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French Laïcite and Indian Secularism

2023 SEP 14

Mains   > Society   >   Secularism   >   Secularism


  • Recently, France’s top administrative court upheld a government ban on students in state schools from wearing abayas, rejecting complaints that it was discriminatory and could incite hatred.
  • Last month, the French government announced that the practice of wearing an abaya, a long, flowing dress worn by some Muslim women, would be banned in state-run schools as it violated the principle of Laïcité, which is the French idea of secularism.


  • The education ministry said the abaya made its wearers "immediately recognisable as belonging to the Muslim religion" and therefore ran counter to France’s secular culture in schools.
  • Action for the Rights of Muslims (ADM), an association representing Muslims, had filed an urgent motion with the state council, France’s highest court, for complaints against state authorities.
  • They called for an injunction against the ban, saying it was discriminatory and could incite hatred against Muslims as well as racial profiling.
  • But after examining the motion, the state council rejected the arguments.
  • It said wearing the abaya "follows the logic of religious affirmation", adding that the decision was based on French law, which does not allow anyone to wear visible signs of any religious affiliation in schools.
  • France passed a law in 2004 prohibiting the wearing of "ostentatious" symbols that have a clear religious meaning, such as a Catholic dress, a Jewish kippah, or a Muslim headscarf, in public spaces.


  • Secularism is defined as the principle of conducting human affairs in secular and naturalistic ways.
  • The separation of religion and state is a key principle of secularism.
  • Secularism fosters a society where individuals are free to practice their religions and to express their beliefs freely, but where no single religion dominates or influences the decisions and policies of the government.


  •  Laïcité, literally "secularism", is a French concept of secularism. It is understood as a formal separation of state and church.
  • It involves the complete removal of religious values from the public sphere and their replacement with secular values such as liberty, equality, and fraternity.
  • As per the principle, religion is to be confined to the private sphere.
  • It is important to note here that the state plays an important role in ensuring that affairs are run according to the principle of Laïcité.
  • Laïcité, a product of the struggle of anti-clerical Republicans against the power of the Catholic Church, was an abstract idea following the French Revolution in 1789.
  • It took a concrete shape in the form of The Law of 1905 in the Third Republic when state-run secular schools were established. The Law of 1905 guarantees freedom of conscience and freedom of worship except when it clashes with public order.
  •  It states that the Republic would neither pay for nor subsidise any form of worship. Today, while there are publicly funded Catholic schools in France, most children attend public schools which are secular spaces and free of cost.


  • Tensions triggered by demographic change
    • Due to France's fairly homogenous population, laïcite was not seen as a concern for most of the 20th century.
    • However, there was widespread decolonization in North Africa in the 1950s and 1960s, which prompted a wave of immigration from Muslim-majority nations like Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria. Periodic tensions were brought about by this demographic change.
  • Infringes on individual rights to religious expression:
    • There are criticisms that laïcité is a disguised form of anti-clericalism,that it infringes on individual rights to religious expression, and that, instead of promoting freedom of religion, it prevents the believer from observing his or her religion.
  • Controversies associated with state decisions:
    • Controversial decisions of the French state in the name of Laïcité, especially under the law passed in 2004 prohibiting the wearing of "ostentatious" symbols that have a clear religious meaning, have led to new interpretations of the Laïcité and issues associated with it.


  • The Indian model of secularism, unlike the Western or French models, is not anti-religious but respects and maintains an equal, yet critical, distance from all religions.
  • It does not erect a wall of separation between the state and religion.
  • The basic feature of the Indian secularism was explained by the Supreme Court which held that, secularism means' that state shall have no religion of its own and all persons of the country shall be equally entitled to the freedom of their conscience and have the right freely to profess, practice and have the right freely to profess, practice and propagate any religion''.


  • Religion and state:
    • The French secularism is based on the idea that erecting a wall of separation between church and state is absolutely essential in a free society.
    • The Indian philosophy of secularism is related to "Sarva Dharma Sambhava," which means equal respect for all religions and the state respects and maintains an equal, yet critical, distance from all religions.
  • Religion in the public sphere:
    • French laïcite involves the complete removal of religious values from the public sphere, making religion a strictly private matter, and preventing any religious expression in the public sphere.
      • For instance, the French government banned wearing religious symbols in schools, such as a cross, burqa, etc., including the recent ban on abayas.
    • Whereas Indian secularism recognizes individual and community rights to practice religion and express their religious identity in the public sphere.
      • For instance, people are allowed to carry and display religious symbols unless they harm the unity and sovereignty of the country.
  • Rights of minorities:
    • Indian secularism deals not only with the religious freedom of individuals but also with the religious freedom of minority communities. Within it, an individual has the right to profess the religion of his or her choice. Likewise, religious minorities also have a right to exist and to maintain their own culture and educational institutions (articles 29 and 30).
    • Whereas, the underlying goal of Laïcité is cultural assimilation, which is to implant tolerance and assimilate people.
  • State-supported religious reform:
    • Indian secularism has room for and is compatible with the idea of state-supported religious reform. Thus, the Indian constitution bans untouchability. The Indian state has enacted several laws abolishing child marriage and lifting the taboo on inter-caste marriage sanctioned by Hinduism.
    • Whereas, as per French laïcite, religion is to be confined to the private sphere, and there is a formal separation of state and religion.


Q. What can France learn from the Indian Constitution’s approach to secularism? (UPSC CSE 2019)