Some Cabinet Ministers in Karnataka who took oath recently stood out from the rest. Prabhu Chauhan took the oath in the name of Gaumata and ‘Seva Lal’. Murugesh Nirani took oath in the name of God and farmers. Anand Singh took oath in the name of Vijayanagara Virupaksha and Bhuvaneshwari. All these oaths run against the spirit of the Constitution.
An agnostic Constitution
During the Constituent Assembly debate on October 17, 1949 , the last item to be debated was the Preamble. B.R. Ambedkar proposed the Preamble, “We, the people of India…”. H.V. Kamath moved an amendment to the Preamble, “In the name of God, we, the people of India…”. To this proposal, another member,A. Thanu Pillai, said, “If Mr. Kamath’s amendment is accepted... would not that amount to compulsion in the matter of faith?... It affects the fundamental right of freedom of faith. A man has a right to believe in God or not, according to the Constitution... This amendment should be ruled out...”.
Another member, Rohini Kumar Chaudhuri, said, “What does Bande Mataram mean? It means an invocation to a Goddess... We who belong to the Sakthi cult protest against invoking the name of God alone, completely ignoring the Goddess... May I move an amendment to that of Shri Kamath that instead of ‘in the name of God’, would he be pleased to accept ‘in the name of Goddess’?”
H.N. Kunzru opposed Kamath’s amendment stating, “I do not see why in a matter that vitally concerns every man individually, the collective view should be forced on anybody. Such a course of action is inconsistent with the Preamble which promises liberty to thought, expression, belief, faith and worship to everyone... We invoke the name of God, but I make bold to say that while we do so, we are showing a narrow, sectarian spirit, which is contrary to the spirit of the Constitution...”.
In the end, the President of the Assembly put Kamath’s amendment to vote. The amendment was defeated, thereby excluding ‘God’ from the Preamble. Thus, our founding fathers gave us an agnostic Constitution.
Constitutional oaths should be secular. Abhinav Chandrachud, in Republic of Religion , pointed out that public officials who took office under the Government of India Act, 1935 had to take oath which had no mention of God. However, the framers of the Constitution rejected this conception of secularism and brought ‘God’ back into the Constitution by giving office-holders an option to swear in God’s name if they so wished. This was a regressive step.
The U.S. Constitution contains no reference to God. While it is customary for the U.S. President to utter the words: “So, help me God...” at the end of the oath, the Constitution does not require it.
Calling for an amendment
The Supreme Court of India observed in 2012 that the oath by an elected representative should be taken “in the name of God” if the person is a believer or should be “solemnly affirmed” if the person is a non-believer. The case pertained to an MLA, Umesh Challiyil, whose oath had been declared void by the Kerala High Court. Mr. Challiyil had taken oath in the name of Sri Narayana Guru, whom he said he considers and believes as God. Mr. Challiyil challenged the High Court order. While taking up the matter, the Supreme Court said that the oath of an elected representative should be in strict compliance with the wordings of the Constitution. In the light of this verdict, the oaths of the Karnataka Cabinet Ministers would be null and void.
The allegiance of a person holding a constitutional post should only be to the Constitution. Once such a person takes the oath in the name of a God affiliated to a particular religion or caste, citizenry cannot expect the absence of affection or ill-will from him. As the Republic belongs to all the citizenry, irrespective of whether he is a theist, atheist or agnostic, and irrespective of his caste or religion, a person occupying a constitutional post should take oath in the format of ‘“solemnly affirm”. The Constitution should be amended accordingly.
Faisal C.K. is Under Secretary to the Government of Kerala. Views are personal