Secularism & the role of the Supreme Court

Shaikh Mujibur Rehman

ARTICLES OF FAITH — Religion, Secularism, and the Indian Supreme Court: Ronojoy Sen; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 675.

As the contemporary Indian political folklore suggests, secularism as state ideology has become contentious ever since Hindutva emerged as a major political plank. For the academia, the history of the contentious nature of this debate is somewhat older, and intriguing. What is, however, striking is that the political and academic streams of discourse have employed two different connotations of secularism. The political strand focussed on the fairness of the way the concept is applied in practice, with one section even accusing the state of being biased towards the minorities, particularly Muslims. On the other hand, the academic discourse stressed mostly on its genesis and on questions such as whether it is Western or Indian in origin. While both allude to the part the Supreme Court of India has been playing in this area, citing its different verdicts wherever necessary, there has been no systematic research into its proactive role. This book fills this vacuum quite comfortably.

On landmark cases

How the Supreme Court has been addressing the issues related to Hinduism and minority religions such as Islam is discussed extensively under different heads. In each chapter, considerable space is devoted to analysing the landmark cases that have a definitive bearing on Indian secularism. Among the significant points the author makes in his multi-layered argument is that the judicial verdicts are, in some measure, reflective of the dominant personalities of the court at a given time. In fact, the chapter titled, “Judging Religion: A Nehruvian In Court,” is entirely about P.B. Gajendragadkar, who served as the Chief Justice of India during the 1960s, and his was a dominant voice in matters of religion. Going by the manner in which the public debate and political campaign have proceeded in the area of secularism, there is a perception that the state’s relationship with minority religions, particularly Islam, needs to be grasped sensibly in order to make sense of its practices. In an attempt to depart from this dominant perception, the author devotes two chapters to discussing how the Supreme Court has been shaping the country’s political portrait and, in the process, created a lot of confusion about the connotations of ‘Hinduism’ and ‘Hindutva’. According to him, the confusion is partly due to the absence of Gandhian view of Hinduism in judicial discourse. He needs to have also noted that Hinduism in non-Hindutva sense is not completely compatible with the idea of tolerance. In fact, Dalit scholars such as Gopal Guru, Kancha Ilaiah, and Gail Omvedt consider that the idea of Hinduism in its brahminical construct is as pernicious, if not more, as it is in its Hindutva avatar.

Deviating from the conventional path, the author suggests that secularism needs to be visualised in a broader relationship not just with Islam but also with Hinduism. He devotes substantial space to the issue of minorities and Islam, with one chapter dealing exclusively with the question of Uniform Civil Code, one of the most contentious issues figuring in the secularism debate. This well-written chapter, however, could have profited from a discussion on the drafts that various civil society groups based in New Delhi, Mumbai, and Pune have been working on since the later part of the 1980s.


Viewed in the context of the vicious communal attacks witnessed in Kandhamal recently, where Christians were the target, the valuable insights offered into the way the courts have handled conversion-related issues acquire special relevance. How the Indian state grapples with religious conversion is, as the author says — and rightly so —“in many ways very central to the constitutional experiment with secularism.” Equally noteworthy is the chapter that deals with minority rights in running educational institutions.


This book, however, is not about the “unfettered role of religion and religious practices.” While discussing the core dimension of Indian secularism, he suggests that the court “rethink its language of uniformity in favour of one accommodative of religious and legal pluralism.” Otherwise, he warns, religion and faith could be hijacked by religious fundamentalists. The book, the core of which is a product of the author’s doctoral work, has further enriched the wealth of scholarship on secularism. In addition, it should serve as a valuable source for students of law and Indian politics.



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