The word itself may not be essential, but its removal will symbolise an assault on the spirit of Indian pluralism and religious freedom.
With the BJP now in direct or indirect control of 22 states, and in the process of creeping up to majority status in the Rajya Sabha to add to its overwhelming numbers in the Lok Sabha, the question of what the party intends to do with its dominance assumes urgent importance.
A close reading of the works of its principal ideologues, notably Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, suggests that — as I had earlier explained in ThePrint — amending the Constitution is likely to be high on the ruling party’s priority list.
Whether or not the BJP goes full tilt at rewriting the entire Constitution to establish the ‘Hindu Rashtra’ of its dreams (which may still require numbers it doesn’t have in the RajyaSabha), an obvious first step in that direction is probable. The easy target our ruling party may aim at is to reverse the 42nd amendment of the Constitution, which in 1976 added two words the BJP doesn’t like — ‘secular’ and ‘socialist’ — to the Preamble.
During the Constituent Assembly debates, Prof K T Shah had tried, and failed, on 15 November 1948 to achieve the inclusion of the words
‘secular, federalist, socialist’ in the Preamble. In the eventual compromise, the majority of the assembly took the view that the Indian state would indeed be secular but that it was not necessary to use the word in the Preamble.
The word “secularism”, after all, was explicitly Western in origin, emerging from the political changes in Europe that accompanied the ‘Protestant Reformation’ and the era called the ‘Enlightenment’. But many 20th-century leaders outside Western Europe were attracted to the concept, notably Kemal Ataturk in Muslim-majority Turkey and Jawaharlal Nehru in Hindu-majority India, both of whom saw a secular state as a crucial hallmark of modernity. In India’s case, secularism also seemed to Nehru the only way to avoid the religious and communal antagonisms that had partitioned the country when the British left.
The Constituent Assembly debates show the extent to which this logic was accepted by our founding fathers. “I accepted this secularism in the sense that our state shall remain unconcerned with religion, and I thought that the secular state of partitioned India was the maximum of generosity of a Hindu-dominated territory for its non-Hindu population,” said Lokanath Misra in the debate on December 6, 1948.
But was it necessary to include the word itself in the Constitution? The chairman of the drafting committee, Dr B.R. Ambedkar, thought not. Ambedkar said, “What should be the policy of the state, how the society should be organised in its social and economic side are matters which must be decided by the people themselves according to time and circumstances. It cannot be laid down in the Constitution itself because that is destroying democracy altogether.”
Still, the adoption of Articles 25, 26, 27 and 28 of the Constitution, guaranteeing freedom of conscience and the right to profess, practise, and propagate one’s religion, to manage one’s own religious affairs, and to enjoy the freedom of religious worship, confirmed that the concept of secularism was unarguably implicit in India’s constitutional philosophy. But it wasn’t Western-style secularism, which meant irreligiousness, which even avowedly atheist parties like the communist ones or the southern DMK party found unpopular among their voters. (Indeed, at Calcutta’s annual Durga Puja, the communist parties compete with each other to put up the most lavish Puja pandals.) Rather, secularism meant, in the Indian tradition, a profusion of religions, none of which was privileged by the state.
The theory of secularism, as Prof. R.S. Misra of Benares Hindu University has argued, is based on dharma-nirpekshata (‘keeping apart from dharma’), which is impossible for any good Hindu to adhere to. BJP politicians like Rajnath Singh and Yogi Adityanath have argued that Indian governments cannot observe dharma-nirpekshata but should follow the precept of panth-nirpekshata (not favouring any particular sect or faith).
In this they are not far-removed from my argument — which I have made for several years before my entry into Indian politics — that ‘secularism’ is a misnomer in the Indian context of profuse religiosity, and what we should be talking about is ‘pluralism’. I believe the roots of India’s pluralism can be found in the Hindu philosophy of acceptance of difference: ekam sat vipraabahudhavadanti, the truth is one but the learned call it by many names. But many Hindutva-minded critics of secularism are not terribly enamoured of pluralism either.
Pluralism, however, has meant the active encouragement of religion, in defiance of classical secular theory. Indian secularism cheerfully embraces financial support to religious schools and the persistence of ‘personal law’ for different religious communities; it has created the reservation system for underprivileged Hindu castes, and promoted the directive principle of cow protection, both of which enjoy Constitutional sanction. The Indian system has created incentives for various religious denominations to start and operate ‘minority schools’ and colleges with substantial government funding, impart religious education, and be exempt from various regulations and stipulations the Indian government imposes on non-minority institutions. (Indeed, while government schools and colleges may not impart religious instruction, religious sects and charities affiliated to minority communities may open their own schools and receive state financial assistance even as they impart religious indoctrination).
Under the Indian version of secularism, the government’s financial largesse is extended to the Muslim waqf boards, Buddhist monasteries, and certain Christian religious institutions; and under a 1951 religious and charitable endowment law, state governments are empowered to take over, own and operate Hindu temples, collect revenue from offerings, and redistribute that revenue towards such purposes as it deems fit, including any non-temple-related ones.
The Hindutva brigade does not like this, and it is determined to do away with it as a significant step towards its project of transforming India into a Hindu state, or at least a state with a distinctively Hindu identity. To hear their point of view is to take in a host of factors — the uncritical acceptance by the Indian establishment of regressive practices among the Muslim community while demanding progressive behaviour from Hindus, the support for minority education while denying such aid to Hindus, the promotion of ‘family planning’ among Hindus but not among Muslims, the cultivation of ‘vote banks’ led by conservative Muslim leaders but the disparagement of their Hindu equivalents, and so on.
The result is a widespread denunciation of the “appeasement” of Muslims, which seems bizarre when one looks at the statistical evidence of Muslim socio-economic backwardness and the prevalence of discrimination in such areas as housing and employment. Muslims are under-represented in the nation’s police forces and over-represented in its prisons. Yet Hindutva leaders have successfully stoked a perception that government benefits are skewed towards minorities, and thus justified their campaign for Hindu self-assertiveness.
It is for such reasons that Deen Dayal Upadhyaya had argued that secularism would have to go: in his words, it “implies opposition of Hindus and appeasement of Muslims or other minorities. We should get rid of this word as soon as possible. It is completely irrelevant in the Indian context”.
One can credibly argue that the 42nd amendment merely put a word into the Constitution whose spirit was always deeply embedded in it, and reified in governmental practice. The loss of the word ‘secularism’ will not necessarily make the country less secular, since successive Indian governments had practised the peculiar Indian variant of secularism anyway before the42nd amendment. Nor can we protest a further amendment to a Constitution we have already amended a hundred times before. As Anantkumar Hegde, MoS for skill development & entrepreneurship, has unambiguously declared: “The Constitution … will change in the near future. The Constitution has changed many times before. We are here and have come to change the Constitution.” But this is no ordinary amendment — it attacks something fundamental and intrinsic to the way our Constitution-makers intended India to be.
The opposition must and will resist the BJP’s attempts not because the word itself is essential, but because its removal will symbolise an assault on the spirit of Indian pluralism and religious freedom — which was not created by the Constitution but reflected in it. Even if we fail in preventing the removal of a word, we must never stop fighting to preserve its spirit in the political practice of our country.
Dr Shashi Tharoor is a Member of Parliament for Thiruvananthapuram and former MoS for External Affairs and HRD. He served the UN as an administrator and peacekeeper for three decades. He studied history at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University, and International Relations at Tufts University. Tharoor has authored 17 books, both fiction and non-fiction; his most recent book is ‘Why I am a Hindu’. Follow him on Twitter @ShashiTharoor
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