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For the first time, India is seeing secularism go from a top-down decree to a street slogan

When Gandhi talked about secularism, he was shown black flags. When Indira Gandhi amended the Constitution to add it, she was asked to clarify what she meant.

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For the first time in India’s history, secularism has moved from being a top-down slogan and concern voiced by political leaders and intellectuals, to becoming a battle-cry forged on the ground by citizens with much to lose because of the Narendra Modi government’s Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens.

Hindu Muslim Sikh Isai, aapas mein hain bhai bhai”; “Inquilab Zindabad”.
Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, we are all brothers; Long live the revolution.

As these slogans reverberate down India’s roads and gullies, and bind us to earlier moments of collective resistance, it behoves us to understand the significance of this historical moment. When was the last time India resonated with slogans celebrating fraternal ties that underscored one’s religious identity?

Also read: CAB protests a battle for India – either we are a secular state or we aren’t India at all

Adding ‘secular’ to the Preamble

When M.K. Gandhi brought all his political acumen to the last All India Congress Committee session that he would attend, in November 1947, he was fighting against the tide of popular sentiment on the question of minority rights. Despite and because of Partition, Gandhi emphasised that:

“India has been and is a country with a fundamental unity and the aim of the Congress has been to develop this great country as a whole as a democratic secular State where all citizens enjoy full rights and are equally entitled to the protection of the State, irrespective of the religion to which they belong. The Constituent Assembly has accepted this as the basic principle of the Constitution. This lays on very Indian the obligation to honour it.”

Yes, Gandhi did use the word ‘secular’; he also spelt out that it was “the basic creed of the Congress that India is the home of Muslims no less than of Hindus”. For his insistence in prayer meeting after prayer meeting that Muslims belonged in Delhi, that they had to be brought back from refugee camps to which they had been driven by fear, violence, and arson, he was met with black flags and crowds of young men shouting “Gandhi Murdabad (death to Gandhi)”. In the wake of the violence unfolding across partitioned north India, his was a voice that sometimes seemed solitary. Yet, it was what we aspired to be. That aspiration to become a country where people of every religious community might belong, with equal respect and dignity. This guided the drafters of the Indian Constitution.

Almost three decades later when Indira Gandhi moved to pass the 59-clause 42nd Constitution Amendment Bill in both houses of Parliament in 1976, her opponents accused her of not having the right to amend the Constitution. Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s Era Sezhiyan reminded her that she had jailed several of their colleagues; that they had not had the opportunity to debate this mammoth bill; that she could not, like Hitler, be allowed to use the Constitution to subvert the Constitution. In a private letter to prime minister Morarji Desai, former Chief Justice of India, P.B. Gajendragadkar revealed that he had urged Indira Gandhi to have a “national debate” on the provisions of the bill because of their extraordinary importance. Among the 59 clauses was one seeking to alter the Preamble so as to substitute the expression “Sovereign, Democratic Republic” with “Sovereign, Democratic, Secular, Socialist Republic”. Gajendragadkar had urged Indira Gandhi to clarify what she meant by secular.

The Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha debates are indicative of the deep wellspring of positive sentiment, regard, and attachment that accrued to the word ‘secular.’ Members from the Jana Sangh, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Indian Union Muslim League, the Republican Party of India, the DMK, Indira Gandhi’s Congress, people from every corner of India and representing a very wide range of castes, tribes, and religious communities spoke out in favour of clarifying what the executive meant by the term “secular” in order to further “strengthen and secularise the content of our democracy” (a pithy phrase used by CPM member Indrajit Gupta). Whereas several of the amendments pushed forward by Indira Gandhi were overturned by the succeeding Morarji Desai government, the amendments to the Preamble remained untouched. Secularism, as an aspiration, had genuine cache and resonance at the time.

Also read: For CAA-NRC protesters, the Constitution is a talisman and preamble the war cry

Lip service secularism

What did it mean for India to wish to be secular in 1976? This is a worthy question because at least at the level of the political elite in Parliament, there appears to have been a consensus that this was a good thing, a genuine good. Member after member rose to clarify that secularism in India was “neither anti-god nor anti-religion” – it actually meant equal respect to all religions. Therefore, several members such as Jambuwantrao Dhote of the Forward Bloc and Prakash Veer Shastri of the Jana Sangh asked law minister H.R. Gokhale not to write secular as ‘dharm-nirapeksha’ or ‘niddharmi’ when the newly amended Preamble would be translated into Hindi (it was eventually translated as ‘panth-nirapekshak’). While the law minister brushed aside these concerns with barely disguised impatience, the chair of the Congress Committee on Constitutional Changes Sardar Swaran Singh held that:

“…‘secular’ now is a word which I think has become part of our Indian languages. You may go to the Punjab, to Gujarat, even to the South; when they make speeches in their own languages they always use the word ‘secular’ because it has assumed a definite meaning and that meaning is that there will be equality before the eye of the law in our Constitution with regard to people professing different religions. … there is no connotational element of any anti-religious feeling, but it is really respect for all religions…”

But when parliamentarians including eminent Congresspeople such as Khurshed Alam Khan, Communists such as Bhupesh Gupta and Indrajit Gupta, members of the Republican Party such as N. H. Kumbhare spoke in favour of amendments that would provide reservations to religious minorities in employment and education, or set up a minorities commission, or provide for measures so that Scheduled Castes and Tribes who converted out of Hinduism or Sikhism were not disadvantaged, they found themselves to be very few in number. Their demands that the government define secularism and add substantive safeguards to better explain what was being intended by the addition to the Preamble were met with Congress ministers’ stonewalling, gestures to trust Indira Gandhi to do what would be best for minorities, and then outvoted. The dismissal of each and every substantive amendment to the clause seeking to amend the Preamble shows the exercise of adding ‘secular’ to it to be mere lip-sympathy towards secularism.

This is particularly important to remember at a conjuncture when the Preamble is being carefully and almost ‘prayerfully’ enunciated by citizens across India.

Also read: How Indian secularism could still be saved

Fight on the streets

To now recall that adding secular to the Preamble was an act that was not accompanied by substantive changes, the need for which was widely recognised, might still help us recover secularism as an aspiration in the present. Secularism has always carried high burdens and always fallen short; it is these demands and hopes that remained unexplored and unmet that will be our light out of an otherwise seemingly endless tunnel. The battle for a secular India will have to be fought and won by Indians, without the expectation of substantive and consistent support from the political class.

Neeti Nair is associate professor of history at the University of Virginia and Global Fellow at the Wilson Center. Views are personal. Read the article in Hindi here

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  1. India is not a secularism per se. In a secular society minorities are defined by Political affiliations; ie political majority and minority. In india minorities are based on religion. The writer also goes on to support minority reservation in jobs and education. This is so unsecular. How much can you contradict yourself in a single article. In a secular society reservation, if any, should be done on basis of economic status of a person. This might also be a reason why Ambedkar didn’t add secularism in our constitution. Because SC ST reservation was mandated for first 10 years. Ambedkar knew his law quite well.

  2. 2 words in Indian history after Independence were misused by the vest nterested and they are 1. Secularism and 2nd Gandhiji. Both are used by undeserving groups. This was time and again used for political mileage. Still these 2 words are misused by today’s Congress leaders who can not claim any legacy of Mshatma Gandhiji or genuine Secularism. You can now see how the so called Secularists are dividing the people of this country to get back the seats they lost in the elections. They emerged victorious in Kerala by uniting all the Muslim and Christian groups, but this strategy will make them sulking in the rest of the nation.

  3. How secularism is connected to CAA is a millon dollar question? Opposition is crafty and mis informed the public.
    When religious persecution takes place in neighbouring countries, asylum should be on religious grounds. Basic funda.

  4. One wishes this were true ie some sort of a secular tide in sentiment being led by young Indians resulting in a cogent collective action movement. That would be interesting to see. Right now, however, citizen X wants to be treated in a special way by the State, but doesn’t want the State to know who citizen X is. Citizen X wants all the advantages of a digital world as long as they remain anonymous. Finally, give me an example of regions where minorities are majorities and there aren’t communal issues, or worse institutional protections of local majorities? Is this secularism? A pro-rata institutionalization of what makes Indians different to each other? If so, what kind of theory of mind should Indian citizens have for this to be a unifying glue that holds the nation together?

    Urban protestors are complaining about imagined problems while ignoring real ones. This is fantasy, not secularism.

  5. Indira Gandhi amended constitution with secular word as a part of vote bank politics and that is creating hurdles in country’s progress now

    • if you read the constitution, you will see that cutting out this one word will make not a jot of difference – secularism is at the very core of the constitution.

      • “secularism is at the very core of the constitution. ”

        Only for Bengalis who ran away from east Pakistan after Noakhali riots. and Who did not have spine to stand up to Muslims.. Now refugees like you guys. want whole India to be spineless like you guys.

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