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Short on secularism

by K N Panikar, 26 February 2010, Frontline

The impact of growing religiosity and the inadequacy of secular practices demand close attention in assessing the state of secularism in India.

Gandhiji at Delhi’s Purana Qila where Muslim refugees prepare to depart for Pakistan, on September 22, 1947. His assassination by a Hindu fanatic was a setback to secularism.

Secularism is not communal harmony;communal harmony is the outcome of secularism. It is, therefore, imperative to explore what constitutes secularism as an ideology beyond harmony.

SECULAR India has undergone several convulsions during the past 60 years, so much so that doubts about its survival were entertained by many. Some of them tend to relate these convulsions to the nature of Indian society, to which they attribute centrality to religion in both personal and public affairs. In such a society, it has been argued, secularism can only have a perilous existence, that too by compromising some of its basic tenets. This view has received academic respectability and political support: the former from those who had no faith in the ability of Indian society for institution building and the latter from those who were inimical to secularism as a political creed.


The scepticism about secularism has only increased in recent times. The defenders of secularism are shrinking and some of them are exploring conditions beyond secularism. The weaknesses of secular practices add fuel to the fire: they confirm the doubts about the relevance of secularism in Indian conditions. At the same time, the unprecedented popularity that religiosity has gained has pushed secularism to the backyard. In assessing the state of secularism today, the impact of growing religiosity as well as the inadequacy of secular practices demand close attention.


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