism is derived from the Latin word ‘secular’, which means the ‘present age or generation’. Secularism is associated with the broader understanding of social progress and rational behavior. Thus, the progress of human society brought up the concept of secularism as a form of social practice in the modern rational society. This is meant to reduce the authority of religion in the sphere of moral consensus. Secularism as a concept came into existence in Europe first to describe transfer of territories from the Church domination to rational authority which is the ‘state’. The legal rational authority or the state considered as non-religious or neutral authority can administer all the religious and non-religious communities in an unbiased way.

A sociological understanding of secularism deserves a more general and wider understanding. In secularism, religion loses its traditional authority of control over economy, polity, justice, health, family and so on. In 1851, secularism led to a rational movement under an ideological formation of progress as a positive attitude. Peter Berger holds that secularism means progress in which a section of society and culture move away from religious domination of institutions. Generally, secularism means a system of political and social philosophy that rejects all forms of religious faith and worship. The origin of secularism in Europe was through the ‘doctrine that morality should be based on the well-being of man in the present life, without regard to religious belief ’. Indian state defines in its policy that India maintains Dharma nirpekshta which means religious Secularism neutrality. For Mahatma Gandhi and Maulana Azad secularism meant sarvadharma sadbhavna ‘goodwill towards all 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. Each has a separate sphere of its own with independent jurisdiction. 

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. For example, if a religious institution forbids a woman from becoming a priest, then the state can do little about it. If a religious community excommunicates its dissenters, the state can only be a silent witness. If a particular religion forbids the entry of some of its members in the sanctum of its temple, then the state has no option but to let the matter rest exactly where it is. On this view, religion is a private matter, not a matter of state policy or law.



What makes Indian secularism distinctive? For a start it arose in the context of deep religious diversity that predated the advent of Western modern ideas and nationalism. There was already a culture of inter-religious ‘tolerance’ in India. The advent of western modernity brought to the fore hitherto neglected and marginalised notions of equality in Indian thought. It sharpened these ideas and helped us to focus on equality within the community. It also ushered ideas of inter-community equality to replace the notion of hierarchy. Thus Indian secularism took on a distinct form as a result of an interaction between what already existed in a society that had religious diversity and the ideas that came from the west. It resulted in equal focus on intra-religious and interreligious domination. Indian secularism equally opposed the oppression of dalits and women within Hinduism, the discrimination against women within Indian Islam or Christianity, and the possible threats that a majority community might pose to the rights of the minority religious communities. This is its first important difference from mainstream western secularism.

Connected to it is the second difference. Indian secularism deals not only with religious freedom of individuals but also with religious freedom of minority communities. 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.  Thus, the Indian Constitution grants all religious minorities the right to establish and maintain their own educational institutions which may receive assistance from the state. All these complex strategies can be adopted by the state to promote the values of peace, freedom and equality. 



Indian constitution did not include the word secularism when it commenced on January 26, 1951. Although secularism was not mentioned in the Constitution,
the fact that Independent India became a democracy, secularism was implied in it as a cardinal principle, a fait accompli, not needing its mention. Butit was incorporated in the Preamble of the Constitution by 42nd Constitutional Amendment in 1976. Later, the Supreme Court ruled in the Bhommai judgement that secularism is a basic feature of the Constitution. Besides, provisions in Articles 25-30 protecting the rights of religious minorities in the Constitution emerged from debate in the Constituent Assembly of India: these signify values of
secularism. Article 15 of the Indian Constitution provides equal rights to all the citizens of the country. Article 15(3) of the Indian Constitution guarantees equal opportunities and accessibilities by guaranteeing all citizens right to public place without restriction on the basis of caste, color, religion, gender etc. Article 16 gives equal rights in the field of public employment.

Thus, Indian constitution is the primary safeguard of secularism which guarantees equal laws for all the citizens and protects their fundamental rights. Individual rights, liberty, equality and fraternity are the fundamental principles of secularism. And as a citizen of the state all have equal rights, opportunities as well as obligations towards protecting their constitutional rights and duties.



Wilson (1966) defined secularization as “the process whereby religious thinking, practices and institutions lose social significance”. A fuller definition of secularization is provided by Steve Bruce (2002) who defines secularization as a “social condition manifest in (a) the declining importance of religion for the operation of non-religious roles and institutions such as the state and the economy’; (b) a decline in the social standing of religious roles and institutions; and (c) a decline in the extent to which people engage in religious practices, display beliefs of a religious kind, and conduct other aspects of their lives in a manner informed by such beliefs’.

Secularisation means absence of influence of religion on public policies and social relations. But it does not negate religion itself. It is about how religion is the basis of favour or discrimination. It is about modernisation and modernity.

Many sociologists of religion today, however, tend to see secularization as a self-limiting phenomenon. Yes, traditional religions are weakened and less persuasive in times like ours. But finally, the religious impulse itself is not fatally weakened by the success of science and technology. Religion is not basically a response to our desire to understand lightening and thunder, quarks and gluons. Religion is a response to our predicament as mortal beings living with an acute awareness of our mortality. Thus, people today have the same need to make sense of the world, the same need to ask and try to find answers to the big questions of life, as have the people of any time or age. Where traditional religions weaken and are unable to serve the spiritual needs of a people, new religious responses to the world will be spontaneously generated. And, indeed, the rate of cult formation in world industrial cultures (including Japan) has increased fivefold since the 1950s.



Secularism is, no doubt, an ideal principle. But in practice it is not so easy to follow. The vulnerable point in India is the deep religious sentiment prevailing among its different religious
communities. Both Hindu and Muslim fundamentalists in India are whipping up this sentiment of the staunch adherents of these religions, most of whom are either illiterate or semi-literate. This is a threat to the Secular principles of India.

India, moreover, has failed to fulfill some of the important conditions laid in the Constitution. Education has not been given the priority that it deserves. The condition of backwardness – poverty, population explosion and environmental pollution – prevails in the country in alarming proportions. The fundamentalists fish in this troubled water. Indian is known for its cultural heterogeneity with respect to language and religion. Hindus constitute the majority, while the Muslims constitute the largest minority. The animosity between the Hindus and Muslims was largely the creation of the British rulers. In order to keep themselves in power, they adopted a policy of ‘divide and rule’ and tried to promote feelings of hostility among the members of these two communities. After a long history of independence, at present too, the lack of proper adjustment between them has often resulted in violent outbursts
and communal riots, which unfortunately becomes a serious challenge to the secular identity of our country.

On the other hand, very often the political parties, including the national parties, too sometimes, do not allow secularism to take precedence over their political interests. The electorate in India, guided by tradition, tends to be responsive to appeals based on caste, religion and language. By announcing various schemes favouring a particular community, political parties, openly violate the idea of secularism they claim to stand for. While distributing tickets during elections, nearly all political parties take religion of a candidate into consideration. Such a practices in India poses the greatest threat to secularism.



India’s secularism follows the idea of ‘Sarva Dharma Sambhava’ through adopting Buddhist Dharma Chakra as its symbolic representation. Constitutionally, India is a secular state which gives equal rights and opportunities to all its citizens. But, politically and socially it faces various challenges in terms of uniting all the religious groups and caste-class communities which often leads to politically motivated riots and communal violence.