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Why and How “Secularism” in Our Constitution

Any discussion on secularism would need first to focus on two basic aspects: Firstly, the word ‘secularism’ has no substitute in any of our languages. Like the ‘war’ is the opposite word of ‘peace’, in common parlance in the Indian context, ‘secularism’ is understood by its antonym ‘communalism’, while in the Western context, ‘secularism’ is understood by its antonym ‘theocracy. Secondly, the word ‘secularism’ was nowhere mentioned in the Preamble of the Constitution when it was enforced. It was included in the Preamble by the controversial 42nd Constitution Amendment during the Emergency with effect from January 3, 1977.

It is interesting to note that the Preamble, though the Constitution opens with it, was not the first to come into existence. It was the last piece of drafting adopted by the Constituent Assembly at the end of the first reading of the constitution. The motion to adopt the Preamble was moved on the 17th October 1949. It was suggested during the debates that the Preamble be taken up when the Constituent Assembly would meet in November for the third reading as by that time the Drafting Committee would also have submitted its final report to the House. Maulana Hasrat Mohani objected to the postponement submitting that unless the Preamble was passed on that day at the first reading itself, the Drafting Committee could not produce any report on the second reading. K.M. Munshi supported. Maulana Hasrat Mohani by making a humorous comment – “Once in my life I support the Maulana Saheb!” The President ruled that the Preamble should be passed on that day to enable the Constitution as a whole being passed in its second reading and the Preamble forming part of the Constitution. Several amendments were suggested to the Preamble but they were all negated. At the end, the President moved the motion –“That the Preamble stands part of the Constitution.” The motion was adopted on November 2, 1949. The Preamble was added to the Constitution.

In the words of Justice Jagan Mohan Reddy in his judgment in Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala, (1973 (4) SCC 225):

“The Preamble to the Constitution which our Founding Fathers have , after the Constitution was framed , finally settled to conform to the ideals and aspirations of the people embodied in that instrument, have in ringing tone declared the purposes and objectives which the Constitution was intended to sub serve.”

The question arises as to why it was introduced during the Emergency. Was it not a challenge to the wisdom of the Constitution-makers? The Constituent Assembly consisted of persons who had no partisan motive nor they had any axe to grind. They were men of vision; they inspired confidence, and were all products of the struggle for independence.

In the struggle for independence, the people of different religious pursuits had a natural worry as to what sort of religious freedom they would be able to enjoy in an independent India. When Mahatma Gandhi appeared on the scene and transformed the freedom movement into a mass movement in 1920s, it was realized that people could hardly be motivated to go the whole hog for the freedom struggle unless they were assured that their religious beliefs and systems would be secure in a post-independent India and that they would not be marginalized and sidelined, in case they belonged to the minority community. It was in the pursuit of this very assurance that Gandhiji gave to the people the much-valued concept of ‘Sarv Dharm Sambhav”--the principle that all religions are equal. The Muslim League had boycotted the Constituent Assembly when it started its session on December 9, 1946, and it continued to boycott it even thereafter. Evidently the pressure worked, and on June 3, 1947, Lord Mountbatten announced the coming into existence of two independent States with effect from August 15, 1947.

On August 14, 1947, the President of the Constituent Assembly, Dr Rajendra Prasad remembered Mahatma Gandhi in the following words while speaking on the floor of the Assembly, “Let us also pay our tribute of love and reverence to Mahatma Gandhi who has been our beacon light, our guide and philosopher, during the last 30 years or more. He represents that undying spirit in our culture and make-up which has kept India alive through vicissitudes of history.” And then he went on to say, “To all the minorities in India we give the assurance that they will receive fair and just treatment, and there will be no discrimination in any form against them. Their religion, their culture, and their language are safe, and they will enjoy all the rights and privileges of citizenship…To all we give the assurance that will be our Endeavour to end poverty and squalor and its companions, hunger and disease: to abolish distinction and exploitation and to ensure decent conditions of living.” These words of Dr Rajendra Prasad on the floor of the Constituent Assembly were clearly influenced by the overwhelming concept of “Sarv Dharm Sambhav” which reigned supreme in the minds of the members of the Constituent Assembly, and this later found ample manifestation in the provisions specifically incorporated in the Constitution. Article 15 says, ‘The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on ground only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them” and also Article 25 provides that “all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion”. What needs to be taken note of is that absolutely nothing happened in the country from 1950, when the Constitution was enforced, to 1977 to hasten the urgency of bringing about a Constitution Amendment to incorporate the word “secular” in the Preamble of the Constitution.

As a matter of fact, the politics in the country remained during all these years focused on issues, people participated overwhelmingly and spontaneously in the poll process, and the public debates were focused primarily on the key issues concerning the masses of this country. In fact, cutting across all barriers of castes and religion, people voted on the issue of “garibi hatao” at 1971 Lok Sabha election. Paradoxically, however, the post-1971 years unfolded nothing effective to tackle the problem of poverty and economic disparities, but, instead, the State, literally dominated by one individual, gave place to a process of demolition of Constitutional institutions. Three Judges of the Supreme Court were superseded. Then followed the Emergency, letting loose a reign of terror, and one of its fallouts was the apex court verdict in ADM Jabalpur case. Against this backdrop came the controversial 42nd Constitution Amendment.

Nehru told the members of the Constituent Assembly on August 14, 1947, “The service of India means the service of the millions who suffer. It means the ending of poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity.” The country was to achieve this objective on the basis of the principles contained in Part IV of the Constitution, which were “fundamental in the governance of the country”. Incidentally, in the Statement of Objects and Reasons in respect of the 42nd Constitution Amendment, similar expression has been used in the following words, “The question of amending the Constitution for removing the difficulties which had arisen in achieving the objective of socio-economic revolution, which would end poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity, had been engaging the active attention of government and the public for some years…It was, therefore, considered necessary to amend the Constitution to spell out expressly the high ideals of socialism, and integrity of the nation”.

Paradoxically, after the word “secular” found place in the Preamble as a result of the 42nd Amendment that it was lapped by sections of opportunistic politicians to fuel a highly retrogressive and diversionary debate of secularism vs communalism and vice versa. What the country saw in its wake? The demolition of Babri Masjid and the resultant communal holocaust followed by Bombay, Surat attacks on minorities and in other cities in January 1993, thereafter Gujarat communal massacre and then the recent Muzaffarnagar communal riots.

Looking back, the communalism vs secularism debate has only resulted in throwing into the backyard the issues of removing poverty, illiteracy, disease, and inequality of opportunity. On the other hand, non-issues became issues and issues became non-issues in politics and polls, and what has been worse, it generated its own pernicious offshoot. Politics and polls got additionally hooked onto castes versus castes. The real issues, confronting the people, like poverty, disparity, exploitation, hunger, unemployment, illiteracy, power crisis, environment degradation, and water scarcity, alarming loot and destruction of our forests, and population explosion have been sidelined. Likewise, criminalization of politics and corruption have also become non-issues.

There has been no difference between various governments at the Centre or the States during the last two decades on the question of following the economic policies on account which the forces of globalisation have slowly but solidly deprived India of its economic and political sovereignty so much so that the country has lost its right to determine its own agenda of governance and development, which now rests with the international powers, multinationals and world-funding agencies. The question is how long shall we permit this to continue by keeping the people involved the nationally detrimentally quarrels over secularism vs communalism or castes vs castes?

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Related Bulletin : Sep 2017