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Understanding Secularism In Indian Democracy

Name - Shiwangi Singh

Designation- Student, Symbiosis Law School, Noida


The word 'Secularism' essentially refers to the principle of separation of State from religious institutions. However, this concept is composite as well as flexible.

The western theories of Secularism stressed on the “Wall of Separation” model of Secularism which was best outlined by Donald Eugene. According to him, Secularism encompasses the three relationships between individual and religion, the State and the individual and lastly between the state and religion. This strict policy of separation is observed in many countries, France being the epitome of it. However, this particular model has constantly been in clash with the idea of secularity as understood in countries like Israel and India.

Indian Secularism is not opposed to ‘religion’ instead it is against ‘communalism’. This means while the Indian state is Secular, it is not ‘atheistic’ but respects every religion equally and maintains equal distance from all of them. Secularism is one of the basic structures of Indian Constitution i.e. it cannot be discarded by constitutional amendments. Articles 25 to 28 guarantees every individual the right to freedom of Religion subject to public order, morality and health and all other rights enumerated in Part III of the Constitution. This signifies the importance of building a welfare state over religious interests of the individuals.

The concept of Secularism can be easily understood by looking at the personal laws governing the different religions in the country. The Supreme Court of India has played very important role in shaping the Secularism in India as it is known to us today. The earliest interpretations can be found in the judgement of State of Bombay vs Narasu Appa Mali (1951).

In this case, a Hindu man was convicted for bigamy which was not allowed among the Hindus. His complaint that it violated his fundamental right of equality since the newly adopted Constitution allowed Muslim but prohibited Hindus from committing bigamy was discarded on the fact that personal laws cannot be invalidated by courts even if they are opposed to fundamental rights of the individuals. Therefore, the personal laws are immune from constitutional challenges. This judgement was again upheld by the Supreme Court in Sri Krishna Singh v Mathura Ahir (1980). The Narasu Appa Mali case reflects the court’s tendency to stay aloof from the cases involving matters related to Religion. Even if the courts decide to intervene, it is mostly to uphold the religious practices even if they are in contradiction with the Fundamental rights.

A bunch of cases followed that required the court to determine the status of personal laws. Whether or not they are above the fundamental rights. In most of the cases personal laws were given more importance. This is because in India everyone is entitled to follow and propagate their own religion without any fear. Unlike countries like France and USA, the Indian Supreme Court has time and again proved to be the protector of an individual’s faiths. In Shayara Bano vs Union of India the Supreme Court overruled a personal law which legalized the practice triple talaq or instant divorce. It transgressed the constitution’s preamble and numerous articles.

Indian Secularism can be best understood as “Sarv dharma sambhava” which means to treat all the religions with same emotions, same zeal and zest irrespective of the follower of any particular religion. More than that it gives the idea of mankind and humanity. It teaches us to respect the creature of God and nature. Be one to all.

India favors the growth of “positive” Secularism meaning equal treatment of all and appeasement of none and in no way aims to establish a theocratic State. It is possible that a certain government may have certain religious biases which ideally shouldn’t be. However, the principles and the spirit of Indian Constitution remains a consistent remainder of what the aims of our “Welfare State” are. The center of Indian flag depicts the Ashok Dharma Chakra which can be translated to the “wheel of law”. It signifies that law is dynamic and keeps changing. The conflicting judgements in Narasu Appa mali and Shayara Bano case also reiterate the same.

The Constitution maybe interpretated differently in different cases, however, its principle remains the same to “constitute India into a SOVEREIGN, SOCIALIST, SECULAR DEMOCRARTIC REPUBLIC”.








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