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Secularism in the Indian Context


Deepa Das Acevedo, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago, can be reached at Research for this article was partially supported by an International Dissertation Research Fellowship from the Social Science Research Council (2010–2011). For their many valuable insights and criticisms, the author is grateful to John L. Comaroff and John F. Acevedo, as well as to Bruce Barron and the anonymous reviewers at Law & Social Inquiry.


Indian constitutional framers sought to tie their new state to ideas of modernity and liberalism by creating a government that would ensure citizens' rights while also creating the conditions for democratic citizenship. Balancing these two goals has been particularly challenging with regard to religion, as exemplified by the emergence of a peculiarly Indian understanding of secularism which requires the nonestablishment of religion but not the separation of religion and state. Supporters argue that this brand of secularism is best suited to the particular social and historical circumstances of independent India. This article suggests that the desire to separate religion and state is integral to any understanding of secularism and that, consequently, the Indian state neither is nor was meant to be secular. However, Indian secularists correctly identify the Indian state's distinctive approach to religion-state relations as appropriate to the Indian context and in keeping with India's constitutional goals.