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India’s Secularism Needs Better Interpretation to Retain Relevance

The second of this three-part article examines Indian secularism and its unique characteristics. The article makes the case that this secularism must be relevant in the context of a formerly colonized Hindu-majority country.

Kolkata, India, 7/3/2020 – Two physically challenged persons are dressed up like a Krishna and a Muslim man and they are talking to each other on a Rally for Holi Celebration in Kolkata, India. © papai /

February 25, 2023 09:40 EDT

Jawaharlal Nehru’s secular India was largely derived from our colonial masters and only took root in larger cities. It was incompatible with a Hindu-majority population that had been ruled by foreigners—Islamic invaders, and the British—for 1200 years. Prime Minister Narendra Modi refers to this as “the slave mentality of 1,200 years.” Hence, secularism must recognize the legitimate and unmet needs of its majority Hindu population. Contrary to what The New York Times consistently argues, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is correcting Nehruvian excesses instead of imposing majoritarianism.

(Click here to read Part 1 and Part 3 of this three-part series.)

How to Make India’s Secularism Work

The idea of secularism enshrined in the Indian constitution is admirable. It means that all religions are treated equally under the eyes of the law. Secularism does not, however, imply that all philosophies are equal. Jihadism obviously cannot be accepted as it poses serious threats to the way of life of the Hindus, the Sufi Muslims, and all other non-Muslims. Legally it falls under “hate speech”, “sedition” and likely even “treason”. 

It needs to be monitored and nipped in the bud wherever it rears its ugly head, particularly in mosques and madrassas. In this regard, AI-based monitoring technology should be utilized, including online tools. Wahhabism/ Salafism has nearly eradicated Sufism from the Kashmir valley. This needs immediate attention as well. Select Indian Sufi saints should be recognized as ‘Cultural Icons’ and Sufism should be recognized as “India’s Islam”. YouTube videos on Indian Sufism, incorporating Rumi and Imam Ali’s teachings, should be disseminated freely.

Both Shia and Sunni have Sufi traditions. Hence, it should be compulsory for Islamic preachers to pass an online certification that obligates them to integrate in the teachings of Sufi saints. Further, they must sign a charter in which they agree to adhere to the laws of the country. Fatwas have no legal status and must be centralized online and monitored for consistency with fundamental (legal) rights in India. Foreign funding to promote Wahhabism and Salafism is now banned, although this has not stopped many madrasas, nonetheless. Preachers in these extremist mosques/madrassas must be retrained in the beliefs of Sufism or be barred from preaching forever. If needed, their movements must be tagged also.

Secularism must also embrace ideas enshrined in the constitution such as the freedom of religion. In Hinduism, as practiced by the masses, Lord Ram and Lord Krishna are two avatars of God. Their birthplaces are regarded as holy sites. Hence, the abiding demand for a temple at the believed birthplace of Lord Ram is only natural. The Supreme Court’s judgment on the disputed site is correct overall, especially given the significant documentary and oral evidence presented. Mosques can be moved in Islam.

Also, the Supreme Court has ruled that politicians cannot use religion or caste to seek votes. This is secularism in practice. Similarly, the exchange of confidential matters of the state (if at all) between the unelected RSS and the elected BJP, would be legally incorrect. Compliance can only be achieved if it is self-enforced by both parties. 

Secularism needs to evolve in other respects also. For example, all mosques need to be open by law to practitioners of other faiths, including women and lower castes, just as Sikh Gurdwaras are. And it needs to be enforced at temples and churches where this is not the case. The government should also consider incentivizing other faiths to adopt a model akin to the Sikh Langar system (community kitchen), at least in cash-rich shrines. Places of worship would then offer some practical value to the poor. 

Hinduism and Islam are often viewed as incompatible with one another. Yet a 2013 comparative study by Abid Mushtaq Wani, challenges this perception. Wani states that “monotheism is at the core of the two religions. When talking of a Unitarian concept of Godhead there is only one Supreme Deity in both the metaphysical worldviews. Be it the Brahman of Vedanta or Allah of Islam, it is one and the same thing.” Sikhism’s definition of God in Ek Omkar is taken straight from the Upanishads. The definition of God in Islam also exactly matches this. Hence, the two major religions in India have no real philosophical difference regarding the nature of God. This is encouraging for the idea of secularism. From a spiritual perspective, these religions also support each other. Hinduism provides a robust philosophy while Islam offers lessons about society and relationships. And Sufism explains these lessons beautifully through poetry.

Equality, brotherhood, charity, hard work, truthfulness, and kindness, are just a few values that undergird the world’s major religions. For secularism to prosper, the government should codify a list of these common values and institute them into school curricula. Keep out esoteric religious teachings. Akbar’s syncretic Din-i-Ilahi could be a starting point for this exercise, as could Sikhism.

Ultimately, a Uniform Civil Code (UCC), in line with Article 44 contained in part IV of the Constitution, is the best device to preserve secularism. Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Parsis are currently governed by their respective personal laws regulating marriage, divorce, maintenance, inheritance, and succession. Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs are included in the Hindu personal law. But these personal laws can create injustice. For example, marriages with more than one wife can bring inequality in inheritance laws across religions. Adopted children can also have different treatments as inheritance is concerned. These issues would be resolved with a UCC. In fact, the Supreme Court in various judgments has called for the implementation of a UCC.

The Tricky Issue of Conversion and Freedom of Religion

Religious conversion has always been a sensitive topic in caste-ridden Hindu rural India. According to Article 25 of the Indian constitution, “all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion.” In 1977, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that the “right to propagate” refers to a right to transmit or spread one’s religion but not a “right to convert.” This has been the standard since. 

In 1999, Graham Stuart Staines with his two young sons were gruesomely murdered in Odisha. According to right-wing activists, Staines and his family were allegedly converting Adivasis to Christianity under the guise of his missionary activities. He had been working in India since 1965. 

The Supreme Court upheld the High Court’s decision to commute his killer’s sentence to life imprisonment in Jan 2011. Fearing criticism from the media, the Supreme Court later retracted the following comments: “Our concept of secularism is that the State will have no religion. The State shall treat all religions and religious groups equally and with equal respect without in any manner interfering with their individual right of religion, faith, and worship.” The Court also said, “It is undisputed that there is no justification for interfering in someone’s belief by way of ‘use of force’, provocation, conversion, incitement or upon a flawed premise that one religion is better than the other”. These comments give one a unique insight into how secularism is interpreted by the highest court.

There are two separate legal judgments that concern reconversions. The first precedes the current BJP government. In a Dec 1983 judgment, the Supreme Court ruled that a person whose parents had renounced Hinduism, reconverted, and was accepted by Hindu society, could get the benefits of reservations for scheduled castes. In March 2015, it extended this principle to any forefathers who were Hindus. In 1950, independent India instituted its Reservation Policy for Hindus. The text was amended to include Sikhs in 1956 and Buddhists in 1990.

Hence, conversion from Hinduism to Christianity and Islam is disincentivized (this may change), whereas reconversions are incentivized. These judgments provide the legal basis for the RSS Ghar Wapsi program. The RSS Chief has advised his RSS workers to take reconversion as a challenge and to propagate and protect Hindu culture and values. “We will have to ensure no one leaves the Hindu religion, and those who have left, will be brought back into our family,” he said. In 2015, the Ministry of Law and Justice announced that anti-conversion laws were the purview of individual states.

Love Jihad (also known as Romeo Jihad) is a conspiracy theory developed and spread by followers of Hindutva. The theory claims that Muslim men purportedly target Hindu women for conversion to Islam through means of seduction and feigning love. However, “According to India’s National Investigation Agency, there is no evidence for “love jihad”, nor is it reflected in India’s population data, where Hindus continue to make up about 80% and Muslims 14%.” 

The National Investigation Agency (NIA) led a major investigation into Love Jihad cases in Kerala. As of Nov 2022, the BJP UP’s anti-conversion law had been in effect for less than two years. So far, 507 accused have been detained, 291 cases have been registered, and only one conviction. This approach needs to be scaled down.

According to an annual report by the US-based Freedom House, India’s political and civil liberties have deteriorated since 2014. The report downgraded the country’s status from “free” to “partly free.”  

This is primarily due to: a crackdown on prominent NGOs for their failure to comply with FCRA (foreign funding) regulations; the CAA/NRC (citizenship amendment) protestors, journalists, and activists; and the pandemic lockdowns that punished the poor. The UN Human Rights Review 2022 asked India to dilute AFSPA (armed forces special powers) and look after minorities.

Nonetheless, India is far ahead of other countries like Russia and China on human rights and freedom of expression. Rapid development, for China, as well as India, is a high aspiration. And the US has serious issues around racism towards African-Americans and other minority groups. Also, on pandemic management, an IMF Working Paper gives the Indian government a clean chit overall. Increasing the food support (rations) was the right response and both extreme poverty and LMI (lower middle-income poverty) would have increased significantly without it. 

In March 2020 the Supreme Court upheld government power stating that organizations of political nature are prohibited from receiving foreign contributions under FCRA. In April 2022, it upheld amendments stating no fundamental or absolute right to receive foreign contributions.

Muslims in Secular India Need to Change

For secularism to be effective, it needs two hands to clap. Muslims in India must come forward, embrace the Sufi beliefs of the subcontinent, reject ghettos and divisive ideas, come down firmly on Jihadism, adopt modern education, and compete openly for the top positions in India’s corporations. Currently, the Muslim community, 75% of whom are Dalits, lags on every socio-economic development indicator, especially in the Hindi heartland. It is true that with partition the political and intellectual elite class of Muslims mostly migrated to Pakistan and there is a real scarcity of leadership. As a result, Madrassa-educated clerics with a limited worldview have ruled the roost.

K. Rahman Khan, a member of the Indian National Congress, says in his book, Indian Muslims: The Way Forward, that Indian Muslims have “an emotional, rather than a rational,” approach to issues. Many suffer from “superficial religiosity” and have an “uncompromising attitude and lack of an accommodative approach”. “Religious superiority” is a feature among some. Certain sections uphold “exclusivist and narrow thinking” that is completely unacceptable, especially in a plural society. 

Khan comes down heavily on Muslim clerics for wasting two decades defending Triple Talaq. He makes the point that “Muslims cannot progress if they remain wedded to some centuries-old interpretations, notions, and practices that are not in accordance with the spirit of Islam and that impede their creative presence in the contemporary world.” He asks Muslims to adopt genuine spirituality with a focus on humanity and human values. He asks Muslims to learn about democracy and duties as a citizen in a plural society and to set up interfaith dialogues.

Hence, a focus on modern education and achievement is necessary for the progress of any community. Instead of opening new mosques and madrassas, let Muslims open schools and colleges and reserve seats to empower the community. The Madrassa education curriculum is in desperate need of modernization and the Singapore experience should be studied and emulated. The state will also have to do its part to prevent ghettoization. This has been successfully prevented in Singapore through state housing rules requiring demographic representation. Muslims have a hard time renting or buying houses in Hindu-dominated areas. Further, Muslim ghettos are a breeding ground for Jihadism and insular thinking. If the Indian government wants to prevent Jihadism, it needs to ensure that Muslims have an equal right to rent and acquire property.

Muslims should ask themselves what makes small minorities like the Sikhs and Parsis so successful in India. Sikhism is also a very conservative religion. Yet Sikhs are openly felicitated for their contribution to nation-building. The Parsis survived for over 1000 years and built modern India. These are extraordinary stories worthy to study and emulate. At the core of both these stories is the message of service to society irrespective of religion. Islam has always had that tradition. It’s time that Muslims adopted it.

Lastly, to help dispel fears that the RSS is a Hindu supremacist and patriarchal body, it would do well to actively recruit prominent Muslims into its Muslim wing and prominent women into the women’s wing. They should be given a seat at the table to chart a common course for Indian society based on shared values. Let some of these discussions be telecast live so that Indians can see the synergies.

(Click here to read Part 1 and Part 3 of this three-part series.)

[Naveed Ahsan edited this article.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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