The Idea of India- Part 1 -Secularism

7 min readFeb 1, 2023

A most often-used phrase in current public discourse is the “idea of India.” The term has almost been weaponized without anyone ever having to define it. So what exactly should be understood when encountering a narrative of “a challenge” or a “distortion” to the “idea of India” when the Idea itself is undefined?

What is this Idea, and what are its foundational principles? The question is either left unanswered or elicits a vague response. That may be a matter of convenience, an inability to define an abstract concept, or a fear that the answers to the questions contradict the principles advocated. One must also ask if what we proclaim as foundational principles of this Idea are “First Principles” or “Fluid Principles”? While the former are non-negotiable, the latter are convenient positions that justify a bias and masquerade as a principle.

Secularism is one such foundational principle for a liberal, inclusive nation. The most often-used argument about India is that it is moving away from being “secular.” Those accused of moving the country away from being “Secular” argue that their way of life ( Hinduism) has kept the nation secular, and there is no such danger from them. Irrespective of political positions taken, everyone agrees that “Secularism” is a lofty principle, and every liberal democracy must aspire to conform to it. Whether one’s religious beliefs or covenants incorporate aspects of Secularism or eschew any such concept, “secularism” is a value worth pursuing.

In any reasonable proposition, the “idea of India” must guide a journey toward a Modern, Liberal Democracy. Therefore, it is crucial to clearly define the concepts that are considered foundational for building a Liberal Democracy.

Many argue, and rightly so, that The Constitution is the ultimate document and that Society must conform to its principles. Principles that include “secularism.” The Constitution is often posited as a Supra Holy Book with a higher purpose(albeit of liberalism and democracy). Within it are commandments intended to prod us towards a liberal modern society. Thus, examining the Constitution for these concepts must bolster that claim.

For this piece, let us explore how the concept of “Secularism.” and “Freedom of Religion” have been dealt with. The Constitution was framed after very illuminating Constituent Assembly debates. These debates had many liberals facing off with a few others who preferred a status quo in Society. Each believed that they had legitimate and valid reasons. While some were inclined to use the Constitution to create a liberal democracy, others insisted that their purpose was to protect their way of life. Like in any political negotiation, compromises were worked out. Compromises grudgingly conceded with some wistful assertions that perhaps Society was not ready for that change. India outside the Constituent Assembly must have influenced some of these compromises. The members could not have been insulated from an India in strife, the violence on the streets, the throes of an impending partition, and the wounds. India was bleeding as it got its Freedom and was framing its Constitution. A delicate balance had to be found to keep the people together, or so most of the Constituent Assembly members might have believed. In this process, some fundamental tenets were undefined, leading to the never-ending debate on “secularism.”

Although not an explicit part of the original preamble, Secularism was implicit in our Constitution. It is fair to say that the Founding Fathers intended the Indian State to have a Secular nature. Through political skill and a play of words, an Indian version of Secularism came to be, or so we are made to believe.

There should also be no argument that Freedom of religion is an absolute fundamental right. This right empowers every citizen to profess or practice their faith freely.

By definition, a secular state must not distinguish among its citizens based on religion. While agreeing with this principle, some constituent assembly members argued that interference in other matters must be gradual and progress with the advance of time. They believed that when education becomes nearly universal, mass illiteracy is reduced, economic conditions improve, and citizens are more aware; it will be an appropriate time for Secular Laws. These votaries of gradualism argued that a stage would come with progress (A summary of the arguments presented by Naziruddin Ahmad and Hussain Imam). These views seemed a reasonable proposition nearly 75 years ago, though they were a significant compromise.

Mohammed Ismail Sahib, however, said, “The right to follow personal law is part of the way of life of those people who are following such laws: it is part of their religion and part of their culture. If anything is done to affect the personal laws, it will be tantamount to interference with the way of life of those people who are observing these laws for generations and ages. This Secular State which we are trying to create should not do anything to interfere with the way of life and religion of the people.” Thus pioneering a narrative that positioned “Secularism” and “Freedom of Religion” as inherently contradictory.

This interpretation of Mohammed Ismail Saheb has been repeated ad-nauseam in almost every instance of a change in law or an attempt to make more secular laws regarding marriage, divorce, inheritance, or adoption. Reliance on the argument that Freedom of religion includes Freedom to have unique personal laws has, in certain instances, led to the Fatwa e Alamgiri of the middle ages holding sway, and following its advice is unfortunately considered as adhering to the principle of “Secularism.”

In 75 years, we are yet to evolve into a society ready for truly “secular’ laws. However, Parliament has not been averse to modifying the personal laws of the Hindus, as well-meaning progressive representatives of that community. We must be thankful for these changes that have led to reform in Society at large and specifically to those who follow the Indic faiths. For example, only through legislation( amendment) to Hindu Succession Act ( 2005) have most women in India got a legal and equal right to ancestral property. However, one has to point out that this right is not available to women of all faiths in India.

The interpretation that Freedom of Religion supersedes the authority of the State to legislate a reform in social practices has led to many distortions. In the constituent assembly, Dr. Ambedkar stated very clearly and effectively during the debates on Secularism.

“I personally do not understand why religion should be given this vast, expansive jurisdiction so as to cover the whole of life and to prevent the legislature from encroaching upon that field. After all, what are we having this liberty for? We are having this liberty in order to reform our social system, which is so full of inequities, discriminations, and other things, which conflict with our fundamental rights.”

Suppose one succumbs to the argument that the right to a way of life (viz, family law, adoption, property rights, the emancipation of women) is part of Freedom of Religion. In that case, it follows that it cannot be reformed by legislation impinging on a Fundamental Right. So a law cannot be framed that is universal in its applicability. Hence the State cannot function as a secular state. This contradiction or deliberate vagueness is kept alive as a compromise.

The principal issue with recognizing old social mores or customs as an integral part of faith is the expanded definition of religion. This expansion causes the problem of agency or authority. Who is the agency/authority that interprets and affirms what constitutes “Freedom of Religion” when the definition of religion also includes archaic customs and practices?

Can that authority to interpret which social customs and practices constitute an essential religious practice rest on a secular institution, the Judiciary? Is the Judiciary expected to study religious documents while interpreting them for original intent and define an essential practice? Does the Judiciary have the acceptance as an authority for a religion? One need not even hazard an answer to those questions.

In practice, the power to interpret is always with the custodians of religion, i.e., the conservative elements. These custodians of religion have not only used this authority but have quelled any opposition by using “street power” and imposing their will on the State. This passing of “agency or authority” from the State to “street Power or Veto” is the real threat to Secularism.

A lack of will by the State has further crippled Secularism. What further exasperates this position is that the intelligentsia or liberals are seen to encourage a perverse interpretation of Secularism — giving arguments Supporting and, in some cases promoting the existence of medieval laws. This support creates an environment where conservative voices find more space and leverage to create a narrative about religious Freedom being threatened, hijacking any reform, and keeping progressive elements at bay.

The other inherent danger of succumbing to a group’s “street power or veto” is to encourage others to form groups to exercise a similar power. That is a visible and disturbing trend in India and adds to the noise.

So it is time we ask ourselves an honest question about what we think are our first principles. Are we really advocating for a state that does not distinguish among its citizens based on their religion and is the only one with the agency to grant equal rights? Does our “Idea of India” include being truly “Secular”?

If the Idea of India entails the creation of a genuinely Modern Liberal Democracy, then Secularism has to be at its core. The steadfast pursuit of that principle prevents any government from becoming beholden to any religious group, compromising its ability to make decisions in the best interests of all its citizens. Therefore, there cannot be caveats and cooling-off periods for a ‘First Principle.’

Instead of needless diversions and endless debates, coining new terms like” pseudo Secularism,” or making statements against a particular religion, the proposition has to be posited correctly. For instance, does the Idea of India include “secularism” as a “First Principle” and not a fluid one? Does the Idea of India have a “Secular State” at its core?

My Idea of India envisages a genuinely secular state with complete Freedom of religion. However, as long as that Freedom does not interfere with other fundamental rights and leads to an equitable society for all, where the State retains the agency to conduct a reform in Society through legislation, and individual rights have primacy.