The Oxford Dictionary defines secularism as “the belief that religion should not be involved in the organisation of society, education, etc.” In today’s time, secularism is the basic principle on which democratic institutions stand. Secularism is not anti-religion; rather, it provides an environment that allows every religion to co-exist and co-operate. However, the Indian idea of secularism differs from the western notions. Western secular beliefs are based on the principle that the state and religion are mutually exclusive. Neither the state nor religion interferes in the affairs of the other. Religion is not considered while forming the laws of the land. Similarly, the state can only be a silent spectator even if religious practices are unfair and against the principles of equality and freedom. For example, if a religious institution forbids a woman to be a priest or excommunicates its dissenters, the state cannot do anything. Although secularism looks like a copy of the western concept, it is very different from it in India. India recognised secularism as a part of the basic structure of the constitution in 1976 by the 42nd Amendment Act. Dr B.R. Ambedkar defined secularism as “A secular state does not mean that we shall not take into consideration the religious sentiments of the people, all that a secular State means is that this Parliament shall not be competent to impose any particular religion upon rest of the people”. Former PM Jawaharlal Nehru explained it as, “Equal protection by the State to all religions”. The Indian Constitution ensures no discrimination on the ground of religion and recognises religion as a fundamental right of the citizens. Articles 25-28 give people the freedom to practice, profess and propagate their religion, establish religious institutes; exempt them from taxes, and provide security to the religion and faith of citizens.
Many countries believe religion to be an integral part of the political system and protect them against blasphemy and apostasy. Countries, mostly those with an official religion, recognise blasphemy and apostasy as penal offences. According to a Pew Research Center study, 79 nations have laws that forbid insults to God, holy objects, or places of worship. Does secularism extend to the protection of religion along with the protection of an individual’s right to religion? Is it an unreasonable restriction on the expression of an individual’s opinion?
Blasphemy laws in India
India does not officially recognise blasphemy, yet some laws are applied to punish it. Section 295A makes it a punishable offence to deliberately hurt someone’s religious sentiments by any form of speech. Section 295 protects religious places of worship and objects from insults. Article 296 makes it an offence to willfully disturb religious assemblies. Other articles that recognise blasphemous acts are Article 297– trespassing on burial places and Article 298– uttering words to wound religious feelings deliberately. All these offences are punishable with imprisonment, fine or both and are recognised under a specific chapter “offences relating to religion”.
Laws regarding blasphemy in other secular nations
France, the United States of America, Australia, Sweden, and Germany are some of the countries that are constitutionally secular and are examples of cooperation and harmony between religious groups.
The French Constitution in 1905 recognised “la loi sur la séparation de l’Église et de l’État”, which is a complete separation of state from church and freedom to practice religion. France officially abolished the laws against blasphemy in 1881, but it was practically decriminalised after the 1789 revolution. The French Prime Minister and government have actively supported the decriminalisation of blasphemy and any comments made in that regard. The only remaining laws making it a crime were operational in the region of Alsace-Moselle, after which it was abolished in 2016.
The United States of America
The idea of secularism in the US is perceived as the western idea of secularism. The first amendment to the US Constitution in 1991 states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” The constitution provides freedom to follow any faith and creates a strict line between religion and state. Most of the states in the USA have abolished blasphemy laws in consonance with the First Amendment of the American Constitution, but some of them continue to have them, for example, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, and Michigan. It is recognised as an imprisonable offence in these states. However, the conviction rate is low.
Section 116 of the Federal Constitution was incorporated in 1901. It precludes the Commonwealth of Australia from making laws, inter alia, prohibiting the exercise of any religion. Blasphemy is a crime against the common law in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania, the Northern Territory, the ACT, and Norfolk Island. Only Queensland and Western Australia have abolished it. It is a crime only against the religion of Christianity and no other religion. However, there have been no recent prosecutions for this crime.
Sweden is one of the most secular nations in the world in terms of the number of actively religious people. The church of Sweden has been separated from the state since 2000 by the introduction of the Act on Faith Communities and the Special Church of Sweden Act. Just like in India, Swedish laws do not recognise blasphemy in its true form, but there exists a law on “agitation against a specific group of people” which protects minorities. It does not outrightly protect religion, it protects people following a particular faith from the domination of majority religious groups.
The practice of separation of state and church has long been followed in Germany. The constitution of Germany, grundgesetz, defines the relationship between an individual and religion and a state with religion. Article 4 obliges the state to respect the religious activities of its citizens and to secure their free development. Article 3 prohibits discrimination based on religion, and Article 33prohibits the state from mixing public affairs with religious affiliations. Section 166 relates to ‘insulting of faiths, religious societies, and organisations dedicated to a philosophy of life. It only recognises those insults which can disturb the public peace as an offence.
Some secular nations take a complete non-interference approach, like the USA and France, and some recognise it in one form or another. The primary objective of having laws against blasphemy is not to curtail freedom of speech but to prevent any enmity or violence among religious groups.
In a country like India, where religion is a sensitive matter and the diversity between and among religions is deep, the validity of laws against blasphemy for the protection of religion and using it as an “a stitch in time saves nine” tool against communal violence can be justified, but practically, it is difficult to ascertain whether a statement is made intentionally to defame another religion or whether it is just an opinion in the exercise of freedom of speech. What may hurt someone’s religious feelings may not be hurtful to some other person practising the same religion. This uncertainty in the application of the act may make it a tool to exercise oppression, hatred, and injustice instead of protecting religion. These laws should be made punishable with a fine instead of imprisonment. That would make it less prone to misuse for mistaken conduct. Secularism, as India perceives it, is equal protection for every religion by the state. The people must also cooperate and show tolerance for those of other religions. India’s Preamble envisages India to be a country of fraternity and brotherhood, and we must uphold that ideal.
Author(s) Name: Simran Kaur (Vivekananda Institute of Professional Studies, Delhi)
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Constitution of India, 1950, art.15
Constitution of India, 1950, art.25, art.26, art.27, and art.28
Virginia Villa, ‘Four-in-ten countries and territories worldwide had blasphemy laws in 2019’ (Pew Research Center, 25 January 2022) <https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2022/01/25/four-in-ten-countries-and-territories-worldwide-had-blasphemy-laws-in-2019-2/> accessed 22 June 2022
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Indian Penal Code, 1860, s 295
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