The Nineteenth M.A.Thomas Memorial Lecture 2012

Minorities on the Margins: The Practice of Secularism in Independent India

by Dr.T.K.Oommen, Emeritus Professor,
Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi


The Republic of India has only a short history of 60 years but Indian society has a  long history of some 5000 years, which witnessed the birth and/or entry of several religions into its territory. They are (1) The primal vision of the earliest settlers of India, Adivasis, whose religion is labeled as animism, naturism and the like. There are 461 tribes in India whose religion is often a mixture of their original religion and the one they have been inducted into or converted – Hinduism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism; (2) the earliest migrant population, the Aryans, whose entry to India is estimated to have taken place between 3500 and 5000 years ago. The Aryans brought Hinduism, caste system and Sanskrit language in which, most of the ‘texts’ of Aryan Hinduism are articulated; (3) Dravidians who claim to have been in India prior to the Aryan entry adopted Hinduism and created a new version, Dravidian Hinduism, whose attachment to Tamil, a classical language, is uncompromising; (4) The two Hindu protestant religions-Jainism and Buddhism – which emerged in the sixth country B.C. to challenge the caste system and hegemony of Brahmins;  (5) Sikhism, which emerged little over 400 years ago, which rejected both Hinduism and Islam and tried to fuse them. All these religions – the primal vision, Hinduism (Aryan and Dravidian), Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism- are perceived as Indic religions.

There are also five non-Indic religions present in India, but their points of entry and modes of incorporation vary vastly. Thus Kerala, the southern most state of India, was one of the three areas (the others being Egypt and Ethiopia) into which pre-colonial Christianity spread.  Similarly, pre-conquest Islam was brought to Kerala in the seventh century A.D. by traders. But much of the presence of these religions-Islam and Christianity-can be attributed to conquest and colonialism respectively. The Muslim conquests of North India spanned between the eight and eighteenth countries and the Indian sub-continent became the largest Muslim concentration area in the world. Even after the partition of the sub-continent into India and Pakistan in 1947 and Pakistan and Bangladesh in 1972, India remains the second largest Muslim country in the world. While pre-colonial Christianity was confined to Kerala, during the period of colonialism it spread to most parts of India now having about 25 million followers. It is very important to note here that an overwhelming majority of Muslims and Christians are converts from local castes and tribes. The other non-Indic religions consists of the tiny trio-Jews, Zoroastrians and Baha’ is-who came to India seeking asylum to escape persecution in their homelands.

It is clear from the above description that the religious diversity of India is stupendous and there are two broad religious categories-Indic (national) and non-Indic (alien) – viewed from the sources of their presence. The co-existence of Indic minority religions as well as the small migrant minority religions with the majority religion, that is Hinduism, is generally harmonious’. But this cannot be said about Islam and Christianity. However, one may assert without the fear of being contradicted that co-existence becomes problematic when the majority religion fears threat, actual or imagined, from the minority religions. And this proposition holds true for all religious categories. A few illustrations will help clarify the situation.

The least problematic category is that of the migrant religions whose descendents constitute small numbers; the number of Jews did not exceed 26,000 in India even at the peak of their growth (Strizower 1971); they did not proselytize and there is no case of their persecution although most of them left for Israel in the wake of the Zionist movement. The Zoroastrians counted less than a million in India; they did not proselytize and vigorously participated in the anti-colonial struggle against the British, which rendered them highly acceptable in India. The Baha’is are the most recent entry among the trio of migrant religions; they came only in 1870s. Till the 1950s they remained a small group numbering not more than a thousand. But in the early 1960s the Baha’is started proselytization in the rural areas of central India resulting in a phenomenal increase in their population counting about 400,000. (Garlington 1977:101-18) But they had to give up the project of conversion quickly because of the attack from Arya Samaj, a Hindu reformist sect. This is, a non-Indic religious minority can co-exist peacefully if they do not poach on the majority Hindu community.

Christianity is widely perceived as a colonial transplant in India, the historical fact that pre-colonial Christianity existed in India does not alter this perception. Christians never exceeded thirty million in India in spite of two centuries of British colonialism. There are three distinct categories of Christians: pre-colonial Christians of Kerala who claim to be converted from upper castes by St. Thomas in the 1st Century AD; the Anglo-Indians a distinct product of colonialism and miscegenation and those who became Christians through mass conversion movements (mostly of lower caste and tribal background) during the colonial period and after the colonial exist. The latter two categories suffer from socio –cultural stigmatization and they are also economically deprived. Although the Christians constitute less than three percent of India’s population there are three Christian majority states in India (Mizoram, Nagaland and Meghalaya) and in a few states their presence is substantial: Goa (32%) and Kerala (21%), for example. But yet Indian Christians experience considerable insecurity.

The main reason for insecurity faced by Christians is conversion activities by Christian missionaries mainly Indian and a few foreign. Although the constitution of India assures freedom of conscience and the right to practice and profess one’s religion the basis of criticism and attack by Hindu militants is the use of fraudulent means of conversion attributed to Christian missionaries.

Hindu militant attacks on Christians usually take the following forms: physical attacks on Christian priests, rape of nuns, destruction and desecration of worship places and burning of Bibles. The occurrence of such incidents increased drastically since 1997, when BJP was the ruling party, although they were not totally absent earlier. The then Home Minister of BJP-led government Shri L. K. Advani admitted in Parliament that there were 400 attacks on Christian priests, nuns and Churches between 1998 and 2000, which continue since. Thus in May 2007 physical attacks on priests were reported from 11 out 32 states in India; the ostensible reason being preaching a ‘foreign’ religion. The worst incidents in the recent past were that of torching an Australian missionary in Orissa, who was running a leprosy hospital, along with his two teenage sons in 1999 and the attack on Christians in Khandmal region of Odisha in 2006.

While conversion to Christianity is stigmatized as ‘harvesting of souls’, re-conversion to Hinduism is labeled as ghar wapsi (returning home). Some politicians attempt large=scale mobilizations for re-conversion. Thus one Member of Parliament claimed that in 1999 alone 165,000 persons were reconverted. The Christian converts are also persecuted and punished. The illustrate, in the state of Orissa, 157 Christian houses were set ablaze in one village in 1999; in 2003 seven women converts were tonsured in another village and 15 Christian homes were burnt in yet another village  in 2005 (Mander 2007:12). While such actions are hailed a ‘natiand ‘patroitic’, the Hindu militants designate conversions to Christianity as ‘anti-national’ and ‘unpatriotic’.

Muslims constitute the largest religious minority in India counting 138 million in 2001, accounting for 13.4 percent of the total population. There are two Muslim majority politico-administrative units in India, Jammu and Kashmir (66%) and Lakshwadeep (94%). But the majority of Muslims in India live in four states – Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Maharashtra. In another five states their presence is substantial. In spite of the huge numbers Muslims in India feel highly insecure both socially and economically (see Government of India 2006) as compared with Indic religious minorities. There are several historical and contemporary reasons for this.

First, Muslim emperors and kings ruled over India for 700 years and when British colonizers replaced them, they experienced a terrible loss of power. Second, the partition rendered them a truncated community, divided between India, Pakkistan and Bangladesh; close kin living across state borders. Third, the presence of two Muslims majority states in the immediate neighbourhod often adversely affects the condition of Indian Muslims because of tense inter-state relations. This is particularly because of vexatious Kashmir dispute between Muslims exclusively for the partition of India, which haunts them incessantly. In fact the loyalty of Muslims to the Indian state and ‘nation’ are constantly suspected by the public-at-large.

The relations between Hindus and Muslims are tense which often manifest in what are called ‘communal riots’. While the communal riots are not confined to Hindus and Muslims the overwhelming majority of the conflicts are between these two religious communities. According to the data available from the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, there were 797,576 riots between 1971-80, which works out to be 13.07 annual incidents per 100, 000 populations for the decade.  For the period 1989-98 there were 792,393 communal riots, which means there were 11.0 incidents per 100,000 populations during the decade. (see, Oommen 2005). In spite of this free India does not have a legal instrument to deal with this enormous recurring collective violence.  The Communal Violence (Prevention, Control and Rehabilitation of Victims) Bill 2006, is not yet an Act and the Bill is widely criticized by civil society organizations for it confers more powers on provincial states some of which are perceived to abet riots and limits the authority of the central state to intervene. (see The Hindu, June 17, 2007 and Hindustan Times, June 18,2007).

The minority communities also express their dissent and disenchantment through their representation made to the National Minority Commission (NMC), set up by the Government of India in 1978, The NMC recognizes six  religious communities as minorities, three of them non-Indic (Muslims, Christians and Zoroastrains) and three Indic (Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains). The complaints/representations are received both from individuals and minority religious organizations. From 1987-88 to 1994-95, that is for a period of six years, NMC received 2103 complaints which works out to be 350 per year. For the year 1999-2000 to 2002=03, that is for the period of three years a total of 7874 complaints were received which works out to be 2625 per year, registering an annual increase of 7.5 times! (The data for the years 1996-97 to 1998-99 were not available). How can one explain this steep increase in complaints/representations?

While it is not possible to provide any casual explanation for this increase it may be noted that during the first period under reference the parties in power were those, which endorsed the Indian principle of secularism (see below). In contrast during the latter period (1998-2004) the Government was a coalition led by the party, which believe in establishing a Hindu Rashtra (nation-state). The kind of complaints were indicative of this bias: non-recognition by the Government of minority managed institutions, unlawful interference in minority managed institutions, refusal of Government to establish institutions in areas inhabited predominantly by minorities constituted one type of complaints.

Discrimination in admissions, employment, disbursement of loans, allotment of land and houses and similar other entitlements were another type of complaints. Situations which created law and order problems such as encroachment of land belonging to worship places, grave yards, attack on clergy, attack by anti-social elements, defamation and denigration of minorities, publication of literature offending religious sentiments constituted a third set. Inadequate and/or different rate of compensation for riot victims, harassment by police and administration, denial of legal rights and civil liberties, humiliation and victimization of Muslim women, formed the fourth set of complaints. Representations relating to denial of religious and cultural rights such as restriction on freedom of worship; use of preferred language was yet another type. While, denial of promotions, arbitrary transfers, non-payment of salaries, adverse confidential reports were the complaints by employed persons, institutions complained about restrictions to receive foreign funds.. The complaints/representations relate to the behaviour of state bureaucracy and/or unruly elements in society. The conclusion that emerges from this analysis is that if the Government is indifferent to the welfare of minorities and is not committed to treat them equally, marginalization will increase.

While much of the tension exists between militant Hindus and non-Indic religious minorities, particularly Islam and Christianity, it is not exclusive to them. Of the three Indic minority religions, two are very small in size – (Jains 0.5%; Buddhists 0.7 %) – although they existed for 26 centuries in India and are dispersed all over the country. In contrast, Sikhism, the youngest Indic minority religion accounted for 1.9 per cent in 2001 and counts nearly 20 million. The fact that Sikhs are in majority in the Indian state of Punjab (63%) and that they are a speech community (Punjabi, written in Gurumukhi is their ecclesiastical language) provides them with enormous political clout, which emboldened a section of them to initiate a secessionist movement demanding a separate sovereign Sikh state. However, this is not to suggest that Sikhs are united in their resolve to separate from India, the majority of Sikhs do not support the movement. Further there are two Sikh denominations-Nirankaris and Dera Sacha Sauda – which do not accept the authority of Sikh Gurus (religious visionaries) and Sikhs are also deeply divided based on caste status. But none of these dilute their hostility against Hindu hegemony.

It is clear from the above analysis that the co-existence of three major minority religions-Islam, Christianity and Sikhism-is fare from harmonious with the majority religion of India, Hinduism. But this is not to suggest that these minority religions are internally undifferentiated and they happily co-exist as one unit without conflicts. I have already alluded to the division among Sikhs. The conflict between the Muslim sects-Shia and Sunni- and their non-acceptance of Ahmedias as Muslims is a world phenomenon and present in India too. Similarly, the uneasy co-existence between the numerous Christian denominations is  also a world phenomenon and is not absent from India. I ignore these intra-religious tensions because the present concern is with marginalization of minority religions by the state and society in India.

India’s religious heterogeneity is mind boggling and although 82.5% Indians are Hindus they are not a majority community everywhere in the country. In fact out of the 32 politico-administrative units-provincial states and union territories-six are non-Hindu majority units (see table 1).

                                                            Table 1

Distribution of Religious Communities in India* based on
Majority-Minority Status ** (1998-99)

1st Minority
2nd Minority

* Only six religious minorities are recognized, the non-recognized 
   religious minorities are Jews and Baha’is.

   **  Data obtained from the National Minority Commission, India.

It is necessary to indicate here the attitude of the organized segment of Hindus, indeed the functional equivalent of “Church”, which is absent in Hinduism, towards the minority religions. The rationale of dividing the religious minorities of India into two-insiders and outsiders-becomes self-evident when one understands this attitude. The Hindu organization, which upholds this view is the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS), a self-constituted body of militant Hindus whose avowed goal is to establish a Hindu Rashtra (nation-state). The nation-state of RSS conception is: one nation, one people, one culture, the mind boggling diversity of peoples and cultures present in the territory of India, not withstanding. There are several cognate organizations of R.S.S.; the Global Assembly of the Hindus, the Youth Wing, the Women’s Wing, the Economic Forum etc; not to speak of the Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party), the all-India political party second largest in its numerical strength and spread. But since the fountain-spring of Hindu ideology, christened as Hindutva, is formulated by RSS it is sufficient to focus attention on it for the present analysis.

The religious minorities of Indian origin are encapsulated into Hinduism through a process of expansionism, which dismantles their identity. Thus Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs are considered as Hindus. While the first two protest mildly, the Sikhs are considered as Hindus. While the first two protest mildly, the Sikhs are vociferous in their protests. To mollify them the following explanation is put forward: ‘Sikhs are Hindus in the sense of our definition of Hindutva and not in any religious sense whatever… We are Sikhs and Hindus and Bharatiyas (Indians). We are all three put together and none exclusively’ (Savarkar 1929:125) Another RSS ideologue, on the other hand, insists:

   … the foreign races (read, followers of non-Indic religions) in Hindustan must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reverence Hindu religion, must entertain no idea but those of the glorification of the Hindu race and culture, i.e., of Hindu Nation and must lose their separate existence to merge in the Hindu race, or may stay in country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu Nation claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment-not even citizens rights. (Golwalkar 1939: 47-48) … in this country, Hindus alone are National, and the Muslims and others (i.e. Christians and followers of other non-Indic religions), if not actually anti-national, are at least outside the body of the nation (Golwalkar 1939:53).

The vision of Golwalkar persists to this day. On Feb.12,2006 K.S. Sudarshan, the then chief of RSS observed: ‘…because we can’t throw out Muslims and Christians
Into the sea, we have to Indianise them’. On September 18,2006 he warned: ‘Hindus should awaken and search for their true identity to defeat the evil forces (read Muslims and Christians) who are trying to annihilate their (Hindu) culture’. Another senior RSS leader said on February 19th 2007 ‘Our aim is to develop a solid Hindu vote bank by the 2009 Lok Sabha (Parliamentary) elections. No political party will be able to ignore Hindus’ concerns. No political party will be able to ignore Hindus’ concerns if it wants to do well in the elections’. (see Noorani 2007:10). Indeed even ‘secular’ political parties rarely dared to interrogate these statements, let alone contradict them, in spite of their frequent claim to be secular. This externalization of fellow citizens of ‘alien; faiths is absolutely dysfunctional for the co-existence of religious communities within the secular Indian polity.

The response of the religious minorities, particularly Muslims, the most numerous and problematic one, too is not very conducive to co-existence. Thu Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, observed in 1940: ‘The history of 1200 years has failed to achieve unity and has witnessed, during the ages, India always divided into Hindu India and Muslim India’. (1960:16) This provided the rationale for demanding a separate Muslim homeland (Pakistan) in the Indian subcontinent. The fact that the overwhelming majority of Muslims of the subcontinent were converts from local castes and tribes did not persuade Jinnah to dilute his argument, because according to him:

… a Muslim, when he is converted … becomes an outcaste … (untouchable) and the Hindus cease to have anything to do with him socially, religiously and culturally… It is more than a thousand years that the bulk of the Muslims have lived in a different world, in a different society, in a different society, in a different philosophy and a different faith (1960:230).

Thus viewed the partition of India occurred not only because of the incompatibility between two religions-Hinduism and Islam-but also because of the caste system, widely endorsed as a necessary dimension of Hinduism. While it is neither necessary nor possible to dialate upon the vast topic of caste system here, let me very briefly touch upon it to highlight the fact that caste system is not conducive to the co-existence of even low cast Hindus with dignity and equality with high caste co-religionists.

The Hindu Doctrine of Creation divides the believers into four varnas-Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas and Shudras – and places them in a hierarchy based on the principle of ritual purity and pollution. While the four varnas are ritually pure, although of differing intensity, those labeled as ‘untouchables’ were placed below the ritual pollution line and hence were treated as permanently polluted. The theory of Karma and Reincarnation provides not only the rationale for the vertical placement of the varnas in the hierarchy but also provides the required escape route from it. That is, those who adhere to one’s duty according to his varna (i.e. varnashramadharma) can improve the status in the following birth. Conversely deviation from the prescribed dharma leads to downward mobility. Thus inequality is not simply institutionalized through caste hierarchy; it is even sanctioned and sanctified.

It is important to emphasize here that all religious groups in India are affected by the caste system irrespective of their religious doctrines. Thus the Indian Muslims are divided into Arzals (converts from untouchables), Ajlafs (converts from Shudras or OBCs) and Ashrafs (converts from the upper castes). Similar distinctions exist among Christians; the Dalit, OBC and upper caste Christians. The ex-untouchables who embraced Buddhism are designated Neo-Buddhists and those who converted to Sikhism are called Mazhabi  Sikhs. These groups are stigmatized and marginalized. Thus caste system makes dignified co-existence difficult even among co-religionists. The point to be underlined here, however, is that while all religious groups in India are victims of caste system and practice discrimination based on the social origins of co-religionists Hinduism legitimizes it. This renders co-existence of Hindus drawn from different caste groups particularly tortuous. To conclude, not only the divide between Indic and non-Indic religions but also the deep social division wrought by caste system make dignified co-existence an extremely challenging project. To cope with this complex situation the state in India has taken several steps the most crucial being adoption of secularism.


The Republic of India did not declare Hinduism as state and/or national religion at its birth. This bold step should be appreciated against several factors. One, an overwhelming majority of Indians (82%) are Hindus. Two, the country emerged through partition of the subcontinent based on religion; the separated part established an Islamic state-Pakistan. Three, there existed and continues to exist a substantial segment of Hindus who wanted and continue to demand the establishment of a Hindu state. Four, all the South Asian states have declared the religion of their majority religious community as the official/national religion of their respective countries.

Instead of declaring Hinduism as its official or national religion, the Indian state opted for secularism as its guiding principle, the meaning of which differ from that in the West. In the West, secularism is used in three different senses depending upon the context. They are: one, separating man and society from the transcendal and divine; an institutional manifestation of which is separation of state and church. Two, institutionalizing rationality through a process of displacing religiosity; the claimed onward march of rationality in the West is often cited as a proof of this. Three, relegating religion to the private realm of human activity; retreat of religion from the public space is pointed out as an indication of this. One can argue that none of these ideas can be translated into practice and/or they are actually not practiced in the West. But that need not detain us here because the present concern is to highlight the idea of secularism as enunciated in the Indian Constitution and to understand how far is it helpful for the co-existence of religions with equity and dignity.

The 1950 Constitution of India, which was formulated on the basis of the Constituent Assembly debates, mentioned the word secular only once in Article 25(2a) and that too incidentally while referring to ‘economic, financial, political or other secular activity’. The chief architect of the constitution Dr.B.R.Ambedkar felt that the terms like secular and socialist are too value loaded an the preference of shaping society on these lines should be left to the posterity. The deliberate introduction of the word secular into the Indian Constitution occurred only in 1976, when the then Prime Minister of India, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, piloted the 42nd amendment and remarked that secularism is essential ‘to reassure the health of our democracy’. Paradoxically, democracy was an endangered credo in India at that time because of the declaration of internal emergency. Perhaps it is more appropriate to suggest that secularism is essential for the co-existence of religions if one understands the meaning of its Indian version.

There are two sensessubo in which the term secular is invoked in the Indian Constitution First, the state should give equal respect to all religions and second, the state should keep equal distance from all religions, that is, the state should not discriminate based on religion.  (Madan 1997) Given India’s religious diversity these pursuits are appropriate. Further, Article 25 of the constitution mandates that ‘… all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience’ that is to profess, practice and propagate the religion of one’s choice. Thus the principle of secularism as well as the assurance of article 25 is conducive to the co-existence of religions in India, But the constitutional precept itself is a closely contested one. The BJP which, draws its inspiration from RSS (see section I) holds that: “True secularism is rule by the majority according to ancient Hindu principles. True secularism meant Hindu majoritarianism and the subordination of cultural minorities, not the least Muslims’. (see Hansen 1996:610) In fact BJP contemptuously label, the practice of secularism by the Congress and left parties, as ‘pseudo-secular’; an instrument of appeasing non-Indic religious minorities.

The lack of consensus about the concept of secularism within the political community and civil society make it extremely difficult to practice secularism. The idea of equal respect for all religions is a sentiment, which can be nurtured in civil society, promoted through the media and internalized through school concept the prospect of inculcating the value of secularism is bleak. (Oommen 2004:333-54) The advocacy of the idea of equal respect for all religions even by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the ‘Father of the Nation’, did not find universal endorsement. A democratic state cannot ensure the inculcation of contested sentiments, through the legislative weapon.

The second Indian interpretation of secularism that the state should keep equal distance from all religions is a structural possibility. There are two possible versions of this: one, the state should not interfere in the internal affairs of religions unless they cause law and order problems or violate constitutional principles and two, if the state does intervene, it should do so in the case of all religions. But the Indian state does not adhere to either of these possible versions. A few illustrations will help understanding the pattern of state behaviour.

Indian Constitution envisions a uniform civil code (UCC) for all religious communities. And yet the Hindu Code Bill (HCB), an instrument of reforms, introduced in the 1950s defined Hindus expansively to include Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs as I have noted above. But on-Indic religions-Islam, Christianity, Zorastrians etc. – were excluded from the ambit of the Bill. The arguments put forward to justify this inclusion and exclusion were two. First, the state should allow the minority religions to sort out matters of reform internally, but the argument conveniently forgot that Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism are also minority religions. The second argument was that the religions of non-Indic origin resist reforms introduced by the state. But the conservative elements among Hindus and Sikhs did strongly oppose the HCB. What is important for the present purpose is to under line the fact that the Indian state also endorses the division between Indic and non-Indic religions, even if unwittingly, as Hindu nationalists.

The non-intervention by the state as a reformer in the case of non-Indic minority religions was /is a political act which has two aspects. One, possible adverse reactions from those foreign countries which are predominantly populated by Muslims and Christian. Two, the non-Indic religious minorities, particularly the conservative elements among Muslims would have indulged in violent protests, which could not have been easily controlled. Whatever the reasons alluded to, to intervene as a reformer in the case of some religions and exclude others from this process, undermines the constitutional understanding of secularism.

My second illustration relates to the policy of protective discrimination. Given India’s hierarchical social structure it was necessary to provide for special legislative measures to uplift the socio-economic conditions of two categories – Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes – to recall the official designations. The Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order 1950, popularly known as the Presidential Order stipulated that ‘… no person who profess a religion different from Hinduism shall be deemed to be a member of Scheduled Caste’. This violates the principle of secularism as enunciated in the Constitution, because the Order discriminates those of Scheduled Caste background who embrace religions other than Hinduism. It is pertinent to recall here that (a) the Order has been amended in 1954 to include Scheduled Caste converts to Sikhism, and (b) the Order has been amended for a second time in 1990 to include Scheduled Caste converts to Buddhism. But Muslims and Christians of Scheduled Caste origin are denied the benefits of the policy of protective discrimination. This is in spite of the pronouncement by the Supreme Court of India.

The change of religion did not always succeed in eliminating castes. He converts carried with them their castes and occupations to the new religions… to deny them constitutional protection of reservation solely by reason of change of faith or religion is to endanger the very concept of secularism…(Supreme Court, 30th November 1992).

The National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities (NCRLM) appointed by the Government of India came into force on 22nd February 1978. In 1988 the linguistic communities were put outside the ambit of the Commission. And, in 1992 statutory status was conferred on the national commission for religious minorities (NCM). The Commission submitted its report dated May 21, 2007. It argued for de-linking Scheduled Caste status from religion and makes it religion neutral. The Commission observed:
…as the Constitution of India guarantees freedom of conscience and religious freedom as a Fundamental Right, once a person has been included in a Scheduled Caste list a willful change of religion on his part should not affect adversely his or her Scheduled Caste status as that would in our opinion conflict with the basic constitutional provisions relating to equality, justice and non-discrimination on religious ground…

That the Indian state does not adhere to the constitutional understanding of secularism in spite of the pronouncements of the Supreme Court of India and NCM is thus amply evident.

As I have noted above the Indian Constitution provides for the right to propagate one’s religion. Propagation of religion can and often it does, lead to conversion. It is important to recall here that the most ancient religion, which expanded through proselytization and became a world religion, is Buddhism, an Indic religion. And yet conversion is not looked upon with favour in India; even M.K. Gandhi was against it. While there are several Buddhist majority countries in the world, Buddhists in India count a meager 0.70 per cent. And the population of Buddhists increased substantially between 1951 and 1981, mainly because of two massive conversion events.  When B.R.Ambedkar converted to Buddhism on 14 October 1956, an estimated number of 300,000 to 600,000 embraced Buddhism along with him (see Zelliot 1960:191-212). Similarly, when the 25th anniversary of Ambedkar’s  Diksha was celebrated on 6th October 1981 an estimated number of 150,000 to 300,000 converted to Buddhism (see Sujata 1982:34-36). And the state could stand by its principle of secularism on these occasions because the Hindu majority community did not raise any objection.

In contrast, when a few hundred persons convert to Islam or to Christianity the state intervenes to stop them usually at the instance of the Hindu militant organizations. The ostensible reason for such interventions is to maintain law and order. But the state action puts in jeopardy the constitutional right of professing their faith by those Indian citizens who belong to non-Indic religions. The sate officials often entertain the accusation of using fraudulent means into service and these may not be altogether absent. Although the existing legal provisions provide for restraining the use of fraudulent means, it is the breakdown of law and order, which is invariably caused by Hindu militants that occasion state intervention. In fact, several provincial states in India have passed anti-conversion legislations, although paradoxically they are called Freedom of Religion Bills! It is however important to note that there is no such legislation passed by the central state authority although several unsuccessful attempts have been made by those Member of Parliament who favour the idea of a Hindu state.

The position taken by the Indian state in the three contexts – the expansionist definition of Hinduism followed in the Hindu Code Bill, the selective application of the policy of protective discrimination and intervention to stop conversions – is precariously proximate to those taken by Hindu nationalists, who draw their ideological orientation from RSS.  Perhaps this pragmatic approach is a reflection of the fact that Hindus constitute 82 per cent of India’s population and the state cannot afford to alienate them because of the dynamics of electoral democracy. But state policies, which attest the majoritarian value-orientation, is not conducive for the co-existence of religious communities, the crux of constitutional definition of secularism.


I have suggested at the outset that religious minorities in India may be broadly categorized into two – India and non-Indic – based on the source of their origin. The latter can be bifurcated into those who attempted conversion of the local population and those who did not. From the perspective of being marginalized by the state and/or by the majority religious community the least affected are the non-Indic religious minorities, who did not attempt proselytization namely Jews and Zoroastrians, popularly referred to as Parsis.

Given the extremely small size and the tendency to leave India for their ancestral homeland, it is understandable that Jews are not recognized as a minority religious community by the National Minority Commission of India (NMCI). The Zoroastrians are recognized as a minority by NMCI and are often given appropriate positions by the state and respect by civil society. In contrast, the Baha’ is the most numerous of the three ‘immigrant’ religious minorities are not recognized by NMCI. This is in spite of the fact that a substantial proportion of them who embraced the faith in India are of Scheduled Caste background and hence socio-economically deprived. One may construe that the non-recognition of Baha’ is minority religious community by the NMCI is an instance of Indian state’s failure to practice secularism as promised in the Indian constitution. But why is this so? I infer that the attempt by Baha’ is to proselytize has antagonized the Hindu militants which has put the Indian state on abundant caution in recognizing them.

The marginalization of the three Indic religious minorities follows a different route. They are defined as Hindus for certain purpose such as the Hindu Code Bill. This constitutional emasculation of their religious identity is in tune with Hindu expansionism advocated by the Rasshtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS). On the other hand, the Scheduled Castes (SCs) among Sikhs and Buddhists are empowered through their inclusion in the Presidential Order 1950, though amendments in 1954 (to include Mazbhi Sikhs) and in 1990 (to include Neo-Buddhists). Incidentally there was no opposition worth the name to these amendments by the representatives of the majority community neither inside nor outside the Parliament. Thus the state policies of diffusing the distinct religious identity of India’s religious minorities and the empowerment of weaker elements (these of SC background) among them are in consonance with the  value-orientation proferred by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ideological slant namely Hindutva  enunciated by RSS. Indian secularism which promises the preservation of identity to religious minorities is not practiced in its letter and spirit even with regard to Indic religious minorities.

The other category of minorities which follows non-Indic religions are Muslims and Christians who are marginalized on four counts: identity, equality, security and hence dignity. While constitutional provisions de exist for preservation of identities  of these religious communities through provisions of freedom of worship and conscience, right to establish educational institutions to inculcate values they uphold and preserve languages exclusive to them (although the latter is often an invention and not a reality) the praxiological aberrations are far too many as I have pointed out earlier.

On the other hand, there are no specific constitutional provisions which provide for equity to the weaker sessions among these religious minorities. Those who oppose such provisions argue that they will abet and aggravate communalism, the word used in India for religion-based welfare and development measures. However the demand put forward by these communities is not based on religion but on caste; what is demanded is equity for SCs  and OBCs among Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists as well as Muslims and Christians. The opposition to this empirically validated argument (see, Deshpande 2010) is not acceptable not only to the militant elements among Hindus but also to the political parties for fear of loosing electoral support from SCs of Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist backgrounds. Thus viewed the position taken by political parties are pragmatic but legally invalid and morally reprehensible because it erodes the foundation of the doctrine of secularism as expounded in the Constitution of India. It denies equally of opportunity promised to all Indian citizens irrespective of caste and creed. This unequal treatment of SCs of Muslim and Christian background alienates and marginalizes them.

The other source of marginalization, that of insecurity, is applicable to all Muslims and Christian irrespective of their class and caste status. Reference has been made to the phenomenon of communal riots in India at some length which is the source of insecurity. (In the case of Sikhs it happened only once in 1984 and fortunately it has not repeated afterwards).  It is paradoxical but true that in spite of the frequent and often massive occurrences of communal riots in Independent India, there is no legal instrument to prevent them or punish those who are piloting them. This substantially erodes the possibility of dignified co-existence of religious communities in India.

I have referred to the proclivity on the part of Indian state and civil society to privilege the strong while referring to the recognition of Zorastrians as a minority community but denying the same to the Baha’ is. The same tendency is evident in the treatment of Muslims and Christians. The numerical advantage of Muslims vis-à-vis Christians should provide them with higher political clout. The socio-economic deprivation of some sections of Muslims as compared with Christians should entitle them for an appropriate share in the context of economic development and social welfare. But the demographic disadvantage and limited political bargaining capacity of Christians should not result in their being ignored. However this is precisely what is happening in India. Let me illustrate it with a current example.

The Indian Republic is the verge of electing incumbents to two top constitutional positions, viz, the President and Vice-President. A large number of names have been floated by individuals and civil society organizations in the media. But one of them is from the Christian Community, the second major religious minority, which count some thirty million. Is it that this community does not have a single competent citizen to occupy these positions? Incidentally there have been several presidents / vice-presidents from the Muslim community and one president from the Sikh Community. Shri. Sangma is contesting for the presidency as a candidate of the Tribal Council of India, and his tribal and not Christian identity is projected. He was initially sponsored by two ‘regional’ political parties and subsequently BJP one of the ‘national’ (read all-India) parties joined them. It is important to remind ourselves that independent India had only two Christian candidates so far for presidency (the late Dr.Alexander and now Mr.Sangma) both of whom were/are sponsored by BJP, widely perceived as an anti-minority party. In contrast, the principal political party of India namely the Congress which claims to be a secular (read pro-minority) party did not yet find a competent Christian to be put up as a presidential or vice-presidential candidate!.

Let me pose a few questions for your reflection and action. Is it not an indication of collective marginalization of Christians from their beloved motherland? Does this not point to the cognitive blackout to which Christians are subjected to by most of the political parties? Is it not indicative of the proclivity prevailing in India that only groups/communities with political striking power figure in the collective conscience articulated by civil society ad most of the political parties? Is it not indicative of the failure of inclusive democracy in Indian society which is culturally heterogeneous? If the answer to any of these questions is in the affirmative if diminishes the strength and dilute the quality of secularism in India, because the practice of Indian secularism is couched in terms of providing equity, identity, dignity and security to all its constituent units.

*This constitutes the text of the 19th M.A.Thomas Memorial Lecture delivered on 21st July 2012 at Bangalore.


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