Secularism refers to a definitive structure in which the State has little to do with faith as broadly defined in a political sense, in the sense that secularism’s ties with religion are necessarily exclusive. A secular state should remain oblivious to individual views on religious characteristics for it maintains that every citizen is free to practise any religion or no religion in their own life. While India was proclaimed a “sovereign, socialist, secular democratic republic” by the Constitution of India’s 42nd Amendment, India’s position as a fully secular country is still arguable. Secularism’s recognition as freedom of worship in many nations in the West suggests a bundle of fair rights regardless of religious belief or distinction of state and religion. The only stipulation of Indian secularism, however, is that all religions are to be regarded fairly. This is not to suggest that the Western paradigm of secularism should be emulated by India. Instead, it is important to examine India’s tradition of secularism to attain higher degrees of equity and harmony within a nation striving to maintain pluralistic unity. There are many Indians, each of whom has a distinct consciousness of its own and deriving lessons from the ancient Hindu society in which society and civilization has resisted monism for pluralism.
SECULARISM IN VIEW OF INDIAN HISTORY
The one challenge stems from a somewhat inflated perception of the Indian experience in the analysis of the landscape of secularism. Nearly all facets of Human Civilization were attempted by Indians to track back to their ancient rich culture and heritage. During the movement for democracy, this trend was the greatest. The Indian history was glorified in those days, and factors that seemed to offer Europeans a sense of dominance and, ultimately, allowed them to assert their right to rule were seen by our ancestors as being battled against by glorifying Hindu values and culture.
In India, the problem of secularism is an essential one, since it is a culture in which personal identities are profoundly embedded in a diverse range of faiths. The future of India as a heterogeneous community is, therefore based on it. A culture that is neglected or discriminated against by a large part of the population will not survive or maintain itself. In a speech given at the Indian Institute of Public Administration in Mumbai, as former Union Home Secretary Madhav Godbole said, “since secularism has been declared as a part of the basic structure of the Constitution, governments must be made accountable for implementing it.”
The most excellent advocate of the secular state in India was Jawaharlal Nehru. In his overall social ideology, secularism for him was an essential aspect and not just a hollow political slogan. It was Nehru’s belief that communalism was primarily a result of its deficient economic organisation and dysfunctional social system, a dismal feature of Indian political life overall. Nehru launched large-scale economic growth and social reform programmes shortly after Independence and launched the nation on the path to modernisation. Nehru’s forward-looking initiatives, though, were basically the programmes of a small minority. A second class of view, with its origins extending across all the country’s major interest groups, was the source of Hindu opinion, orthodox and traditionalist. They resisted the idea of a secular state until Indira Gandhi, by way of the 42nd amendment added the word secular to the preamble, amongst many other changes, in a bid to keep her position as the head of the state. In other words, the fundamental structure doctrine already included the ideals of secularism and socialism within it. But Indira Gandhi wanted to maintain legislative dominance over the courts, and to render those two proposals part of the Constitution’s preamble, she found it appropriate to change the Constitution. Another reason for her actions is that human and political liberties had been seriously undermined by her administration, so she was undoubtedly keen to prove her devotion to economic and social rights. And by doing so, she decided to represent the ideology of a socialist model of society and give it a dimension that went far beyond what is expected in the days of her father, Jawaharlal Nehru. [i]
USE OF THE WORD SECULAR IN THE CONSTITUTION OF INDIA
A more positive view suggests that the explanation for the omission of the term secular from the Constitution was that the fathers of the Constitution found it obligatory on Hindus to recall their adherence to the ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ Upanishadic ideal, that is “universe is one family”. It was subtly claimed by the framers of the Constitution that the Indian ethos were primarily Hindu in origin, but that ethos indicated an ingrained reverence for and equality of all religions. So, in the Indian sense, secularism does not mean the state standing away from religion instead, achieving equidistant from all faiths would be implied. [ii]
India, though, amends the Constitution so much that, in the Indian sense, it becomes impossible to debate about its original purpose, unlike, say, the US, where judges of the Supreme Court might fairly attempt to locate the true significance of what the drafters of the Constitution meant. India has changed the Constitution 99 times since 1950; the US constitution has only been amended 33 times since 1789.[iii]
In mid-2020, a petition was brought before the Supreme Court trying to delete the words ‘socialist ‘and’ secular ‘from the constitutional preamble, which were introduced by the 42nd constitutional amendment. The PIL also said the 1976 amendment was “antithetical to both the constitutional principles and the historical and cultural theme of India.” It pursued the Union of India’s path to announce that the idea of ‘socialism’ and ‘secularism’ applied to the existence of the republic and was confined to the workings of the State’s sovereign function and did not extend to individuals, political parties and commun institutions.[iv] Advocate Vishnu Shankar Jain, who filed the petition, told HT, “In a democratic setup, the citizens cannot be bound to accept a particular ideology and the application of the ideology depends on the will of the people to be reflected through votes from time to time. In this case, the petitioners have said that ‘socialist’ and ‘secular’ concepts are political thoughts and seen in the light of right to practice religion (Article 25), right to free speech (Article 19(1)(a)), and these principles are against the principle of democracy.” [v]
“In view of the fact that states have power to indulge in religious matters, though in limited sense, and can give grants to religious minorities, the state as a political entity cannot be a secular republic in strict sense,” the petition stated.
Other experts speculate that three factors may have played a major role in this regard:
While the Muslim League was a party containing the majority of Muslims, along with the majority of Hindus, the Congress composed of Muslims and other minority religions. It was therefore not only rational for Congress to continue its public positioning and declare India a secular state and not a Hindu one except for its own existence (with so many non-Hindus in its fold) while Hindus were in the country’s utter majority. That said, in its seventy years of existence, India has seen few Muslim Presidents and Vice Presidents who do not have any real powers in the structure, although they are important roles. In Indian history, there was no Muslim Prime Minister, which is the true role of authority in politics.
India is a country with a Hindu majority, but it still prohibits a significant population from practising other faiths. In a strict sense, even the religious distinctions between the Hindus as well as their caste structure prohibit them from being a religious unit. India may have been the only Hindu state and remained; not much could be anticipated in foreign affairs dependent on the ‘Hindu identity’ of a government.
Ironically, however, the Constitution itself still includes contradictory signs that go against this presumption and appear to describe secularism as a phenomenon that will eventually abolish religion or contribute to the supremacy of Hinduism even in the personal lives of its people. Specifically, Article 44 of the Constitution contains an earlier indication which sets out the uniformity of the civil code as one of the ultimate goals to be attained. A later indication to the contrary forms part of Article 48, which allows for the defence of the holiness of the Cow.[vi]
In the Indian sense, secularism is diverse and clearly inconsistent, and its nature is misunderstood in the simplest narratives. And this is where it gets better to view secularism in a particular way and to move it closer to the Hindutva.
The only assurance that constitutional laws can be applied in practise is that there should be a consolidated and continuing attempt to create a community in which shared respect and equality of opportunity can be genuinely formed and consolidated. And it is the challenge of building such a culture that should be discussed in the future through political leadership. As long as the current dispensation continues, this is not likely to happen.
[i] Why secularism and socialism are integral to the Indian constitution, available at https://www.livemint.com/Opinion/XKcwMBM2WpKX7TM20yPBBP/Why-secularism-and-socialism-are-integral-to-the-Indian-cons.html (last visited on Jan 11, 2020)
[ii] Hindu, Hinduism and Hindustan: Part xxxix, available at https://www.boloji.com/articles/51335/hindu-hinduism-and-hindustan-part-xxxix (last visited on Jan 11, 2020)
[iii] Why secularism and socialism are integral to the Indian constitution, available at https://www.livemint.com/Opinion/XKcwMBM2WpKX7TM20yPBBP/Why-secularism-and-socialism-are-integral-to-the-Indian-cons.html (last visited on Jan 11, 2020)
[iv] Plea in SC to remove ‘socialist’ and ‘secular’ from Constitution’s preamble, available at https://thewire.in/law/supreme-court-plea-socialist-secular-constitution-preamble (last visited on Jan 11, 2020)
[v] Delete secular and socialist from the preamble: plea in SC, available at https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/delete-secular-socialist-words-from-the-constitution-plea-in-supreme-court/story-5JXAm1ml4eYKlYjCZRFJNM.html (last visited on Jan 11, 2020)
[vi] The Constitution of India, art. 44
BY SHREYA SHARMA | NATIONAL LAW UNIVERSITY ODISHA