Phillipian Commentary: Why India Can Never Successfully Reach Secularism

According to the Preamble of India’s Constitution, the country is a “Sovereign Socialist Secular Democratic Republic” that, among many outlined rights, secures its citizens the right to worship freely and grants them “equality of status and opportunity.”1 While on paper India labels itself as secular, in practice today it is anything but, specifically in regards to the treatment of Muslims in the Hindu-majority nation. While anti-Muslim sentiment is not a new phenomenon in India, the re-election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the continued rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (B.J.P.), a Hindu-nationalist right-wing party that is currently the country’s largest political party, has normalized anti-Muslim sentiment in a truly repulsive sense.

The most significant measures targeting Muslims (who number around 200 million) include revoking the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir, the disputed Muslim-majority territory between India and Pakistan, detaining thousands of Muslim men in the region, and creating a citizenship registry in Assam that resulted in millions of stateless Muslims.2 The government has also dropped charges for those involved in bloody riots in states like Gujarat and permits lynchings of Muslims in possession of cows.[a]3,4 The most recent measure is the Citizenship Amendment Act (C.A.A.), which was passed on December 10, 2019—the law grants a pathway to citizenship to immigrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan given that they are either Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Parsi, Buddhist, or Christian. In short, the law excludes Muslims[b].5 Anti-Muslim action extends beyond C.A.A. The Rohingya of Myanmar, who are facing religious genocide by the Buddhist majority government, have fled to nearby countries such as Bangladesh and India, but the B.J.P. government has made sure to essentially erase any rights of these Muslim refugees, including “access to work, education, shelter, sanitation, healthcare, and basic human dignity,” according to Ashley Starr Kinseth of Al Jazeera News.[c]6

While all of this is occurring in the present day, the seeds of religious hatred have been planted in India’s society far before the current legislation we see today. In truth, Muslims and Hindus co-existed prior to British rule of the subcontinent, and after colonization, both shared strong anger towards the British. But after the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857, in which Hindus and Muslims united to fight against the British, the British enacted systematic changes to government structure in order to “divide and rule” the two groups. They succeeded.

The departure of the British in 1947 challenged leaders to devise a plan of how to structure and rule the entire subcontinent, now plagued by religious factioning. Mohandas Gandhi and the Indian National Congress supported the single nation theor[d]y, which envisioned a secular nation of India in which Hindus and Muslims could coexist as they had done for centuries before British rule.7 But Muhammad Ali Jinnah and the Muslim League proposed a different idea: a two nations theory that they believed would better solve, as Jinnah suggested earlier in the Lahore Resolution of 1940, the inherent impossibility of Hindus and Muslims living together[e].8 Eventually, the creation of Pakistan and India—otherwise known as Partition—occurred on August 15, 1947. Partition marked the largest mass migration of people in history with approximately 15 million migrants and over 2 million people dead.9 [f][g][h]While Pakistan was created as a nation for the Muslims of the subcontinent, India specifically structured itself as a secular state in the way that Gandhi envisioned for the entire subcontinent.

The aftermath of Partition, unfortunately, did not pan out well for either country. While Jinnah attempted to build Pakistan on a strong and modern foundation, he passed away just one year after Partition, leaving it in a fragile position from which it didn’t recover to reach the heights he envisioned.[i]10 In India, just months after Partition, Gandhi was assassinated in January of 1948 by Hindu-nationalist Nathuram Vinayak Godse who, like many others, believed that Gandhi was too forgiving and sympathetic of Muslim[j]s.11 Right from the start of India’s modern history, Muslim-Hindu tensions, ingrained through British rule, were an ever-present impediment to achieving its founding ideal. This set a precedent for other leaders to be weeded out by opposition, violence, and even death from extremists. Colloquially in Hindi, India is referred to as “Hindustan,” which is ironic given that it means “land of the Hindus” to refer to a secular state.

No matter a single nation or two nations, it seems that colonization doomed the region either way. Even when the single nation theory supported by Gandhi failed, leaders of the newly made India did not successfully achieve secularism. This failure occurred, and continues to occur, because of the rising Hindu-fervor unleashed during colonial times. And with the sudden deaths of both Gandhi and Jinnah, the ties between India and Pakistan weakened significantly. This erasure of Indo-Pakistani (and by extension Hindu-Muslim) ties further contributed to the faction between Hindus and Muslims and perpetuated anti-Muslim rhetoric and actions within India. It is fair to say that given the history and deep ramifications of British colonialism that pervades Indian society and government today, India may be unable to ever reach secularism.

British colonialism in no way excuses the persecution of Muslims in India, but it explains how deep the seeds of hatred have been sown. We can only hope that the Indians who are striving to hold true to the secular dream of their founders are able to somehow quell this seemingly unstoppable wave of Hindu nationalism. Although it is difficult to try to change such ingrained and pervasive rhetoric throughout the country, it is essential to elect leaders and pass legislation that will deliver on the country’s founding ideal of secularism in order to be safe and just for all.[k][l][m]



1. Constitution of India ; 2. Filkins, Dexter. “Blood and Soil in Narendra Modi’s India,” The New Yorker. ; 3. Filkins, Dexter. “Blood and Soil in Narendra Modi’s India,” The New Yorker. ; 4. Ashraf, Azar. “India’s Muslims and the Price of Partition,” The New York Times. ; 5. Regan, Helen, et al. “India passes controversial citizenship bill that excludes Muslims,” CNN. ; 6. Kinseth, Ashley S. “India’s Rohingya shame,” aljazeera. ; 7. Filkins, Dexter. “Blood and Soil in Narendra Modi’s India,” The New Yorker. ; 8. ; 9. Filkins, Dexter. “Blood and Soil in Narendra Modi’s India,” The New Yorker. ; 10. Nasir, Abbas. “How Pakistan Abandoned Jinnah’s Ideals,” The New York Times. ; 11.








[h]i cut it down so it should be easier to read



[k]maybe put a call to action in that india must change its policy and social attitudes toward muslims in order to reach secularism

[l]great article! thank you for writing this needed to be said

[m]hopefully the ending is what you were thinking of… lmk either way

thanks for the edits !