Photo by Massimiliano Clausi, courtesy SAJA

Secularism implies the relationship between Religion and Politics, more specifically between Religion and the State.

The concept of secularism has drawn its sources from the philosophy that Humans can order their lives and their societies without recourse to transcendant or supra natural powers, and hence they could also organize and manage the State and its government , without direct connections with the religious establishment. Thus evolved the concept of Secularism and the separation of the Sate from Religion, taking root in Europe and spreading its message across the globe.

In South Asia, the concept was popularized in the 20th century, mainly during the anti-colonial struggles and the consequent formation of new, independent States in the 2nd half of the century.

Until this period, in South Asia, as in the West and other parts of Asia, the State and Religion were closely intertwined. Religion played an important role in legitimizing the State and rulers, the degree of its significance, varying in accordance with different historical contexts.

Institutions, practices, myths were created to effectively weave Religion with the persona of the monarch or ruler and the State.

The relationship between the State and Religion has been mutually supportive, even beneficial. The State employed Religion to legitimize itself and to entrench rulers and their dynasties in power. The Religious establishment in turn, secured for themselves many advantages, such as material endowments, patronage, increased authority over affairs of government and State, from this relationship.

The Western notion of Secularism deeply influenced political leaders from many parts of the world especially South Asian leaders educated in Europe.

I must emphasize at this point, that five out of eight South Asian States, and a substantial portion of the sixth were part of ancient India, then called Bharat ,comprising numerous states and principalities governed by kings, satraps and princes. Bharat was never unified under a single ruler until the British unified the disparate States of India. Only the two island nations – Sri Lanka and the Maldives were independent and separate nations.

In ancient India, the State and Religion were intrinsically allied. The Hindu Religion and briefly Buddhism, were patronized and appropriated by the States, to legitimize the existing order of things and underpin its hierarchical, stratified structure.

The leaders of India’s independence movement realized full well that it was essential to weld together the myriad groups of Indians divided by caste, ethnicity and religion, as well as allegiance to different rulers, into one Nation in which everyone enjoyed equal rights and privileges and the right to free expression of individual and collective identities of each community. Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Jawaharlal Nehru were the principal advocates of the secular ideology.

Their task was not an easy one, as for several millennia, India was not governed under the authority of a centralized State. Northern India adopted the concept of a Federal State. The Motilal Nehru Committee Report – 1928 recommended this solution.

Gandhi and Nehru realized that religious, caste, ethnic communalism posed a grave threat to the creation of their vision of transforming the complex, division ridden ancient / colonial Bharat to a modern, dynamic State. “Religion is alright when applied to ethics and morals, but it is not good mixed up with politics”, Nehru once said. He therefore advocated “a national State which includes people of all religions and shades of opinion and is essentially secular as a State”. He objected to a society that has “religious sanction and authority”, favouring a State that “protects all religions, but does not favour one at the expense of others and does not adopt any religion as the State Religion”.

Gandhi felt that “a political association based exclusively on adherence to a particular religion was worse than undemocratic”. Thus, the vision of the two great leaders of independent India resulted in a Federal Secular Constitution and the creation of the Republic of India.

The Constitution guaranteed :

  • Freedom of Conscience,
  • Freedom to practice and promote any religion
  • That religious instruction shall not be provided in State educational institutions, but there is freedom to do so in private or semi private schools. Students are accorded the option of choosing to receive religious instruction, without being compelled to do so. In addition to guarantees given to all religions, the Indian Constitution guarantees equality to citizens of all other communities – ethnic and tribal, caste and so on.

Despite various political disturbances, the continuing political stability of modern India for over 60 years owes a great deal to the Federal and Secular nature of its State. She continues to function as a modern democracy, in the face of many challenges and no doubt shortcomings, due to the strength of its Unity in diversity obtained from the effective operation of federalism and its inclusivity flowing from Secularism as well as federalism.

However, during the past few decades, the Secular State has been assailed by the rise of the Hindutva ideology, whose core belief is that the Hindu religion represents the Indian national identity. This implies intrinsically that all “others” are inferior and should subjugate themselves to the authority of the superior majority.

The political party that has embraced this ideology – the BJP, has drawn considerable political benefits from their anti secular stance. As always, religion has been co-opted by politics, in order to provide an advantage to a political group, at the expense of the national interest. In India – this led to widespread communal violence. The destruction of the Babri Masjid Mosque in Ayodhya and killings of Muslims in Bhagalpur in 1989 and Gujarat in 2002 mark the apogee of communal violence in recent times.

Although the Congress Party – the Party of Gandhi and Nehru, has been at the helm of government for many years now, decisive action has not yet been taken against the perpetrators of communal violence in the incidents I speak of, nor in so many others. Commissions were appointed, investigations done, reports obtained, but their recommendations have not implemented.

The sectarian, extremist ideology of Hindutva seems to have penetrated sufficiently deep into the social and emotive fabric of the Indian polity to deter the non-extremist majority and their governments from undertaking positive action and programmes to prevent extremist violence and to strengthen inclusivity and thereby the stability of the Nation.

This trend could prove dangerous, in every way, for the socio-political stability and continued economic growth of India.

I need hardly, emphasize, the crucial importance of unity between all the diverse communities living in this enormous country, covering the expanse of a sub-continent. Such unity, could only be achieved within a State that abides – by law and in practice, by the rules of a Secular State.

The Indian State that was erected by weaving together a large number of Nations of diverse ethnic, linguistic, religious communities, which comprised Ancient India, faces a grave threat to its survival, if the assault on the foundations of its integrity are not met effectively and with conviction.


In this context, a study of the present situation in Pakistan demonstrates that defining a State within the boundaries of a single ethnic, religious or ethno-religious entity can prove to be hugely limiting. The philosophy of excluding the “other”, even at times ,with the use of violence, has become the accepted norm. Governance has been rendered difficult and anarchy reigns.

The Constitution of Pakistan created a Religious State from its inception, except for a brief period, when General Ayub Khan’s government removed the word “Islamic” from the country’s title and sought to liberalize the politico-legal systems. Pakistan has established Islam as a State Religion.

The government of President Zia ul Haque brought amendments to the Constitution to entrench the concept of Islamization. The controversial Hudood Ordinance and Shariat Court legalized various types of discrimination of non-Muslim women and anyone holding views that appear or are interpreted as being contrary to Islam. Even the electoral system was given a bizarre twist – where non-Muslims did not have the right to vote for a Muslim and had to vote for a non-Muslim ! Some have called this “political apartheid”. Although these laws were partially abolished in 1999, the intention of excluding non-Muslims from the body politic has effectively taken root.

The Islamization process has transformed the education system to accord primacy to religious education. The Madraasa schools impart mainly Religious Knowledge and an absolute commitment to Islam . The degree of the loyalty demanded, depends on the personal ideology of the teacher – the Imam, who at times, demands the physical destruction of the other – the non – believer, or even oneself, justified in the name of Islam.

Is it then surprising that a large number of suicide killers have studied at these institutions ?

We now witness a flourishing of Madraasas in other South Asian countries – a potential problem not yet addressed by relevant governments.


Bangladesh gave itself a secular Constitution at its inception. But this was amended, transforming Bangladesh into a Religious State in the 1980’s, bringing Islamization of State and Society. One year ago, the Constitution reversed this situation, paving the way for a secular State. The government is due to take action to implement this.

The independence struggle for the creation of Bangladesh was based on language and to some extent ethnicity rather than Religion, as the conflict occurred between two Muslim groups – Bengali and Pakistan! This could explain the absence of strong religious rhetoric in the process of State formation in Bangladesh. It is of interest to note that Bangladesh has experienced little ethnic / religious conflict, of the sort pertaining in Pakistan , and has built a more stable political super structure.

Adoption of a secular State appears to have spared Bangladesh, the travails undergone by Pakistan.


Nepal too has charted a new course in its turbulent history, abolishing a 250 year old monarchy and declaring Nepal a “secular, federal, democratic Republic”, in May 2010.

It is hoped that power sharing arrangements within federal State, together with equal rights and freedoms for all communities, will lay the foundation for stability, peace and growth in this Nation wracked by conflict, violence, extreme poverty and continuing political instability and mal-governance.

Sri Lanka

From ancient times, for 25 Centuries and more, Lanka has traversed a fairly different path during its State formation. We witness the formal adoption of the Buddhist Religion by the State from around the 2nd Century B.C.

The ideology of the State was centred around a Sinhala – Buddhist identity, where being Buddhist was intrinsically linked with being Sinhala. Ethnicity and Religion formed an integral part of the National identity, with the monarch / ruler considered the protector of Buddhism. The Buddhist establishment reciprocated by creating institutions, practices, myths to weave in religion closely with the monarch and thereby the State. The State and its rulers were consistently legitimised by religion, while the formal adoption of religion and its institutions by the State encouraged the people to adopt and accept the discipline and edicts of the religion and as a consequence the ruler, sanctioned by the religious establishment.

The tendency towards entrenching a Religious State in Lanka was probably established and then enhanced due to the challenges posed by the constant and numerous invasions by South Indian Kingdoms – 52 in about 14 Centuries. (2nd Century B.C. to 14 Century A.D.)
Religion was employed to strengthen the ethnic national identity, as against the invader – the “enemy”, who happened to belong to “other” ethnic and Religious communities.

The Sinhala Buddhist State of Lanka continued until the advent of colonial rule in the 16th Century. Thereafter this identity disintegrated and lost its position of prestige and its dominance in the political and economic spheres,while the religion of the colonial rulers received pride of place from early 16th Century to mid 20th Century for 4½ centuries.

During the independence struggle and after independence, movements for the reassertion of the Sinhala Buddhist identity were born.
These were all essentially exclusivist, marginalizing the groups that did not belong to the dominant, majority of Sinhala Buddhists.

Although the Constitution is Secular, giving guarantees to minorities and does not contain clauses discriminating against other ethnic or religious communities, the practice of most governments has been calculated to exclude and marginalize “the other” in various ways – mainly in the fields of education employment and by the use of the official language.
This has resulted in fomenting frustration and anger among minority groups, leading to violence and the use of terrorism.

Governments have employed extremist Sinhala Buddhist discourse, from time to time – in the 50’s to reestablish national identity after many centuries of colonial subjugation. It was thought that the assertion of the Sinhala Buddhist identity would strengthen the new State, rather than building a Nation in which the unity of all communities was forged through power sharing, by means of giving equal rights to all in the political,social nd economic spheres and ensuring their effective implementation.

In the past few years,the end of the civil war and the victory of the State over the separatists has been immersed in Sinhala Buddhist discourse. Anti terrorist emotions have been successfully linked with anti-Tamil and now anti-foreigner and anti-everybody else concept, by means of a massive State-led publicity campaign. The Sinhala Buddhist identity is projected as supreme and the exclusively legitimate one comprising the right to dominance over the State and body politic of Lanka. The present leaders seem to dig deep into the Sinhala Buddhist psyche, searching out the fears and concerns of the populace of a small, weak country to turn them against various types of “enemies”.

At the moment of Independence, Sri Lanka experienced much less internecine conflicts than India, for instance. We were also economically stronger, experiencing much less poverty.

It is then pertinent to consider how India comprised of ethnic groups, speaking languages, practicing religions, with a population which is 60 times bigger than Lanka, has successfully erected a modern democratic State, that is progressing firmly towards economic prosperity and reducing its massive numbers of poor, without being devastated by serious conflicts. India, no doubt, has and still does experience numerous ethnic and religious conflicts. But they have all been managed temporarily or resolved, without seriously impairing the country’s political and economic stability.

Why has Sri Lanka, though much smaller and with less potential cause for conflict experienced 25 years of one of the most bloody and destructive conflicts the world has seen in the last century?

I daresay that the establishment of a secular and federal State may be the magic potion that has made the difference between the two countries.

Efforts by a few governments and leaders to build a united, federal and secular State has been thwarted, by opposition from extremist groups or the interplay of political strategies employed to gain narrow advantage for one political group over another.

At this point, I would like to describe my personal experience as Head of State. I was personally committed to the concept that Federalism and inclusivity were the solutions to Sri Lanka’s minorities’ question. I had also ascertained that the majority of adherents to the exclusivist Sinhala Buddhist concept of the State belong to a small minority of the elite ruling class- politicians and clergy closely linked to them, professionals and business men. The masses, in their vast majority were not committed to extremist political views of any type.

Hence we adopted a strategy of honest, public discourse to inform the people that the only viable solution was to choose the part of dialogue, negotiations and peace achieved by means of a federal constitution and by building a cohesive nation and an inclusivist State. We won 3 major elections within 18 months, with an increased majority vote at each one.

A Gallup poll we conducted at the time my government came to power in 1994 showed that only 23 per cent of the Sinhala people opted for a negotiated settlement of the conflict. We undertook programs to take the message of peace to the entire country. We held seminars, workshops, street theaters, and we used the media widely. At the end of 2 years another survey showed that the number of people opting not only for peace, but this time also for devolution of power had increased to 68 per cent.

The vision and actions of leaders of government have been instrumental in defining the choices made by the Sri Lankan people. The present government has determinedly followed a policy of Sinhala Buddhist exclusivism, making no difference between Tamil civilians and the terrorists LTTE. This particular vision of the ethnic conflict has given the government the space to justify the horrendous violations of HR during the conduct of the war and the subsequent refusal to offer an acceptable and durable solution to the Tamil question. The Sinhala Buddhist ideology is extensively employed today to justify and support the use of religion and the Buddhist clergy to continue the policy of exclusivism practiced by the Government.

The State that believes it could seek legitimacy by incorporating Religion into the State structures, does not realize that the very legitimacy it seeks may be destroyed by the frustrations and anger caused among those excluded from the privilege of belonging to the State religion. The authority of such a State is placed in jeopardy by the very existence of a religious State.

I would maintain that secularism, as well as pluralism are essential prerequisites for stability and peace in multi –ethnic, multi-linguistic, multi-religious and multi-cultural States. They form the cement that binds together peoples of diverse communities as equal citizens of one Nation, living in unity within diversity. The appreciation of the richness of diversity, rather than the refusal of difference in the “other”, is the foundation on which is constructed the federal state and a pluralist society.

The root causes of most conflicts in South Asia have proved to be poverty and exclusion. We do not know of solutions other than those we find in Federalism, Pluralism and Inclusive development to forge a socially cohesive, stable and prosperous State.


The author was the 5th President of Sri Lanka serving from November, 1994 to November, 2005. In light of the recent unrest in Dambulla, she sent this to Groundviews having first delivered it as a speech at the Master of Public Affairs Graduation Day at Sciences Po Paris, France.

  • niran anketell

    There is an interesting convergence of the “secularism” and “federalism” positions between the ideals posited by the former President and the TNA. See the TNA statement on the Dambulla incident:

    “We therefore call on all citizens to condemn all acts of violence, threats of violence and acts of religious intolerance directed against minority peoples. We must not allow incidents of this nature to weaken our commitment to the goal of a tolerant and secular Sri Lanka where all Peoples are treated with dignity and respect.”

    By invoking the ideas of ‘secularism’ and ‘Peoples’ [implying the plurinational composition of the island’s polity] the TNA’s positions appear to coalesce with that of the former President. I wonder if the conceptual common ground may ever manifest in something tangible and politically concrete. The former President has much distance to travel to convince Tamils that she is genuine, but this article is no mean first step.

  • Anton Padmasiri

    Mrs President while attractively portrtaying the role of religion in south Asian societies and constitutions, rather conveniently hurdles over her father’s shameless exploitation of this weakness in 1956. In his political life when he could have stood up for his Anglican faith and upbringing thus sending a message of inclusiveness to the newly independent Sri Lanka that whatever your hue you belong to you will have a fair crack if you work hard, he decided to take the easier path of driving a wedge into the slight crack that had appeared then.

    It is also bordering ridiculous to even try to defend mrs president’s record by saying that you held workshops to foster unity. She was the head of state, not some aid organisation volunteer. She could’ve set the agenda. She could’ve been prominent about the importance of tolerance and unity in all those rallies he attended and addressed. No she played to the gallery. Instead of enshrining the right of all human beings to walk the Sri lankan roads without fear of being rounded up and locked up she approved the indefinite application of the emergency law.

    There needs to be a strict separation of the church and state. In the 21st century Sri Lanka is a multi ethnic and multi religious state. There must be no special treatment to any of the religions. There must definitely be no state funding or sponsoring of one or more religions. It’s acceptable to treat religious institution as charities and assist them through the tax codes but no constitutional protection must be afforded to any one single religion.

    I regret to say that just because she contributes to a left leaning liberal blog, it doesn’t exonerate the mrs president from the disasterous 11 years she presided over. But I suppose there are more charitable souls than me who are looking at what’s going on now and willing to be kind to you when history is written.

  • anbu

    It is interesting to note that Maldives has official religion- Islam
    State religion in Bhutan is Budhism

    • Anbu,
      Those countries are 99% one religion, so no multi-cultural, but mono-cultural, except where profits (money, technology,etc) are concerned; tourism, education, health…
      This is why they managed to destroy the last of the handful of Buddist (& Hindu) artifacts in the Maldivian national museum.

      Take a look at our country & politics, multi-barrell uses saying got no foreign help, etc…

      The same can be applied to us as far as plundering, half naked, native genocide, etc…
      Though we may like to hype foreigners as being naked, difficult when their climate is cold…

  • luxmy

    ‘’ Chandra R. de Silva implies that Buddhist monastic opposition to a non-unitary state has contributed to the conflict. He appreciates the reasons for this, but pleads for a system of monastic education that would expose monks to other religions and cultures. …. one of the most complex and intractable conflicts in the world’’, Dr Elizabeth Harris(Liverpool Hope University), Review(2007) of Buddhism, Conflict and Violence in Modern Sri Lanka(2006)

  • yapa

    One of the best ways for west to attack their competitors is advocating for secular states in those countries. For most of the western countries, religion had been a headache, due to the power struggle between the state and the church. After the state won the battle it is natural to get rid from its potential competitor, it is natural for west governments to detest religion spread by the church. The move in the western political ideology to keep away the religion from the government is that.

    But for other countries, the religions have become a strength to their governments. There was no resistance between Islam religion and their governments. There was no views differences in Hindu religion and their governance of their society. MahaBharatha, shows this mutually benefited relationship between the religion and the rulers. In Sinhala society, the society and the governance were not two but was one blend. For the sustenance and well being of these societies religions still play a great role. The case in these countries are entirely different from west. We are a different lot.

    Thus for anybody who is interested in the devastation of these societies, one of the best target is the religion. They would do everything to make these societies secular.

    Secular society is not a priority for Hindu, Muslim or Buddhist countries. It is not our ideal.

    Sauce for gander may suit the goose, but not for pigeons.


    • kadphises

      But isnt it a problem when Sharia Law is imposed on non Moslem subjects in a Moslem country?

      Isnt it also a problem when a government demarcates a city as “sacred” and the resident buddhist priest takes that as a green light to acquire land and property belonging to adherents of another faiths?

      The problem is how do we make the state appear Budhist to Buddhists, Islamic to Moslems, Hindu to Hindus?

      The role of the state should be limited to maintaining public infrastructure, provide health, education services, making sure the vulnerable are looked after and keeping the borders secure.

      Why cant the people themselves take over the function of looking after places of worship and welfare of priests? (with the exception of archaelogical relics which should be maintained by state adhering to accepted norms of restoration – we dont need any more Mirisavetiyas)

      • yapa

        Dear kadphises;

        Really I am not advocating for religions to involve in governments. My opposition is to the “universal truths” prescribe to us from the west through our agents. Against the political ideological diarrhea forced upon us as “the universal baselines” to measure and monitor each and every movement of ours to give step by step instructions in sympathy for our survival. Those advocates seem to think that if their donation of political ideologies are not donated to us we would starve to death. What they don’t realize is that this country has been prevailing as a highly cultured country without their “universal political ideologies” for over 2500 years, beginning from a period where most of those so called experts were just naked hunter gatherers. They would have be still so, if they were not savage enough to rob other countries, massacring millions of people. The thriving of west came with the plundered resources, not powered with their political ideologies. All those universal theories were developed on the leisure provided to them with their plundered resources, they are not the cause of the Economic Bubble of the west. If it is due to the success of their ideologies why the west is declining today, with all those super booper theories? Why they want to topple the countries with oil resources by force? There is no any superiority of the political theories of the west, they are just relative theories, valid in some contexts, they never are universal theories. But our political donkeys who has no intellectual capacity to learn subtle subjects get lower degrees by heartening those political theories and parrot them here. They are just political slaves who has no capacity to formulate a simple plan to manage their own work. But political parroting capacity especially in stylish English is a good sign to live above the average masses of this country.

        My protest is against these political parrots who know nothing more than to vomit stylish jargon to deceive the country. We must be able to formulate our plans. If westerners can why anybody think we cannot?, Are we less intelligent than them? There is no such thing. Our problem is slave mentality towards created supremacy of the west and our inferiority complex.

        Why anybody think something good for the west is good to us as well? Why not westerners should not think what is good for us is good for them? Why we always expect the first and not the latter?

        I am not advocating for religions to be involved in politics, but it is not mandatory for us to toe the line of the west. We must realize that we are a different lot with different thinking. Western civilization is not necessarily to be our model.

        Just because the west want to be secular, it doesn’t indicate others also should be secular. It is a fallacy of idiots.


  • Anurasiri

    Anti terrorist emotions have been successfully linked with anti-Tamil and now anti-foreigner and anti-everybody else concept, by means of a massive State-led publicity campaign? Where [did you see] that type of ideology Madam?

  • Sinhala_voice

    Sri Lanka is one of the most tolerant countries of all religions. What had happened in dambulla is a property dispute.we have to understand that for that…
    I wonder whether anyone can list the privileges that Sinhala-Buddhist have that other ethno-religious groups do not have other than the numerical superiority.
    So what form of federalism should we have:
    2.language view / religion based
    4.a combination of the above

    Why didn’t the former president well versed in all liberal democratic theories abolish the executive presidency when she had the chance ?

    Why didn’t she change the electoral system so that people can elect their own representative from their electorate as in pre 1978

  • Gnanam Selvaratnam

    this lady should stay quiet…. she helped ruin the country and set the scene for despots like the rajapaksas to come thru. remember when her uncle marched soldiers into minefields? Chandrika is a pioneer of bad governance – promoting her family to positions of power (ratwatte) when they do not have the skills. She also was a pioneer in ‘using’ people for their utility only for a short period of time. anyone remember janaka perera being sent at the 11th hour to the front lines to save the country when her uncle’s ineptitude caused chaos? When janakas job was done he would get ‘recalled’ lol Why didnt she appoint kadirgamar as PM?

    Why didnt she abolish exec presidency?

    she could have changed SL for the better – like in most cases its after the fact that these people wax lyrical.

  • Gnanam Selvaratnam

    oh, she could have secularised SL too…

  • roshan

    I would like to second Anton Padmasiri’s views of.
    The idea expressed by Sinhala Voice that the Dambulla mosque matter is a property dispute is facetious.

    It is not normal for the President or the Prime Ministers to intervene in property disputes. The President’s offer of alternative land should surely imply his involvement in the episode. His appearance at the opening ceremony of a mosque in the up country
    in an attempt to demonstrate his apparent neutrality to the Muslim community lack credibility.

    By and large Sri Lankans have been a tolerant people but the public- and indeed private- space is increasingly being challenged by sections of the majority who are anything but tolerant.

    In a town I am familiar an influential section of the majority community led by local traders have over a period of time acted in concert to ensure that businesses owned by Sinhalese owners are not sold on to non-Sinhalese.

    Taped Bana was being played from the local punyawardana samitiya premises at the same time that call for prayers were made in mosques.

  • “Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”
    – Diderot (1713- 1784)

  • niranjan


    “Secular society is not a priority for Hindu, Muslim or Buddhist countries. It is not our ideal.”- That is only your opinion. Others like myself may think differently.


    Citizen’s quotation from Diderot has stirred my fading memory of a similar remark made by the late SWRD adapting Diderot.

  • Pandukabaya de Silva

    Yes, I agree. The lady should indeed stay quiet!

    She had a marvellous chance to set things to right with the Sinhalese people giving her that opportunity and then ruined everything by her indisciplined and ridiculous actions as Head of State. How many journalists were assualted under her watch? Did she not ruin the judiciary by boosting that crook Silva over the heads of qualified judges whom she was afraid would act and decide independently?

    Who is she to pontificate now? She should first apologise publicly for the mistakes that she has made.

    When the JR Jayawardenes and the Bandaranaike-Kumaratunges fail so badly, is it any wonder that the Rajapakses are now driving this country into the grave?