“In the public realm, secularism should not concede a single inch to religious intrusions. To argue otherwise is to violate the meaning of secularism”
The Merriam-Webster dictionary[i] defines secularism as ‘indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations.’
“Hindu Muslim Sikh Isai, sab hain bhai bhai”; “Inquilab Zindabad”.
As these slogans reverberate down India’s roads and bind us to earlier movements of collective resistance, it befits us to appreciate the importance of this historical moment. When was the last time India resonated with slogans rejoicing fellowship that underscored one’s religious identity?
The question of future of secularism in India is very vital at this particular stage. Secularism in India does not mean that the religion and the state are detached from each other. Instead, it means a state that supports all the religions and take its decisions in a neutral manner. However, Indian secularism in the last few decades followed a tortuous course and religious fundamentalism has grown immensely. In these current situations, the future of secularism does not seem bright. However, we need to understand that secularism is the best chance we have to create a society where people belonging to all religions or none can live together fairly.
Secularism as a part of Basic Structure in the Constitution:
During the framing of the Preamble to the Constitution of India, the incorporation of secularism in the preamble was a highly debated topic. Questions regarding the nature of its application and to what extent it was even possible were raised in the Constituent Assembly. Although the word ‘secular’ was not formally inserted in the document, it was embedded in the Constitutional philosophy.
The Indian Constitution adopted Articles 25-28 that guarantees both individual and collective freedom of religion enshrined in Part III of the Constitution, which deals with Fundamental rights, Articles 15, and 16 which guarantees nondiscrimination on the ground of religion, Articles 29 and 30 which provide cultural and educational rights to the minorities and Article 51A i.e. Fundamental Duties obliges all the citizens to promote harmony and the spirit of common brotherhood and to value and preserve the rich heritage of our composite culture.
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on 26thJuly, 1975 announced that the president has proclaimed Emergency. As the opposition Members of Parliament were behind the bars during this period, a series of Constitutional amendments were passed to prolong Mrs. Gandhi’s rule. The 42nd amendment was one of them wherein almost all parts of the Constitution, including the preamble, was changed. The words ‘socialist’ and ‘secular’ were formally inserted in the Preamble to the Constitution.
The Supreme Court had stated its views on the Secular nature of the Constitution for the first time in Sardar Taheruddin Syedna Saheb v. State of Bombay[ii] wherein Ld. J Ayyangar, explained that the Articles 25 and 26 symbolize the principle of religious toleration that has been the distinctive feature of Indian civilization from the beginning of history. They serve to give emphasis to the secular nature of the Indian democracy which the founding fathers of Secularism considered to be the very basis of the Constitution. In S.R. Bommai v. Union of India,[iii] the Court held that secularism is one of the basic features of the Constitution and it is a positive notion of equal treatment of all religions.
Ld. J Jaganmohan Reddy, stated in Keshwananda Bharti v. The State of Kerala[iv] that “Liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith, and worship” could not be amended at any cost as they are the part of elementary features of the Indian Constitution. From the mentioned cases, we can infer that the Court has adhered to its unique position of ‘secularism’ not being a divider between the Church and the State, but a sense of toleration between individuals of various religions through ‘Sarva Dharma Sambhava.’ The development of Indian Constitutional philosophy of social and economic democracy has held secularism to be one of the Basic Structures in the Constitution.
Party Political secularism:
In Abhiram Singh v. C. D. Commachen[v], the Supreme Court expanded the ambit of Section 123(3) of the Representation of the People’s Act, 1951. It deals with the campaigning for elections in the name of voters and candidates’ religion. However, party-political secularism is a nefarious doctrine practiced by all political parties, even the so-called secular forces. This secularism has dismissed all values from the core idea and replaced them with opportunism.
Ever since BJP has come at the helm of affairs, the secular nature of the Constitution of India has been challenged through policymaking, inaction and actions by the Central Government and occurrences in society where the rising ‘Hindu Nationalism’ has been noticed. The Prime Minister can be seen presenting photocopies of the Bhagwat Geeta to foreign dignitaries during his tours abroad. Shushma Swaraj, former Foreign Minister of India wants the Bhagwat Geeta to be the National book of the country. Haryana Chief Minister Khattar has announced Bhagwant Geeta as a part of the school syllabus. The State ban on beef directly challenges the right to privacy, which exists under Article 21 of the Constitution that deals with the right to life and personal liberty. The beef ban threatens the privacy of individuals by ordering what can be eaten and what cannot be.
On 5thAugust this year, the presence of the Prime Minister, the Uttar Pradash Chief Minister and Governor at the ceremony for the construction of Ram Mandir in Ayodhya gave de-facto official status to one particular religion. This is a violation of the Constitution. The Prime Minister said in Ayodhya that 5thAugust has now become as important as 15th August. Associating 5th August with 15th August was a shot at conflating the bequest of the freedom movement with Hindutva symbols. Slogans of ‘Kashi-Mathura baaki hai’ were on social media, indicating a wicked design to turn democratic, secular India into a Hindu Rashtra.
The Congress is remorseful of paying lip sympathy earlier and not standing up in the face of Hindutva attack in current times. This has added to the vagueness about secularism by making it equivalent to appeasement of certain Muslim conservatives. The controversial move to open the gates for shilanyas at the disputed Babri masjid- Ram Janambhoomi site, organizing iftaars to patronizing Shahi Imam to reversal in Shah Bano case to silence on Triple Talaq – are all instances of Congress brand of secularism. Unfortunately, the secularism followed by regional parties like SP[vi], BSP[vii], TMC[viii], RJD[ix], NCP[x]do not appear to be averse to collaborating with Muslim conservatives when favorable.
Thus, being secular has been reduced to opportunistic alliance with religious communities, particularly for electoral benefit rather than affirming values of tolerance, equality and peaceful coexistence.
Current situation of secularism:
Some people are of the view that secularism means something opposed to religion. But that is not the correct notion of secularism. Secularism is not a policy decision for the Government, but one of the original principles in the Constitution. The word ‘secular’ might have been inserted to the Preamble only in 1976, but the freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion under Article 25 of the Constitution is one of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution. A state can be held to be secular if it honors all religious faiths equally. The principle goes further and establishes equality between all religious groups. The right to equality under Article 14 of the Constitution protects equality among religious communities. In order to protect the equality of religions, no religion will be at risk in a secular India. A government that cannot protect the fundamental rights given by the Constitution equally to all its citizens will lose its political legitimacy and representative character.
However, even this concept presented many challenges like-
- Misusing for Electoral benefits: Mainly opportunistic integration with religious communities, particularly for the sake of immediate voting purposes.
- Neglecting the Idea of Indian Secularism:Political parties have interpreted respect to mean making deals with orthodox religious groups at times to ignite communal violence.
- Victimization of Communities: Principled intervention by State in one religion is seen as discriminatory treatment by smaller sections of society leading to politicisation of Secularism
- Politicisation of a religious group: This will cause the competitive politicisation of other communities thus leading in inter-religious conflict.
- Requires Continuous Civic Participation:India’s constitutional secularism cannot be sustained by governments alone but requires commitment from judiciary, media, civil society activists, and the citizens.
Recently, a plea has been filed before the Supreme Court asking for the removal of the words ‘socialist’ and ‘secular’ from the Constitution’s preamble which were added through 42nd Constitutional amendment.
The PIL stated that the amendment made was “antithetical to the constitutional tenets as well as the historical and cultural theme of India” .The move was said to be illegal for violating the concept of freedom of speech and expression given in Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution and the right to freedom of religion guaranteed under Article 25 of the Constitution.
It said the amendment was contrary to the historical and cultural theme of the great republic of Bharat, the oldest civilization of the world, having clear concept of ‘Dharma’ different from religion, and that the communist theory of State cannot be applied in India and was not in accordance with the religious sentiments and socio- economic conditions of India.
The fate of secularism:
Today, Indian secularism is engulfed by party-political secularism, with barely any assistance from the Opposition, media and judiciary. Brakes have been suddenly applied to this state driven political tactics of dealing with inter religious issues such as communal harmony.
Does secularism then have a future?
Just the removal of the word ‘secular’ from the Constitution will not make it any less, so, the answer is simple. In totality, the concept of secularism, where the state keeps away from religious activities but at the same time respects the individual’s right to practice religion, runs through the Constitution. No religion is given any preference, unlike in Sri Lanka where Buddhism gets a preference. The Constitution protects the rights of minorities by making it clear that the state cannot discriminate against them in any manner, even in granting aid.
How to save secularism?
Firstly, there is a need to shift the focus from a politically led project to a socially driven movement for justice. Secondly, a shift of focus from inter-religious to intra-religious issues.
B.R. Ambedkar recognized that when two almost equal communities view each other as enemies, they get stuck in a majority-minority syndrome, a vicious cycle of political conflict and social isolation. This was the case in the 1930s and the 1940s. Today, feeling extremely isolated, Indian Muslims have opted out of this syndrome. When this happens then the syndrome implodes. It results is neither open fighting and violence nor peace, simply an alienated existence for Muslims in their own conclusion.
As long as the leaders of our nation are dedicated to a particular religion and continue to exploit the deep religious feelings of the people for their own welfares, we should be prepared to witness communal riots in India.We must have faith in the wisdom behind our Constitutional ideals on diversity, pluralism, religious freedom and secularism. All political parties need to explicitly state their commitment to these ideals. India must follow the essence of constitutional secularism while opposing opportunistic secularism which evolved because of communal politics. A civil society led bottom up approach is required to strengthen the pluralist traditions of India.
For example, in Europe the fight against the church was a popular struggle as it was pushed forward by the state. Europe’s secularism provided a basis to fight inter religious oppressions. Nehru understood this. To him, secularism was not only a project of friendship among religious communities but also of opposition to religion-based caste and gender oppressions, a responsibility of our liberty and equality oriented reform movements of the 19th century.
Although the word secular was not first mentioned in the Constitution, it was always embedded in its philosophy. Thus, the removal or addition of the word in the preamble will not make a difference to the ideology as freedom of religion under Article 25 will always be safeguarded by the Constitution. India in the near future should be able to proudly say it is a secular state and not only just on paper. Indian secularism is not an end in itself but a way to look at religious plurality and reach peaceful coexistence of different religions.
- http://ezproxy.svkm.ac.in:2059/pers/Personalized.aspx – Manupatra
[i] Merriam-Webster dictionary: Secularism
[ii]SardarTaheruddinSyednaSaheb v. State of Bombay,AIR 1962 SC 853,851.
[iii]S.R. Bommai v. Union of India, (1994) 3 SCC 1.
[iv]Keshwananda Bharti v. The State of Kerala, (1973) 4 SCC 225.
[v]Abhiram Singh v. C. D. Commachen, (1996) SCC (3) 665.
[vi] Samajwadi Party
[viii] All India Trinamool Congress
[ix]Rashtriya Janata Dal
[x] Nationalist Congress Party