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Western dictionaries define secularism as the absence of religion but Indian secularism does not mean religiousness. It means the profusion of religions. ~ Shashi Tharoor


The Indian model of secularism is positive in its approach. The state is required to maintain equidistance from all religions. The state approaches all religions equally. Indian secularism is fundamentally different from Western secularism. The western concept on the other hand denotes the complete separation of state and religion.

Sarva Dharma Samabhava" is a unique idea of Indian secularism steeped in Hindu culture and tradition that arose in independent India under the influence of Gandhian ideology. He discovered this notion in the doctrine of Sarva dharma sambhava, which can be translated as "equality of all religions" or "equality of all religions should be treated equally." It developed during postcolonial India's state creation process and is frequently seen as an Indian intellectual contribution to political theory. The concept differs from the western understanding of secularism, which argues for the complete separation of state and church rather than treating all religions equally. Given Mahatma Gandhi's religiosity, the concept of Sarva dharma sambhava was both a pragmatic and normative principle that recognised the importance of religion in people's lives.

As D.E.Smith put it, “To most Indians secular means non-communal or non-sectarian but it does not mean non religious.”

Nehru's preferred notion of secularism was that of dharma nirpekshata, or that the state would not be moved by religious considerations in enacting policy. For Nehru, the concept of the secular state thus carried three meanings:

  • freedom of religion or irreligion for all,

  • the state will honour all faiths equally, and

  • that the state shall not be attached to one faith or religion, which by that act becomes the state religion.

The creed of secularism, therefore, discouraged fears that one group had the right to stamp the body politic with its ethos, even if it is in a majority.

Relevance of Religious Debates:

Two critical steps, as suggested by Rajiv Bhargava, are to kick-start the discourse and practice of secularism.

First, a shift in emphasis from a politically-driven undertaking to a socially-driven justice movement.

Second, the focus has shifted from interfaith to intrafaith issues.

To emphasise this point, he cited the names of two great men, B.R. Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru. When two essentially equal communities see each other as enemies, they become stuck in a majority-minority syndrome, a vicious cycle of spiralling political strife and social alienation, according to B.R. Ambedkar.

The upshot is neither open confrontation nor peaceful coexistence; rather, B.R. Ambedkar also said that when people see each other as a threat, they prefer to stick together. This has a second detrimental effect: all internal opposition is muzzled, and much-needed internal reforms are postponed. Much of the energy is diverted in proving one’s religion’s superiority over other religions. If the attention moves from the other to oneself, it may allow for more introspection within, the reemergence of multiple dissenting voices, the creation of conditions to root out intra-religious inequalities, and the liberation and equality of its members. After all, party politics, as well as religious adherence and dogma, have hampered India's secular project.

Critical Evaluation:

Many have accused the government of practising pseudo Secularism because of its constant emphasis on the rights of minorities. There have been hesitant actions on the part of the government when it comes to dealing with minority communities as there is an attempt to contain the fears of minorities and while doing so the state is at times perceived as discriminatory and minority appeaser.


Despite its obligation to keep a safe distance from religion, the state has the duty to promote social reform in order to advance equality and justice, and it must take action if any religious practices conflict with this duty. Recently there was a breakthrough judgment that declared the age-old practice of triple talaq null and void as it was discriminatory against Muslim women. Though there was opposition the state fulfilled its promise of equality and justice. Clearly reflecting India’s commitment to reforms and secularism.


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