UPSC exams 2019: Question on ‘secularism’ objectionable, makes exercise to recruit civil servants flawed

  • The UPSC in its latest exam to recruit civil services asked students to write about 'the challenges to our cultural practices in the name of secularism'

  • The question immediately prompted a fiery debate on the nature of the question and its desirability in an exam paper that is meant to recruit administrators whose conduct are tested on litmus of objectivity

  • If it was an error of drafting then it can be overlooked, but if the tone was deliberate then it raises serious questions on propriety of the one who framed it

  • Nowhere in any of the definitions, given by any of the prominent thinkers during the Constituent Assembly debate, has it been pointed out that secularism poses challenges to any cultural practice of any religion, sect or tribe

  • In the Indian context, secularism is not seen as negative concept or negation of religion rather it is seen as a positive concept calling for the equal treatment and respect to all religions irrespective of their history, position or professed ideologies

Former Cabinet Secretary TSR Subramanian in a message to civil service aspirants once said, “A word for those who are going to appear in the examinations, and thereafter in the interview. While ‘book knowledge’ will be tested, the examiners and the interview board, who are generally well experienced, would try to test comprehension, quick thinking, decision-making ability — definitely attitude — not just mastery over an individual subject."

He added, "This is as should be, because the young officer in the district, and later the policymaker in the secretariat will be every day confronted with the unknown and the unfamiliar — he has to search and find the best route forward, sometimes working in the dark. A general appreciation of public affairs and deep overall comprehension are essential for success."

But what prepares an aspirant for India’s most coveted jobs like Indian administrative, foreign and police services apart from a host of prestigious central services for this question: “What are the challenges to our cultural practices in the name of secularism?”

 UPSC exams 2019: Question on ‘secularism’ objectionable, makes exercise to recruit civil servants flawed

Representational image. Wikimedia Commons

This was not a question asked during the interview for the Civil Service Exam, which is known to throw questions that can make the most prepared interviewee nervous.

This was a question asked in the General Studies (Paper 1) of the Civil Service Exam (Mains) which is the second stage of the three-tier Civil Service Exam. The question immediately prompted a fiery debate on the nature of the question and its desirability in an exam paper that is meant to recruit administrators whose conduct are tested on litmus of objectivity.

It was the tone of the question that seems more objectionable than the intent of the question. If it was an error of drafting then it can be overlooked, but if the tone was deliberate then it raises serious questions on propriety of the one who framed it.

Any student preparing for this exam would tell that the first two things they learn about the idea of secularism in their ‘polity class’ or in their political science class, if they opted for it as their optional subject is, (1) The Constitution (Forty-second Amendment) Act, 1976, incorporated the word ‘secular’ in the preamble of the constitution which in the same lines claims it to be a socialist sovereign democratic and republic (2) as noted thinker and writer Ashis Nandy says “succeeding in tracing the common thread, stringing the different provisional pearls we will see that our Constitution is influenced by the typology of secularism that is essentially ‘Indian’ or have Indianism".

A detailed reading of various articles of Indian constitution helps us to understand this ‘Indian’ version of secularism. Consider this: Article 44 in Part IV of the Constitution that contains directive principles of state policy, directs the state to make sincere efforts to secure for the citizens 'uniform civil code' throughout the territory of India which meant to promote social secularism.

Further, Article 325 abolished the separate electorate. The electoral law of land declares the electoral propaganda on the basis of religion race, caste, community or language or appeal to religious symbol as well as the promotion of feelings of enmity or hatred between classes of the citizens of India on ground of religion, race, caste, community or language are deemed to be corrupt practices for the ‘purpose of the Representation of People Act 1951’.

During the Constituent Assembly debate, many voices emerged which tried to define Indian secularism. One among them, HV Kamath said, “We have certainly declared India to be a secular state but to mind, a secular state is neither a godless state nor an irreligious state nor anti-religious sate."

It is an indisputable fact that secularism in its original sense (as it emerged is western societies) was an idea that supported the separation of church from state affairs and the principal ideology supporting it was liberalism which launched an attack on the Catholic Church and demanded religious freedom raised by Protestant groups and its counterparts, stressed on drawing a clear dividing line between the Church and the State, preventing the church from interfering into the affairs of the government.

The hard-line separation of the Church or religious domain from the state affairs sometimes projected the western secularism as anti-religious. But in the Indian context, secularism is not seen as negative concept or negation of religion rather it is seen as a positive concept calling for the equal treatment and respect to all religions irrespective of their history, position or professed ideologies. And this was the point that Kamath raised in his definition of secularism.

Nowhere in any of the definitions, given by any of the prominent thinkers, has it been pointed out that secularism poses challenges to any cultural practice of any religion, sect or tribe.

The only restriction on any of the religious practice is, as defined in various articles related to religious freedom are “public order, morality and health”. And as highlighted in various landmark judgments, these criteria can't be arbitrarily invoked to curtail any of the religious practices, instead, they have to be rationally justified.

The question that what challenges “our cultural practices” in the name of secularism is by all means wrong in its tone and at the same place it is also flawed as an intellectual exercise to check the intelligence and reasoning ability of a probable civil servant who is supposed to be as aloof to their subjective considerations as possible.

Updated Date: Sep 23, 2019 21:31:14 IST