SC on Secularism – UPSC GS1

How has the Supreme Court of India defined and interpreted secularism in its various judgements? Critically analyse. (200 Words)
Our Constitution provides no explicit meaning of “Secularism” and it was only with the 42nd amendment that the word “Secular” was introduced to the preamble of the constitution. However, SC in its capacity as the guardian and final interpreter of the Constitution has continued to evolve the meaning of the “Secularism”.
According to Supreme Court, Indian Secularism is distinct from Western conception and based on values of tolerance and equal respect for all communities. Indian conception is based on the philosophy of “Sarva Dharma Sambhava”. It means that State has no religion and shall treat all religions and religious groups equally. A step forward, it has also declared Secularism as the basic feature of Indian constitution in the famous Bommai Judgement.
However, the definition still remains unclear especially w.r.t. the notion of “equal distance”. Moreover, the SC has also deliberately avoided critical questions of secularism especially in the Babri Masjid Case, when it was most needed. Also, SC has failed to distinguish between the distinct concepts of “Hindutva” and “Hinduism”. The ‘Hindutva’ judgements defined ‘Hindutva’ and ‘Hinduism’ as a ‘way of life’ and thus not applicable as ‘religion’ strictly. These have been referred to a higher bench. These interpretations and ambiguity has been used by Communal forces to whip us anti-minority sentiments and promote cultural nationalism.
In the most recent judgement on this issue, the Supreme Court held that notwithstanding Muslim Personal Law allowing a man to have four wives, Service conduct rules requiring dissolution of one marriage before another was done had to be followed. Thus, there is a need for clarification in the definition of ‘Secularism’


What is the meaning of secularism as understood and practised in India? Do you think government’s power to administer and manage religious and charitable endowments is antagonistic to India’s secular ideals? Critically comment. (200 Words)
Secularism in India means equal treatment to all religions by the state. The western notion of secularism is markedly different, where religion and state are divorced from one another. Therefore, the “positive” notion of Indian secularism stands in contrast to the “negative secularism” of the West.
Articles 25 and 26 of our constitution guarantees the right to practice, promote and propagate one’s religion and to manage religious affairs. However, rulers and governments have often intervened in the administration and management of religious affairs on the following grounds:
– To prevent fraud and waste of religious endowments
– Maintenance of restrictions like decency, public morality, prevent forced conversion, income management and taxes so that black money is prevented.
– To ensure that religious endowments are used for charitable purposes for which they are earmarked
– In order to correct for past inequities and create a more egalitarian and democratic admin
– Ex. Padmanabhaswawy temple gold being taken out under Supreme Court, government management
However, even though these intentions seem noble, it is inherently violates the principles of secularism and religious freedom because:
– When it applies specifically to the some religions, as is the case in India, it can be perceived as blatant promotion and state supported
– Temple Admin will fall prey to party politics and political interference
– Usurpation of propriety rights and violation of the FR’s of temple authorities.
– Use of temple resources for activities that the state deems “appropriate” might be seen as overreach into religious activities
Therefore, as the SC has pointed out in Sri Sabanayagar temple case, even if State takes over admin to correct for past injustices, the ownership must be restored to the people concerned once that is done. The State should maintain a principled distance from religion and restrict itself to ensuring equal status for all religions without unnecessary interference in their functioning.

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