Published: May 9, 2014 - 14:22

Images of the Bharatiya Janata Party leader Rajnath Singh wearing a skull cap and Narendra Modi rejecting it inspired many a heated debate on secularism at a time when Hinduism is used for political gain and its plural and tolerant nature is threatened by fanatics in ironic imitation of monotheistic religions.

Some describe secularism as a critique of religion, others imagine it as a strict separation of politics from religion. The modern believe that politics is public while religion is private.

Ideally, there is no need for such strict separation of the public and private lives of people. In an ideal world, attempts are made to rid life of all its contradictions, like divine and human, that are in the end two sides of the same coin. All great human beings, and in particular founders of all the great religions of the world, spent their entire lives trying to bridge that huge gorge between their public and private lives. Of course, it is also possible to do a Bill Clinton in the name of liberality, secularism or modernity, but that involves the risk of going down in history as a less trusted leader of people.

Secular literally means not related to religion, but in practice there are different schools of secularism.

In A Secular Age, McGill Philosopher Charles Taylor notes that secularism is not the negation of religion, but can lead the disenchanted to atheism. However, a fanatic disbelief in religion is as dangerous as religious fundamentalism.

Rajeev Bhargava, professor of political theory and Indian political thought and Director of Delhi’s Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), names three kinds of secularism. First is the much-idealised French secularism, which separates the State from religion but allows the former full power to interfere in the religious life of the people. This definition of secularism emerged in France after the nexus between the monarch and the pope was smashed, and in defiance of the age-old domination of the Church in every aspect of life. The result is a total, almost unhealthy, disregard by the State for religion.

The French State therefore tries to prevent religion from dominating secular institutions. This was all right so long as France was home to one religious community when it was possible to concentrate on individual freedom in a religiously homogenized society. Today, it is a different story. France is home to people practising different non-Christian religions and its secularism seems a little ill-equipped to deal with social tensions caused by the presence of multiple religions on its soil.

In the US, secularism is understood differently and there the State and religion ignore each other. The State does not interfere in religion and religion has nothing to do with the State. Here, individuals are free to organize private religious institutions under the indifferent gaze of the State.

At a time when mass migrations have changed the demography of western societies, Bhargava notices a diversity-resistant streak in western secularism.

He argues that the Indian definition of secularism meets the need of societies populated with religiously diverse people who also enjoy individual freedom and equality. The Indian State is not indifferent to religions practised by its people but it keeps a principled distance from all religions.

The Indian State does not erect an iron wall between State and religion. The boundary is sponge-like and soft, allowing the State to intervene in matters of religion if and when the need arises without wanting to control or to ban a belief or faith.

After all, the birth of Indian secularism took place in the lap of a multi-religious society, unlike western societies that adopted secularism after they had already homogenized. Secularism in India was never meant to be a strict exclusion of state from religion. It keeps a principled distance from religion even as it remains committed to multiple values that benefit not just individuals, but communities as a whole. Without identifying with any one religion, the State allows all peaceful public display of religious celebrations and symbols.

Secularism as practised here is key to maintaining India’s peace and prosperity as the experiment with theocracy in other parts of the world has tried to destroy not just minority rights but also the rights and diversity that exists within the religion practised by the majority population.

This story is from print issue of HardNews