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Home / History / Promoting Secularism

Promoting Secularism in INDIA


India had a long tradition of secularism. It was not only a cradle of religion, but also of progressive thought. Atheists in ancient India - Charvakas And Lokayats opposed religious practices. Gautama Buddha and Mahavira propagated tolerance and non-violence and equal respect to all. They opposed superstitions, inhuman practices and upheld human dignity. The revolutions in religions brought forth by social reformers were within the religious structure. They opposed not only inter-religious rivalry between Hindus and Muslims but also the inter-sect rivalry within the Hindu religion.


Social reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy who opposed the inhuman custom of Sati, championed the secularisation of society and positive interference of the State with a view to curb anti-social acts of religion. lshwara Chandra Vidya Sagar, an agnostic, advocated widow remarriages. A number of social reformers of the 19th century who were influenced by western ideas and education, strove incessantly for widow remarriages, spread of education among women and ban on religious practices, which were not in tune with the progress of society. Mahatma Phule and Maharshi Karve devoted their lives for the promotion of women education, braving the opposition of the orthodox sections of the society. A number of social reformers of Maharastra, Bengal and Andhra opposed orthodoxy and championed liberal views and reform. Mahadev Govind Ranade, Pandita Ramabai, Kandukuri Veeresalingam, Keshab Chandra Sen, Devendranath Tagore, Ram Vilas Sharda and many others were heretics in their own times who were in favour of liberalization of religion and secularization of institutions. The advocacy of religious toleration and equal respect to all religions was, in itself, a progressive step till the advent of independence in India.


The British rule in India, on the one side, brought the country together, politically, through communications such as Railways, post, telegraph and also by providing a link language, in the form of English. This opened the window to the West and outside world to let the fresh breeze in of secular ideas. But, at the same time, the British Government followed a policy of ‘Divide and Rule’ and encouraged and established separate electorates for Muslims and Sikhs through the Constitutional Reforms of 1909 and 1919, which ultimately culminated in fanning the communal hatred and Muslim separatism in particular, which resulted finally in the partition of the country into secular India and Muslim Pakistan. Pakistan became Islamic State and India maintained its sanity and continued as a Secular State. History bears testimony to the fact that the partition of the country on the basis of religion was untenable, as the Muslim Pakistan was further subdivided into Bangladesh. It reveals in unmistakable terms that religion should not be the basis for a state, as common religion alone could not hold the country together.

The nationalist movement in India, right from the latter part of the 19th. century, drew inspiration from the secular concepts. The Indian National Congress remained a secular organisation. In fact, in Indian nationalism secularism was an important strand. They opposed religious fundamentalism and moves for the partition of the country on religious basis. Mahatma Gandhi considered religion a personal matter and he was for the formation of a secular state. Jawaharlal Nehru was not only a socialist, but also a great champion of humanism and secularism. He was a source of inspiration for socialists and other progressive elements in India.


Even the other nationalist leaders had opted for separation of religion and State as the basis of India, in spite of their personal preference for religion. That is why, the founding fathers of the Indian Constitution never hesitated to build India on secular foundations. In fact, they defeated the measures to bring any reference to god into the Preamble of the Constitution. They opposed and defeated the amendment of Mr. H. V. Kamath to invoke the name of god in the Preamble to the Constitution. Opposing the amendment of Sri H. V. Kamath to start the Preamble with the words, "In the name of God", great liberal Pandit H. N. Kunjru said: "Such a course of action is inconsistent with the Preamble which promises liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship to everyone." Kunjru further said, "We invoke the name of God, but I may boldly say that while we do so, we are showing a narrow, sectarian spirit, which is contrary to the spirit of the Constitution" (Constituent Assembly Debates, India 17th October, 1949, P. 441)

When H.V. Kamath’s amendment was defeated with an overwhelming majority he lamented that it was the darkest day in the annals of Indian History. But, in reality, it was the brightest day for the future of India as it took a decisive step to march in the direction of secularism and separation of state and religion.


The 42nd amendment to the Constitution introduced by Mrs. Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister, reiterated the secular character declaring India as a "socialist, secular, democratic state." The Fundamental Duties incorporated into the Constitution through the same Amendment make it the responsibility of every citizen to strive for the promotion of "the spirit of inquiry, scientific outlook, humanism and reform."

The Constitution of India, abolished untouchability and its practice in any form was prohibited. Special preferences in the name of religion do not exist. In India, secularism does not mean mere separation of religion and state but, the abolition of the practice of untouchability and promotion of castelessness. It is a welcome gesture on the part of various state governments in India, which announced special incentives to the inter-caste married couples, and also preference in government jobs to them on some occasions.

The Untouchability (Offences) Act was renamed in 1976 Civil Rights Act. The change in nomenclature was in tune with the aims and aspirations of the people. Thus the trend towards secularism received support not only during the nationalist movement but also in post-independence India. However, to bring change in the centuries-old tradition-bound India, it requires constant persuasion, support and repeated efforts to strengthen the democratic and secular ramparts we guard.

Article 51 A (h) of the Indian Constitution in its Fundamental Duties reiterates "It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform." This is in tune with the spirit of the age.


In India, secularism receives challenges from many fronts, Casteism and communalism are losing their credence, because of the spread of science and technology and communication, as well as liberal and progressive outlook. But on the contrary, casteism and communalism are getting a new lease of life because of the short-sighted policies of, power-hungry politicians and the narrow outlook of the administrators and the leaders. In stead of proceeding on the path enunciated in the Constitution, the leaders fanned the communal and caste passions of the people, with a view to reap the harvest of votes and to achieve their partisan ends. The politicization of caste and religion and pampering of communal leaders is causing, great harm to the body politic of the nation. The time has come to strengthen the secular values, institutions and practices in an uncompromising manner and to accelerate the pace of change in India. The rise of communalism, casteism, obscurantism and fundamentalism are warning signals that whip up emotions and cause strife in the name of religion and caste threatening national integration and the very unity of the nation.


Atheist Centre, right from its inception in 1940, championed separation of religion and state and strove incessantly to spread a new value system on secular foundations. Atheist Centre under the inspiring leadership of Gora (1902-1975) and Saraswathi Gora (B. 1912) took up practical programmes for the abolition of untouchability and for the promotion of castelessness. It strove to bridge the gulf between precept and practice by organising inter-dining programmes and inter-caste marriages on a large scale. Gora and Mrs. Saraswathi Gora, the founders of Atheist Centre, took the lead in the opening of public wells for the use of so-called untouchables also, along with the local villagers.

In his efforts Gora bore the brunt of opposition from the upper castes. However, he succeeded in his efforts. His programmes for the abolition of untouchability attracted the attention of Mahatma Gandhi at the rational level. Mahatma Gandhi's journal, Harijan published about Gora's work in this regard and Gandhi even invited Gora and the members of the Atheist Centre to his Sevagram Ashram. The conversations between Gandhi and Gora on Atheism and Social Change were published in Gora's An Atheist with Gandhi (Navajivan Publishers, Ahmedabad). The book was published in different Indian languages also. The commendable constructive work of Atheist Centre for the eradication of untouchability and caste system and religion attracted wide attention all over India and abroad.


A conference on secularism was held at Vijayawada on October 22nd 1968, which was inaugurated by Justice V. M. Tarkunde, the then judge of the Bombay High Court and a Radical Humanist leader. He said that the concept of secular state does not merely imply that the State will be impartial to all religions; it implies that the state will have nothing to do with religion. Mr. Tarkunde said that the constitutional provisions, might entitle one to claim that ours was largely a secular state, but merely law could not create a truly secular state. While the constitutional provisions represented a significant advance towards the ideal of a secular state, a good deal had yet had to be done before the ideal could be achieved.

Speaking in the conference Gora stressed on the need for the abolition of religious endowments. He said that Temples, Churches and Mosques should be treated as private properties of trusts of individuals and taxed by the State. No special facilities should be given for places of Pilgrimage like Tirupati, he said. (Indian Express, October 28, 1968)

For the last 60 years, Athiest Centre unequivocally has been championing the cause of secularism in India through its practical programmes. Numerous conferences, seminars, workshops and marches were conducted to stress the need to separate state and religion as well as promoting secularism.


Through Atheist Study Camps, and in innumerable other occasions, the significance of secularism as a way of life was advocated. Atheist Centre popularised the Special Marriage Act for the registration of marriages without reference to caste or religion. Special Marriage Act is a secular method compared to the Hindu, Christian and Muslim Marriage Methods.


Atheist Centre spread awareness among people about the availability of secular method of affirmation as an alternative to oath taking. Thanks to the indefatigable fight of Charles Bradlaugh in British Parliament for upholding the secular values, the Indian Constitution made a special mention for the secular practices of affirmation. One can take either oath or affirmation while taking office at any level of government, right from President to the local level. It is heartening to note that many Prime Ministers including Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and V.P. Singh affirmed while assuming office instead of taking oath. A number of ministers, judges, and other officials and non-officials follow the method of affirmation even today while taking office or giving evidence in the court. In the beginning Atheists had to educate the officers of the court about the affirmation method as the court officials were only familiar with taking of oath.


Similarly, Atheist Centre is in the forefront of educating the heads of the educational Institutions that one need not fill the columns of caste and religion in the application forms. In the beginning the tradition bound and arrogant educational institutions refused admission to Atheists for not filling up caste and religion in the application form. Atheist Centre took the specific instances up to the level of Union Education Minister and the University Grants Commission to mend the ways of a college. The matter was debated in the Andhra Pradesh State Legislature also, for not admitting atheists into the college on the ground of not filling up the columns of caste and religion. The college had to abide by the Constitution and admitted atheists. Atheists strongly advocated the omission of the columns of caste and religion in the application forms of the educational institutions.

Sometimes the arrogant and adamant stance of Educational authorities forced atheists to move the matter in courts also. One such matter which requires special mention in this regard is the case of the children of Mr. B. V. Subbaiah a member of Atheist Friends Association. Mr. Venkata Subbayya's two children who were studying in the First standard of a primary school of the government were dismissed from the school by the Assistant District Education Officer, for not filling up the columns of caste and religion

In spite of the parents’ insistence that they had no caste and religion, the children were dismissed from the school. The dismissal of his children was challenged by Atheist B. V. Subbaiah in Andhra Pradesh High Court. Justice P. A. Choudhary of Andhra Pradesh High Court admitted the writ petition (No. 493 of 1980) on January 29, 1980 and directed the school authorities of Gandavaram Elementary School in Nellore district of A. P. to readmit the children and allow them to continue their studies. The Atheist Centre undertook activities for the promotion of Secularism right from the grass-root level in the villages to the highest institution, Parliament of India.


Mrs. Chennupati Vidya, daughter of Gora, Member of Parliament from Vijayawada introduced a private member resolution in Lok Sabha (House of the People) on the Necessity to Strengthen Secularism. The Resolution was discussed in the Lok Sabha on April 23, 1982 for two hours. Mr. G. Lakshmanan, Deputy Speaker, himself a rationalist leader, was in the chair. The discussion was further extended for two hours, in view of the interest on the subject in the House.

Text of the Resolution:

"Keeping in view the secular character of our Constitution and the fact that secularism is one of the basic tenets of our State Policy, this House recommends to the Government to take immediate steps to

(a) Promote a sense of castelessness through inter-caste and inter-religion marriages;

(b) Prepare suitable text books to propagate secular ideas by laying emphasis on fundamental duties enshrined in the Constitution;

(c) Encourage secular outlook among the employees working in the Government and Public Sector Undertakings;

So that a feeling of national brotherhood and (if human dignity is promoted among people"

While introducing the resolution in Lok Sabha (the Indian Parliament) Mrs.Vidya traced the historical significance of secularism in India right from the 19th century. In the beginning nationalism was intimately associated with democracy. In this century, secularism in India is also intertwined with nationalism and democracy. Thus nationalism, secularism and democracy are the three important principles on which the strength of the country is dependent.

Mrs. Vidya stated that secularism was championed from different points of view. Mahatma Gandhi thought in terms of equality of all religions. Jawaharlal Nehru, on the other hand, propagated secularism from humanist and scientific point of view. Highlighting the importance of secularism in Modern India, Nehru said "We have to function in life with the humanist ideals of the age we live, these ideas may be classed under two heads: Humanism and scientific spirit. (Donold E. Smith : India is a Secular State)

She further stated that secularism is propagated as a way of life by Atheists like Periyar E.V. Ramaswamy, Gora and Humanists like M. N. Roy, Socialists like Lohia and communists also worked for secularism in this country. Under the inspiring leadership of B. R. Ambedker, the founding fathers of the Constitution, abolished untouchability. They maintained the separation of state and religion. The Constitution did not provide for any religious instruction in educational institutions. On the other hand, freedom of religion was guaranteed.

She reiterated that along with Constitutional provision, follow-up actions are essential to achieve the desired objectives of secularism. Then alone the pace of change in society would be rapid and separation of religion and State would take firm roots in India.

Mrs. Vidya stated that the State is the most effective instrument of Social Change. Hence steps should be taken to create a new society based on secularism and equality. All branches of government should take effective steps to achieve secularism in all spheres of life and promotion of castlessness through inter-caste and inter-religious marriages is an urgent necessity.

She said that education must promote secular values and pave way for social change. People should shed miracle-mind and develop progressive mentality. Education should also make people aware of illusions and delusions such as witchcraft and Banamati and fight against them. People should be encouraged to develop rational and scientific outlook. She said that every generation faces certain challenges. The challenge before this generation is how to promote secular values among the mass of the people. She appealed to increase the secular content in the text-books. She appealed to government to conduct constant orientation and training programmes to equip the government and public sector employees with the idea of secular, socialist and democratic ideals.

Mrs. Vidya reiterated that secularism in India was not merely a political doctrine. It is a comprehensive, forward looking, dynamic programme. Secularism promotes national brotherhood and human dignity, as well as all-round development of the country. The members cutting across party lines supported Mrs. Vidya’s resolution. Some members highlighted the necessity to introduce Uniform Civil Code in this country.

After a good discussion on July 16, and again on July 30,1982, Mrs.Vidya expressed her happiness for the active participation of the members and the keen interest they had shown in the subject. She stated that the whole world is moving towards a post-religious society and, so, India cannot lag behind. She stated that secularism is a way of life which would enable to march forward in the direction of post-religious society. Such a Bill for the promotion of a casteless, religionless society was introduced for the first time in Indian Parliament. Highlighting its significance. Mrs. Vidya stated in the Aims and Objects of the Bill, that divisive factors like caste and religion were standing in the way of national integration. Communal and caste feuds are taking place in different parts of the country.

She further stated that the goal of national integration could best be achieved if a casteless and religionless society is established. "One step in this direction is to remove the columns which require a person to indicate his / her caste or religion in the forms maintained by educational institutions and various public bodies like employment exchange, public service commissions etc. In the course of years exclusion of such columns relating to caste and religion shall make caste and religion factors of no consequence," stated Mrs. Vidya. Removal of references to caste and religion in the application forms of educational institution and other government departments would be a step further in creating congenial atmosphere for the healthy development of society on secular lines.

Vidya’s Bill in Parliament for a "Casteless, Religionless Society"

Mrs. Vidya introduced the Bill in Indian Parliament for casteless and religionless society and discussion on it started on July 29, 1983. She reminded that Indian Nationalism is essentially secular, and it is opposed to communal sectarianism. Such a sBill for the promotion of a caseteless and religionless society was introduced for the first time in the Indian Parliament. Highlighting its significance, Mrs. Vidya stressed in the Aims and Objects of the Bill, that divisive factors like caste and religion were standing in the way of national integration. Communal and caste feuds are taking place in different part of the country.

She said that science enabled us to cross the physical barriers but the mental barriers of caste and religion still divide people. She reminded the Parliament that we are marching towards a post-religious society.

Mrs. Vidya reiterated that nationalism transcends the obligations and loyalties of caste, tribe, rare and religion. She said that the tragedy of our present day society is that though the caste and religion bonds are loosened, caste consciousness and religious consciousness have increased. As the awareness of caste and religion often misguide people into divisive and sectarian considerations, there is a danger to national unity and social brotherhood.

She reiterated that caste and religion have nothing to do with the promotion of morality. One could be good and do good to others without religion. This has been amply demonstrated by the atheists, humanists, Rationalists and progressive minded people all over the world. In India, Periyar E.V. Ramaswamy, Gora and M. N. Roy are shining examples in this regard, she added.

Making a fervent appeal for castelessness and religionlessness, she said when we march towards castelessness and secularism, government and people would devote their time and energies to the real problems. Poverty, hunger and inequalities are the real enemies of social progress.


Atheist Centre organised conferences, seminars and discussions, for the promotion of secularism, with a view to create awareness among people and to increase their commitment to the cause. In all the Atheist study camps, separation of religion and state and secularism were prominent topics for discussion. A number of articles also were published in different journals on the subject. Atheist Centre's practical programmes in the direction include inter-dining, social-mixypot and inter-marriages.

The recurrence of communal riots, caste feuds and politicization of caste and religion and the brutal killings in Punjab in the name of religion and the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the communal carnage in Gujarat made many people think in India in terms of separation of religion and state and to strengthen the secular foundations of the nation. The unity and integrity of the country and the progress of the nation depend to a large extent on the secular ramparts we guard.

The controversies of Ram Janma-Bhoomi and Babri Masjid, religious clashes in different parts of the country revealed in unmistakable terms that unless secularism is practiced in India with utmost sincerity the fundamentalist forces fan the passion and emotion of the masses and distract attention from the real issues of economic and social development. Hence, the separation of religion and state and strengthening of secularism in India is not only a desired goal but it is the very breath of the nation.