Secularism: Meaning, Concept, Types of Secularism in India

By Balaji

Updated on: February 28th, 2023

Secularism is the principle that makes a state neutral in the matter of religion. It is similar to the Vedic concept ‘Dharma Nirapekshata’ which means the indifference of the state to religion. Secularism meaning is the separation of religion from cultural, political, social, and economic aspects of life, and religion is treated as a personal matter. Secularism strives to analyze life depending on regulations derived only from the temporal world, without recourse to religion.

A secular state moves the emphasis from religion towards “secular” and worldly matters. Secularism takes diverse forms with variable perspectives on where and how religion should be independent of other factors of society. This article will highlight details about Secularism, its features, history, and major threats.

Table of content

  • 1. What is Secularism? (more)
  • 2. Features of Secularism (more)
  • 3. History of Secularism (more)
  • 4. Secularism in India (more)
  • 5. Types of Secularism (more)
  • 6. Secularism in the Indian Constitution (more)
  • 7. Importance of secularism in India (more)
  • 8. Secularism and Article 25 of the Constitution of India (more)
  • 9. Threats to Secularism (more)
  • 10. Difference between Secularism and Federalism (more)
  • 11. Indian Secularism vs Secularism in the West (more)
  • 12. Secularism – Way Forward (more)
  • 13. Secularism UPSC (more)

What is Secularism?

The meaning of Secularism is being separate from religion or having no religious basis. It also means that all religions are given equal status, recognition, and support from the state.

Secularism UPSC Notes

It can also be defined as the doctrine that promotes the separation of state from religion. No discrimination and partiality should be given on the basis of religion.

  • The 42nd Amendment of the Indian Constitution (1976) states that India is a Secular nation.
  • Due to this, the institution started to accept all religions, and enforce parliamentary laws.
  • A secular person is one who does not own his moral values to any religion.
  • India is a secular country which means it gives equal status to all religions.

Features of Secularism

The features of Indian Secularism are as follows:

  • Equal respect and recognition of all religions by the state.
  • No interference in the functions of any religion by the state.
  • No discrimination by the state based on religion,
  • There is no official religion in India
  • As per Article 25 of the Indian constitution, an individual has the right to practice, profess and propagate any religion in India.

History of Secularism

Secularism is very deep-rooted in Indian History. Let’s take a look at Secularism during the ancient, medieval, and modern periods.

Secularism in Ancient India

India had various religions, and they have co-existed and evolved together for centuries.

  • The development of the four Vedas and interpretations of the Upanishads are Purans highlight the concept of Secularism in Hinduism.
  • In ancient India, Hinduism was allowed to develop as a holistic religion by welcoming various spiritual traditions.
  • There are many temples built in ancient times that show the coexistence of different religions and faiths.
  • Emperor Ashoka was the first emperor to announce that the state would not prosecute any religious sect.
  • Secularism in India is not a new concept at all, and it is as old as the Indus Valley Civilization.
  • The quest for the coexistence of different religions continued even after the appearance of Buddhism, Jainism, Christianity, and Islam on Indian soil.
  • In ancient India, people had freedom of religion, and the state granted citizenship regardless of religion.

Secularism in Medieval India

Bhakti Movement and Sufi restored secularism in India in the Medieval period. They spread the positives of Secularism such as brotherhood, tolerance, peace, universalism, and harmony in society.

  • The leaders of these movements were Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti, Guru Nanak Dev, Baba Farid, Kabir Das, Mira Bai, and Saint Tukaram.
  • Religious toleration and freedom of worship marked the state under Akbar. The evidence of his tolerance policy was this promulgation of Divine Faith, which had elements of both Hindu and Muslim faith.
  • Another example was the construction of Ibadat Khana where different religious leaders were allowed to express their opinions.
  • Akbar had several Hindus as his ministers as well.

Secularism in Modern India

After Aurangzeb, India came under the control of the East Indian Company and the British Raj, and in this period Secularism was strengthened through the freedom movement of India.

  • The Divide and Rule policy contributed to communal discord between various communities. Separate electorates were provided for the Muslims during the British Raj, through the Indian Councils Act of 1909.
  • The separate electorates further extended the principle of communal representation.
  • But the formation of the Indian National Congress in 1885 with secular values helped to unite people from all sects.

Secularism in India

The term Secularism’ is first reflected in the Preamble of India. In India, Secularism is similar to the indifference of the State to religion.

  • The government is separate from the religion
  • The Philosophy of India’s Secularism is related to Sarva Dharma Sambhava’, and this concept is promoted by personalities like Mahatma Gandhi and Vivekananda.
  • India doesn’t have an official state religion. However different personal laws on matters like divorce, marriage, inheritance, and alimony vary with one’s religion.
  • Indian Secularism is all about achieving the peaceful coexistence of various religions.
  • India respects all religions on par with one another.

Types of Secularism

Secularism is undoubtedly a way to ensure public harmony in a country like India. This is because religious beliefs and practices must be personal to an individual and should not be dictated by the state.

Furthermore, there can be different kinds of secularism. Here are the three main types that overlap with one another:

  • Political Secularism: This is the basic idea of secularism followed in India. It is a doctrine or ideology that dictates that civic life must be free from religious domination. Simply put, it states that the government must stay out of the business of religion and vice versa.
  • Philosophical Secularism: This umbrella term seeks to critique religion and challenge its authorities. Philosophical secularism entails the direct deconstruction of religious beliefs and criticism of religious leaders.
  • Socio-cultural Secularism: Lastly, socio-cultural secularism denotes the phenomenon where more and more people start caring less about religion. As a result, it leads to more people living a secular life which is indifferent to religion and faith. These people are less inclined to include religion as a part of their identity.

Secularism in the Indian Constitution

The term Secular’ was added to the preamble by the 42nd Constitution Amendment Act of 1976. It states the fact that constitutionally, India is a secular country without any state religion. And it also says India shall accept all religions and not favour any particular religion.

  • Article 14 and 15- Article 14 grants equality before the law, and protection of all laws to all religions, and 15 prohibits discrimination on grounds of race, religion, sex, caste, or place of birth.
  • Article 16 (1)- guarantees equal opportunities to all citizens in case of public employment and states there won’t be any discrimination based on sex, religion, caste, descent, birthplace, and residence.
  • Article 25- provides Freedom of Conscience
  • Article 26- every religious group has the right to maintain and establish institutions for religious purposes.
  • Article 27- the state won’t compel any citizen to pay extra taxes for the maintenance or promotion of any religious institution or religion.
  • Article 28- allows educational institutions maintained by different religious groups to impart religious instruction
  • Articles 29 and 30 provide educational and cultural rights to minorities.
  • Article 51 A- obliges that all citizens of India promote harmony and the spirit of common brotherhood to value and preserve the rich heritage of the composite culture.

Importance of secularism in India

Secularism is the principle that allows religious freedom and makes a state neutral to the subject of religion. It can be defined as the separation of religion from political, social, economic and cultural aspects of life.

But have you ever thought about why secularism is essential for a nation? More importantly, why is secularism critical to a country like India? Keep reading to find out.

  • Secularism ensures that the power of the state is separated from religion.
  • Secularism enables our country to function in a democratic way.
  • It safeguards the freedom of an individual to embrace any religion, be it the faith to which they were born or another.
  • Since there are mixed religious groups living in India, we need secularism to ensure that the majority group does not easily dominate the religious minorities. This is because it could lead to the misuse of state powers.

Secularism and Article 25 of the Constitution of India

The Constitution of India guarantees six fundamental rights to its all citizens, and one of these rights is freedom of religion. Article 25 provide

  • Freedom of Conscience
  • Right to Practice any Religion
  • Right to Propagate any Religion
  • Right to Profess any Religion

Article 25 covers religious beliefs, and religious practices as well. And these rights are available for citizens and non-citizens as well.

Threats to Secularism

As we have mentioned above, the Indian constitution is absolutely neutral to all religions. However, there are a few factors that have put Indian Secularism in danger.

  • Communal polities spread myths and stereotypes against minorities.
  • The politicization of any one religious groups is also one of the major factors behind the inter-religious conflict.
  • Communalism has proved to be a big threat to Secularism in the recent past,
  • Rising Hindu Nationalism in recent years has also created various problems.
  • Additionally forced the closure of slaughterhouses, campaigns against love jihad’, and reconversion reinforces the communal tendencies in India.
  • In recent years Muslim youth being inspired by the groups like ISIS is a very unfortunate event for both India and the world.

Difference between Secularism and Federalism

Secularism and Federalism are two approaches that the Indian Constitution abides by. Secularism helps separate religion from politics, economy and social aspects.

On the other hand, Federalism distributes the power of the government between two levels – central and state. Let us now look at some differences between the two concepts to get a better insight.

Secularism Federalism
Secularism means the separation of religion from the social, cultural and political aspects of life. It denotes that religion is a purely personal choice. Federalism is a system that defines that the power of the government is divided into two broad levels – centre and state.
Secularism is a doctrine that provides equal status and recognition to all religions. Federalism is a mode of political organization that brings different states together within a democracy.
Secularism is opted in India due to the multiple religions that are practiced in our country. Hence, every individual is free to practice their religion freely. Federalism is opted to keep India united in the face of separatist groups such as Linguism and communalism.

Indian Secularism vs Secularism in the West

A basic difference between Indian Secularism and Western Secularism is that in Indian Secularism there is no specific boundary between state and religion, while in Western Secularism there is a clear and well-defined demarcation between the state and religion.

Over the years India has created its own concept of Secularism which is different from the western concept of Secularism. Go through the table below to understand the elaborative differences between the two.

Indian Secularism Secularism in the West
All religions get equal protection from the state The state is separate from the religious groups or institutions functioning.
There no clear demarcation between religion and state in India Here Secularism refers to the complete separation between religion and the state
Provides partial financial support for religious schools The western model doesn’t give financial support to any religious institution
The rights of religious communities and individuals are protected The focus given to the Individual rights
The role of religious bodies is big and contributes to Indian politics The role of religious bodies is small in national politics.
No one religion dominates Indian society Christianity is the most reformed and single-dominant religion in the state.

Secularism – Way Forward

The best way to nurture secularism is to expand religious freedom rather than practice state neutrality. There is a need to identify a shared set of values that allows diverse groups to live together. Education is the best way to educate the younger generation about the value of their own religious traditions and also other religions in the country.

Secularism UPSC

The Secularism concept is important for the UPSC exam, and questions about Secularism will be asked in the GS I, GS II, and Polity optional, and essay papers of the UPSC Examination.

As Secularism is part of the UPSC Syllabus, questions can be asked about it in the both UPSC Prelims and Mains exams, candidates need to have in-depth knowledge of Secularism. Apart from the Secularism UPSC Notes candidates need to follow the right UPSC Books, and glance through the UPSC Previous Year Question Papers for a better understanding of questions asked on this topic.

UPSC Notes
Salient Features of Indian Constitution 8th Schedule of Indian Constitution
Difference Between Secularism and Communalism Social Movements in India
India after Independence Reservation in India
Important Acts in India Foundation of Indian National Congress
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