Staff Reporter

It acquired a greater sociological connotation in 20th century: Justice B.N. Srikrishna

It has roots in divinity but difficult to define

An ideal aspiration, a product as well as a process

NEW DELHI: “When you don the robe of a judge, you doff the robe of your religion,” said Justice B.N. Srikrishna, former Supreme Court judge and the head of the Srikrishna Commission of Enquiry into the 1992-93 Mumbai riots.

Delivering the second V.M. Tarkunde Memorial Lecture on “Secularism under the Indian Constitution” here on Sunday, Mr. Justice Srikrishna traced the origins of the concept of secularism and quoted extensively from renowned Indian religious texts and from the history of European Renaissance.

“Though the term ‘secularism’ is rooted in the doctrines of divinity it acquired a greater sociological connotation in the 20th century. Secularism is an ideology, more identifiable as a concept and rather difficult to define.”

The eminent judge said though there was no specific word or phrase for secularism in any Indian language, several people harboured the erroneous belief that dharma nirapekshata could be used interchangeably with it.

“This is conceptually incorrect because the word ‘dharma’ within the Indian context does not exclusively pertain to religion. It also encompasses within itself the notions of right, justice, morality, ethics and conscience,” he explained.

India’s tryst with secularism began when Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, a keen student of European history who was well aware of the consequences of the association between the State and religion, and Mahatma Gandhi gave direction and momentum to Indian political thinking. As far back as 1929, Nehru had propounded his philosophy of secularism in his presidential address to the Lahore Congress.

“Nehru’s idea of post-Independence secularism was to keep the State politics and education separate from religion and to make the practice of any religion a private matter for the individual,” he said.

According to him, the original Constitution adopted in 1949 made no mention in the Preamble to India being a secular State. The word “secular” was added by the 42nd Amendment which came into operation in 1976.


“To Indian thinking, secularism is not merely the broad pattern of management of the equation between politics and religion. It represents a true sense of synthesis of religion and compassion with a spirit of tolerance, universalism and freedom.”

Calling secularism “an ideal aspiration, a product as well as a process,” Mr. Justice Srikrishna concluded by lauding India’s feat of telescoping its cultural ideas and ideals into what was predominantly a Western concept.