A Measurement of India’s Secularist Policies

A Measurement of India’s Secularist Policies
by S.K. Menon

Indigenous Indian Understandings of Secularism
as Reflected in the Behavior of the Indian State


In recent weeks, President Bush’s proposal to support faith-based initiatives with federal funds has attracted a great deal of attention, both negative and positive. The whole debate centers around whether such support violates what Americans see as the separation of the Church and State, the cornerstone of secularism in the United States. It is interesting that although the Indian state has, over the last 50 years, supported religious organizations with state funds, even when they are explicitly involved in mobilizing religious identities, there has never been a controversy in this regard as to whether it compromises the principle of secularism. It is against this background that I have conceived of the present research project. Often, the Indian state is characterized in Western media as “the Hindu state” without realizing that the values of such a state are deeply secular though differently constructed. The reason for this difference is that the civilizational inspiration is Indic and not Western.

Significance of the proposed research project:

It is widely recognized that secularism as enshrined in the Indian constitution is different from the Western understandings of this concept. In the West, secularism is seen as the separation between the Church and the State, the Chambers dictionary definition being that “the State, morals and education should be independent of religion”. In contrast, a harmonious construction of all the relevant provisions of the Indian constitution leads us to the notion that all religions- are deserving of equal treatment because all of them are equally necessary for the moral well being of their adherents. The implication is that the State will also support institutions promoting minority religions. This conception of secularism is not something that the framers of the constitution slipped into unwittingly.

There is a general perception, often actively promoted by Western scholars, that secularism is a value that India acquired from its colonial past. Such a perception is based on the stereotypical Western view that India is really a land riven by differences of religion, caste and creed that needed this infusion of a Western idea of secularism to become a viable, cohesive nation-state. However, it completely ignores the long tradition of toleration of heterogeneous beliefs that has characterized the Indic civilization: The Sanskrit phrase, “sarva dharma sambhava” meaning “equal respect of all religions” summarizes this tradition of tolerance. It can be argued very plausibly that the roots of Indian secularism lie not in the Western tradition of the ‘separation of Church and State’ but in the indigenous understandings that do not banish religion from the domain of the state, morals and education. This is precisely the reason why the Indian constitution conceives of the State supporting minority religious institutions.

The political history of the 19th and 20th centuries is replete with examples of constitutions consisting of remarkably enlightened principles that never infused the life of the body politic. The test, therefore, is the actual behavior of the state. It can be argued that the Indian state during the last 50 years has lived up to the principle of secularism as indigenously understood and practiced. I suggest that the proposed study by examining the proportion of grants disbursed by the state to minority institutions in the field of health, education and social welfare will, in a very neat and concise way, test this hypothesis. I contend that a larger proportion of the grants made to religious institutions has gone to minority groups in these three important areas for creating social capital.

Furthermore, this research will demonstrate that despite differences of political ideology, the State has been remarkably consistent in its behavior regarding pro-active support for various faith-based organizations. The Indian federation at the center as well as in the states has had elected governments of widely differing political ideologies for over 50 years now. Even so-called right-wing religious nationalists have displayed equal respect for all religions. It appears that the secular credentials of the State are not contaminated by the political or religious affiliations of the party in power. This further dispels the notion, current in some academic circles, that the Indian brand of secularism is a Nehruvian construct. I believe that the Indian notion of secularism as stated earlier is a reflection of a deeper cultural value that has come down over centuries, and Nehru was merely a modern interpreter of this understanding.


Given the constraints of time, it will not be possible to collect the necessary information from all the state governments and the central government for the entire period of 50 years. For the purposes of the study, however, I believe that it will be enough to gather the information for three years – 1980-’81, 1990-’91 and 2000-’01 – for the central government and a few select states. It needs to be clarified that the disbursements by the central government do not include the grants disbursed by the states. Each is a separate and independent head of expenditure. For instance, a Christian school could be the recipient of a grant from both the central as well as the state government.

The states I propose to include in this study are Kerala and Tamil Nadu in the south, Maharashtra and Gujarat in the west, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh in the north and Orissa and West Bengal in east. The choice of these states is not only regionally representative but it also reflects the political diversity. The three years chosen are also significant in that they coincide with the census years when actual demographic data will be available, instead of projections. It will, therefore, be easier to correlate the government disbursements to the proportion of minority populations in the selected states and at the national level.

I intend to gather data regarding the disbursements of grants-in-aid to educational institutions, including institutions for special education, run by religious organizations. Apart from grants-in-aid to educational institutions, I would also gather data relating to budgetary subventions from the state governments to such institutions in the field of health and social welfare. In the field of social welfare, I propose to examine the grants relating to development of women, child development, welfare of the handicapped, and welfare of disadvantaged groups.

In addition, the transfer of permanent assets like land and buildings would also be taken into account. For instance, land is allotted to educational and charitable institutions at subsidized rates far below the market rates. Effectively, this is tantamount to a transfer of resources from the state to the beneficiary institution. To document such transfers, it will be necessary to collect data from the departments dealing with education, health, social welfare and land administration in the state governments. At the central government, I will have to obtain similar information from the ministries of education, health, and human resources.

Many of these documents, especially those that pertain to the earlier years, will have to be traced out from government records. In addition, many of the documents are likely to be in the local language and will, therefore, need to be translated before being analyzed. Given this, I will be traveling to the various state capitals and making use of local assistance in translating the necessary documents.

Proposed Analysis of the Data

I propose to classify the information gathered into the following categories:

a) Total disbursements by the government
b) Total disbursements of grants to religious organizations.
c) Total disbursements to minority religious organizations shown separately for each religion.

These disbursements will be further broken down as central and individual state grants, sector wise. The comparison will show whether such grants have increased or decreased over three decades. It will further illustrate whether minority religious groups are getting an increasing share of the grants given to religious organizations or whether their share has remained relatively constant or whether it has gone down. It needs to be emphasized here that the largest proportion of government grants go to non- denominational organizations. However, the focus of this study is to show how the largest proportion of grants going to religious organizations flows to minority religious groups. It could be argued that this is so because such minority groups are more socially pro-active and better organized when it comes to making use of all available resources. However, this would still not contradict the central point of the present study that is to demonstrate that the Indian state actively promotes minority religious groups in maintaining their particular religious and cultural identities.

The data will be collected at different locations in India during the period from April to August 2001. The effective number of days required to collect the data will be about 30 days. The information collected will be analyzed and the results written up by November 2001.