THE GIST of Editorial for UPSC Exams : 19 February 2020 (The significance of the term ‘secular’ (The Hindu))

The significance of the term ‘secular’ (The Hindu)

Mains Paper 1: Society
Prelims level: Not much
Mains level: Evolution of the concept secularism


  • What value is added by the term ‘secular’ to liberal democracies, i.e. states that safeguard liberties of individuals and political freedoms of citizens?
  • For some scholars, virtually nothing. Why? Because, while secularism is against discrimination only on the basis of religion, a ‘liberal democracy’ is against all forms of discrimination. The term ‘liberal democracy’ subsumes ‘secularism’.
  • This is a fashionable view in Europe. Even some Indian scholars argue for the sufficiency of Articles 14-16 and 19 of the Constitution.

Discrimination and recognition:

  • The word ‘secular’ is important for those who claim the sufficiency of ‘liberal democracy’ must think again.
  • True, their claim has had some validity in Europe, but it is losing relevance there too. But in places like India, it is a virtual non-starter.
  • Why? Let us first get a handle on Europe’s specificity.
  • Secular states did not emerge in Western Europe in the immediate aftermath of the religious wars.
  • These wars were stopped by the establishment not of a secular but a confessional state in which people were forced to embrace the religion of the king.
  • Those who did not comply faced death or expulsion. Every European society from then on became religiously homogenous — England became Anglican; Scandinavia, Lutheran; France, Catholic.
  • Over time some dissenting groups were tolerated, but not without paying a price for their dissent.


  • When the general ethos in Western Europe witnessed the further decline of Christianity, the term ‘secular’ found itself linked to a humanist world view for which religion, whatever its private benefits, was potentially a public problem.
  • While becoming increasingly less salient, it was etched in the bitter collective memory of these societies as the source of discord from which they had mercifully escaped.
  • A religion, already on the defensive, faced greater devaluation and marginalisation. No one wanted religion-grounded recognition.
  • With this, the idea of separation of state and religion lost its normative value further.
  • These liberal states, where religion was no longer significant, granted formal equality to all citizens and called themselves liberal democratic.

Why use a specific term?

  • The point can be made differently. Why lump together all forms of discrimination and oppression under the same general term?
  • If the term ‘secular’ focuses on one specific kind of domination, why not to use it? Isn’t de-cluttering our world and helping us focus on particular features an important function of all concepts?
  • Why not call a flower ‘red’ when you have a distinguishing word for it? What point would be served by simply calling it coloured?
  • To be sure, in some contexts, this might be sufficient. For example, if our purpose is to differentiate it from all white flowers the use of the term ‘coloured’ is adequate but not if one coloured flower is to be distinguished from another.
  • Likewise, ‘secular’ helps focus on institutionalised religious domination, to demarcate it from other kinds of domination based on class, gender, ethnicity, etc. ‘Secularism’ implores us to resist it.

Way forward:

  • Here we cannot follow European habits but must embrace both liberal democracy and a form of secularism that fights religion-based misrecognition.
  • Indeed, even Europe is changing. After the migration of workers from former colonies, Europe’s new religious diversity has brought religion-based recognition to the fore.
  • Therefore, in Europe too demands for an impartial secular state (in the Indian sense) will become louder.

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Prelims Questions:

Q.1) With reference to the rainfall in India, consider the following statements:
1. Rainfall is excess when it is 20-59% higher than normal for the period, and large excess when it is over 60% higher than normal.
2. Mizoram recorded the highest departure, at 296% above normal between December 2019 and January 2020.

Which of the statements given above are correct?
(a) 1 only
(b) 2 only
(c) Both 1 and 2
(d) None of the above

Ans: C
Mains Questions:
Q.1) Describe the significance of the word secularism. Do you think it has only enables to focus on religion-based discrimination and misrecognition? Comment.