Explained: Understanding India’s secular roots and debates around it

Derived from the word secular, meaning ‘not related to religion’, secularism aims at equal treatment of people from all religions by the state. Photo: iStock

Why is India’s secularism in news?

India’s secular values are being questioned in the backdrop of protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The amended act aims to give citizenship to religiously persecuted minorities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, using religion as a qualifier.

Where is India’s secularism mentioned?

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The Preamble of the Constitution mentions India as a secular country.

Derived from the word secular, meaning ‘not related to religion’, secularism aims at equal treatment of people from all religions by the state.

The word ‘secular’ was not in the original text of the Constitution. It was inserted via the 42nd constitutional amendment enacted in 1976.

Although leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and BR Ambedkar were believers of secularism, they advocated against the inclusion of the word ‘secularism’ in the Constitution. So, Indira Gandhi’s move of adding the word through 42nd amendment act, 1976, during Emergency has been questioned by the ruling party and the RSS.

In an editorial in June 2015, The Organiser, the mouthpiece of RSS said that the words ‘secular’ and ‘socialist’ introduced in preamble by 42nd CAA, 1976 were terminological scars of emergency.

What is the difference between a secular and non-secular state?

In a secular state, the state does not interfere in the religious affairs of its citizens and maintains a distance from such matters. A non-secular state advocates a particular religion.

Is Indian secularism different from western secularism?

While countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh (the same countries are mentioned in CAA) declare Islam as their state religion, India doesn’t have a state religion.

Western secularism advocates strict divide between religion and state. It also stands for non-interference of state in religion. But, Indian secularism does not advocate strict divide between religion and state.

Indian secularism preaches religious tolerance because of its past stained with trauma of Partition based on religion in 1947. Hence, there are various articles in the constitution where the state interferes in religion to protect the rights and avoid discrimination on religious grounds (Articles 14, 25, 26).

How is Article 14 of Constitution connected to CAA?

CAA’s constitutionality is being questioned and several PILs have been filed before the Supreme Court. AIMIM leader Asaduddin Owaisi’s petition said that the amended act violates articles 14, 21 and 25 of the Constitution.

Article 14 of Constitution talks about equality before law and equal protection of laws. It also allows discrimination based on ‘reasonable classification’.

Home minister Amit Shah, while introducing the Citizenship amendment bill in the parliament, said that the legislation did not violate article 14 and went ahead to question the opposition as to why there were constitution provisions protecting Indian minorities.

Though the Supreme Court has not stayed the implementation of the act, it has agreed to hear all CAA petitions on January 22. It remains to be seen if the act’s implementation and the court’s verdict have a bearing on Indian secularism.

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