The controversy over judges meet on Good Friday is an opportunity to explore roots of this key principle
Shishir Tripathi | April 6, 2015
Justice Kurian Joseph’s objection to the chief justice of India, HL Dattu, holding the chief justices conference on Good Friday and Easter is more than a tussle among the top judiciary on a specific issue; it has important connotations. While the sensationalising of the issue is totally uncalled for, complete silence over it –considering it as ‘family’ issue, which will be settled by the ‘head of the family’ – will also serve no purpose.
Joining the debate, former CJI VN Khare said that justice Joseph’s position reflected the apprehensions of religious minorities. Certainly it does and the reason to an extent is attributed to our inability to adhere to the Indian notion of secularism. A national holiday on the festivals of all the religious groups can be seen as a symbolic act, but digging a bit deeper will show the entrenchment of our notion of secularism within such symbolisms.
While the spate of communal clashes in the last few years have left a heavy dent in the secular fabric of the country, the concern reflected by justice Joseph talks of others aspects of our secular edifice.
Communal violence, of course, has several socio-political undercurrents, yet any questions regarding the secular structure of the country (like the one raised in the current issue) has to be addressed in a different manner. And for this one needs to dwell on the basic idea of secularism.
The term ‘secularisation’ traces its origin in the west, and was first used in 1648 at the end of the thirty-year war in Europe to refer to the transfer of church properties to the exclusive control of princes. Since then the term in different times and places has been bestowed with different attributes.
In its original sense secularism was a principle which supported the separation of the church from state affairs. And the principal ideology supporting it was liberalism which launched an attack on the catholic church and demanded religious freedom raised by protestant groups and its counterparts and stressed on drawing a clear dividing line between the church and the state, baring the former from interfering in the affairs of the government.
However, too much stress on this western notion and ignoring our homegrown counterpart of it is what complicates the issue.
The hard-line separation of the church or the religious domain from the state affairs sometimes projected western secularism as anti-religious. But in the Indian context secularism is not seen as a negative concept or negation of religion – rather it is seen as a positive concept calling for equal treatment and respect to all religions irrespective of their history, position or its professed ideologies. In short, ‘Sarva Dharma Sambhav’.
This connotation of secularism has been characterised by Ashis Nandy as ‘Indianism’, but long history of this version of secularism has given India a sense of equal treatment to all religions and identified it with religious tolerance.
To quote Dr. Radhakrishnan, “secularism does not mean irreligious or atheism nor even stress on material comforts. It proclaims that no religion should be given preferential status or unique distinction, that no religion should be accorded special privileges in national life or international relation for that would be violation of the basic principles of democracy and contrary to best interest of religion and government.” He further adds, “no person shall suffer any form of disability or discrimination because of religion but all alike should be free to share to fullest degree in the common life.”
When those occupying the high offices feel that there is “tinkering” of one of the most cherished values of democracy, there is certainly some gap in our democratic structure.
Religious festivities also are about “sharing in common life”. And it should be allowed to all, irrespective of their religion. It is important and necessary for us to assert the tag of a secular state. Mere insertion of an adjective in the preamble of the constitution certainly would fail to ensure a secular society that we claim to be.
Fire on the Ganges: Life among the Dead in Banaras By Radhika Iyengar 4th Estate / HarperCollins, 348 pages, 599
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