How secular is our politics?

Rohit Dhankar

I am assuming secularism should be one of the most important values in current Indian politics. That makes the following questions very important. Secularism according to International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 2nd edition, edited William A. Darity Jr., Macmillan “….in the twentieth century has come to refer to two interrelated practices: (1) a mode of political organization in which the state is neutral with reference to all established religions; and (2) later in the century, a political practice of the state that protects the rights of minorities in a multicultural society.”
Some questions:

1. If a state and polity realises (actually achieves) (1), is (2) needed?

2. Are (1) and (2) always consistent?

3. If in a particular situation (1) and (2) contradict each other which one should get precedence?

4. Are political strategies specially designed to appeal to religious groups secular?

5. Does India actually have a secular political party?

Any opinions?

2 Responses to How secular is our politics?

  1. Anonymous says:

    Dear Rohitji,

    I would like to comment on the wording of the two practices you mention in the definition of ‘secular’. In my view, a whole debate can be generated on what is ‘being neutral’ and ‘protecting the rights’.

    Is doing nothing specially for advancement of a minority/ majority community being neutral, overlooking practices that impinge on rights of individuals as members of communities (because of religious practices) being neutral, or taking affirmative actions towards minorities being neutral?



  2. Interesting questions. I would like to give my views on them one by one.

    I think (1) defines “secularism” as we currently understand it. So ideally, there should be no need of (2) if the former is achieved. However, in order for (1) to suffice, we will have to make some implicit assumptions: that the socioeconomic status of all the different groups or communities are similar, that there exists an established equality of opportunities for practitioners of all religions or people of different groups or communities, that the populace is also neutral about people of other religions, that they don’t “hate” the “other” religions, religious practices, the lifestyle of the people of other religions, etc.

    If one, or more than one, of these assumptions are violated, there will be a social dis-equilibrium and a communal disharmony will emanate. This is not an individual equality/inequality problem. Violation of the aforesaid assumptions, will lead to systemic problems. As a result, “we” against “them” situation starts. In such a situation, the physical, financial, intellectual, strategic, and/or numeric strength of respective communities will decide which community gets stronger, and which community gets weaker.

    Once these sorts of de-equalizing process starts, some communities will become vulnerable in the hand of some other communities. Usually, it is the minorities, which become the “prey” of a section of the majorities’s prejudices and aggression. Here comes the role of state, from a civic and humanitarian perspective. Unless minorities are pro-actively protected by the state, they will keep getting weaker, dominated by the majority, and will gradually become permanently vulnerable or they will be extinct or flee from the place. So yes, in order to preserve the multicultural facets of the society, the state will have to protect and uphold the minority rights.

    So I think (1) and (2) are consistent under the aforesaid assumptions. The assumptions are satisfied at pretty much all levels in most countries. This, in my opinion, renders your question #3 is irrelevant.

    If political strategies are designed specifically to appeal one community or the other, then they are not secular. However, if the strategies are designed to preserve the multicultural ethos of the society, promote equity, and empower the weaker sections, then such strategies are indeed secular. Here, it is a matter of sincerity of intentions. If the strategies are designed just to lure votes during the polling season, they are non-secular but if the same strategies are actually pursued and effectively implemented, with the intention of preserving the communal harmony and uplifting the vulnerable, then that is very much secular.

    As far as the secular political parties are concerned, I think, a party can be secular only when (a) it has a constitution (vision document) that promotes secularism (b) the leaders of the party are also secular in practice.

    In India, as of now I am yet to find a party with both a secular constitution and a secular leadership. I think, most of the political parties in India, if not all, are secular in their constitution. However, except a few individuals, none of the parties has leadership that is actually secular, and not opportunistically secular. This makes all the political parties in India practically non-secular. Only exception would be if a group of “secular individuals” form a political party with a constitution that is secular, it will remain secular until non-secular elements join the party. Given the nature of our populace, it does not take much time for the entry of a non-secular faction in any political party. Hence, very soon any political party becomes non-secular. An extreme form of non-secular leadership renders a party communal.


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