What is secularism? Secularism as a modern political and constitutional principle involves two basic propositions. The first is that people belonging to different faiths and sections of society are equal before the law, the Constitution and government policy. The second requirement is that there can be no mixing up of religion and politics. It follows therefore that there can be no discrimination against anyone on the basis of religion or faith nor is there room for the hegemony of one religion or majoritarian religious sentiments and aspirations. It is in this double sense--no discrimination against anyone on grounds of faith and separation of religion from politics--that our Constitution safeguards secularism, however imperfectly.
These political principles imply also the acceptance of a somewhat more general principle: that the realm of validity of religion in the public arena and society is necessarily limited. Religion, being above all a matter of personal faith, cannot be used as the basis of settling questions of the real world, or of man in society. While individuals in society may base their values on particular religious tenets, where such questions impinge on society as a whole the basis of discussion and social consensus cannot be religion--much less one particular religion. This larger principle does not conflict with the historical fact that certain values in a society may have their foundation in religion; these values are re-examined in a rational and humane spirit before they are accepted as the values that govern the functioning of a modern society, and new values indeed are created which are necessary for modern times.
Despite the weaknesses of actual practice, elements of this understanding of secularism have been an essential part of the accepted political values of modern Indian society, leading, for instance, to the rejection of untouchability and sati, to the formal rejection of caste, and to the institution of affirmative action as a means of redressing socio-economic inequalities. It is this larger principle that is sought to be challenged today by Hindutva; defending it lies, I believe, at the heart of the struggle against fundamentalism and communalism.