Secularism: A Comparative Legal Perspective

VINOD KUMAR SONKAR identifies the distinguishing characteristics of American secularism, Communist secularism and Indian secularism. Features of Indian secularism have been viewed in the context of the Indian social reality. Relevant legal provisions

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VINOD KUMAR SONKAR identifies the distinguishing characteristics of American secularism, Communist secularism and Indian secularism. Features of Indian secularism have been viewed in the context of the Indian social reality. Relevant legal provisions

According to Webster’s dictionary the word ‘secularism’ means a sprit or tendency especially a system of political or social philosophy that rejects all forms of religious faiths or worship or the view that the matters of civil policy should be conducted without the influence of religious beliefs: Oxford dictionary defines the word ‘secular’ as concerned with the affairs of this world, worldly not sacred, not monastic, not ecclesiastical.
The purpose of secularism may be stated as: “Let the state and religion not get mixed together, otherwise the policies of the state would be based upon theocratic values and the persons in power may favour or disfavour one religion or the other.” There is an apprehension that prejudice may be caused to one religious community vis-à-vis the other. Secularism implies non-interference of state in the affairs of religion and also of religion in the affairs of the state.
Secularism can be perceived in the following three ways:
1. American secularism
2. Communist Secularism
3. Indian Secularism

It is absence of state sponsored or favoured religion. The 1st amen-dment of US Constitution says, ‘American Congress shall not make any law regarding the establishment of a religion or restricting the free exercise thereof.’ The American Constitution guarantees not only the free exercise of religion but also enjoins Congress not to make any laws establishing religion (Non-establishment clause.)
There are two important features of American secularism
1. State shall have no religion of its own.
2. State shall not give priority or preference to any particular religion over the others.
There are two distinct injunctions to Congress, generally referred to as
(A) Non-establishment clause; and
(B) Free exercise clause.
The American Supreme Court has explained the scope of Non-establishment clause.
In one case, it was held that neither the Federal Government nor the states can set up a church, nor can they pass laws which aid one religion or prefer one to the other.
The philosophy underlying the non-establishment clause was the belief that “a union of government and religion tends to destroy government and to derogate religion.”
In the words of Mr. Black, “Neither a state nor the Federal government can openly or secretly participate in the affairs of any religious organisation or groups or vice-versa.”
In the words of Jefferson, “The clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect a wall of separation between state and the church.”
In a well-known case, the American Supreme Court turned down as unconstitutional a programme under which a public school permitted religious instructions by private religious groups in school premises.
In another well-known case, the court of Pennsylvania invalidated the law requiring readings from the Bible at the beginning of the school day in a school in that state, though the participation of students in this exercise was voluntary.
In fact, the American secularism is based upon the doctrine of “complete separation of state from the religion,” due to historical reasons. It may be recalled that the historical roots of European secularism lie in Westphalia Treaty (1648) when the church was separated from the state; wherein the concept of secularism evolved.
American secularism is founded upon the saying of Jesus Christ: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are of God.” This results in the complete separation of the state from the church. In America and Europe secularism was strengthened by the unprecedented phenomenon of renaissance i.e. development of scientific temperament and onset of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries due to which the European society got rid of religious fanaticism of the middle ages.

Karl Marx said, “Religion is opium of the masses. It is spirit of spiritless and heart of heartless.” According to him, “Man makes religion; religion does not make man. Moreover, no one religion should be accorded special privilege in national life or international relations; for that would be a violation of the basic principles of democracy.” This view of religion implies that no group of citizens shall arrogate to itself rights and privileges that are denied to others. No person shall suffer any form of disability or discrimination because of his religion but all alike should be free to share to the fullest degree, in the common life.
Communist states profess negative secularism i.e. communism not only disfavours religious activities but also has an apathetic attitude towards religion in public domain. And there is no freedom constitutionally guaranteed of religion under Communist regimes. In fact, under Communist regimes, religion is tolerated with considerable grudge. Outward public manifestation of any sort of religious faith is ruthlessly suppressed by the state. In Marx’ view religion is an instrument of exploitation in the hands of bourgeoisie.

The framers of Indian Constitution did not enshrine the idea of “complete separation of religion from the state,” as in America. Asking the state to “keep hands off” religion would amount to giving constitutional protection to injustice and exploitation, caused in the name of religion. Moreover, it was a long cherished dream that India should become a nation based upon the noble ideas of justice, liberty and equality, where every individual may live with human dignity. To accomplish these pious objectives, several social legislations were required to be enacted.
The history of secularism in India may be traced since the time of Ashoka (300 B.C.). Ashoka declared that the state would not persecute any religious sect. Ashoka’s secular outlook is evident from 12th Rock Edict in which the king made a passionate appeal for tolerance of all religious sects and spirit of reverence towards them. He stood for non-violence, particularly after the Kalinga war. His law of Dhamma was marked by liberalism, charity and compassion. He stood for moral order where character and conduct played greater role than rituals and ceremonies. He pleaded for restraint in the criticism of other religious sects. Ashoka’s secular outlook i.e. reverence to all religions, has been enshrined in the Preamble of Indian Constitution and it is also reflected throughout the Constitution.
The idea of secularism in Indian perspective has got a special significance, due to its entirely unique socio-cultural and socio-religious framework. Secularism plays an active role in binding up the National political community, in the midst of national pluralism. Secularism in India is a Constitutional mandate as well as cultural necessity, a social obligation and instrument for development.
The Christianity and Islam came to India and established their roots in India’s caste ridden society. These religions got a wide social acceptance as they have deep and inherent spiritual and humanistic attributes.
Islam refers to Allah as Rab-ul-Aalameen and not Rab-ul-Muslimeen i.e. the Almighty God is the Lord of the entire universe and not Lord of the Muslims only.
Some so-called “thinkers” argue that Islam was spread by sword. The fallacy of this argument can be exposed by the fact that Muslims ruled over India more than 800 years. Had it been so, the entire country would have been converted to Islam; because 800 years was certainly long enough to do so.
In fact, any act of propagating Islam through the power of sword is “anti-Islamic”.
Originally the word “secular” was not there in the Preamble of the Constitution. It was only through the 42nd Constitutional Amendment Act 1976 when it was enshrined.