One book for India

Updated - November 16, 2021 04:52 pm IST

Published - December 10, 2014 02:26 am IST

Union Ministers and senior leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party seem to thrive directly or tangentially on controversies related to religion. In proposing that the Bhagavad Gita be declared a ‘national scripture’, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj was not setting off a debate on what, if anything at all, should be India’s national scripture. She was, instead, trying to prepare the stage for a communally polarised political debate on a Hindu religious scripture. As a secular democracy, India cannot possibly adopt as its national scripture a book revered by any one religion. None will dispute with Ms. Swaraj when she says the Bhagavad Gita helped her to handle challenges as India’s External Affairs Minister. What is up for debate is not the content of the Bhagavad Gita, not the aesthetics of its slokas or the relevance of its precepts. What Ms. Swaraj calls into question is the secular nature of India, whether a holy book of one religious community can be imposed as the national book of Indians of all faiths. To argue, as BJP vice-president Dinesh Sharma did, that the Gita is not a religious book, but is meant for the whole of humanity, is rather disingenuous. Irrespective of the extent of its secular appeal, the Gita, a part of the Mahabharata, is a Hindu text associated with Lord Krishna, and cannot qualify as a national book.

That gods and goddesses should not be invoked as part of the national ethos was made clear even at the stage of the framing of India’s Constitution. Indeed, when a suggestion was made to begin the Preamble of the Constitution “in the name of God”, there was strong opposition from many members of the Constituent Assembly, including several who considered themselves believers. As one member who argued against invoking God in the Preamble put it, “such a course of action is inconsistent with the Preamble which promises liberty to thought, expression, belief, faith and worship to everyone.” Freedom of conscience that is guaranteed under the Constitution includes the right to practise any or no religion, and seeking to elevate a sacred scripture of any one religion as India’s national scripture is tantamount to undermining the secular basis of the Constitution. While it might be too early to demand that the Narendra Modi government deliver on its promises of development and growth, there is little doubt that some of the energies of the new government are getting drawn to old, divisive issues. That not just junior ministers but even a senior leader should make such a communally divisive suggestion is disturbing. If indeed there is a felt need to hold up one book as a national book, then it should be the country’s Constitution, and nothing else.

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