Misinterpreting secularism, Indian culture and education

Rohit Dhankar

Professor V. Santhakumar’s article “Indian Culture, Secularism and Education: Let us be Realistic and Pragmatic” completely misses the point regarding secularism in education due to misinterpretation of the ideal of secularism. He assumes that the central point in the ideal of secularism is to make disappear “non-secular ways of life through” secular education and that there is a necessary dichotomy between emphasis on Indian culture on one hand and secularism on the other in school education.

The declaration of Indian constitution “to secure to all its citizens: JUSTICE, social, economic and political; LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; EQUALITY of status and of opportunity; and to promote among them all FRATERNITY assuring the dignity of the individual” is an embodiment of secular ideal in the constitution, right from the beginning, despite of not having the word “secular” in it before 42nd amendment. The declaration in the preamble does not make a distinction on the basis of religion among the citizens and is not guided by any religious doctrine. It is a state policy which implies in its very proclamation that ‘religious doctrine and ideals’ are not going to govern or influence the relationship between the citizens and the nation state.

For the rigour of this blog piece it is enough to say that secularism “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”.[1] The ideal of secularism then is an ideal to be followed by the state; in separating its policy from the religion and religious considerations. And it is not about making people abandon their religious or communitarian practices. Some religious practices, however, may have to be restricted in case they interfere with others’ rights and entitlements; that will be necessary for the state to fulfil its promise to all its citizens. I will discuss some such cases below.

Strictly for the present purpose, if we take the promises of justice, liberty, equality and dignity made by Indian constitution in its preamble (and then expanded in fundamental rights) then the state, on certain occasions, may come into conflict with religious practices of various communities. The constitution makes these promises to the ‘individuals’ not to ‘religious communities’ and makes these promises to all its citizens without any consideration of their practiced or professed faiths.

If a religion prescribes unequal treatment to its adherents then the state has to take note of it, and if any individual approaches the state with a complaint of injustice or inequality or encroachment upon his/her liberty etc. then the state is duty bound to protect its promises made to individuals irrespective of their religious affiliations. For example, from this perspective whatever the religious communities may believe the state cannot allow unequal access to public facilities (public transport, hotels) in the name of caste. If the state decides for health and other reasons to ban marriage before 18 years, then it cannot make considerations on the basis of Manu’s criteria of marrying a girl before puberty or Mohammad’s example of marrying a girl of 9 years. In such cases a secular state necessarily comes into conflict with practices recommended by religions. But this is because these practices trample on girl’s rights grow up as free individuals.

In India we are not very secular in our lives and the state actually does not fulfil the promises it made in the constitution. (That, however, does not make secular ideals any less important.) Our politicians indulge into non-secular practices as office bearers of state (Modi’s meditation in the cave) and we have state schemes that are non-secular in character (Kejriwal’s promise to send elderly Delhi residents on religious tourism on public exchequer). Modi and Kejriwal are free to practice their religion in their personal life, but not as office bearers and as state schemes. That is what secularism means.

If a religion wants to encroach on public spaces in the name of Ganesh or Durga puja or in the name of Friday namaz, it is the duty of the state to protect other citizens’ right to use those spaces; and not to advise people to stop either Ganesh/Durga puja or Friday namaz. That is none of the states business, all the state is concerned is that you practice your religion privately.

If a religion does not want to give women equal share in ancestral property, as was the case with Hindu women till as recently as 2005 and is the case with the Muslim women today, then the state is duty bound to protect the individual right of the woman who considers herself wronged. If the state does not do that with all women whatever their religion than it is not fulfilling the constitutional promise. However, if the woman herself in pursuance of her religious beliefs forfeits her rightful share, then the state, as far as I understand, has no business interfering in it. Professor Santhakumar assumes that the secular ideal is about not allowing the woman to donate her property to her brothers under her exploitative religious beliefs; as far as I understand, that is not the case, it is only if the woman wants her equal share, the state should ensure that she gets it. The secular ideal provides a framework of liberties and entitlements to each individual irrespective of their religion, it does not force them to depart from their religious practices if they do not encroach on other citizens’ rights.

Religions are known throughout history to accord unequal status to sections of population, treatment of Dalits and women in Hindu practices is an example. Treatment of women in Islam is another example. Whether the communities themselves reflect and amend these practices or not, the state is duty bound to provide opportunities through a legal framework to those who want to resist this unequal treatment.

The religions also have had ideals of not allowing other religions flourish or even exist. And the conversion of non-believers is mandated as sacred duty of believers in scriptures of some religions. That has been interpreted as theological legitimacy of conversion through force, fraud, fear and allurements; and is being practiced even today. A secular state that gives equal rights to practice their faiths to all its citizens can not allow this. And has to intervene even if the religious communities do not reflect and change themselves. And our students should understand these ideals and positions and should build a rational commitment to them. That is the duty of education.

Religions also put restrictions on people not belonging to their own communities. The present-day beef ban is an example. Not being able to buy meat on certain festival days is another example.   This is not about demanding from Hindus that they eat beef, nor from Jains that they eat meat. They are free to eat what they like; it is only about the rights of other citizens to eat what they want. It can not wait for the communities to change themselves and become open minded, it is about telling them that there are other people who live here, and they do not have any right to force their choices on them. And our future citizens should understand this, through education, of course.

Another issue in India, and in the world, has been of expressing one’s opinion freely without fear. This is part of liberty of thought, expression and belief. A citizen does have the right to critically analyse the doings and preaching of Ram, Krishna, Mahavir, Buddh, Christ, Muhammad and all such religious figures. And also has the right to express his/her opinion. If he/she finds something obnoxious in their behaviour or preaching, she has the right to say so openly and without fear. This does not mean asking believers to be critical about their religious figures or dogmas, it is not about forcing the believers to read or listen to such criticism. This is only about other citizens’ right to think and speak what they want to. Again, it can not wait till the communities themselves become wise enough to see that they should not try to control other people’s thinking. Citizens in a democracy need to understand and value this freedom.

This is about accepting others’ rights to live as they want, and not about wanting them to change their practices. If we want a multireligious and multicultural society to live in harmony, we have to get across these ideas and build commitment to them through education. That is where secular ideals are necessary in education.

This is true that these ideals can properly function in a society only when people accept them, and all the efforts about multicultural understanding and reflection within communities that Professor Santhakumar recommends are needed, and are very important. But that does not do away with emphasis on secular ideal in schools and in education.

In education and curriculum fair representation of all cultures and religious beliefs is another big issue. And that can not be avoided. I believe our education has been too shy (rather scared?) of critiquing cultural practices and religious dogmas in schools. If we want multiculturalism to flourish, we have to bring the critical understanding of religions in the curriculum and have to learn to call a spade a spade.

Professor Santhakumar is not correct when he claims that there is no evidence that ‘secular education’ makes people secular. Indian constitution is an example of people understanding the need to co-exist within the same country with multiple religious and cultural beliefs. And that was right after the country was divided on the basis of religion. And the education of the framers of constitution played a big role in that. His examples of educated Indians re-emphasizing their cultural roots do not negate this as long as they are not encroaching on others’ rights.

Another ideal that is necessary part of the secularism is using your own mind, being critical, being rational. The freedoms given to citizens and demand for responsible use of them necessarily requires development of critical thinking and demanding reasons and evidence for beliefs and actions. If education does not do it, democracy can not function. And that demands being fair in analysing all ideas religious or otherwise.

This also has to be done more seriously that the Draft National Education Policy recommends. It talks of the ‘skill’ of ‘critical thinking’ umpteen number of times, and even proclaims that “[T]extbooks will aim to contain only correct, relevant material; when unproven hypotheses or guesses are included, this will be explicitly stated.” Also talks of ‘evidence based’ thinking, again as a skill, many times. And then also makes claims like “India’s languages are … most scientific, and most expressive in the world”, and that “The concept of zero and its use in the place value system … also originated in India, over 2000 years ago”. (Emphasis added) By their own proclamation they should at the least have called them “hypotheses”. How do they defend the claim of Indian languages being most scientific and expressive? What is their evidence that zero was being used as a number 2000 years ago? One wonder how critically they have thought about these claims and what evidence they have for them. But then, when ‘critical thinking’ is taught as a ‘skill’ that is all you can expect. Our curriculum under secular ideals should have done better than that; and now will necessarily have to improve.

Calling secularism completely an alien ideal does gross injustice to Indian culture and its openness. It is true that the modern formulation of it as ‘separation of the state and the Church’ comes from Europe and is negatively inspired by Christianity due to its stranglehold on the state and people’s minds. But the ideals of people professing and practicing different faiths living together and state treating them equally—that does not necessarily mean treating ‘well’—is an age-old norm in India. A historian friend of mine told me that Ashok was fair to Buddhist monks and Brahmins in giving grants and donations, in spite of himself being a Buddhist. Ashok’s 12th Major edict gives an interesting peek into Indian mind in this regard, it is worth quoting in full here:

“The Beloved of the Gods, the king Piyadassi, honours all sects and both ascetics and laymen, with gifts and various forms of recognition. But the Beloved of the Gods does not consider gifts or honour to be as important as the advancement of the essential doctrine of all sects. This progress of the essential doctrine takes many forms, but its basis is the control of one’s speech, so as not to extoll one’s own sect or disparage another’s on unsuitable occasions, or at least to do so only mildly on certain occasions. On each occasion one should honour another man’s sect, for by doing so one increases the influence of one’s own sect and benefits that of the other man; while by doing otherwise one diminishes the influence of one’s own sect and harms the other man’s. Again, whosoever honours his own sect or disparages that of another man, wholly out of devotion to his own, with a view to showing it in a favourable light, harms his own sect even more seriously. Therefore, concord is to be commended, so that men may hear one another’s principles and obey them. This is the desire of the Beloved of the Gods, that all sects should be well-informed, and should teach that which is good, and that everywhere their adherents should be told, The Beloved of the Gods does not consider gifts or honour to be as important as the progress of the essential doctrine of all sects. Many are concerned with this matter – the officers of Dhamma, the women’s officers, the managers of the state farms, and other classes of officers. The result of this is the increased influence of one’s own sect and glory to Dhamma.”[2]

This is from an all-powerful emperor about 250 years before Christ was born, addressed to the general public as well as to the state officials. It may not be articulated in the exact terms as modern secularism quoted in the beginning, but comes as close to “a mode of political organization in which the state is neutral with reference to all established religions” as would have been possible at that time.

About openness and changes, yes, there is much resistance in changing practices in the society. There is also much injustice to sections of society and that is not giving way, often only changing form. But neither is it an absolutely ironclad rigidity. How the new age couples are changing Hindu marriage ceremony can be an example. I know at the least two couples personally who considered the practice of ‘kanyadan’ as demeaning to women and did not include that in their marriage. One couple used preamble of Constitution of India as ceremonial vow in their marriage. These changes have come about through secular ideals taught in the schools and colleges.  

Finally, there is no necessary dichotomy between emphasis on secular ideals and having one’s own religious or cultural identity. One can happily be a Hindu, a Muslim, a Jain, a Boddh, a Sikh, a Christian or an atheist; and be true to secular ideals as far as public behaviour is concerned. One has to compromise only on the religious beliefs and practices which restrict others’ freedoms. And that in any case has to be accepted if one is not living in a theological state. Those who want to force precepts of their own religions on others have to be prevented from doing so, even if they don’t like it. This much is necessary under any kind of modern state today, and is a necessary condition for existence of multireligious societies. If the future citizens of India are to understand all this appropriate emphasis on secular ideals in the school education is absolutely a must.


[1] International Encyclopaedia of Social Sciences, Second Edition (2008), Volume 7, p277-378.

[2] Romila Thapar, Asoka and the decline of the Mauryas, OUP, 1997, p255

5 Responses to Misinterpreting secularism, Indian culture and education

  1. Divya Subramanian says:

    Not sure how what you are saying is much different from Prof. Shantakumar’s article. Perhaps it’s a question of interpretation, but the ending (quoted below) seems to match what you are saying.
    “we focus and waste a lot of time on macro debates on secularism verses religion in the content of school education.

    The debates on what should be included in education in India should get out of the conventional battle between liberals and the traditionalists. The inclusion of a shallow and extraneous secularism in the content of education is not going to make much difference. It is also not important to be proud of what is imagined as Indian culture without much critical reflection.”


    • rdhankar says:

      It is very different as I don’t consider discussion on larger abstract principles of secularism are irrelevant and less effective in education. I believe they are absolutely necessary otherwise the concrete examples of religion based inequalities have no ground to stand on.


  2. Divya says:

    Also, while I technically agree with “if the woman herself in pursuance of her religious beliefs forfeits her rightful share, then the state, as far as I understand, has no business interfering in it.”, given how we function, how sure can we be that the said woman has been using her free will when she forfeited her rightful share?

    And why then should this be different from a girl of 16-17 stating she wants to get married and not being allowed to do so because of our laws? After all, across the world now, girls of that age and younger have started having sex.


    • rdhankar says:

      It is possible that a woman who wants to give her property to her brothers is actually indoctrinated, conditioned or under some king of pressure. What a state can do is provide an enlightening education, and create mechanisms in legal, administrative and social spheres that people can ward off undue pressure. BUT restricting her right to do what she likes with her property will come in conflict with he other liberties. That is why the state may not be able to do anything regarding this.

      A girl of 16-17 years is considered a minor who can not make some decisions regarding their lives yet. This is because it is assumed that they can be unduly influences by others and can not properly use their own reason in some matters. This is the same principle which recommends treating juveniles differently even in the cases of heinous crimes. The line at 18 years may or may not be arbitrary, but some such line will always be required for legal and other social purposes. An adult woman can not be considered unable to use her reason and freewill. That will be unjust for her.


  3. Divya says:

    At the same time I agree with your last paragraph as well as your assertion of how practices are being changed by individuals, though I am not sure whether I completely agree that these changes are happening because of the secular ideals taught in schools and colleges. I find that a unsubstantiated assertion.


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