September 2022 | Jesus, the Door

Secularism v/s Communalism - Present Day India

Secularism v/s Communalism - Present Day India

Dr. Subrahmanyan P.T.


Secularism and communalism – what is it all about? How did they originate? Which is better for the Indian context? And why? And also the particular meaning of Indian secularism – all these are dealt here in a very brief way. The discussion also includes the contemporary intolerance and suggestions for a harmonious society. 

The Development of Secularism in the West

The word secular originated in the West. This word is derived from the Latin word, "saeculum". Secularism in the Western sense is the belief that religion should not be involved with the everyday social and political activities of a country. It has got a definite historical and philosophical background. The enlightenment ethos and anti-religious mood are the main underpinnings of this concept. In Europe, secularism came as an anti-force against religion, especially against Christianity. During the middle ages, Europe was dominated by the Catholic Church in every area of life and it did not allow people to think outside of what the Church said. For example, Galileo was punished and Copernicus was also condemned, for their new scientific discoveries, which were contrary to the then cosmology of Christendom. However, this trend was not approved by the enlightenment and revolutionary thought of the day. Rather they branded the ‘Church Era’ as the ‘dark age’. Instead, reason, freedom, and emergence of New States – all came into existence and all became anti-Church authority, the religion and its beliefs. Further religious beliefs were considered as superstitious and against human progress. Rationally this process initiated the so-called scientific theories of evolution (Charles Darwin), than creation (Genesis). Thus it created a tension between science and religion. The propositions of science were considered as more trustworthy than the mystical, mythical religious beliefs. Hence it questioned the authority of religion, the divine and spiritual. Thus it meant replacing of ‘supernatural’ with the ‘natural’ by scientific explanations and discoveries.  Philosophically this trend has set atheism and rationalism in human thinking, which resulted in the denial of God in human life and belief in other worldliness. This has promoted ‘unbelief’, than belief in any religious doctrines. Politically it reduced the power of the Church in society. New Nation States emerged with their political ideologies and independent political heads, who disentangled themselves from religion. This has resulted in the separation of the State from the Church. As a result of this secularization process, rationalisation of society happened at an alarming speed and this has distanced God and religion from the everyday life of the people. This practically meant the decreasing role of religion, its beliefs, values, priests, and rituals in society; as the secular humanistic values did not give any place to the religious values. on the other hand, they were rooted in rationalism and humanism. Hence people disregarded their religious faith and values and actively engaged themselves in the pursuit of this worldliness, whereby one’s energy both mental and material was used to promote life in this world. In addition, the newly emerged philosophies even predicted the death and extinction of religions in human society. However, it did not happen, as still we see that religions are alive and continue to influence human lives all over the world. However, as a result of this development of secular thinking in the West, the most affected religion was Christianity and still it affects Christianity in the West, with the closing of churches and the loss of Christian flocks from belief to unbelief or to some Guru movements like Hare Krishna (ISKCON). While this Western secularism is anti-religious and in a way hopeless (as far as religion is concerned), the Indian secularism is matured and hopeful.

The Adoption of ‘Secularism’ in India and its Meaning

India is a land of religions. So the Western concept and meaning of ‘secular’ is not possible or applicable as it is in Indian context. The word secular itself undergoes a radical change in its meaning and concept when it comes to India. So the use of the word ‘secular’ in Indian constitution is noteworthy.    In the preamble of the Indian constitution, it is stated that, India is a “...SOVEREIGN SOCIALIST SECULAR DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC”. Therefore India is a secular and democratic state. However, Indian secularism is different from Western secularism; as an altogether different understanding of the word secular is promulgated in India. While Western secularism disregards religion and faith in the supernatural, the Indian form of secularism, regards and respects the religious faith. So secularism in India is not anti-religious or removal of any religious faiths, but equal treatment of all religions by the State, as the State does not have any official religion of its own, but considers the multi-religious context. Therefore secularism in India means the recognition of the plurality of religions, their existence and equal treatment of all communities in the nation (whether originated within India or which came from outside) without any partiality. Therefore the citizens of all religions in India are privileged to have equal rights as regards to all posts, appointments, and most importantly with regard to their religious freedom - to hold one’s religious convictions and to practice one’s faith in this land without disturbing the order and public health of the society. So legally speaking there is no discrimination in India on religious grounds. One of the explicit examples of Indian secularism is its giving of national holidays for all special or sacred days of all religions.  

Secularism vs. Communalism  

At the outset we have to say that, in India today, its secular culture, which is more of a matured attitude to the multi-cultural, social and religious realities of India; is suffering due to growth of communalism, which is really unhealthy and a weedy growth. Secularism can enhance peace, while communalism creates social tensions. So let us see the meaning and implications of communalism in the contemporary India. In the words of Vincent Kundukulam, “In French language ‘commune’ is a term that stands for a section of people who live together in a village. To commune means to feel as one with somebody or some group. To be communal in the positive sense is to commit for the well being of the community. The term communal inherits the negative sense when one discriminates others on account of effusive attachment to one’s own community.” So the word communalism has got both negative and positive meanings, but unfortunately the negative sense of its meaning is prevalent in India today. Thus being communal means the extreme form of selfishness, the inflated ego, in which there is no place for the ‘other’ or our ‘neighbour’. Hence being communal plainly means one’s favouring or special interest for the privileges and benefits for one’s own community. It is for grabbing the resources and opportunities for one’s immediate kith and kin in the context of over population and utter competition in the society. It means selfish interest for one’s own immediate religion, caste, clan or sub-caste.  This gradually results in the competition between different communities in the context of rare positions and resources. Hence organizations, political parties and so on are formed based on these communal ideologies or interests, leading to the emergence of communal organizations on the basis of ethnicity, language group, religion, etc.

Nevertheless, genuine religiosity and spirituality has nothing to do with this sort of communalism and fundamentalism, as all religions teach to love and care for all, with a universal dimension. But communalism is very narrow and blind. It is the non-religious use of religion by the fanatics, which results in the politicization of religion. Their aim is not spiritual growth, but economic and political power in the society; as a result, communalism is mostly found in the urban areas, especially in the industrial and commercial centres. The communalists overlook the spirituality of their own religious traditions and interpret their scriptures in a very particular way to acquire political and economic benefits for themselves.  So they are not really religious people, but mere hypocrites. Thus these communal leaders with their parochial interests cause their community to perceive the ‘other’ as a threat or enemy in the context of utter competition in a country like India. Vincent Kundukulam again notes that ‘constructing against the other’ is a tactic often used by the communal organizations to flourish rapidly. It consists in identifying the foes and friends of a group and inviting its members to organize themselves against the imagined enemies.

So communalism is an extreme attitude that provokes violence and is a real menace for the peaceful and smooth functioning of our society. Communal violence has become a bane of Indian democracy and secularism. It is disastrous and is totally against our constitution and its basic principles of liberty, equality and fraternity. Hence communalism is the result of greed and competition within the society, and it is due to the unwillingness to sacrifice for the greater cause of our nation. In other words, communal violence is a symptom, the manifestation of the disease of communal politics. So the secular politics should be strengthened to win over the communal politics, so that communal violence can be controlled. 

The Growth of Communal Menace and Decline of Secular Values 

The above instances clearly denote that, the communalism is a growing menace in India. Because of this ugly phenomenon, the long-lived religious harmony of India is in danger; as we had the strong tradition of living together in harmony and friendship, irrespective of our religious affinities. For example, in my childhood I remember the heart to heart relationship between my Hindu mother and a Muslim lady from the neighbouring households. Due to their intimate relationship, I used to call my mother, the Hindu lady as Amma and the Muslim lady as Umma. Religious faiths although were different, that did not affect the human relationship and co-operation we had in that context. Mutual love and concern for each other always dominated our feelings. But now, that tradition of harmony has been somehow affected by the outfits of communal violence. Therefore communalism has been described as a ‘cancer’, a ‘poisonous snake’, and as a ‘mad dog’, by the social scientists. It is never healthy and good for our society. But what brought the communal spirit of hatred into our harmonious community life? Who has sown the seeds of hatred, distrust and violence? The answer is that, it is not religion, but the socio-economic and political interests in the context of competition. So this competition for resources and privileges in the society made us to sacrifice the age-old co-operation between communities. Hence love of the other became the hatred of the other, and this has been used by the communal forces as a mileage for their growth in the society. As a result, the secular forces are facing a serious decline in India today. Those who are voicing for it are targeted and tarnished by the communal dogs. Hence communal clashes are on the increase in India. It results in violence and destruction of precious human lives and property. Ayodhya, Godhra, Kandhamal, Maradu and various such cases have occurred all over India. It is a real threat in today’s India, which creates secessionist tendencies in a nation like India, which consists of different ethnicities, linguistic groups, castes and sub-castes, regions and religions, etc. It negatively affects the integrity and national vitality of India as a nation. It questions the basic truth of Indian constitution, that is, of unity in diversity. Instead of unity, the communal forces emphasise diversity and differences and accelerate the divisive tendencies. 

Hindutva Communalism  

Hindutva phenomenon today is the real example of communalism in India. Hindutva in its ideology and practice is communal and fundamental – anti-Muslim, anti-Christian, and anti-Communists. Hindutva denotes the majority communalism, while there are also minority communalisms. The Hindutva is the claim to safeguard and achieve the political, social and economic interests of a segment of the Hindu community. They use Hindu religion to achieve their worldly ends. These fanatics challenge Indian secularism and target the followers of other religions, as these stand on their way as hindrances to achieve their cherished goal of making India into a Hindu Rashtra, a homogenised cultural entity based on the RSS ideology. So they are not happy with the pluralistic and heterogeneous nature of present-day India. This is evident in their efforts at numerous levels and even by the use of State power to impose their culture or views over others. The ‘beef prohibition’, ‘uniform civil code’ and so on denotes their antipathy towards secularism and liberalism and even towards the fundamental democratic values of our nation, which was cherished by generations. The minorities in such contexts feel insecurity and a cultural tension with regard to their religious faith and identity.

 “Intolerance” in Contemporary India 

The increase of communal consciousness results in ‘intolerance’.  Beef controversy, the suicide of Rohit Vemula, the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, the murder of Kalburgi, communal riots in the Kashmir valley and the increased attacks towards the Muslim and Christian minorities and towards their worship places – all these news are disturbing for those who wish for the prevalence of peace and harmony in India. These are all really the marks of contemporary intolerance. Hindutva in its most intolerant face has shattered the traditionally tolerant face of Hindu religion.  These communal people are intolerant not only towards the minorities, but also to the secular and liberal thinkers, who do not accept the Hindutva version of Indian culture.   

Suggestions for a Harmonious India 

The following suggestions are given, with the aim of reducing communalism and for the promotion of a truly secular culture.

1. Reduce selfishness and give up competition for materialism and luxuries to the extent of ‘hatred’ of the other.

2. Every individual should come out of his/her selfishness, from our mere individual concerns and think for the good of the society and contribute for its welfare through our words and actions. We should constantly work for the communal amity and harmony and always cherish and preserve the tradition of harmony handed down to us by our fathers and mothers.  

3. Love your neighbour as yourself as Christ told, whether your neighbour belongs to any other faith or ideology; whether he/she is a Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Tribal or to any other belongings. 

4. Be a true citizen of India and respect the secular nature of the constitution of India.

5. India consists of more than a single community. So all communities should be recognised as equal, whether majority or minority. There should be love, peace, fairness, harmony and integration between all communities and we should live like brothers and sisters of one nation. 

6. Respect other faiths and religions, although you do not agree with them.

7. Always promote peace, dialogue and welfare of all.

8. Differences and disputes between communities should not be dealt with by sticks, stones and knifes, but should be sorted out by talks and discussions around the table. 

9. Inter-religious dialogue should be promoted for mutual understanding and peace between religions.

10. People of all religions, who reside in India should come together at local levels for pooling in their common development issues and should set goals and work for the common good.

11. If we are living in places, which were affected by communal violence in the past, we should not aggravate the pain, but should induce the spirit of healing and forgiveness; instead of retaliation, work for reconciliation as agents of peace. Our words and actions should not reflect any trace of communal feelings or favouritism. 

12. We as Christians can conscientize the society about the futility of communal conflict through preaching, literature, social media and by many other means. The message of love and reconciliation can be displayed through posters also. 

13. The church as a responsible institution in the society should act as a peace agent with real love and concern for the welfare of all.  Even the communal leaders should be dealt with a spirit of love and meekness of Christ.


God does not intend conflicts, riots and killings in His name; whatever be the religion/s, God’s will is that everyone should live harmoniously in a spirit of brotherhood. The problem is not religious pluralism, but the attitude and approaches towards it. The ‘other’ should not be understood as a threat or enemy especially in a pluralistic society, but as a friend who can enrich us with his different world-view and beliefs. Then we can surely keep up the spirit of Indian secularism that equality should exist always against the communal plea for partiality. Further all religionists should reclaim the true purpose of religion - that is love and welfare of all. Thus all distortions and perversions of religions should be discouraged and the original spiritual vision should be the goal. All people, leaders both religious and secular should rise at this time and preach and stand for the fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man. Although we feel that, communal conflicts and riots occurring here and there in our nation are not affecting us directly, that is not the case. Those communal clashes are never healthy for our society and wisdom should guide us to uphold all peoples of God in unity, instead of promoting narrow and secessionist motifs. Anyone in the universe is a brother or sister to me, and his / her life is precious as mine, and his / her welfare is my welfare – always this should be our attitude both in our private and public lives; if so, we can surely win over the menace of communalism and make our land a better place for peaceful living.  

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