There should be not only neutrality of political authority but also freedom of conscience and belief as well as equality before the law
Without consensus or clarification on what comprises secularism, India as a society and a nation will continue to drift. The hijab controversy in Karnataka has also highlighted what secularism is and the extent to which it should let minorities do as they please. Whether wearing the hijab extends to ignoring a school uniform and whether it can be extended to all classes of girls, were the questions raised.
References to secularism appear quite often in the media. But rarely is there any mention of the Bernard Stasi report which is the latest thesis on what a secular state is. It was tabled in 2003 and served as the basis for the secular law voted by the French National Assembly in 2004. It defines three essential principles which are freedom of conscience, equality before the law for spiritual and religious beliefs and the neutrality of political power.
The report ordered that students attending public schools or employees working in government offices should not display religious symbols of an ostentatious nature that would even include a large cross. There are no restrictions on wearing any form of dress or displaying religious symbols in the entire country. The state, however, must maintain absolute neutrality between one religion and another. The French insistence on laïcité or the absolute separation of church from state dates back to 1905, guaranteeing the free exercise of religious beliefs.
The only restrictions were decreed in the interest of public order. The Stasi report stated that Islam is considered incompatible with secularism. This was the provocation to the investigation led by Bernard Stasi and the subsequent passage of the legislation. As far as private employers of schools are concerned, the law is that the will of the establishment prevails and not any idiosyncrasy of the employee. The intention behind the stipulation is to ensure that there is no discrimination against members of any religion, so that an employer does not avoid the appointment of a woman wearing a headscarf or a man wearing a skullcap.
These provisions guarantee not only the neutrality of political power but also freedom of conscience and belief as well as equality before the law. The Stasi report emphasized secularism as the cornerstone of a democracy. Each State is sovereign and has the right to develop its Constitution and other laws according to the needs of its society. How else did Malaysia declare itself an Islamic Republic, completely ignoring the presence of Hindus, Buddhists and Christians who make up nearly half of the population? Why should Bangladesh and Pakistan have the privilege of calling themselves Islamic? Bangladesh had reduced its Hindu population to 10% in 1991. The figure for 2001 is awaited. In 1947, Hindus made up 30% of East Bengal. Pakistan today has, according to its own census figures, only 1.5% Hindus. The others suffered ethnic cleansing. The fact that India never challenged the rights of Bangladesh or Pakistan to do what they did means that we respected their sovereignty.
Going further, would the Emirates of Western Asia be justified in not authorizing the construction of a temple on their territory? Should Saudi Arabia have the right to ban even a non-Muslim from entering Mecca and Medina? Does a universal declaration of human rights apply to these respected members of the international community in general and the UN in particular? The Stasi report clarified that Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms does not create an absolute right to religious freedom.
‘Sarva Dharma Sama Bhava’ does not correspond to secularism. The spirit behind these words was universal tolerance. Secularism is essentially the separation of Church from State. India has never had a big enough church and has never interfered in the functioning of the state. Islam, on the other hand, does not separate the temporal from the spiritual. The ultimate proof of this was that the Caliph, or the representative of the Prophet Muhammad, was the spiritual leader and the temporal leader rolled into one. There was no dividing line between Caesar and God.
In India, the practice during the British Raj was government non-interference in the affairs of religion. This was especially the case after the so-called Sepoy Mutiny. It was only after independence and the advent of vote bank politics that ‘Sarva Dharma Sama Bhava’ began to be twisted in order to pit one community against the other. Articles 25–30 were first introduced in 1946 in an attempt to deter the Muslim League from insisting on partition. Mysteriously, however, they survived in the draft Constitution even after the country was torn apart by partition. Marxists also call themselves secular. Their idea, however, is the abolition of religion. Karl Marx considered religion the opium of the masses. In keeping with his philosophy, the Stalinists converted many churches, mosques and synagogues into shops, museums or offices across the Soviet Union.
(The author is a well-known columnist, author and former member of the Rajya Sabha. Opinions expressed are personal.)