What does secularism mean to me, especially in philosophical, historical and constitutional terms and in the Indian context? The first point which struck me was that secularism cannot be seen in isolation and is not a stand-alone pillar of the Constitution. At first blush, there are so many stand-alone pillars — the words of the constitutional preamble rightly refer to concepts of fraternity, equality, justice, socialism, federalism and secularism. But a second look makes it clear that all of them are trying to convey a sense of India’s pluralism.
<b1>If there is one overriding theme about the very idea of India, it is its multiple, cacophonic and bewildering plurality. There are diversities of ethnicity, religion, race, colour, language, dress, habit, food, language and so on. Thus, Indian democracy, for its very existence and survival, must be an inclusive democracy. Secularism has to be the basic pillar to facilitate and manage the chaotic sights, sounds, smells and sense of such a plural India.
The second facet was brought home brilliantly by Professor R. Bhargav of Jawaharlal Nehru University who expatiated on the Lincolnian concept of “by, of and for the people”. He said it would have been enough to use the first and the last words — i.e. by the people and for the people to explain much of the essence of democracy. But, he said, the second phrase, ‘of the people’ conveys a vital aspect without which a true democracy cannot sustain itself. “Of the people”, he said, was added to convey the element of ownership of democracy by all sections of the population. That sense of ownership of democracy alone completes the circle of ‘We the people’. That is also why we should be proud that we are neither a Hindu republic nor a Buddhist one nor a Sikh one because any one of them would exclude all the other segments from ownership of Indian democracy.
The third point is that the Indian model of secularism is unique to India. It is not constitutionally akin to the US, where there is a strict separation of the State and of religion, theoretically to the extent of the State being irreligious or anti-religion. There is, in the US, a bilateral exclusion of the State from religion and of religion from the State. Other models, like the Turkish or French ones, attempt a one-way exclusion — religion should not be present in State activity but the State is not per se excluded from religion. India has leaned toward an active, affirmative respect for all religions, thereby constitutionally reflecting the ‘Sarva Dharma Sama Bhava’ concept. But Professor Bhargav rightly points out that the Indian-State exhibits both positive respect and disrespect for religion, instead of antiseptic disinterest, by support to or hindrance of aspects of religion — e.g. the State can and does interfere by reforming negative aspects of religion like sati.
Fourth, if ‘dharma’ truly means right conduct, then a more accurate description of Indian secularism should be ‘panth nirpekshta’ instead of ‘dharma nirpekshta’ because no one, including the State, can or should be neutral to or away from righteous conduct. This may involve more than a mere semantic correction, since ‘panth nirpekshta’ along with ‘Sarva Dharma Sama Bhava’ convey the right sense of neutrality coupled with an absence of anti-religiosity.
Fifth, the essence of Indian secularism must, therefore, combine pluralism — the very idea of India — with one more word i.e. ‘humanism’. Humanistic pluralism has to be the catchphrase for Indian governance. When we proclaim ourselves secular, there is a valid element of self-interest because India is so diverse and plural that secularism is not an element of charity or privilege but vital for India’s very survival. Unless all our models of governance are participatory, shared and inclusive, the country would fall apart. The more we loosen our hold — socially, economically, politically, administratively — the more the country will hold together; the more we try to hold tightly together, the more the country risks breaking asunder.
The sixth aspect follows — secularism is thus linked with the seemingly unlinked pillar of federalism. Federalism is nothing but another vehicle for managing pluralities. Our framers designed India as a highly centripetal structure — federal powers far outweigh State decentralisation. They were rightly apprehensive of the fissiparous ambiance at Partition and believed that a federally leaning structure would afford a higher degree of security against future break-ups after having suffered the trauma of Partition. But it is a fascinating story of Indian federalism that in operational reality, the Indian nation has become more and more federal and decentralised. Indeed, several aspects of decentralisation which irritate us — like regionalism or the multitude of regional political formations — actually operate as a safety valve for dissent and dissatisfaction. They quarantine conflicts within State or regional boundaries and improve local delivery mechanisms and responsiveness. Any Constitution, in one sense, is anti-democratic as it perpetually entrenches certain rights of the minorities against majoritarianism, while majority rule is the essence of democracy. Secularism similarly entrenches certain values deemed eternal by a society against majority erosion.
Finally, secularism is the synthesis of reason with compassion, of pragya with karuna. It is the creed of aggregation as against segregation, of synthesis against separation, of pluralism against dominance. Unless the State not only recognises each identity but also energises and encourages all identities, a State as diverse as India will wither away. Therein lies both the true meaning of secularism as also its real challenge.
Abhishek Singhvi is an MP, National Spokesperson of the Congress party and a senior advocate.