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State and Religion

I would prefer to live within a secular state which doesn?t come between me and my gods, writes Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta.

india Updated: Nov 25, 2005 19:46 IST

The US Supreme Court recently touched upon something which goes to the heart of what we all know and love about liberal democracy. The issue was around whether or not the Ten Commandments should be displayed inside a US courthouse. The US Supreme Court ruled that it should not be so. In other words, the staunchly secular US Constitution has reiterated that no overt religious symbols can exist when “state” business is carried out. Put them outside the courthouse by all means. But inside? No way José! So? What’s the big deal? Well, the big deal is when we consider this on a global basis, in particular, America’s contribution down history and aims in the war on terror.

The war in Iraq happened because Saddam Hussein was thought to have weapons of mass destruction, his regime was linked to Al Qaeda, Iraq was the perfect first domino to make the entire Middle East democratic, for capturing the Iraqi oil fields, it was part of the Zionist plot, US President George W. Bush wanted revenge for Saddam Hussein trying to kill his father, the trilateral commission ordering it, or it’s just a Hollywood production. Take your pick. But the fact remains that Iraq is now working on a constitution.

The framers of the US Constitution were an uncommonly smart and far sighted bunch of guys, coming from old Europe, rife with religious discrimination, persecution; religious based cleansing, sometimes to the extent of genocide even. They were all categorical in wanting to have the state strictly separate from any form of religion and all this happened two centuries ago. As we will see, this is an extremely brave philosophy, which runs counter to one’s inner religious and moral compass.

By and large our sense of right or wrong isn’t genetic. It’s a function of our upbringing. This in turn depends on a large number of factors ranging from history, parental culture, socio-economic status etc. But generally speaking, religion drives a great part in determining what’s right or wrong. When individuals are like this, societies build up a collective sense of right and wrong. Over time, these right-wrong calculations change because of changing environments, technology, etc. The western legal and constitutional systems are heavily based on the Indio-Christian religious framework. Take a look at the Ten Commandments. Each and every one of them is represented in the US as well as the British system. The punishment differs. Me violating the “Don’t kill”: commandment has a far higher penalty than me “coveting my neighbour’s wife”! In the first instance, I may be legally executed in the USA, while in the second case I will be beaten to a pulp (figuratively by the women in my life) or my suits and ties cut in half. But I digress.

But that doesn’t take away the fact that the western legal systems are based on religion. The constitution, which is the ultimate bedrock of the legal system and the state, steers the ship of law. If one peruses the US, or many of the European constitutions (not THE draft European Constitution, pile of poo that is), one sees that while they are all based on Christianity or Judaism, in application, they are staunchly secular. Some explicitly and militantly as in the case of US and France, some much less like in the case of the Netherlands and the UK. This worked and will keep on working until the majority of the people belong to or buy into the dominant religious framework.

The problem starts when the religious framework is disputed. As we have seen in Iraq, Iran or any number of Asian, African or Middle East countries, secularism and religion don’t sit easily together. The problem is more acute in countries which are not homogenous. For a staunch believer in secular constitutions like me, reading the Lebanese constitution was gob smacking. The Iraqi constitutional arguments are still going on. Afghanistan has a huge fudge in it around religion. Pakistan keeps on overturning its constitution, never completely sure of its identity. Not that the military helps – it has made so many changes to it, that it is no longer recognisable as the framework for the state. In any case, the military treat the state as their own backyard and who needs a constitution to do that? But that is a subject for another day.

Take a step back to the period immediately after WWII, where there was a rash of constitutions being crafted. Germany, Japan and India are three examples: a staunchly Christian, a Shinto/Buddhist and a majority Hindu but with substantial minorities. They all went for secularity built in with concrete and barbed wire. The framer of the Indian constitution, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, a mental giant at par if not bigger than Jefferson, drew up a huge but very appropriate constitution for India. That hasn’t stopped interfaith violence, but the general framework is agreed upon and acceptable to most. Several people think that it goes too far in secularism by not only having no link between the state and religion (whichever one you may think off) but also allows its citizens to have a personal civil legal code which is separate according to religious lines (something which is very rare in the world).

Why did he push for this? Because he realised and in his words, "Muslim politics takes no note of purely secular categories of life, namely, the difference between rich and poor, capital and labour, landlord and tenant, priest and layman, reason and superstition. Muslim politics is essentially clerical and recognises only one difference, namely, that existing between Hindus and Muslims. None of the secular categories of life have any place in the politics of the Muslim community". Looking at the fights in Canada, UK, Germany, France, Iraq, Egypt about inclusion of Sharia Law in dealing with personal matters for Muslims, this is one way which people can resolve the conundrum of trying to be secular, but also have one legal way to handle personal law issues across religions.

So where is the problem? The problem comes when religion and secularism collide. Witness four choruses of huge whines. The Christian right wing in the USA went up in flames after the US Supreme Court’s decision. The Polish were very upset when the proposed EU constitution failed to mention of God, the huge protests when there were rumours in Afghanistan that the USA was going to impose a secular constitution on Afghanistan and the same in Iraq. Result? Islam has been and will be built into the Afghani and Iraqi constitutions. Poland’s protests were rejected and we know that the USA did so anyway. The question of secularity is never questioned in India, but an associated issue – the religious based civil laws are frequently under fire.

I know that the concept of “render unto Caesar” (Mathew: 21 "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's.") doesn’t exist in Islam and is simply irrelevant in Hinduism; still for a functioning civil society and country an element of secularism is absolutely essential. If a constitution is explicitly based on religion, then it no longer remains a constitution, but becomes a holy book. We all know what happens when holy books are taken literally. All modern concepts like equality, non-discrimination, individual rights, fundamental rights et al are threatened and this just stores up trouble.

While I am not sure that Iraq, Lebanon or Afghanistan have a Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar or a Thomas Jefferson, a strong attempt must be made to embed secularism within these constitutions and any future ailing / failed /taken over states. If this is not done, then the seeds of destruction will be embedded into the state itself and anarchy can reign as we have seen in so many countries. If man-made laws do not have primacy over religious laws, then it is the priests and mullahs who call the shots. If they start calling the shots, then they are worried more about the hereafter than the here and now.

All very fine and good for your morals, but a very bad way to manage a country. Secondly, given the very human nature to fight over religion, if the constitution is based upon a particular type or sect of a religion, then there is an inherent tendency to discriminate against the other sects or religionists. Again we have seen so many issues in so many countries because of this problem. Let me give you a silly example, in the USA, one has to believe in “In God we trust”. I am a Hindu, I have 86 million gods (give or take a few million here or there) to worry about, So I go about asking the statement to change to “In Gods we trust” or to define which one. See the problem? I will be lynched at the worst and publicly tarred and feathered at the best.

I close with a rather long quote from Andrew Jackson (1767–1845), U.S. president, who said, “I was brought up a rigid Presbyterian, to which I have always adhered. Our excellent Constitution guarantees to everyone freedom of religion, and charity tells us—and you know charity is the real basis of all true religion—and charity says “judge the tree by its fruit.” All who profess Christianity believe in a Saviour and that by and through him we must be saved. We ought therefore to consider all good Christians whose walks correspond with their professions, be they Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Baptist, Methodist, or Roman Catholic. Let it be always remembered ... that no established religion can exist under [our] glorious Constitution.”. There are many issues with America, but even the biggest doubters and critics will admit that it has one of the best constitutions, legal frameworks and fundamental rights.


If I was truly religious, I would prefer to live within a secular state which doesn’t come between me and my gods rather than live in a state which does. In the immortal words of MA Jinnah who actually created a Muslim state but then went on to say, Jinnah: "You will find that in course of time, Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the state."

All this to be taken with a grain of salt!

(The opinion expressed herein are strictly the author's and do not reflect the positions, official or otherwise, of any firm or organisation, that the author is associated with at the present or has been in the past or may be in future. Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta, currently lives in the City of London and works there in various capacities in the Banking Sector.)

First Published: Nov 25, 2005 00:00 IST