Understanding secularism in Indian context

by Suhrith Parthasarathy | Published: 00:05, Jan 05,2018 | Updated: 23:24, Jan 04,2018

 
 

THERE was a point of time, perhaps, when we might have taken the idea of a secular, pluralistic India, tolerant of all sects and religions, as a position set in stone. But, incidents, especially since the early 1990s, have radically altered both reality and our imagination. That certain groups, including many within the political party presently in power at the centre and in many states, actively believe in a different kind of India is today intensely palpable. Against this backdrop, statements made on December 24, in a public address, by the minister of state for employment and skill development, Anantkumar Hegde, scarcely come as a surprise.

Secularism and us
‘Secular people,’ he declared, ‘do not have an identity of their parental blood.’ ‘We (the BJP),’ he added, ‘are here to change the constitution,’ making it quite clear that in his, and his party’s, belief secularism was a model unworthy of constitutional status. Since then, the ruling government has sought to distance itself from these comments, and Hegde himself has, without explicitly retracting his statements, pledged his allegiance to the constitution and its superiority. But the message, as it were, is already out, and its discourse is anything but opposed to the present regime’s larger ideology. Indeed, Hegde’s comments even mirror those made on several occasions by people belonging to the top brass of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, who have repeatedly stressed on what they view as their ultimate aim: the recognition of India as a Hindu state, in which secularism lies not at the constitution’s bedrock, but entirely outside the document’s aims and purposes.
The reactions to Hegde’s speech have been manifold. Some have welcomed it, as a call for debate, while others have viewed it as the ringing of a veritable alarm bell. Those on the far right in particular, though, have embraced the message, and have gone as far as to suggest that India has never been a secular state, that the constitution, as it was originally adopted, did not contain the word ‘secular’, which was inserted into the preamble only through the 42nd amendment introduced by Indira Gandhi’s government during the height of Emergency rule. They also point to BR Ambedkar’s pointed rejection of proposals during the constitution’s drafting to have the word ‘secular’ included in the preamble. Given that the constitution is mutable, these facts, in their belief, only buttress arguments against the inclusion of secularism as a constitutional ideal.
But what statements such as those made by Hegde don’t quite grasp is that our constitution doesn’t acquire its secular character merely from the words in the preamble, but from a collective reading of many of its provisions, particularly the various fundamental rights that it guarantees. Any move, therefore, to amend the constitution, to remove the word ‘secular’ from the preamble, before we consider whether such a change will survive judicial review, will have to remain purely symbolic. Yet, Hegde’s statements nonetheless bear significance, for they exemplify the confidence that he has in the broader project that is already underway. The endeavour here is to steadily strike at the secular values that the constitution espouses, to defeat it not so much from within, but first from outside. Negating this mission requires sustained effort, not only in thwarting any efforts to amend the constitution, if indeed they do fructify, but, even more critically, by working towards building a contrary public opinion, not through rhetoric, but through facts, by reaffirming our faith in constitutionalism, and in the hallowed values of plurality and tolerance that our democracy must embody.

Inbuilt freedoms
NOW, it is certainly true that the constituent assembly explicitly rejected a motion moved by Brajeshwar Prasad from Bihar to have the words ‘secular’ and ‘socialist’ included in the preamble. But this was not on account of any scepticism that the drafters might have had on the values of secularism. Quite to the contrary, despite what some might want us to believe today, the assembly virtually took for granted India’s secular status. To them, any republic that purports to grant equality before the law to all its citizens, that purports to recognise people’s rights to free speech, to a freedom of religion and conscience simply cannot be un-secular. To be so would be an incongruity. Secularism, as would be clear on any morally reasonable analysis, is inbuilt in the foundations of constitutionalism, in the idea of a democracy properly understood. In the case of our constitution, it flows from the series of fundamental rights guaranteed in Part III. How can a person be guaranteed a right to freedom of religion without a concomitant guarantee that people of all religions will be treated with equal concern?
To fully understand what secularism in the Indian context means, therefore, we must read the constitution in its entirely. There is no doubt that within the Assembly, there existed a conflict between two differing visions of secularism: one that called for a complete wall of separation between state and religion, and another that demanded that the state treat every religion with equal respect. A study of the constitution and the debates that went into its framing reveals that ultimately it was the latter vision that prevailed.
As the political scientist Shefali Jha has pointed out, this constitutional dream can be best comprehended from KM Munshi’s words. ‘The non-establishment clause (of the US constitution),’ Munshi wrote, ‘was inappropriate to Indian conditions and we had to evolve a characteristically Indian secularism… We are a people with deeply religious moorings. At the same time, we have a living tradition of religious tolerance — the results of the broad outlook of Hinduism that all religions lead to the same god… In view of this situation, our state could not possibly have a state religion, nor could a rigid line be drawn between the state and the church as in the US.’ Or, as Rajeev Bhargava has explained, what secularism in the Indian setting calls for is the maintenance of a ‘principled distance’ between state and religion. This does not mean that the state cannot intervene in religion and its affairs, but that any intervention should be within the limitations prescribed by the constitution. Sometimes this might even call for differential treatment across religions, which would be valid so long as such differentiation, as Bhargava explains, can be justified on the grounds that it ‘promotes freedom, equality, or any other value integral to secularism.’
We can certainly debate the extent to which the state intervenes in religious matters, and whether that falls foul of the constitution’s guarantees. We can also debate whether an enactment of a uniform civil code would be in keeping with Indian secularism or not. But what’s clear is that a diverse, plural society such as India’s cannot thrive without following the sui generis form of secularism that our founders put in place.
It might well yet be inconceivable that the government chooses to amend the constitution by destroying its basic structure. But these are not the only efforts we must guard against. We must equally oppose every move, every action, with or without the state’s sanction, that promotes tyrannical majoritarianism, that imposes an unreasonable burden on the simple freedoms of the minority. We can only do this by recognising what constitutes the essence and soul of the constitution: a trust in the promise of equality. What, we might want to keeping asking ourselves, does equality really entail? What does it truly demand?

TheHindu.com, January 2. Suhrith Parthasarathy is an advocate practising at the Madras High Court

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