Is India Really A Secular State?

Laxmi Street, DelhiIn reading Dr Khalidi’s article, “Why is India not a Secular State“, I find that he has presented irrefutable points to back his basic premise. My difficulty is largely with the wording of the title and the conclusive paragraph of his meaningful essay.

Yes, in many ways the Muslim and Christian minorities have suffered unequal treatment at the hands of the state in India. Sikhs suffered only in one phase for a few years mostly in reaction to their own militancy. After that the state moved to ensure that Sikhs do not get away from the Hindu fold.  As to Jains and Buddhists, with many commonalities with the Hindu ethos, Indians at large consider them offshoots of Hinduism, rather than as religious minorities. That leaves only two minority communities, Muslims and Christians. The unequal treatment of Christians is of recent origin and is limited to a handful of states. Due to their much better socioeconomic and educational status and the fear of reaction from Western countries (that have heavy Christian populations), the Indian state has been careful in handling Christians.

That leaves Muslims as the only religious minority that has suffered unequal treatment since 1947.

Why are Muslims the victims?

1. The creation of Pakistan as a homeland for the subcontinent’s Muslims in 1947 and then the aggressive/militant actions of Pakistan against India. In the last 25 years the random terrorist attacks on civilians in India. All this has kept the pot boiling against Indian Muslims and the reaction against Muslims continuing. In the decade preceding 1947 the Muslim League campaign of th “Two Nation” ideology did much to damage Hindu-Muslim relations for a long time to come among the Hindus.

2. Total silence from 53 Muslim countries (other than Pakistan) to say even one word against any of the worst oppression and harassment of masses of Muslims and their institutions in 60 years. Many of the energy rich Muslim countries have continued to supply oil/gas at preferential terms to India and have continued to give lucrative contracts to Indian companies. Thus Indian Hindus are quite sure that Indian Muslims have no international sympathizers

3. The resurgence of religion based politics initiated by BJP in the early 1980s; other groups picked up on it and a sort of competition began among them to become more aggressive against Muslims.

4. The Congress party’s Vote Bank politics directed at Muslims where the party made all sorts of cosmetic gestures just before every national election without giving any real help to improve the community’s security or socioeconomic situation. In the last decade other regional parties and even Communists have picked up this strategy and are benefitting from it.

5. The international Islamophobic environment following 9/11/2001 and the irrational terrorist acts of a handful of Muslims. This has given an opportunity to the anti-Muslim elements in the Indian Government to develop discriminatory policies against Muslims.

6. The continued poor socioeconomic and educational status of the Muslim communities that prevents integration at equal level of Muslims with others in the country at large.

The Western Secular Countries

In the US the state has tried to be inclusive towards Muslims and Hindus; beginning the sessions of Congress with prayers of religions other than Christianity. Allowing religious symbols of religions other than Christianity, adequate public display in the ‘holiday season’ in November/December each year; Calling the religious observances as ‘holidays’. The power structure in US constantly tries not to let religion seep into the political or state apparatus and there are plenty of watchdogs to ensure that.

We must remember that the people of India continue to be seriously attached to religion and the role of God in their daily lives per se, as opposed to the Western countries where the majority of people today have very little attachment to religion or the role of God in their daily lives. Religion plays a very important role in the daily lives of even the well to do intelligentsia and others in India. That is our national ethos. In contrast most people in the West have given up attachment to religion at least since World War II. The basic ethos of the Western society has changed over to material pursuits, science & technology, belief in their own prowess, as opposed to the role of God in their lives. Natural calamities in the West are hardly ever described as ‘Acts of God’. Today the faith of the common people in God or prayer is at very low level. Irreligiosity is common place.

The same is true about most countries in Europe. The state after all reflects the public opinion at large and those who operate the organs and agencies of the state come from the common populace. Thus with ireeligiosity common place it is easier to separate the state from the church in real practice in the Western countries. On the contrary in India most people who operate the state being Hindus, reflecting the 85% majority population in the country, bring in their ethos of putting their religion in the state apparatus.

The picture of the secular and religiously tolerant Western countries though has developed some cracks since the Al Qaeda terrorist attacks in US of 2001 and the terrorist attacks in London and Madrid. In their pursuit to make their countries safe from terrorist attacks many centers of power including the state apparatus in the Western countries are falling prey to the Islamophobic attitudes of the small number of zealots. Thus Muslims are being painted in the media in the Western countries as sympathetic to reactionary and violent elements. Yet in symbolic and public policy matters the state apparatus in Western countries does allow Muslims a role. And there is optimism for the improvement of the civic situation of Muslims in the West in the years to come.

Is India Secular?

In India 60 years of experience shows that attitudes against equal space for all religions has hardened in an India which started out in 1947 with a “tryst with destiny” to build a secular state as Jawaharlal Nehru so eloquently promised. After 60 years of numerous failures to give equal space to the Muslim and Christian minorities in the state apparatus, and the policies of successive governments to look the other way as these failures become standard operating procedure, one can only say that while the Indian state believes in being secular and holds on to that theoretical premise, it does not make much effort to prevent its failure and constantly looks the other way when transgressions occur. Of the three organs of the state, executive, legislative, judiciary and the media – the fourth, while the record of the first two, namely executive and legislative is pretty sullied with repeated transgressions of secularism, the record of the other two in upholding secularism, namely the judiciary and the media, is quite bright. Also in public pronouncements most political and civic parties and the power structure do constantly refer to the importance of secularism as a national creed.

Thus while I may not conclude that India is not a secular state, I may prefer to say that I have doubts about the extent to which the Indian state tries to be secular.

The writer, a community activist in Washington DC, can be reached on

Photo: Laxmi Street, Delhi

Published by

Kaleem Kawaja

He lives in Washington DC where he is an engineering manager at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Goddard Space Flight Center. He is an activist in the Indian-American community and the American-Muslim community; he writes and speaks frequently on the issues of these communities. He is associated with several Indian-American community organizations including the Association of Indian Muslims of America (AIM), a Washington DC based NGO, and National Federation of Indian Associations (NFIA), where he has held leadership positions for many years. He was also the President of the Muslim Community Center, Washington DC for a couple of years and is associated with their management committee for many years.

79 thoughts on “Is India Really A Secular State?”

  1. Mr. Kaleem,

    Here’s a myth buster – that US is not religious country and religion does not play any role in US politics. US is deeply religious country (92%) and 75% are Christians reflecting their ethos in US politics.

    These videos clearly show, Presidents Regan, Clinton, Bush and Obama – are very much christian and have taken help of evangelists for their politics furtherance.

    A nice book that studied the role of religion in recent 2008 election:

    US education and christianity

    So, this shows that even in a secular country like USA, the reflection of ethos majority christians is there in state apparatus and daily lives.

  2. “The reason why neither BJP nor Congress nor Communists push for UCC is that the version that may be truely Uniform is not acceptable to the majority of Hindus. I have already given the reasons.”

    Kaleem, sometimes the answer is right under our nose, and that’s why it takes effort to see it. The reason neither Congress nor BJP has taken any steps on this issue is very simple: it’s a wedge issue that divides Indians, which guarantees them votes from their respective vote-banks. Politicians thrive on wedge issues, because once that issue is gone, their vote bank will be gone too.

  3. Responses to today’s comments:

    1. Influence of religions in US: One has to live in US to see that in their daily lives only a very small number of White people practice either Christisnity or Judaism. In their daily lives in offices, stores, playgrounds, schools, universities there is hardly any mention of religion; prayers of any religion even on Christmas or Easter outside of churches are not allowed. There are plenty of churches and synagogues but the attendance there is thin and only a light version of Christianity or Judaism is presented. In their dress, food, social participation it is only rarely that you hear religious expressions. Yet a small minority (say 20%) observe their religion. The top politicians do not want to offend this constituency hence they attend church on Sundays, take oath of office on bible, refer to God in an abstract sense.

    Perhaps George W Bush was the only President in the last 40 years who attached some significance to prayer. But he was severely criticised by media etc for that. Other Presidents almost never said a word about God or prayer or religious faith. In fact the powerful media frowns on it. Absolutely no monuments, major national projects, honor awards have any link with any religion.

    in fact it is the recent immigrants in US (Hindus, Muslims from Asia and Christians from Philipines or South America) who are distinctly more religious just like their countrymen back home.

    It is this very light role of religion in society that helps US separate church from state/public life. In contrast in India movie icons like Amitabh Bachan, Aishwarya Rai are seen conducting heavy religious rituals galore in many a temples quite often and the media covers it.

    2. UCC:
    India is not US or Europe. India has to live with itself. By giving up religion US may have gained freedom from religious strife but in the bargain they got afflicted with many social ills (55% divorce, social stife due to a promiscous society, drunkenness, no fear of God etc) What makes US great is their very high work ethic, honesty in daily lives, relentless and brutal pursuit of excellence in work, very high competitiveness, small population and a large country, encouragement to immigrants who can contribute.

    The only UCC that can work in India is the one that gives equal space to all religions but is not irreligious.

    I have myself criticised the Muslim Personal Law very often as being regressive and unfair to women and I have written often about reforming the Muslim Personal Law.

  4. Kaleem,

    This discussion seems to have lost its way somewhat. What is under discussion is whether the “state” in India is secular or not. And whether the “state” in US is separate from the church. Not whether private citizens are religious or not. Whether Amitabh Bacchan goes to a temple or whether the media covers that is of little relevance to this discussion. Just as whether Obama goes to church or whether the media in the US covers the election of the Pope or shows the address of the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem at Yom Kippur is totally irrelevant. Citizens can be religious and it would be discriminatory to disallow Government functionaries from participating in religious activities just because they are part of the Government. Thus, whether Rajendra Prasad participates in the consecration of the Somnath Temple or Zakir Hussain goes to Mecca is nobody else’s business. The question is whether the state is involved in promoting one religion over another.

  5. Mr. Kaleem,

    “India is not US or Europe. India has to live with itself.”

    Thank you. Just wondering, what was the purpose of comparing India with other secular countries in first place?

    Let me add, India can still be secular in her own way.
    if there is no religion based policies by any government.

    It’s possible only if we FIRST agree that we need ONE LAW FOR everyone – that gives equal space to all religions (as you mentioned).
    -> Let’s find out the common denominator.
    -> Let’s start with where we agree and find out where we disagree.

    More than LAW, I believe ALL religions should have mutual respect for each other and every Indian citizen sees himself/herself as Indian and not majority or minority.

    Thank you.

  6. “By giving up religion US may have gained freedom from religious strife but in the bargain they got afflicted with many social ills (55% divorce, social stife due to a promiscous society, drunkenness, no fear of God etc) ”

    I’m not sure there’s a causal relationship between those two (“giving up religion” and “social ills”). I’m not even convinced that only 20% of Americans are religious, as you claim.

    There’s plenty of proof that when America was religious, all kinds of unethical actions in the name of religion were happening – Salem Witch trials, massacre of native Americans, slavery of blacks. I’ll take the social ills of today to a deeply religious society, thank you very much.
    “What makes US great is their very high work ethic, honesty in daily lives, relentless and brutal pursuit of excellence in work, very high competitiveness, small population and a large country, encouragement to immigrants who can contribute.”

    That’s partially correct. Yes, an average American is honest and hardworking, but corruption at the highest levels is quite common and the norm – Nixon’s impeachment, Iran-Contra affair during Reagan, Clinton lying about his affair, and an American politician violating some rule or the other and getting caught taking money for special favors happens on a fairly regular basis. This is not a defense of corruption prevalent in India, but just to take a harder look at this myth of Americans not being corrupt, and being honest. Depends on which American is being discussed.

  7. Sorry for being off the topic Kaleemji. You mentiond “no fear of God” in the US. But why should there be FEAR of God??

  8. “The only UCC that can work in India is the one that gives equal space to all religions but is not irreligious.”

    You remind me of a shloka from Rig Veda[1.164.46]… that has same spirits:

    ekam sat vipra bahudha vadanti
    = There is only one truth, Sages call it differently.

    I am sure there was diverse population in India in Vedic times too, and this shloka very well creates harmony between different religions by having mutual acceptance of everyone. Maybe we need to dig deep into our own culture and find answers besides looking at secularism.

  9. A UCC is something that is worth trying out. It will surely erase all feelings of “victimhood” and eliminate the bogey of “appeasement”.

    Also, many people who have chosen to live in a secular state my prefer to have a secular basis on which they would like their case to be decided.

  10. “Victimhood”, “Appeasement”

    There is a lobby of middleclass people in India who represent at best 20-25% of the population but who control 75-80% of the nation’s resources, jobs, educational and economic opportunities. These families have been doing well for a century or more. At the same time 75% of all Indians, various religious and ethnic minorities, Dalits, Tribals have had to share from the 25% economic pie. Today 60 years after independence even though the Govt was forced to build affirmative action plans to remove the 2000 year structural system of social injustice, the 25% have found new ways to deny socioeconomic justice to the deprived and to continue their hegemony and control.

    Thus the political parties that are populated with this 25% coined phrases like “victimhood”, “appeasement”, “pseudo-secularism”, “meritocracy for the pursuit of excellence”. The mainstream Indian media that is a captive of this 25% population is constantly hyping such phrases and plenty of PR. So that the bottom 50% remain at the bottom. Look at other resurgent countries like US, China, European countries. Decades ago they began programs to level the playing field and give opportunities to the depressed communities. But in India the 25% poopulation of well to do continues to hold the nation to the discriminatory practices of the past and when someone talks of reform he is ridiculed by droves opf these folks.

    Surely India has to find a way out of this logjam of 25% population over the remaining 75% of the population.

  11. Kaleem,

    The 25% middle class that you talk about, yes the same ones who have created the concepts of “victimhood” and “appeasement” are the core of the extremist saffron brigade.

    They orchestrate events, they do not participate in them. When they need to incite riots against minorities, they get Valmikis and Khatiks and other such people to do their dirty work for them, and at other times they look down on these same repressed people.

    The tragedy is that these people are rabid and illogical and are hellbent on inciting violence against helpless people. Gujarat 2002 is a prime example.

  12. Hi

    Many participants talk about discrimination. Let us try to understand what discrimination. We will take a small example as model case for analysis.

    I am from mumbia and assuming as secretary of my society if i am coordinating a Garbha of navarathiri which is a great religious and social function of gujarat but when celebrated in mumbai.

    What do i have choice. I will invite or not invite muslim who resides in my society. I understand his predicaments :

    1. Hindu pooja and prasad is not acceptable to him
    2. Dance of girls and boys are not acceptable

    So i donot invite him or even if i invite they donot come.

    Let us take the next example of christmas. We coordinate the christmas festival and when the pastor prays hindus also stand and pray their respective gods standing quiet. Even some donot mind doing a cross after the mass. CAke cutting ceremoy happens and all have cake and enjoy the party.

    All non-mulsim indian including christian are caught in the predicament, if i force him to participate in the function, then it is a intrusion into religious rights and if i donot include then i am discriminating. And muslims themself are aware of there religious identity fervour and in turn never invite other community for their function as the other also can return back their gift saying we donot take it.

    So what is the learned moderate islamic members of this forum advice non-muslims of india.

    If you look at the calander every month has religious function and every body celebrate, i would say it is an excuse to have fun even i know guys celebrate parsi new year and they distribute sweets.

  13. As an Indian, and not as anybody belonging to a religious denomination, I would say that it is not necessary for people to participate in the RELIGIOUS aspect of each other’s festivals.

    So, If a Hindu wants to eat biryani on Eid, A Muslim wants to eat cake on Christmas, or a Christian wants to burst crackers on Diwali, it is quite OK!

  14. Satwa gunam,

    This is my favorite:
    “To avoid criticism, say nothing , do nothing and be nothing.”

    whatever you say or do or be , people will criticize. It is human habit. we can’t be lead by what others think. we have to do what we think is right.

    Inviting is not intrusion, you can always say “i am just inviting since don’t want to exclude you, I understand it is religious matter, no need to respond if not interested”. then it is their decision. to invite is your part, you do that and leave the response to him, just don’t take it personally. why are you doing his part of thinking and assuming, he doesn’t like this and that and deciding based on those assumptions. Let him say it. Some muslims may not mind, i do know such muslims.Then there is no confusion, next occasion you know which one to call and not call. it is their choice, as you don’t mind either way, so let them make the choice.

  15. @satwa gunam


    “the 2000 year structural system of social injustice, the 25% have found new ways to deny socioeconomic justice to the deprived and to continue their hegemony and control.”

    please explain who is this 25%?
    what social injustice did they do in last 2000 years?
    can you name few top current industrialists or politicians who are controlling 75% of our economy?
    who was governing our country for last 60 years?
    who ruled our country for 600 years & then for 200 years?

    Please do some research caste system as it is now is the whole sum of the evolution & was most prominent during last 1000 years only thanks to foreign invasion.

    please check the facts.

  16. satwa gunam,

    Intentions matter. So if you send an invite to non-Hindus with good intentions and no expectations, it’ll turn out right.
    The other way is to ask these people in the community whether they’d prefer to be invited or not, and then send an invite – or not – based on their preferences. I’m assuming that people in the community do interact and talk with each other at occasions other than religious festivals.

    Bottom line is that it’s impossible to please all with what you say or do – some will like it, others won’t, so the best approach is to ask others their preference, and then act accordingly with good intentions.

  17. this is wrong know? i aam studying in one hindu school i don’t feel tht hindu is bad i think hindu is more better than we the muslims

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