Keeping tradition in mind, redefine secularism in Indian terms

British coins feature the queen’s likeness and letters in Latin that stand for ‘By the Grace of God, King and Defender of the Faith’. 
Image used for representational purposes only
Image used for representational purposes only

The concept of secularism in Europe evolved from the age-old struggle between the Church and the State. In the Europe of the Middle Ages, when religion was deeply intertwined with social, political and legal structures, religion was an oppressive force that smothered any dissent or difference of faith or thought. The nature of the Church in those days was to suppress anything that went against the tenets of the religion. Since the dawn of modernity, the Europeans sought to separate the spiritual from temporal concerns, starting with Henry VIII’s break with Rome in England in 1534 and culminating in Voltaire’s call for a ‘separation of Church and State’ in France during the enlightenment period. Modern Western secularism evolved from there. 

Religion still plays a significant role in many other Western secular governments. As the constitutional monarch, the reigning king or queen of England is also “Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor” of the Church of England. British coins feature the queen’s likeness and letters in Latin that stand for ‘By the Grace of God, King and Defender of the Faith’. 

Italy is officially secular. Under the regime of Mussolini’s fascism, two royal decrees were issued in 1924 and 1928 that mandated all Italian primary and elementary schools to display religious symbols. Even though Italy is a secular state with no official religion declared by its constitution, these decrees have never been officially revoked by parliament.In 2009, the European Court of Human Rights declared that displaying crucifixes in Italian classrooms infringed upon both educational and religious freedoms.

This instantly sparked great controversy among politicians who worked swiftly to overturn this ruling two years later. Unfortunately, the legal conflict did not cease there as even Italy’s Supreme Court of Cassation found itself unable to determine with certainty either for or against such displays, instead invoking a “reasonable arrangement”. As of now, crucifixes stand in public schools and buildings as a symbol of ‘inclusivity’. 

In the US, a predominantly Christian country, the phrase ‘In God We Trust’ appears on all currency; the national motto of the US is ‘E Pluribus Unum (Out Of Many, One)’, which references the union of many states into ‘one nation under God’. The words were added to the Pledge of Allegiance by Congress in 1954. In other words, even the most vocal secular countries have religious symbols, privileges and preferences attached to their dominant or majority religion in most spheres. As long as the western countries did not have diverse faiths, it was easy to practise a tactical separation between the clergy and secular. Now, when Europe’s diversity is increasing due to migration, their form of secularism is used as a tool to clamp down on the rights of minorities. 

France’s brand of secularism prohibits all religious symbols, including Hinduism, Sikhism, and Islam. This is done to protect public life from any influence of religion. But this approach has led to a situation where Muslim citizens are banned from displaying marks of their faith in public spaces or wearing clothing items associated with their religions. For instance, it is illegal to wear a turban or hijab in some French cities, while Christian religious symbols such as the crucifix or the rosary remain legal. Studies have found that this type of ‘indirect discrimination’ encourages religious homogeneity and fails to protect the freedom of religion for non-Christian faiths. It also creates an environment where minority religions are seen as second-class religions without equal rights compared to Christianity. 

Public schools across France are funded by the government, but continue to be taught using Catholic curriculums. And overseas, France uses its Catholic faith to leverage its soft power. The French government funds Catholic schools officially. French funding went to 174 Catholic schools in 2021, including 129 in Lebanon, 16 in Egypt, seven in Israel, 13 in the Palestinian territories and three in Jordan. As a result of such dichotomy, religious conflicts are increasing in the West.

India has a different history in how it dealt with diverse faiths. There was no unified church or clergy, and all faiths were free to practise their religion in most kingdoms, with some form of Hinduism as its official faith. For example, Travancore was officially a Hindu kingdom till it merged with India, but it had extended freedom to all faiths. 

We ignored our country’s history and tradition when we adopted secularism in our Constitution. We treated the majority faith that had always been accommodating as an opponent to be kept on a leash like how Europeans treated their Church. The definition of secularism doesn’t mean negating a country’s history and tradition. Those who clamper for a strict Western style of secularism are doing a great disservice to Hinduism and its all-accepting tradition and are helping in the rise of virulent right-wing politics that may actually harm minorities. It is an irony that minorities are facing more significant threats and fear of existence in a secular Republic than they ever did in Hindu kingdoms. We must redefine secularism in Indian terms, taking its own history and tradition into consideration, or risk becoming the mirror image of medieval Europe or Pakistan. 

Anand Neelakantan
Author of Asura, Ajaya series, Vanara and Bahubali trilogy

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The New Indian Express