Difference between Indian & Western Secularism

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Mains: GS I-  Secularism

What is Secularism?

  • The discrimination of one community or its members by another community or its members on account of their religious identity are the instances of religious persecution and they reflect inter-religious domination.
  • Secularism is the first and foremost doctrine that opposes all such forms of inter-religious domination.
  • The term “Secular” means being “separate” from religion or having no religious basis.
  • A secular person is one who does not owe his moral values to any religion.
  • His values are the product of his rational and scientific thinking.
  • Secularism means separation of religion from political, economic, social and cultural aspects of life, religion is treated as a purely personal matter.
  • It also stands for equal opportunities for followers of all religions, and no discrimination and partiality on grounds of religion.
  • It emphasizes the dissociation of the state from religion and full freedom to all religions and tolerance of all religions.

History of Secularism

  • The departure from reliance on religious faith to reason and science marks the beginning of the secularization of education and society in history.
  • Among the earliest documentations of a secular form of thought is seen in the Charvaka system of philosophy in India, which held direct perception, empiricism, and conditional inference as proper sources of knowledge, and sought to reject the prevailing religious practices of that time.
  • According to Domenic Marbaniang, Secularism emerged in the West with the establishment of reason over religious faith as human reason was gradually liberated from unquestioned subjection to the dominion of religion and superstition.
  • Secularism first appeared in the West in the classical philosophy and politics of ancient Greece, disappeared for a time after the fall of Greece.
  • The word ‘secularism’ is known to have originated in late medieval Europe.
  • Secularism, the theory that governments ought to have no religious connection, nor indeed anything to do with matters of religious belief or ritual, is manifestly a Western intervention, specifically a product of the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment.
  • Thereafter, secularism as the ideal theoretical basis of nation-states was utilised in lands outside the European continent, such as the United States and Turkey.

Secularism in the History of India

  • Secular traditions are very deep-rooted in the history of India. Indian culture is based on the blending of various spiritual traditions and social movements.
  • In ancient India, the Sanatan Dharma (Hinduism) was basically allowed to develop as a holistic religion by welcoming different spiritual traditions and trying to integrate them into a common mainstream.
  • Ashoka about 2200 years ago, Harsha about 1400 years ago accepted and patronised different religions.
    • In his 12th Rock Edict, Ashoka made an appeal not only for the toleration of all religious sects but also to develop a spirit of great respect toward them.
  • The people in ancient India had freedom of religion, and the state granted citizenship to each individual regardless of whether someone's religion was Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism or any other.
  • Ellora cave temples built next to each other between the 5th and 10th centuries, for example, shows coexistence of religions and a spirit of acceptance of different faiths.
  • This approach to interfaith relations changed with the arrival of Islam and establishment of Delhi Sultanate in North India by the 12th century, followed by Deccan Sultanate in Central India.
  • The political doctrines of Islam, as well as its religious views, were at odds with doctrines of Hinduism, Christianity and other Indian religions.
    • With the arrival of the Mughal era, Sharia was imposed with continued zeal, with Akbar – the Mughal Emperor– as the first significant exception.
    • Akbar sought to fuse ideas, professed equality between Islam and other religions of India, forbade forced conversions to Islam, abolished religion-based discriminatory jizya taxes, and welcomed the building of Hindu temples.
    • The descendants of Akbar, particularly Aurangzeb, reverted to treating Islam as the primary state religion, destruction of temples, and reimposed religion-based discriminatory jizya taxes.
  • However, in medieval India, the Sufi and Bhakti movements bond the people of various communities together with love and peace.
    • The leading lights of these movements were Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti, Baba Farid, Sant Kabir Das, Guru Nanak Dev, Saint Tukaram and Mira Bai etc.
  • After Aurangzeb, India came into control of East India Company and the British Raj.
    • The colonial administrators did not separate religion from state, but marked the end of equal hierarchy between Islam and Hinduism, and reintroduced the notion of equality before the law for Hindus, Christians and Muslims.
    • The British Empire sought commerce and trade, with a policy of neutrality to all of India's diverse religions.
    • Although the British administration provided India with common law, its divide and rule policy contributed to promoting discord between communities.
    • The Morley-Minto reforms provided separate electorate to Muslims, justifying the demands of the Muslim league.
  • Majority of the makers of modern India, shaped as they were, by European thoughts and practices, were ardent supporters of secularism as well.
  • Foremost among them was the first prime minister of the country Jawaharlal Nehru. For him, having a secular state was a crucial mark of modernity. 
  • In the initial part of the Indian freedom movement, the liberals like Sir Feroz Shah Mehta, Govind Ranade, Gopal Krishna Gokhale by and large pursued a secular approach to politics.
  • Gandhiji’s secularism was based on a commitment to the brotherhood of religious communities based on their respect for and pursuit of truth, whereas, J. L. Nehru’s secularism was based on a commitment to scientific humanism tinged with a progressive view of historical change.

The philosophy of Indian secularism

  • The term ‘secularism’ is akin to the Vedic concept of ‘Dharma nirapekshata’ i.e. the indifference of state to religion.
  • This model of secularism is adopted by western societies where the government is totally separate from religion (i.e. separation of church and state).
  • Indian philosophy of secularism is related to “Sarva Dharma Sambhava” (literally it means that destination of the paths followed by all religions is the same, though the paths themselves may be different) which means equal respect to all religions.
  • This concept embraced and promoted by personalities like Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi is called ‘Positive secularism’ that reflects the dominant ethos of Indian culture.
  • India does not have an official state religion. However, different personal laws – on matters such as marriage, divorce, inheritance, alimony varies with an individual's religion.
  • Indian secularism is not an end in itself but a means to address religious plurality and sought to achieve peaceful coexistence of different religions.
  • At the present scenario, in the context of Indian, the separation of religion from the state constitutes the core of the philosophy of secularism.

Provisions related to secularism in the Indian constitution

  • Though the term ‘secular’ was not initially mentioned in the original constitution, the Indian constitution has always been secular. 
  • In India, it is not mutual exclusion, rather it is the principled distance, a complex idea that allows the state to be distant from all religions so that it can intervene or abstain from interference, depending upon which of these two would better promote liberty, equality and social justice.
  • With the 42nd Amendment of the Constitution of India enacted in 1976, the Preamble to the Constitution asserted that India is a secular nation.
    • It emphasises the fact that constitutionally, India is a secular country which has no State religion.
    • And that the state shall recognise and accept all religions, not favour or patronize any particular religion.
    • Constitution upholds the principle of social justice without compromising on individual liberties.
  • The constitutional commitment to caste-based affirmative action program shows how much ahead of India as compared to the other nations (as in the US it began after 1964 civil rights movements)
  • Against the background of inter-communal strife, the constitution upholds its commitment to group rights (the right to the expression of cultural particularity).
  • So, our forefathers/ framers of the constitution were more than willing to face the challenges of what has to be known as multiculturalism.
  • Fundamental rights (Article 12 to 35) guarantees and promotes secularism.
    • Right to equality, right to freedom, right against exploitation, right to freedom of religion, cultural and educational rights, and right to constitutional remedies are such six fundamental rights.
    • Secular attitude or attitude of impartiality towards all religion is secured by the constitution under several provisions. (Article 25 to 28).
  • Article 25 provides ‘Freedom of Conscience’, that is, all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess, practise and propagate religion.
  • Not only is there the freedom of the individual to profess to practise and propagate his religion, but there is also the right guaranteed to every religious group or domination –
    • To establish and maintain an institution for religious and charitable purposes;
    • To manage its own affairs in matters of religion;
    • To own and acquire movable and immovable property; and
    • To administer such property in accordance with the law (Article 26)
  • As per Article 27, the state shall not compel any citizen to pay any taxes for the promotion or maintenance of any particular religion or religious institution.
  • Article 28 allows educational institutions maintained by different religious groups to impart religious instruction.
  • Article 29 and Article 30 provides cultural and educational rights to the minorities.
  • Article 51A i.e. Fundamental Duties obliges all the citizens to promote harmony and the spirit of common brotherhood and to value and preserve the rich heritage of our composite culture.
  • It is to be noted that this guarantee is available not only to the citizens of India but to all persons including aliens.
  • The 7th schedule of Indian constitution places religious institutions, charities and trusts into so-called Concurrent List, which means that both the central government of India and various state governments in India can make their own laws about religious institutions, charities and trusts.

How is Indian Secularism different than Western Secularism?

  • The idea of secularism as expressed in our Constitution and as articulated over the years through the political process is embedded in the concepts of equality and democracy rather than in the Western concept of secularism which denies religion any space in the public sphere.
  • Indian secularism sails with western secularism in some aspects but still there exist fundamental differences.
  • Western dictionaries define secularism as an absence of religion but Indian secularism does not mean irreligiousness. It means the profusion of religion.
  • In practice, unlike Western notions of secularism, India's secularism does not separate religion and state. The Indian Constitution has allowed extensive interference of the state in religious affairs.


Western Secularism Indian Secularism 
  • In western society, secularism refers to the complete separation between the state and religion and freedom of religion for all people.
  • While its historical legacy has led western civilization to develop a brand of secularism that primarily sought to emphasise the separation between church and state, India’s history has led to a different outcome. 
  • In Indian society, secularism means equal treatment of all religions and no discrimination between followers of different religions.
  • There’s no clear demarcation between state and religion in India, positive intervention of the state in religious affairs is not prohibited. 
  • In India, both state and religion can, and often do, interact and intervene in each other's affairs within the legally prescribed and judicially settled parameters.
  • India does partially separate religion and state.
    • For example, it does not have an official state religion and state-owned educational institutions cannot impart religious instructions.
  • The Western concept of Secularism does not believe in an open display of religion except for places of worship.
  • In a country like France, the hijab is banned because the external manifestation of religion is not appreciated in that society. 
  • Religion is relegated entirely to the private sphere and has no place in public life whatsoever.
  • In India, secularism manifests itself by the creation of an environment where every religion is represented and its followers can freely practice the religion. 
  • All expression of Religion is manifested equally with support from the state.
  • Also, in western society, laws are made in isolation from religious principles.
  • However, in India, the law seeks to accommodate the multiple religious principles that followers of different religions adhere to.
  • As per the western model, the state cannot give any financial support to educational institutions run by religious communities.


  • In India, the state provides all religious minorities with the right to establish and maintain their own educational institutions which may receive assistance from the state.
  • The Indian Constitution permits partial financial support for religious schools, as well as the financing of religious buildings and infrastructure by the state.
  • In the western model, the State does not intervene in the affairs of religion until the time religion is working within the limits of the law.
  • The western model prohibits any public policy to be drafted on the basis of religion therefore; the state is absolutely distanced from the religious activities and practices of its citizens.
  • On the other hand, in Indian secularism, the state shall interfere in religion so as to remove evils in it.
  • India has intervened by enforcing legislation against the practices of sati or widow-burning, dowry, animal and bird sacrifice, child marriage, and preventing Dalits from entering temples.


  • A single uniform code of law is used to dispense justice regardless of religious background.
  • In matters of law in modern India, however, the applicable code of law is unequal, and India's personal laws– on matters such as marriage, divorce, inheritance, alimony– varies with an individual's religion. 
  • Muslim Indians have Sharia-based Muslim Personal Law, while Hindu, Christian and Sikh Indians live under common law.
  • The Islamic Central Wakf Council and many Hindu temples of great religious significance are administered and managed by the Indian government.
  • Focus is more on intrareligious domination than interreligious due to religiously homogeneous nature of the State.
  • For example, the reformed gender-neutral nature of Christianity which is the dominant religion of the West.
  • Focusing both on interreligious and intra religious dominations because Indian society is not homogenous rather it is multi-religious that has numerous religious denominations and caste under each.
  • For example ll in the Varna system, people of upper caste treated Dalits inhumanly and such treatment it was abolished by the Scheduled CasteS and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.
  • It is concerned with liberty and equality among the individuals of the particular religion and often neglected the equality of other religious minorities
  • It not only ensures the religious freedom of individuals but also provides for the religious freedom of minorities. It enables an individual to freely pursue his religion and helps the religious minorities to exist and maintain their culture and educational institutions as a community.
  • The role of religious bodies is meagre in politics
  • As an implicit control, religious groups could persuade their followers and control the ballot box. They could also influence the government in power in policymaking.


What makes Indian secularism Distinctive?

  • For a start, it arose in the context of deep religious diversity that predated the advent of Western modern ideas and nationalism.
  • There was already a culture of inter-religious ‘tolerance’ in India. However, we must not forget that tolerance is compatible with religious domination.
  • The advent of western modernity brought to the fore hitherto neglected and marginalised notions of equality in Indian thought.
  • It sharpened these ideas and helped us to focus on equality within the community. It also ushered ideas of inter-community equality to replace the notion of hierarchy.
  • Indian secularism took on a distinct form as a result of an interaction between what already existed in a society that had religious diversity and the ideas that came from the west.
  • It resulted in an equal focus on intra-religious and inter-religious domination.
  • Indian secularism equally opposed the oppression of Dalits and women within Hinduism, the discrimination against women within Indian Islam or Christianity, and the possible threats that a majority community might pose to the rights of the minority religious communities.
    • This is its first important difference from mainstream western secularism.
  • Connected to it is the second difference. Indian secularism deals not only with the religious freedom of individuals but also with the religious freedom of minority communities. 
  • Since a secular state must be concerned equally with intra-religious domination, Indian secularism has made room for and is compatible with the idea of state-supported religious reform. Thus, the Indian constitution bans untouchability.
  • The Indian state has enacted several laws abolishing child marriage and lifting the taboo on inter-caste marriage sanctioned by Hinduism. 
  • The secular character of the Indian state is established by virtue of the fact that it is neither theocratic nor has it established any one or multiple religions.
  • Beyond that, it has adopted a very sophisticated policy in pursuit of religious equality.
    • This allows it either to disengage with religion in the American style, or engage with it if required.
    • The Indian state may engage with religion negatively to oppose religious tyranny.
    • This is reflected in such actions as the ban on untouchability.
    • It may also choose a positive mode of engagement.
  • Thus, the Indian Constitution grants all religious minorities the right to establish and maintain their own educational institutions which may receive assistance from the state.
  • All these complex strategies can be adopted by the state to promote the values of peace, freedom and equality.

Criticism of Indian Secularism

Indian secularism has been subjected to fierce criticism.

  1. Anti-religious
    • First, it is often argued that secularism is anti-religious.
    • But secularism is against institutionalised religious domination.
    • This is not the same as being anti-religious.
    • Similarly, it has been argued by some that secularism threatens religious identity.
    • However, as we noted earlier, secularism promotes religious freedom and equality. Hence, it clearly protects religious identity rather than threatens it.
    • Of course, it does undermine some forms of religious identity: those, which are dogmatic, violent, fanatical, exclusivist and those, which foster hatred of other religions.
    • The real question is not whether something is undermined but whether what is undermined is intrinsically worthy or unworthy.
  2. Western Import
    • A second criticism is that secularism is linked to Christianity, that it is western and, therefore, unsuited to Indian conditions.
    • On the surface, this is a strange complaint.
    • For there are millions of things in India today, from trousers to the internet and parliamentary democracy, that have their origins in the west.
    • The more the important and relevant point is that for a state to be truly secular, it must have ends of its own.
    • Western states became secular when at an important level, they challenged the control of established religious authority over social and political life.
    • The western model of secularism is not, therefore, a product of the Christian world.
    • India evolved a variant of secularism that is not just an implant from the west on Indian soil.
    • The fact is that the secularism has both western and nonwestern origins.
    • In the west, it was the Church-state separation which was central and in countries such as India, the idea of peaceful coexistence of different religious communities has been important.
  3. Minoritism
    • The third accusation against secularism is the charge of minoritism.
    • It is true that Indian secularism advocates minority.
    • To make a separate arrangement for them is not to accord them any special treatment.
    • It is to treat them with the same respect and dignity with which all others are being treated.
    • The lesson is that minority rights need not be nor should be viewed as special privileges.
  4. Interventionist
    • A fourth criticism claims that secularism is coercive and that it interferes excessively with the religious freedom of communities.
    • This misreads Indian secularism.
    • It is true that by rejecting the idea of separation as mutual exclusion, Indian secularism rejects non-interference in religion.
    • But it does not follow that it is excessively interventionist.
    • Indian secularism follows the concept of principled distance which also allows for non-interference.
    • A secularist might see personal laws (laws concerning marriage, inheritance and other family matters which are governed by different religions) as manifestations of community-specific rights that are protected by the Constitution.
    • Or he might see these laws as an affront to the basic principles of secularism on the ground that they treat women unequally and therefore unjustly.
  5. Vote Bank Politics
    • Fifth, there is the argument that secularism encourages the politics of vote banks.
    • As an empirical claim, this is not entirely false.
    • However, we need to put this issue in perspective. First, in a democracy politicians are bound to seek votes.
    • That is part of their job and that is what democratic politics is largely about.
    • To blame a politician for pursuing a group of people or promising to initiate a policy with the motivation to secure their votes is unfair.
    • The real question is what precisely the vote is sought for.
    • If the group which voted for the politician does not get any benefit from this act, then surely the politician must be blamed.
    • If secular politicians who sought the votes of minorities also manage to give them what they want, then this is a success of the secular project which aims, after all, to also protect the interests of the minorities.
  6. Impossible Project
    • A final, cynical criticism might be this: Secularism cannot work because it tries to do too much, to find a solution to an intractable problem.
    • People with deep religious differences will never live together in peace. Now, this is an empirically false claim.
    • The history of Indian civilisation shows that this kind of living together is realisable. It was realised elsewhere too.
    • The Ottoman Empire is a stirring example.
    • But now critics might say that coexistence under conditions of inequality was indeed possible. Everyone could find a place in a hierarchically arranged order.
    • The point, they claim, is that this will not work today when equality is increasingly becoming a dominant cultural value.



  • In a pluralistic society, the best approach to nurture secularism is to expand religious freedom rather than strictly practising state neutrality.
  • It is incumbent on us to ensure value-education that makes the younger generation understands and appreciates not only its own religious traditions but also those of the other religions in the country.
  • There is also a need to identify a common framework or a shared set of values which allows the diverse groups to live together.
  • The prerequisites to implement the social reform initiative like Uniform Civil Code are to create a conducive environment and forging socio-political consensus.

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