Secularism and the Constitution

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:33 pm IST

Published - November 30, 2015 01:21 am IST

The current winter session of Parliament was >expected to add clarity to the ongoing debate on tolerance, or the lack of it, in the country. But before the issue was taken up, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government came up with the idea of a two-day debate on how far the values of the Constitution are being understood today. The occasion was to mark the 125th birth anniversary year of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and to commemorate the adoption of the Constitution in the Constituent Assembly on November 26, 1949. After Union Home Minister >Rajnath Singh questioned the manner in which secularism is being used in contemporary discourse, Congress president Sonia Gandhi argued that the principles enshrined in the Constitution were >under deliberate attack . That secularism is a core value in the constitutional system has always been beyond debate, and its inviolability as a principle of governance has been taken for granted. Whenever the subject was debated in independent India, it was in terms of questioning the balance between the rule of equality before law and the exception in the interest of protecting the rights of minorities. Mr. Rajnath Singh’s contention that ‘secularism’ is the most misused word in Indian politics and that the time has come to end such misuse came close to questioning the continuing relevance of the very concept of secularism. It is indeed true that the Constitution originally had no reference to secularism, and that the word was introduced only in 1976. Yet, in terms of the emphasis it gave to religious freedom, freedom of conscience, equality and non-discrimination, the Constitution was indeed imbued with the secular spirit. The 42nd Amendment merely made it explicit.

Given the attempt by a previous NDA regime (1998-2004) to force a review of the Constitution, it is natural that those committed to secularism read in Mr. Rajnath Singh’s remarks an attempt to dilute the concept. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's >intervention in the debate , ruling out any such review and reaffirming his government’s commitment to the core principles of the Constitution, must be welcomed. In contrast to his laconic demeanour in the recent past saying little substantively critical of communal utterances by his party colleagues and others in government, Mr. Modi wound up the debate asserting that the only religion for his government was ‘India first’ and the only holy book, the Constitution. By ruling out any plan to review the Constitution and simultaneously >reaching out to the Opposition to take forward his government’s legislative agenda, the Prime Minister has set the right tone, even if one could be tempted to see this as a chastening consequence of his party’s defeat in the Bihar election. He will have to say and do a lot more in order to address the apprehension that Mr. Rajnath Singh was in fact floating a trial balloon, and that the overturning of secularism represents a dominant issue on the BJP’s agenda.

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