Secularisation has led to the rise of religion in politics

Question: ‘Secularisation has led to the rise of religion in politics’. Discuss.
By Libin Farah

Secularism and religion is a recurring debate that has been taking place in India for the past several decades. Religion in this context will be understood as a mobiliser of individuals and therefore a political tool.

Firstly this essay will engage with secularism as a doctrine and examine Donald Smith’s definition and highlight the limitations of it when it is applied to India. Secondly this essay will engage with the debate surrounding modernity and secularisation and questioning whether or not India is compatible with Western secularism. Thirdly, this essay will demonstrate how the colonial history of India created the backdrop in which religious political parties rose to prominence. Fourthly, this essay will investigate the role of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the rise of Hindu nationalism in India and how there are tensions between the secular constitution and their pro-Hindu agenda. Lastly, the Shah Bano case of 1978 will be used as a case study to demonstrate the inevitable clash/overtake of state and religion.

Overall, this essay aims to argue that by claiming that secularisation has led to a rise of religion in politics oversimplifies our analysis of the secular and the religious. When these concepts are applied to India they are often collaborative and the process of secularisation is one of a pseudo-secular state rather than a pure secular state. Also, other factors need to be considered in understanding why religion has such a prominent role in politics in India rather than focusing on secularism in isolation.

The statement in question is framed in a way that attempts to separate secularism and religion by categorising these concepts as two distinct poles. However, secularisation and religion cannot be effectively examined without using these concepts together as they are very interlinked.

The use of India as a case study, a society with a state ideology of secularism while also having deep rooted religious traditions demonstrates the complexities and tensions surrounding state behaviour towards religion. From its inception, the relationship between the state and religion in India has been separated.

Although the term secular is not used, this can be derived from the Indian constitution itself which grants freedom of religion towards all citizens from all religious traditions. Secularism acts as a barrier between religion and the state allocating them to different areas of human activity which should not overlap.

According to Donald Smith, a true secular state is one that involves the tripartite relationship between the state, religion and the individual. The state is excluded from the relationship between the individual and religion implying religious freedom.

Religion is excluded from the relationship between the state and the individual in regards to citizenship. The last relationship is the separation of state and religion as they should operate in distinct areas of human activity. There are a few issues with this definition which Marc Galanter draws our attention to.

Firstly, in order for this definition to be workable the state must be a neutral body. Galanter argues that “no secular state is or can be merely neutral or impartial among religion” and in this case of India with the influence of the BJP Hindu nationalism dominates policy.

Smith says in the introduction of his piece that “certain aspects constitute the particular contributions of the USA” however, Galanter argues that secularisation in India should be understood independent of Western ideals. Western traditions do not apply in India therefore Western idealism should also be removed when conducting analysis.

Galanter supports the argument that secularisation and religion in India are not distinct categories, rather there is a necessary overlap and interact between the two which can be termed pseudo-secular.

Secularism as an ideology is a product of the Enlightenment period, in this way it could be said that secularism and modernity go hand in hand. Our understanding of modernity will in turn impact our view of religion.

Modernity is rooted in rational choice theory which does not accommodate religion as the two concepts clash. Modernity therefore does not make room for irrationality, beliefs and feelings. Secularism in an inherently Western doctrine and when this ideology is transferred to the Global South it is impractical because it is at odds with the deeply engrained religious attachments that are already present in pluralist India.

If modernity is viewed as an inevitable and desirable move away from religion how does this work in the case of India? T. N. Madan argues that simply transferring the Western model of modernisation onto India without considering its religious character is doomed to fail until it is “internalised and made meaningful for the people”.

Religious traditions such as Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism are “totalising in character and at odds with the everyday understanding of India’s masses”. Therefore it can be argued that secularisation has not necessarily led to a rise of religion in politics, rather there is an element of inevitability surrounding state intervention in religious affairs.

This inevitability is made possible by the unnatural merge of secular ideology within a religious society and as secular ideology has not fully permeated throughout Indian society, it is then up to the state to navigate the spaces between what is secular and what is religious.

The rise of religion in politics can partly be attributed to India’s colonial history. Through an Orientalist framework the British took existing religious identities of ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’, reduced these diverse communities to homogenous entities and transformed them into two opposing groups.

This had far reaching implications as it created a process in which these groups tried to reclaim their own identities and shape their own narratives, using the political sphere as a means to do so. The religious communities “entered into movements of self-assertion to enhance their status within the fabric of a changing colonial society” towards an independent nation state.

This in part changes the nature of the identity of Hindus and Muslims, constructing them into socio-political groups as well as religious ones. Anti-colonial nationalism combined with a drive for reassertion into the political framework mobilised these groups to become active in the political sphere. This can be said for the BJP which was founded in 1951 with an ideology of Hindu nationalism “a political movement dedicated to the restitution of perceived wrongs done to this religious group”.

From this perspective a rise of religion in politics is not down to secularisation but rather a response to colonial subjugation and orientalist definitions and the complexities surrounding Hindu and Muslim identities. By becoming active in politics, Hindus and Muslims have attempted to restore themselves as the primary agents that shape the narrative of their own identities.

India is a pluralist nation with deeply ingrained religious traditions that dominate all aspects of life, including politics. While the constitution creates a clear divide between the role of the state in regards to religion, in practice this distinction has been difficult to distinguish.

The BJP have complicated the dynamic between the state and religion as their ideology is founded upon Hindu nationalism and advancing and protecting the interests of Hindus. However, they are confined within a secular vehicle, being the constitution.

The BJP have rebranded the constitutional makeup of India by redefining secularism and democracy in a way that enables them to operate and enact policies with more freedom. “Secularism can be understood as tolerance and democracy as majoritarianism”. By redefining these concepts, the BJP have encoded India’s process of secularisation with Hindu nationalism and moved away from pure secularism.

This shift in understanding projects the message that multiculturalism is a problem to the majority as minority groups pose a threat. Considering that Hindus form a majority of 79.8%, according to the 2011 census, the BJP perpetuate the idea that Hindu beliefs and ideals need to be reinstated in India. The BJP have been able to tap into the social discontent of the public and manipulate it in a way that targets religious minorities and challenges the secular nature of the constitution.

To understand the rise and success of the BJP as a response to a secular constitution is a partial analysis of the matter. There are greater complexities and nuances surrounding it. Firstly, the colonial history of India illuminates that the ideology of the BJP is attempting to restore Hindus to a pre-colonial golden age. In practice this process has been inherently violent one, one that deliberately targets Muslims.

There is an underlying idea that Muslims are foreign invaders and not truly Indian, “partly through and identification of all things Muslims with Pakistan”, a bitter rival. These tensions can be traced back to partition and are still present today and harnessed by the BJP. The threat of the minority is a key reason in understanding the assent of the BJP into politics.

By conflating religion and politics the BJP have created a pseudo-secular state in India, a particular brand prescribed by Hindu nationalists in an attempt to get minorities to conform to Hindu rules and ideals. Therefore, secularisation and the secular constitution have a collaborative rather than a primary role in understanding the rise of religion in politics.

The Shah Bano case of 1978 is an example of the state becoming entangled in matters of religion in which many believed that state policy threated Islamic identity and jurisdiction. Shah Bano was a divorcee who was granted alimony by the Supreme Court. Her husband upheld that as they were both Muslim the Shari’ah (Islamic law) should be applied which only grants her maintenance for ninety days.

This is a clear clash between secular and religious rulings in the case of alimony. Many Indian Muslims became agitated as they felt that Islamic jurisdiction was undermined as a result was an attack on their identity and ability to practice freely as a Muslim. Due to widespread unrest the government felt compelled to overturn their decision in accordance with Quranic and Islamic rulings. This created a highly emotive public debate about secularisation and religious identity.

The BJP’s propaganda surrounding the case suggested that the decision to overturn the ruling was a stunt by the congressional party to appease the Muslims in order to secure their votes in the next election. Moreover, they argued that the initial creation of a separate law for the protection of divorced Muslim women was special treatment and undermined civil code.

Critics of the congressional party suggest that the state used the Shah Bano case and religion as a political tool to further their own interests. They compromised pure secularism for pseudo-secularism “that allowed the cynical manipulation of religion for political ends”.

From this perspective, it would be over simplistic to claim that secularisation has led to a rise of religion in politics when the Shah Bano case demonstrates that in India the secular and the religious easily become entangled. Secularism in this case is not necessarily about the separation of state and religion, rather the equal respect for all religions. The state should demonstrate “respect for minority religious groups by not interfering with their personal laws”.

Some critics have argued that the rights of minority groups are constantly under threat from the secular government as the state requires uniformity in order to govern cohesively. Partha Chatterjee emphasises that measures need to be put in order to protect the minority rights and identities such as democratic communitarianism.

Therefore, religion in politics is necessary alongside with a secular government to ensure that all citizens, including minorities, are protected by secular and religious laws.

In conclusion, religion has always occupied the same spaces as politics in India, despite the constitution separating the two. It can be seen that secularism and religion is a multifaceted debate with major complexities and nuances.

Religion in politics developed alongside and is an integral component India’s process of secularisation. While these concepts have Western origins, by examining India through a Western lens provides a deficient analysis of why religion has become prominent in politics.

These concepts need to flexible and delinked from overarching Western ways of thinking. Secularisation in India does not mean the separation of church and state but rather a complex interaction of what seems to be conflicting ideas merging to create a pseudo-secular state. State and religion have always been connected and this is what makes India is an intriguing site fore analysis.


Bajpai, Rochana. The conceptual vocabularies of secularism, Journal of Political Identities 7:2, 2002, 187
Census 2011,

Chatterjee, Partha. “Secularism and Toleration.” Economic and Political Weekly 29, no. 28 (1994): 1768-777.

Engineer , Asghar Ali. Islamic Identity in Secular India,, 5

Galanter, Marc. “Hinduism, Secularism, and the Indian Judiciary.” Philosophy East and West 21, no. 4 (1971): 467-87.

Madan, T. N. “Secularism in Its Place.” The Journal of Asian Studies 46, no. 4 (1987): 747-59.

Mukta, Parita. The Politics of Religious Nationalism and New Indian Historiography: Lessons for the Indian Diaspora, (Coventry: 1995, University of Warwick) 13

Paranjape , Makarand R. , Altered Destinations: Self, Society, And Nation in India. (London; New York; Delhi: Anthem Press, 2009) 45-55 Http://Www.Jstor.Org/Stable/J.Ctt1gxp813.

Smith, Donald Eugene. India as a secular state, (Princenton: University Press, 1963) 177-183

Subramaniam, Banu. Secularisms, etd. by Janet R. Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini ( New York: Duke University Press, 2008) 178-200

Walsh, Judith E. A brief history of India, (New York: Checkmark Books/InfoBase, 2006) 280

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