How secularism has failed India – Arvind Sharma

Counting cash offerings to Balaji in Tirupati.

Arvind SharmaThe government should immediately get out of the business of running Hindu temples, as by not doing so they violate one of the basic tenets of secularism, even as they invoke it. – Prof. Arvind Sharma

This question can no longer be dodged.

Secularism, in its broadest connotation, was held up as the guiding principle of the new country when it came into existence in 1947, and of the new republic in 1950 when it adopted a Constitution, which was secular in every respect except in name, which too was added to it in 1976, by the Constitution (Forty-Second Amendment) Act.

But what is secularism? The fundamental principle of secularism is the separation of Church (or religion), and State. The State stays away from religion, and religion stays away from the State. All the citizens become subject to secular law as equals, religion becomes a private matter, which is kept out of the public square, and religious peace is thereby secured.

Let us now examine how well this principle has worked in India. What does the record of the past 75 years reveal in this regard? This is a considerable slice of time, almost a third of the period of British rule over India.

Has the Indian state stayed out of religion?

Let us take the case of just one state such as Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu has about 44,000 temples. Out of these, 38,000 are run by the Tamil Nadu government. If we spread our net wider, we discover that around 34,500 temples are under the control of the state of Karnataka. It has been further calculated that around 90,000 temples in the five southern states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Telangana are run by the state governments.

One is compelled to ask if this degree of state control of temples is consistent with secularism. Is it a tenet of Indian secularism, that it is only the central government which will stay out of religion, and not the state governments? I know of no such principle. Both the central and the state governments represent the state in India.

Sometimes it is argued that the governments take temples over to fight corruption, but other secular democracies do not take over a religious institution if they suspect foul play; they take the institution to court, precisely because a secular government is supposed to stay out of running religious institutions. So far as corruption is concerned, the likelihood of the state governments themselves getting corrupted by running the temples cannot be discounted either. According to one source, the various state governments collected a total of around Rs 6,000 crore from the temples in the year 2020. According to another source, Rs 2,300 crore from the Tirupati temple were transferred to the treasury of the Andhra government in 2021. With such astronomical amounts of money floating around, the possibility of corruption cannot be overlooked. Just imagine that the annual Hundi collection of Tirupati is Rs 1,310 crore, of Vaishno Devi Rs 520 crore, and of Siddhivinayak Temple Rs 98 crore. There are good reasons why a secular state needs to stay out of religion.

Can the Indian state still be considered secular? Consider this. In both Delhi and West Bengal, both Hindu and Muslim priests are receiving monthly stipends from the respective state governments. This also seems to be a serious violation of the secular principle.

A secular legal system is the next feature one needs to consider in this context. This is the necessary legal basis of the secular state. In keeping with this realisation, the Constitution directed the government to move towards evolving a Uniform Civil Code for all its citizens in keeping with Directive Principle No 44. In the absence of such a code, a Muslim can have four wives in India but other citizens are restricted to monogamy, to mention just one anomaly. The principle of equality also has implications for the running of religious institutions by the state. Only Hindu institutions, it seems, have been taken over by the state governments; Muslim and Christian institutions have been left untouched, although they are also subject to Article 25 of the Indian Constitution.

A remarkable example of the inequality in this respect has come to light recently. The St Stephen’s College is a well-known Christian institution of higher education in Delhi. According to newspaper reports, it receives substantial funding from the Indian government; some reports put the extent of support as high as ninety per cent. However, fifty per cent of the student body is said to be Christian. According to reports, the college now wants to influence the procedures for admission for the other fifty percent. One wonders how all this can be reconciled with the idea of secularism.

Has Indian secularism succeeded in securing religious peace as promised? The record is extremely distressing in this regard. Over the years, Hindus have killed Muslims and Christians. The names of Akhlaq and Pehlu Khan come to mind, who were lynched by Hindu mobs, and of the Christian missionary Graham Staines, who was killed by Dara Singh. Muslims have also killed Hindus, as the film The Kashmir Files documented, and as happened recently in Udaipur and Amravati. Christians have also killed Hindus, as in the case of Swami Laksmananada, in Kandhamal in Odisha. It is remarkable that a secular state has succeeded in making members of both the majority and minority community equally insecure.

In other words, it could be argued that secularism has failed in India, but can we conclude from this that secularism has failed India?

It has been said that the trouble with Christianity is that it has never been tried. The same could be said of secularism in India. The parallel is tempting.

Just as, by and large, the impressive ecclesiastical structures of Christianity pay lip-service to the principles of Christianity, but hardly ever seem to abide by them, according to its critics, similarly, the impressive political structures of Indian democracy, regularly pays lip-service to the principles of secularism, but seems to ignore its basic principles in the actual functioning of it.

The secular foundation of the Indian nation has been receiving one jolt after another in the form of The Kashmir Files, the hijab controversy, the Gyanvapi mosque episode, the Nupur Sharma controversy, and now its gory aftermath—for how long will it be able to withstand such shocks?

The government or governments should immediately get out of the business of running Hindu temples, as by not doing so they violate one of the basic tenets of secularism, even as they invoke it. Similarly, equality of all citizens before the law must be established, which is to say that a Uniform Civil Code in some form must be introduced as soon as possible, before the so-called secularism collapses under the weight of its own contradictions.- Firstpost, 24 July 2022

Prof. Arvind Sharma, formerly of the IAS, is the Birks Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. He has published extensively in the fields of Indian religions and world religions.  

St. Stephen's College, Delhi.

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