In 1976, the Forty-second Amendment of India’s Constitution rendered it a secular nation. Although the most commonly accepted definition of secular is the separation of religion from civic affairs and the state, India’s version of it is a little different – here, the constitution has explicitly allowed for state interference in religious affairs and vice versa. Through this article, we would try to know more about India’s secularism and the political and religious nexus in India.
India’s version of Secularism
So what does India’s definition of secularism mean? With a country as religiously, culturally, and linguistically diverse as India, religion is a huge part of many constituents’ identities. Like most developed nations, India has no official state religion, and all government educational institutions are prohibited from imparting religious instruction.
However, what sets it apart is the fact that many of India’s laws vary depending on an individual’s religion. This means that the laws pertaining to marriage, divorce, inheritance, and alimony could literally be different, depending on whether a person follows Hinduism or Islam.
Although this may sound bizarre, it’s important to remember that separate laws on the basis of religion have been accepted in India for centuries – even the British Raj, in an attempt to honor their non-interference policy with respect to religion, permitted Muslims and Hindus to govern themselves differently for certain matters. After independence, the Muslim community, in particular, insisted that India keep the policy intact as it was significant to their Muslim identity and religion. Historic precedent won over.
The impacts of religious influence on the legislation
This system creates a myriad of problems – first, the country does not have a uniform civil code. Under this system, equality before the law does not exist because individuals are held to different standards depending on the religion they follow. Second, for citizens who don’t follow the same religion as their families, it’s unclear which set of laws they will be held to. Forcing people to prove that they follow a particular faith is a slippery slope because even within a religion, everyone practices differently and there’s no real way to test faith. The entire process of having to prove religious belief inherently infringes on the right to religion.
However, proponents of the system in place argue that Hinduism is by far the most dominant religion in the country. By enacting one set of laws for everyone, it’s likely that non-Hindus will have Hindu sensibilities and ideals imposed onto them. There are many differences between India’s religions, which makes legislation difficult.
How has religion bled into legislation?
For example, while Hindus, Christians, and most other religions view marriage as both a legal and civil contract between two individuals, Muslim marriage is seen as a purely civil contract. Under their laws, if a man wants to annul his marriage, all he has to do is say the word ‘talaq‘ three times, while if a woman wants to divorce her husband, she must go to the court and prove that he’s violated one or more of the marital duties outlined in the Quran. The triple-talaq system was outlawed in 2019, intended to improve circumstances for Muslim women who would suffer as a result of these meager divorce proceedings. However, the Muslim community viewed it as another attack on their beliefs.
What’s the solution?
This perspective poses a new question – what place do religious morals have in legislation? Since Hindus and Muslims believe in different values, the idea that a uniform civil code would impose on Muslims is conceivable, considering the fact that Hindus make up about 80% of the population. But the concept of having separate laws based on (loosely-defined) religions is unethical too. The honest answer is that India’s definition of secularism doesn’t work.
We need a uniform civil code, but we also need to hold it to certain standards and keep it free of religious influence. The right to religion already protects the interests of each group in India as long as nobody is imposing their religious views on anyone else. In the case of the beef ban, there’s no reason to ban cattle slaughter when the slaughter of chickens and fish is still legal, and just because the cow is holy to Hindus, doesn’t mean everyone needs to refrain from eating beef. Similarly, when you look at Islam’s marriage, property, and alimony laws, it’s evident that they are discriminatory towards women.
Practices like child marriage, unequal inheritance rights, and unequal divorce rights constitute gender discrimination, which is unconstitutional. They could never be passed under a uniform civil code. Although a Muslim parent may choose to abide by Islam law and award their son twice of what they award their daughter anyway, this doesn’t necessarily need to be enforced via the law. Similarly, if a Muslim husband wants to get a divorce, he can always just go to the courts and get it done legally.
Religious conflict has been prevalent in India for centuries. It serves to be the greatest divider even in the most educated of societies, and one of the first steps towards eliminating religious conflict is by ensuring equal treatment for everybody in the eyes of the law.
Unfortunately, political parties still try to ignite these tensions in attempts to win elections. The only way to even begin the process of restoring peace is to redefine secularism in India. When you allow religious laws to supersede state laws, you set the stage for conflict and inequality.
Editor’s Note The article talks at length about how religions influence the political parties and the decisions in our country. The political and religious nexus in India is a deep-rooted and intricate issue. The author is of the view that the Uniform Civil Code should exist in the country. This will hold the citizens to different standards depending on the religion they follow. There have been religious conflicts in the nation for ages. The article explains how political parties are further igniting religious tension.