In this blog post I discuss the origins of secular thought, its meaning in different contexts and its understanding in India.
To understand secularism we need to understand its origins. The secular thought emerged in Europe as a challenge to the Church’s authority over State. To illustrate this point let me present an example from early 16th century England. King of England, Henry The Eighth was not just the head of the State but he was also the guardian of the Roman Catholic Church. England was a Roman Catholic country and the King was expected to uphold the values of the Roman Church.
King Henry was married to Catherine of Aragon and as it happens so often the King fell in love with another lady named Anne Boleyn. Of course King Henry being the defender of the Church could not divorce Catherine without the permission of the Pope. The Pope refused. Love of course knows no bounds. The King divorced the Roman Catholic Church, established his own Church and appointed himself as its head. The power of the Church diminished and the power of State increased.
The divorce between the Church and the state was long and bitter. One of the most popular site of pilgrimage in England was Hailes Abbey. This magnificent complex was built in the thirteenth century and was famous for holding ‘Relic of the Crucifixion’, a drop of blood which attracted pilgrims and wealth from all over England.
To discredit the Church King Henry ordered an inquiry into the authenticity of the holy blood which was “found” to be nothing but clarified honey with saffron. The church was closed down and with time the magnificent complex turned into ruins. Thomas Cromwell, a trusted lieutenant of King Henry looted several monasteries and made the Church subservient to the State. This was the beginning of the concept of Secularism. It was not just the separation of the Church and the State but a complete domination of the State over the Church.
It is important to note that the Secular thought did not emerge in response to the inequalities that existed in the society due to co-existence of different cultures. For the socio-political purposes English society was one community with all the people sharing the same religion and culture. The idea of secularism was simply to subjugate the Church.
With time different countries adopted different models of secularism. Some became tolerant and pluralistic while others committed unimaginable atrocities in the name of establishing a religion free society. Stalin declared a war against religion, the schools were forced to teach atheistic literature and Churches were demolished or converted into pubs. It is estimated that around 20 million Christians were killed due to the atheist policies of the Soviet state. Pol Pot, also an atheist banned all religions in Cambodia. Half of the Charn Muslim population was killed and thousands of Christians were slaughtered.
The fundamental idea behind the atrocities committed by Stalin or Pol Pot was to impose an artificial homogeneity in society by forcing people to follow the policies of the state as moral, legal and ethical guide. The attempt to destroy all identities (religious, ethnic, social etc) and establish one supreme national identity is what led to the human misery that has no precedent in the history of humanity.
In India Secularism is widely understood (or misunderstood) as a pluralistic principle that respects different religions, cultures and traditions that exist in India. The State of India supports and celebrates religion. The government spends millions for the organization of religious festivals and it is common to find pictures of deities or even temples inside government offices. Public holidays are based on religious festivals, important projects are started after consulting astrologers for the auspicious timing. All Government projects begin with a religious ceremony. Religion and State are intertwined.
India is a unique country where caste and religious distinctions have existed for hundreds of years. It is these distinctions and diversity that shape the idea of India. Unity in diversity is what I was taught in school. The founders of India understood these intricacies and they came up with a unique model for India. A common criminal law with no influence of religion while a personal civil law that allowed allowed different Indian cultures and tradition to coexist.
Today the pluralistic idea of India is under threat from two quarters. The right wing extremist forces who want to take away minority rights in the name of their twisted idea of Hindutva hegemony (beef ban, anti conversion laws etc) and the secularists (of the Stalin and Pol Pot variety) who want to take away minority rights in their attempt to impose an artificial homogeneity in the society.
Interestingly the “secularists” who want to diminish minority rights in the name of secularism never complain about the intertwined nature of Religion and State in India. If they are true to their secular belief of separating State and Religion then they should complain about the huge funds allocated for organizing religious festivals or about the pictures of deities in government offices. If they oppose personal laws then they should also oppose caste based reservation because in principle caste based reservations also reinforce the caste identity. They are not bothered about all these issues because they are using secularism as a veil to hide their deep seated prejudice against minorities.
Secularism is what you make of it. Just like religion the idea of secularism has been abused to commit horrendous crimes against humanity. The extremists who use the name of secularism to enforce their moral and ethical standards on the society are no different to the religious extremists who do the same. The soul of India is Hindu and the soul of Hinduism is Sarv Dharm Sambhav (Acknowledgment and acceptance of diversity). Since the vast majority of people in India see secularism as pluralism it is important to use the word ‘plural’ instead of ‘secular’. This will take away the veil of secularism behind with self proclaimed secularists hide their bigotry. Any attempt to destroy the soul of India either by right wing extremists or by secular extremists must be countered with reason.