Why diversity needs secularism

The non-inclusion of the word ‘secular’ in the original Constitution cannot be a reason to recommend its removal now

November 02, 2016 01:14 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:36 pm IST

The expansion and consolidation of the Hindu Right’s political power has raised legitimate concerns about the future of India’s > secularism . While criticism of secularism could be found in the public debate during the anti-colonial struggle, the sustained assault on it became particularly apparent during the > Ayodhya movement . During the late 1980s and 1990s, the public campaign led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) advocated that the practice of secularism has led to the appeasement of Muslims. The BJP further argued that it has been quite harmful to India’s democratic polity because it has been institutionalising vote-bank politics, and that what is needed is in fact an attempt for a ‘positive’ secularism as opposed to ‘negative’ secularism. While these distinctions were widely used during those days, surprisingly it has vanished from the political lexicon of the Hindu Right in recent years.

Secularism, unity and diversity The most significant moment of this departure in the politics of the Hindu Right was during the 2014 election campaign. For the first time in Indian history, Narendra Modi, as a prime ministerial candidate, unleashed the most sustained attack on the idea of secularism in meeting after meeting. At a > meeting in Bulandshahr , Uttar Pradesh, on March 26, 2014, he reminded people how the idea of secularism has kept Muslims poor. On this issue, he has remained rather consistent even after becoming Prime Minister, although he has vacillated on many other issues. At a party in Berlin on April 14, 2015, hosted by the Indian Ambassador, he spoke of how Sanskrit has suffered owing to India’s so-called “secular fever”.

There are also occasions when Mr. Modi has made statements on diversity being India’s strength without recognising that diversity as a political project can only be effective with secularism as a working foundational value. This is a tragic flaw in the Hindu Right’s understanding of the notion of diversity. Inaugurating the debate on intolerance in Parliament on November 26, 2015, Home Minister Rajnath Singh explained how this idea of secularism has been misused and how the word is the most abused one. According to the Hindu Right, there are perhaps some benefits of secularism, but they are trivial and could be easily found in the ideology of Hindutva, apparently noble, kind, and all-embracing. It seems to suggest thereby that the problem is not with the idea of Hindutva, but with the misconceptions of secularists about this otherwise noble idea.

The Hindu Right is seemingly keen on reminding everyone that India’s founding fathers including B.R. Ambedkar did not consider it necessary to introduce the word ‘secular’ in the Preamble of the Constitution. It was inserted as part of the 42nd amendment during > Indira Gandhi’s Emergency rule. In his speech, Mr. Singh specifically mentioned Ambedkar’s reluctance to introduce the word. The fact is that Ambedkar made two interventions in the debate on Professor K.T. Shah’s resolution on this issue, and chose to remain silent on the secularism question although he firmly opposed the entry of the word ‘socialism’ on the ground that future generations should have the freedom to choose their economic path. Ambedkar was not a convinced socialist at all. But analysis of his writings on minority rights, Muslims, Pakistan etc. when seen in the context of his pronouncements like “I was born Hindu, but won’t die as one” or “Hinduism is not a religion” echoes a particular brand of secularism, very distinct from the Nehruvian or the Gandhian one. His secularism is about human dignity, and his idea of secular political culture is to contribute to the emancipation of human beings from all kinds of man-made suffering inflicted in the name of religion. Had he been alive today, he would have been, no doubt, the most fierce and erudite critic of Hindutva politics.

An omission yet unexplained These two words — > secular and socialist — entered the Constitution when most leaders of the Opposition were under arrest for their resistance to the Emergency. Since these words were retained during the 44nd amendment under the Janata Party regime, it is suggestive of a broad consensus among India’s political leadership for their insertion in the Constitution.

Why did our founding fathers not include them in the Constitution in the first place? Scholars have tried to explain this. In his presidential address to the Indian History Congress, Malda, in 2015, historian Sabyasachi Bhattacharya argued that it was Jawaharlal Nehru’s and Ambedkar’s larger belief in the values of equality and justice that encouraged them not to introduce these words. One wonders how one could speak of equality and justice in a multi-religious society without secularism.

Moreover, it would be almost impossible to argue that Indira Gandhi was the greater defender of Indian minorities or a bigger patriot compared to Nehru or Ambedkar. There is little knowledge about the circumstances in which she chose to introduce these words. Did she do it on her own or was she advised by somebody? In a recent memoir, President Pranab Mukherjee tells us that it was on the advice of Siddhartha Sankar Ray that she introduced the Emergency. Moreover, Indira Gandhi was not just one of the past Prime Ministers of India like, say, H.D. Deve Gowda; she was also Nehru’s daughter. Was she privy to any particular discussion with Nehru about the reason why he was not keen on pressing for the insertion of these words? We do not have definite answers to these questions as yet.

Others like diplomat-turned-politician Pavan K. Varma argue that the threat to India’s secular fabric from the Hindu Right was far greater during the 1970s, which is why Indira Gandhi considered it necessary to introduce these words. Even socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayan was concerned with the growing influence of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh on the Morarji Desai government, for which he wrote a specific letter expressing his concerns about its Hindutva project. As things stand now, there is no convincing answer as to why the word “secular” was left out in the first place, and that gives the Hindu Right a convenient handle to twist the debate in its favour in their advocacy for its removal.

Shaikh Mujibur Rehman is the editor of ‘Communalism in Postcolonial India: Changing Contours’ (Routledge, 2016). He teaches at Jamia Millia Central University, New Delhi.

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