Walking the Dharmic Path To Secularism

The Times of India | 15 September, 2021
What does the term ‘secular’ mean? Strictly speaking, secularism means separation in entirety of church and state. In a secular nation, the government must stay away from anything religious. But India fails entirely if that is indeed the definition. How could a government have codified and modified Hindu personal law in the 1950s if it was secular? How could India recognize Sharia-based Muslim Personal Law while claiming to be secular? How could central and state governments take over the management of Hindu temples if they were secular? Pursuant to the Shah Bano case, how could the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act of 1986 pass muster if India was secular? How could successive governments extend subsidies under the Haj Committee Act of 1959 if they were secular? These and many more such actions would clearly fall outside the remit of a secular nation. The writers of the preamble realized that it was better not to use the term rather than to use it dishonestly. The word ‘secular’ was only inserted by a lame duck parliament in the Emergency years.

When this apparent contradiction is pointed out to those who consider themselves secular, they reply that secularism in the Indian context does not mean the state remaining away from religion but striving to maintain equidistance from all religions. But India fails the secularism test even under that modified definition. The most glaring example of that lack of equidistance is the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act, 1959. Although this is a Tamil Nadu act, different acts of similar nature have been enacted by state governments—including BJP ones—across India. Essentially these acts give state governments the power to exercise control over the finances of over four lakh Hindu places of worship while leaving out government control on mosques, churches and gurudwaras.

Prior to British rule, Hindu temples were administered and managed by local communities or rulers. Temple wealth was used to promote art, culture, schools, cow shelters, rest houses, dispensaries and local charities. But then the British decided to milk these fabulously wealthy temples through various acts and legislations. In 1925, they introduced the Madras Religious and Charitable Endowments Act that brought all religious establishments under government control. But this law resulted in vociferous opposition from Indian minorities and the act was redrafted to exclude Muslim, Christian and Parsi places of worship. That same year the Sikh Gurdwaras Act was passed so as to bring Sikh places of worship under a Sikh council. In effect, government control was only left in place on Hindu temples.

After independence one would have imagined that government would have found a way to ensure that Hindu temples were managed by the Hindu community. Instead, the Tamil Nadu government passed the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act in 1959. Hindu temples now came under a commissioner. This was followed by most southern state governments passing similar legislation. For example, while Tamil Nadu controls and manages 44,000 temples, Andhra Pradesh is not far behind with 33,000 temples. In fact, fifteen Indian states have acts that legalize this religious discrimination. The avowed intent of such legislation was to avoid mismanagement and misappropriation of assets by temple authorities. But then consider this: recently the Madras High Court had to ask the state government to explain how 47,000 acres of temple land had gone missing from records of the state! Management of temples by government is nothing short of institutionalized plunder.

Indian secularism thus fails the first test of separation of church and state; it even fails the second test of equidistance from all religions. So, what should India do to become truly secular? As I see it, there are two key initiatives that the government must take, and these must be taken quickly.

One, give up control of Hindu temples. Prime Minister Modi once said, ‘the government has no business to be in business.’ I would add that the government has no business to be in temples, mosques, churches, gurudwaras, synagogues or fire temples. Government control of Hindu temples is a festering wound on the skin of secularism. We ignore true secularism at our own peril because it is precisely such perceived hurt that encourages communalism. In a world that is characterized by flourishing extremist ideologies, do we need any more?

Two, bring all Indians under a Uniform Civil Code—or UCC. A UCC would define the framework for marriage, divorce, inheritance, adoption and maintenance among many other areas. After all, the Indian government did pass the Hindu Marriage Act, the Hindu Succession Act, the Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act, and the Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act in the 1950s. When the Goods & Services Tax was introduced in India, the government coined the slogan, ‘one nation, one tax’. Then what’s wrong with the idea of one nation, one code? After all, various religious groups ceded their authority in the spheres of criminal law, contract and evidence to a common law that applied equally to every citizen irrespective of religion. In fact, the need for a UCC has been spelt out in the Directive Principles of State Policy in Part IV of the Constitution of India. On several occasions, Indian courts have even reminded the government of the desirability of a UCC.

In recent years there has been much debate about secularism, communalism, fundamentalism, radicalization, proselytization, Hinduism, Hindutva, Islam, Islamism and Talibanization. But in this cacophony of voices, we have forgotten that India is essentially dharmic. As opposed to any ideology that attempts to impose a singular truth on a plural world, dharmic philosophy is plural. A thousand flowers can bloom in the very same garden, each one adding its own unique fragrance and beauty to the bouquet, but the gardener must treat all of them equally. That is the very essence of the Upanashadic ideal of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’. The world is one family. If we want true secularism, let’s walk the dharmic path.