Why India is not a secular state

This article of mine appeared on The Economic Times on 7th December, 2015 over here and on OpIndia over here.

The 42nd amendment to the Constitution of India inserted the word “secular” into the preamble thus making India a “secular” Republic. But is India truly a secular country?

While the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines secularism as “the belief that religion should not play a role in government, education, or other public parts of society”, the most commonly accepted definition of secularism is “separation of religion and state”. By this definition, I would submit that the India of today is not a secular country. I further assert that the policies of the Indian state are nor just unsecular but smack of blatant religious reverse-discrimination against its majority community.

Here is why I assert that the Indian state is NOT secular:

  • Different laws for Hindus, Muslims and Christians

In a truly secular country, all citizens irrespective of religion would be covered by a single set of laws. In India, however, people of different religion beliefs are covered by different laws. While Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists are covered by the Hindu code bills (Hindu Marriage Act, Hindu Succession Act etc.), Muslims are covered by Muslim Personal laws and Christians are covered by Christian Personal laws. So, Hindus, Muslims, Christians & Parsis inherit property differently, have different rules for marriage, divorce and adoption among other things.

Some separation of religion and state indeed!

 

  • Government control of temples but not of mosques or churches

How many people know that while Hindu temples are under governmental control, mosques and churches are completely autonomous? The Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment Act allows state governments to take over temples and control their vast properties & assets. Bizarrely, the state government can use the money generated by a temple (donations, income from assets etc.) for purposes that have absolutely nothing to do with not just the temple, or other temples but even those which have nothing to do with Hindus or Hinduism! Interestingly, none of this applies to mosques, churches or gurudwaras. The government has no legal authority to take over the management of a non-Hindu place of worship.

As I write this, the questions – “In which universe is this fair?” and “What business does the government have in places of worship?” pop into my head. I have no answers.

 

  • Different laws for minority schools and “majority” schools

Did you know that even though minority schools (not all, but many) receive money from the government in the form of grants/aid, they need not comply with the regulations of the Right to Education Act? While the government has clearly not spared even private schools that receive no money from the government, from RTE regulations that force schools to reserve 25% of their seats for children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds (reimbursed by the govt.), it had not dared to go anywhere near minority schools. Note that Hindu schools receive no such exemption.

One law for minority schools and another for “majority” schools – exemplary secularism!

  • Subsidies for Haj but not for Amarnath Yatra

I find the concept of the state funding a pilgrimage using tax-payer money rather strange. A truly secular country would not subsidize any pilgrimage- period! However, the Indian government spent Rs 836 crores on Haj subsidies in 2012 . The Supreme Court passed an order that directed the government to phase out this subsidy within 10 years.

If the state were so keen to subsidize pilgrimages, shouldn’t it subsidize the pilgrimages of all religions? Why are subsidies of the same scale not extended to an Amarnath Yatra, a Kumbh Mela or for that matter a pilgrimage to Israel? Before critics argue that the government spends a lot of money on providing pilgrims of the Amarnath Yatra or Kumbh Mela security I would submit that the provision of security to citizens is not a favour but a basic responsibility of any state.

Affirmative action or blatant reverse discrimination?

These are 4 concrete examples of blatant reverse-discrimination against Hindus by the Indian state. One should keep in mind that India was ruled by the Mughals (Muslims) from 1526-1857 and by the British Empire (Christians) from 1757-1947. Therefore, it is hard to see how the Hindu “majority” oppressed the minorities enough to warrant affirmative action.

The role of political parties and the media

What makes this a whole lot worse is that political parties and large sections of the media are seen as being over-eager to win the favour of the minority communities. Take for example, the unfortunate and condemnable Dadri lynching episode during which Mohd. Akhlaq was lynched by a mob. Needless to say, this incident was shameful.But by no means was it unprecedented. Akhlaq’s family received compensation of Rs 45 lakhs and 4 flats in Noida from the state government of Uttar Pradesh and the incident received almost 24 hour TV coverage for days on end.

At roughly the same time, animal rights activist- Prashant Poojary, was brutally hacked to death in an equally shameful incident. The mainstream media did not cover the incident till there was outrage on social media channels. I am yet to see a report on any compensation paid to the family of Prashant Poojary by the state government. (The Sangh Parivar- a private organization, paid Rs 10 lakhs to the family).

Unfortunately, incidents like these send the signal (rightly or wrongly) that the Indian state & sections of the Indian media value the life of a member of one religious community more than the life of a member of another religious community – hardly something that would happen in a secular country!

The bottom line

The vast majority of Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Parsis, Sikhs, Agnostics and Atheists live peacefully in India-as they should. Communal violence is not very common with roughly 54 communal incidents a month in a nation of 1.25 billion people.

Of course, the ideal would be to have 0 communal incidents in the country. India should aim to get there over time and become the model state for the rest of world to emulate. But, the way to get there is surely not to discriminate between its citizens on the basis of religion. It is not just counter-productive, but I would argue – morally wrong.

At the end of the day, India must become a truly secular country where the state treats all citizens equally irrespective of their religious beliefs. I am not asking for the majority community to receive preferential treatment – just that the State of India make no distinction between its citizens. Too much to ask for?

(Ashwini Anand was formerly a Founding Member of one of India’s premier socio-political organizations.)

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