The Unpredictable Journey of Indian Secularism

By Sanjana Sanghi (Sub-Editor)

We Indians, we yearn for a secular State. I stand to correct myself, a “truly secular” State. But what does this idealistic version of secularism really encapsulate? Will it empower us in ways it hasn’t been able to before? Or make us feel more as citizens of a democratic nation than what we do at this point in time? We seem to be trekking hard, uphill towards the top of the mountain with all our might, but the destination our determined efforts aim towards is entirely unknown, undiscovered, and waiting to be unravelled. Why I say this, is because we seem to be more fascinated with the concept of Secularism than in sync with it. We are more in want of a certain “version” of Secularism than possibly, in need of it. We are more optimistic of it’s outcomes than aware of them.

Let me begin by going back to the recent episode involving the Modi government placing a newspaper ad that displayed the original Preamble, instead of the altered version containing the word SECULAR. This move wreaked havoc, laying bare the Modi government’s intentions of doing away with the word SECULAR, which is in accordance with previous actions of the BJP demonstrating a degree of religious intolerance, and Hindutva hard-lining, therefore giving all the critiques a quick chance at condemning the action. But viewing this ad made me think in a direction entirely different from any of the above. It made me go back to detailed readings of the Constituent Assembly, to their ideologies and viewpoints. This very word did not exist in the first, un-amended and sacred version of the constitution as envisioned by our founding fathers- Ambedkar, Patel, Nehru, and others. After much robust debate and discussion, they ultimately vetoed against the idea of including “SECULARISM ” as word at all. There must be a legitimate cause behind die-hard secularists such as Nehru and Patel rejecting the insertion of this word into our Constitution in the first place.

This story is rather perplexing, merged with varying complexities and perceptions. The vision of “Independent India” was most distinctly laid out by Ambedkar and Nehru, as historical records of the Constituent Assembly debates suggest. Ambedkar, was secular but religious. Nehru, was secular but an atheist. Ambedkar’s struggle against the subjugation faced by the oppressed classes is matter known to everyone – he had been a victim of extreme caste dogma and religious malpractices himself. His actions found inspiration in subtle reformation of the heinous caste system to ensure the equality and justice that Secularism so vehemently propagates. He believed tangible religious interventions were needed to move India along the path of greater equality and religious tolerance. And with interventions of the kind required, inserting the word SECULAR in the Preamble would be entirely wrong and not true to the principles of Secularism as exists world over – “the principle of the separation of government institutions and persons mandated to represent the state from religious institutions and religious dignitaries.”
It is here that the distinction needs to be made, between a dictionary version, western enlightened Secularism and an Indianised interventionist Secularism. A deeper look into the Constituent Assembly debates leads to a realization that our founding fathers were forward and liberal enough to realize that reservations, restrictions on freedom of religion, Anglo-Indian quota, banning centuries-old caste beliefs of Hinduism – were interventions that were more than necessary, and that “true” Secularism would have disallowed those interventions. Freedom of religion extending to setting up religious educational institutions renders Secularism a redundant concept in the Indian context, this being only one of the several existing examples.

There exists no doubt that the makers of our Constitution were certain they desired a secular State, but there were other doubts. These entailed the failure of a proper understanding of the term, even within the assembly – whether it was negation of religion, or absolute separation of the state and religion. The correct meaning of Secularism was definitely not clear, but the fragrance of secularism that India needed keeping in mind the diversity of religion, class, caste and culture definitely was. Thus, the term was omitted from our Preamble with the consent of all involved, but it’s implications as applicable to the Indian context were more than prevalent in State action and the values we inculcated as citizens.
So why do we break out with angst and aggression when the original, sacred Preamble as written by those who laid out the underlining values and principles that India today remains integrated on the basis of is used instead of the version amended by the Indira Gandhi government? It was an amendment to our Constitution along with over a 100 others made in quick succession during Indira Gandhi’s time when insecurity of the ruling elite resulted in impulsive decisions that didn’t consider it’s long term impacts.
Therefore in totality, without denying that this move by the BJP government in printing of the ad with the original Preamble in today’s contexts seems to have germinated from a right-wing Hindutva conservationist ideological perspective: it is only just and responsible or us to remember that the same Preamble germinated from a pluralist, secular and liberal Constituent Assembly.

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