Secularism does not mean “Let us worship each other’s gods”

In these days of endless hatred and violence based on religion, it is a frequent refrain that the secular character of our society is under threat. However ‘secularism’ has become a word that has been so abused that it is now seen with cynicism, if not utter disgust. The immediate thoughts that come to mind are ‘secularism = minority appeasement/being anti-Hindu’. The Hindutva Right has become quite successful in portraying secularism as criticism of Hindus and defence of Muslims and hence the term has become an abuse (sickular/pseudo-secular) for its supporters.

General understanding of secularism and its problems

For those who do not see the term as an abuse and still believe in it as a principle, what does secularism mean? To this there is no clear answer and there is a multiplicity of perspectives. However, for the most part the average understanding can be stated as ‘respect for all religions’. Thus a secular person sees themselves as respecting all religions such as Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism, etc equally. This view is frequently extended to mean that visiting each other’s places of worship (gurudwaras, dargahs), participating in each other’s festivals (Diwali, Ramzan) or even worshipping each other’s gods is being ‘secular’. Dr APJ Abdul Kalam’s recitation of Gita shloks, Ustad Bismillah Khan’s worship of the Ganga, Muslims participating in Ramlila or Hindus organising Iftar parties are all seen as evidence of ‘secularism’. In fact, the average person can easily say, “I have friends from all faiths and have no issues going to any religious place hence I am secular.”

In so many words this can be summed up as a common sense understanding of secularism.

This view is, however, not secularism, but is actually known as syncretism. According to the Oxford dictionary, syncretism is “the amalgamation or attempted amalgamation of different religions, cultures, or schools of thought”. This view comes quite easily to the majority of Hindus owing to the work of the great 19th century social reformers such as Raja Rammohun Roy, Ramana Maharishi and Swami Vivekananda (to name a few). The modern understanding of Hinduism is largely that “God is one but has many forms.” It is thus easy for Hindus to conflate syncretism with secularism and use the former to define the latter.

This conflation, while well-meaning and entirely natural given the history and culture of the subcontinent, has nevertheless resulted in a common-sense understanding that is oppressive as well as regressive.

In the first place, while the syncretic view is easy for Hindus and does not clash with any of their beliefs, it goes against the basic tenets of the faiths of Muslims and Christians. Islam and Christianity are both monotheistic religions which clearly state that worshipping other gods, actively participating in other festivals and such activities are strict no-nos. This leads to a problem – Muslims and Christians end up being judged by the theological yardstick of modern Hinduism in the garb of ‘secularism’. Hindus say that they are being secular by going to dargahs, churches, etc but then feel upset and enraged when they see Muslims and Christians not doing the same or at least being unable to reciprocate in equal measure. They are then labeled as insular, unwilling to integrate, having ghetto-mentalities, owing allegiance to the Vatican/Mecca, anti-secular, religion-obsessed and so on. [pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Muslims and Christians end up being judged by the theological yardstick of modern Hinduism in the garb of ‘secularism’[/pullquote]

This is an entirely oppressive scenario. Devout Muslims and Christians, in order to prove their ‘secularism’, have to give up on their core beliefs (as bowing before other gods is forbidden in their faiths) and it is no surprise that a large majority are unable to do so. It is like asking vegetarian Brahmins to eat meat to prove their secularism. Why must one be forced to do something that their faith – for better or for worse – explicitly prohibits? It is a terrible choice and as mentioned earlier stems from a principle that is itself regressive. [pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Devout Muslims and Christians, in order to prove their ‘secularism’, have to give up on their core beliefs[/pullquote]

This principle is that secularism means ‘respect for all religions’. In itself it is a fine thing. However secularism understood solely in this manner means that there is no problem with religion becoming a part of public life i.e politics and governance. It is here that the difficulty arises. As we see day in and day out, mixing religion with politics results in a deadly cocktail that poisons the body politic with communalism.

The infusion of religion into politics has been responsible for the very Partition of India and post-Independence, both India and Pakistan continue to suffer due to religious violence. There are frequent communal riots, pogroms and massacres in the name of religion. Before elections the communal frenzy reaches an especially crazed pitch and lives are lost as people kill each other in the name of cows, buffaloes, haircuts, romance, historical figures and so on. There is no limit to absurdity and any aspect of religion can be and is used politically to polarize communities. Understanding secularism as ‘respect for all religions’ provides no counter to this deadly phenomenon and instead encourages competitive religiosity by governments and political parties as they seek to woo different castes, sects and religious groups. Instead of restricting the role of religion it ends up amplifying it and is thus a regressive ideal.

Need for redefining secularism

The way out is thus to define ‘secularism’ as the separation of religion from politics, which is what it means in the West. Religion should be seen as a strictly private affair that should not be brought into politics or governance. Political campaigns and agendas should not involve religious issues and should deal strictly with secular (non-religious) issues.

There should be a complete ban on public funding of religious activities. In India the amount of money spent by the government on religion is staggering. There is a well entrenched state-temple-corporate nexus where public money is used to offer cheap land or subsidies to religious institutions or business. For example Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living ashram in Bengaluru has been leased to him for free for 99 years by the government of Karnataka, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s university in Madhya Pradesh has been given free land by the MP government and many state governments pay direct salaries to temple priests, organise pujas, subsidise Haj travels, Mansarovar yatras and other forms of ‘religious tourism’, to give a few examples.

This is absolutely unacceptable. In principle it is wrong for a secular country to spend money to promote religion. Also, given the myriad problems India faces such as poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition etc it seems sheer madness to divert precious public funds towards funding religious activities. The government should instead focus on doing its job and provide public services such as law and order, infrastructure, etc and leave religious activities to the citizens themselves. [pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]In principle it is wrong for a secular country to spend money to promote religion[/pullquote]

There is also a cultural aspect here. Presently in India the involvement of religion in public life is not seen as morally wrong and it is common for the people themselves to plead for state assistance for religious activities. This must change and political parties and governments must be asked to stay away from religious issues and instead focus on addressing secular (non religious) issues of health, education, employment, etc. Only then can the country get over the recurring problem of communalism and become a truly modern and secular nation. The coming generations have an opportunity to undo the wrongs of the past and make a fresh start. Keeping religion out of public life will certainly be one big step down that path.


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Abdul Muheet Chowdhary is a legislative aide to B Vinod Kumar, Member of Parliament and a former consultant to the United Nations. Views expressed are personal.

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