23/05/2017 1:04 PM IST | Updated 25/05/2017 8:45 AM IST

A Tale Of 3 Democracies—Is Anyone Doing Secularism Right?

The centre holds in France, but what of the US and India?


The election of Emmanuel Macron as France's next President is no small matter.

The resounding defeat he handed to Marine Le Pen, the ultra-nationalist divider-in-chief comes as a sigh of relief to a world order bewildered by Brexit and Donald Trump. All eyes were on this run-off between Macron and Le Pen, not least because it put to test the very idea of a liberal republican democracy. A right turn in France would have sounded trouble for the very ideas it embodies and would have far-reaching consequences globally.

France loves laïcité—the separation of church from state. In other words, government cannot influence religious matters. But, more importantly, religion has no place in government and public affairs. It is consecrated in the 1905 French law on the Separation of the Churches and State.

Ours is a secular state in word, not in spirit or deed. Our elected representatives need an education.

America has its own version of this separation, enshrined in the First Amendment"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." But, it is a country where God rules over reason. Where faith trumps social contract. Why else would you not defend choice for women's reproductive health? Or exclude millions with pre-existing health conditions? The religious and the political make for a deadly combo in the "land of the free." It is ironic that President Trump made these devastating cuts as Fox News reported, on the National Day of Prayer. In other words, if you are White and Christian, religious freedom is yours. If not, bless you and good luck!

Which brings me back home to India. Ours is a great example of democracy on paper. It is one of the very few democracies where the Constitution mandates a total separation of church from state by writ. Even France and the US do not have this provision. We do.

Yet, we have taxpayer-subsidised Haj and other pilgrimage travels; our "gau-rakshaks" run amok, impinging on the rights of fellow citizens; and our politicians and public officials routinely break coconuts and light lamps to herald "auspicious beginnings" to state affairs. Our minorities have Constitutional safeguards, but our politics ensures they are often compromised in everyday life. Ours is a secular state in word, not in spirit or deed. Our elected representatives need an education. We must talk more as a society about this fundamental issue. Let's keep the conversation going.

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