Secularism is not a policy option

February 19, 2015 12:09 am | Updated November 16, 2021 05:17 pm IST

In speaking up against violence and incitement of hatred on the basis of religion, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was seeking to correct a growing perception that his government passively encouraged Hindutva groups that indulged in physical and verbal attacks on religious minorities in the country. Although the Prime Minister carefully avoided making a distinction between ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ religious groups while promising action against those inciting hatred, there was little doubt that he was making an effort to reassure religious minorities in the face of provocation from Hindutva groups. Indeed, the venue and the event where he spoke provided the context for the speech: a meeting organised by the Catholic Syro-Malabar Church in New Delhi, where churches have come under attack in recent weeks. But the assurance as such does not amount to much. Until now, Mr. Modi had appeared reluctant to publicly reprimand or rein in Ministers and Members of Parliament belonging to his party when they crossed the lines of political propriety with provocative speeches against religious minorities. If his words are not followed up by action, and if he continues to allow his Ministers and party colleagues to incite communal hatred, the assurance would be bereft of all meaning. In the last few months, the Modi government had been sending out confusing signals. While those at the top in the government were careful and correct in their speeches, those in the middle and lower rungs tested the limits of law and propriety with virulent remarks. As a party, the Bharatiya Janata Party looked as if it was torn between its role as a politically responsible ruling party, and its need to cater to its core Hindutva constituency.

Contrary to what many in the BJP seem to think, secularism is not a policy option for a government, but one of the original principles that inform the Constitution. ‘Secular’, as a word to describe the Indian Republic, might have been added to the Preamble only in 1976, but the freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion under Article 25 is one of the fundamental rights guaranteed in the Constitution. Protecting the right of all persons to freedom of religion is the constitutional duty of the government of the day. Indeed, freedom of religion is integral to any democratic society, and India, by definition, cannot remain a democracy without allowing its citizens the freedom to practise a religion of their choice. A government that cannot ensure the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution equally to all its citizens will quickly lose its political legitimacy and representative character. Certainly, Mr. Modi would not want his government to hurtle down that path.

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