Secularism is a basic feature of the Constitution, with the two attendant rights. The polity assured to the people of India by the Constitution is described in the Preamble wherein the word “secular” was added by the 42nd Amendment. It highlights the fundamental rights guaranteed in Articles 25 to 28 that the State shall have no religion of its own and all persons shall be equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion of their own choice, in brief, this is the concept of secularism as a basic feature of the Constitution of India and the way of life adopted by the people of India as their abiding faith and creed.

Secularism- the need of India

M.C. Setalvad in Patel Memorial Lectures – 1985, on Secularism, referring to the Indian concept of secularism, stated thus:

…The coming of the partition emphasised the great importance of secularism, Notwithstanding the partition, a large Muslim minority, constituting a tenth of the population, continued to be the citizens of independent India. There were also other important minority groups of citizens. In the ‘circumstances, a secular Constitution for independent India, under which all religions’ could enjoy equal freedom and all citizen’s ‘equal rights, and which could weld together into one nation the different religious communities, became inevitable.

…The ideal, therefore, of a secular State in the sense of a State which treats all religions alike and displays a benevolent neutrality towards them is in a way more suited to the Indian environment and climate than that of a truly secular State.

…Secularism, in the Indian context, must be given the widest possible content. It should connote the eradication of all attitudes and practices derived from or connected with religion which impede our development and retard our growth into an integrated nation. A concerted and earnest endeavour, both by the State and citizen, towards secularisation in accordance with this wide concept alone lead to the stabilisation of our democratic state and the establishment of a true and cohesive Indian nationhood.

An approach of tolerance and understanding

A reference to the Address of the President of India, Dr. Shanker Dayal Sharma, as the then Vice-President of India, on “Secularism in the Indian Ethos” while, delivering Dr. Zakir Hussain Memorial Lecture of Vishva-Bharati, Shantiniketan, on 29th April, 1989 is useful. Therein, he referred to the difference between our understanding of the word “secular” and that in the West or its dictionary meaning, and said:

We in India, however, understand secularism to denote ‘Sarva Dharma Samabhaav’ an approach of tolerance and understanding of the equality of all religions.

Proceeding further, referring to the impact of other religions on the Indian ethos, he said:

Two aspects in this regard are noteworthy. First, the initial appearance of Christianity or Islam or Zoroastrianism in India and their establishment on the mainland did not occur as a result of military conquest or threat of conquest. These religions were given a place by virtue of the attitude of accommodation and co-existence displayed by local authorities – including the main religious authorities.

The second aspect is even more important: Christianity, Islam and Zoroastrianism brought with them spiritual and humanistic thought harmonious and, in fact, identical to the core ideas of the established religious thought in India as exemplified by the basic beliefs of Vedic, Vedantic, Buddhist and Jain philosophy.

The influence of saints and holy persons was indicated thus:

…There was natural interest, therefore, in Islam as a revealed religion brought-forth by a Prophet of profound charisma who had faced adversities, and in Christianity, which spread the light of Jesus Christ who had suffered a terrible crucification for humanity’s sake.

The Quran moreover referred to great souls such as Abraham, Issac, Ishmael, Jacob, Moses mentioned in the Old Testament of the Christian faith, and Jasus, A1-Fatiha or Fatiha Tu Alfatha which is also referred to as Ummul Quran or the essence of the Quran refers to ‘Allah’ as Rab-ul-Alamin or Lord of the entire universe, it does not confine him to Muslims alone. The Second Surah in the Quran, titled “Al-Baqurah” gives a warning, which is repeated throughout the Quran, that it is not mere professing of one’s creed, but righteous conduct, that is true religion. Verses 44, 81 and 82 from this Surah make this absolutely clear.

Dr. Sharma also adverted to the contribution made to growth of secularism by Akbar who founded “Din-e-illahi” and the support he was given by Abdul Rahim Khane Khana in addition to the secularism of Dara Shikoh. Impact of Muslim mysticism on Hinduism and contribution of Kabir to the Indian ethos has been lasting. Secular ideals led to formation of the Sikh faith and the Gurus have made a lasting contribution to it.

S.R. Bommai v. Union of India

In S.R. Bommai v. Union of India, a Nine-Judge Bench referred to the concept of “secularism” in the Indian context. Sawant, J. dealt with this aspect and after referring to the Setalvad Lecture, stated thus:

As stated above, religious tolerance and equal treatment of all religious groups and protection of their life and property and of the places of their worship are an essential part of secularism enshrined in our Constitution. We have accepted the said goal not only because it is our historical legacy and a need of our national unity and integrity but also as a creed of universal brotherhood and humanism. It is our cardinal faith. Any profession and action which go counter to the aforesaid creed are a prima facie proof of the conduct in defiance of the provisions of our Constitution… (at pages 147-48) (of SCC) : (at p. 3064 of AIR)

Similarly, K. Ramaswamy, J. in the same decision stated:

…Though the concept of “secularism” was not expressly engrafted while making the Constitution, its sweep, operation and visibility are apparent from fundamental rights and directive principles and their related provisions. It was made explicit by amending the preamble of the Constitution 42nd Amendment Act.

The concept of secularism of which religious freedom is the foremost appears to visualise not only of the subject of God but also an understanding between man and man. Secularism in the Constitution is not anti-God and it is sometimes believed to be a stay in a free society, Matters which are purely religious are left personal to the individual and the secular part is taken charge by the State on grounds of public interest, order and general welfare.

The State guarantee individual and corporate religious freedom and dealt with an individual as citizen irrespective of his faith and religious belief and does not promote any particular religion nor prefers one against another. The concept of the secular State is, therefore, essential for successful working of the democratic form of Government. There can be no democracy if anti-secular forces are allowed to work dividing followers of different religious faith flying at each other’s throats.

The secular Government should negate the attempt and bring order in the society. Religion in the positive sense, is an active instrument to allow the citizen full development of his person, not merely in the physical and material but in the non-material and non-secular life.” (at page 163) (of SCC) : (at p. 3080 of AIR).

“…it would thus be clear that Constitution made demarcation between religious part personal to the individual and secular part thereof. The State does not extend patronage to any particular religion, State is neither pro particular religion nor anti particular religion, it stands aloof, in other words maintains neutrality in matters of religion and provides equal protection to all religions subject to regulation and actively acts on secular part.” (at page 168) (of SCC) : (at p. 3085 of AIR).

B. P. Jeevan Reddy, J. in the same context in the decision stated thus:

…While the citizens of this country are free to profess, practice and propagate such religion, faith or belief as they choose, so far as the State is concerned, i.e., from the point of view of the State, the religion, faith or belief of a person is immaterial. To it, all are equal and all are entitled to be treated equally.

At page 233 (of SCC) : at p. 3152 of AIR Ahmadi, J. while expressing agreement with the views of Sawant, Ramaswamy and Jeevan Reddy, JJ. stated thus:

Notwithstanding the fact that the words ‘Socialist’ and ‘Secular’ were added in the Preamble of the Constitution in 1976 by the 42nd Amendment, the concept of secularism was very much embedded in our constitutional philosophy. The term ‘Secular’ has advisedly not been defined presumably because it is a very elastic term not capable of a precise definition and perhaps best left undefined. By this amendment what was implicit was made explicit…(at page 77) (of SCC): (at p. 2992 of AIR).

It is clear from the constitutional scheme that it guarantees equality in the matter of religion to all individuals and groups irrespective of their faith emphasising that there is no religion of the State itself. The Preamble of the Constitution read in particular with Articles 25 to 28 emphasises this aspect and indicates that it is in this manner the concept of secularism embodied in the constitutional scheme as a creed adopted by the Indian people has to be understood while examining the constitutional validity of any legislation on the touchstone of the Constitution. The concept of secularism is one facet of the right to equality woven as the central golden thread in the fabric depicting the pattern of the scheme in our Constitution.


Dr. M. Ismail Faruqui Etc, Mohd. … vs Union Of India: AIR 1995 SC 605 A