Secular Nation: Interpreting the Preamble

Chandra Shekher Mishra

The conflicts surrounding the term secularism stem largely from its parochial interpretations. And in yesteryear, these conflicts have caused massive intolerance amongst the people in religious lines. The religion-based political narratives deserve a fair share of credit for this. But there is no denying the fact that intolerance towards religion has long pervaded amongst the so-called secular or pseudo-secular people as well. The pseudo seculars, too, have a parochial interpretation of secularism when they believe that a religious person cannot be secular. Put more simply, the religious people, not all though, are as intolerant towards secularism as pseudo-seculars are towards religious beliefs and practices. It takes two hands to clap after all. It is submitted that secularism is not what the pseudo-seculars represent and has a different interpretation. 

This article, even so, neither aims to force on the readers a more sanguine viewpoint of secularism nor provide any counter-argument to the aforesaid parochial interpretations. It is submitted that rationalism and cognition are certain choices that an individual has to make for himself. This piece, rather, aims to elaborate upon the meaning of secularism in the context of the preamble, unfazed by the perpetuating opinion, and thus move a step towards bringing about this Interpreting the Preamble series to completion

Meaning of Secularism:

Secularism is yet another value concept, like socialism, that tends to have a very open-ended and indefinite description. As a consequence, it has both been celebrated and castigated in the public sphere depending upon individual interpretations. The individuals who celebrate this principle, label it the most pragmatic solution to the problems of communalism and politics-religion tryst, while others castigate the said concept for its irreligious connotation. In the recent past, it has been dubbed by the Hindu radicals as the biggest brickbat in the growth of the Hindus and Hindutva philosophy– the parochial interpretation mentioned above. The point is that its meaning remains uncertain and controversial altogether. The idea of secularism was put forth and championed by George Holyoake, the associate of British radical and an atheist- Charles Bradlaugh. Bradlaugh began disseminating his version of secularism. He argued that the theistic or religious ideals were inflated with dogmas and superstitions. Thus, the atheists (or the secularists) need to compete against the theistic ideas for the sake of the material progress of society. According to him, secularism had an anti-religious connotation and the relationship between secularism and religion was that of hostility. Holyoake, however, believed that the relationship between secularism and religion was that of separation or detachment only rather than hostility. According to Holyoake’s idea, thus, the State need not be hostile towards religion to be called secular, rather the only thing required is its detachment or separation from religion. 

Put in another manner, the political power and religious affairs should be separate in any liberal democratic society and the State should not identify itself with any particular religion. It is this separation model of secularism which is practiced in the modern democracies where liberty of religious belief and practice is a basic right. In the United States of America, for instance, the Constitution provides for a complete separation of the State and the Church.

The term ‘secular’ has been used, though, in a slightly different sense in the context of the Indian Constitution. That being said, the Indian State should still not identify itself with a particular religion– be it Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism, or any other religion. There is a school of thought, however, that puts forth the idea of Sarva Dharma Sam Bhava. This idea, which has been embraced by leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, asserts that Indian secularism simply envisages equal treatment of all religions and does not require complete detachment of the State and religion as in the case of the United States. It means that the State should not favor one religion and discriminate against the others i.e. it should treat all the religions equally.

Many scholars, however, do not find consonance with the aforesaid Indian model of secularism. They assert that if the State is allowed to intervene, even a bit, in religious affairs then it might end up gravitating towards a particular religion. For instance, people have long questioned the stance of Yogi Adityanath, the de facto executive of U.P., towards Muslims as he has been abrasive towards them in the past.

There is yet another model of secularism, provided by Donald E. Smith, that some law scholars lean towards. Smith devised a triangle of ingredients, in his work India as a Secular State, that constitutes together a secular State:

 Firstly, Freedom of Religious belief and practice;

 Secondly, Common Citizenship ensures that the religious belief of a citizen, if any, does not affect his relationship with the State;

 Lastly, Separation of the State and Religion as discussed above.

It is, however, submitted that upon pragmatical analysis one could easily identify that the Indian State subscribes itself to the Sarva Dharma Sam Bhava model rather than Holyoake’s or Donald Smith’s model of secularism. The 45th Amendment Bill provided a clause that construed secularism to mean Sarva Dharma Sam Bhava, which could not be passed due to the lack of a majority in the Council of States. However, in Aruna Roy v. Union of India, the Supreme Court said that secularism in the Indian context translates into the idea of Sarva Dharma Sam Bhava. Again, this author is only describing what secularism ‘is’ in India and not what it ‘ought’ to be.

A Secular Society and Roots of Secularism in India:

A secular society is a necessary prerequisite for the existence of a secular State. A secular society is tolerant to different religious beliefs and practices provided they are fair and just. After all, how long could the State be, reasonably, expected to remain secular in a society which has a completely intolerant attitude towards other religious beliefs? In this context, one assertion that the Indians, who deride secularism for being atheistic at its core, often put forth is that the said value concept does not find its root in India and that pre-independence Indian society was never secular. The aforesaid assertion, however, is a fallacy to a large extent.

Even though the term was coined in nineteenth-century Britain, one could easily find traces of ideological application of religious tolerance and sarva dharma sam bhava, the Indian secularism, in Indian society way before the nineteenth century. It has to be understood that Indian secularism does not have a non-religious or anti-religious connotation rather it treats every religion equally. It is a well-known fact that religion was the central and most important pillar in the development of the Aryan civilization and at inception, Hinduism was its only religion. Over time, the exchange of culture and foreign invasions allowed numerous other religions to find their individual space and flourish within the Indian civilization. But the reason why these religions have for so long peacefully co-existed and proliferated, and always will, is the long tradition of Hindu tolerance and this argument could by no means be denied. So, it is ununderstandable as to how the Indian society was never secular since its historical tradition of religious tolerance has been well echoed across the world. 

Indian history manifests other instances as well where such a policy of religious tolerance was supposedly exercised- most noticeably under the reigns of the rulers Ashoka and Akbar. Ashoka was a devout Buddhist who propagated Buddhism across the whole world and not just in India but never did he interfere with the religious beliefs and practices of Hindus and the Jains it is said. In the medieval period, Akbar too adopted this liberal policy of religious tolerance, juxtaposed to other Mughal and Muslim rulers, during his reign. Consider the formation of his Navratnas, wherein four ministers were Hindus, or the stance where he abolished the controversial and sectarian Jizya tax. Akbar even sidelined the orthodox Islamic ideas intending to bring about religious harmony in the Indian society and devised Din-i-illahi which was the synthesis of different religious ideas and beliefs including Hinduism and Islam.

While delivering a speech at Berkley Centre, former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee proposed that the idea of Sarva Dharma Sam Bhava finds its inception in the ancient Indian saying Ekam Sadavipra Bahudha Vadanti which means that the God is one whom sages call by different names. To quote him:

Mahatma Gandhi describes the correct attitude towards religion as ‘Sarva Dharma Sambhava’, equal respect for all religions. The concept of ‘Sarva Dharma Sambhava’ is somewhat different from European secularism, which is independent of religion. In fact, by propounding the theory of Sarva Dharma Sambhava, Gandhiji continued the age-old Indian tradition which can be traced to the ancient saying of ‘Ekam Sadavipra Bahudha Vadanti.’ We may say that the Indian concept of secularism is Sarva Dharma Sambhava.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee at Berkley Centre, 1992

This author does agree with this statement to a certain extent inasmuch as the sutra of Ekam Sadavipra Bahudha Vadanti suggests that all the Hindu gods are one and equal while Sarva Dharma Sam Bhava only suggests that all religions are to be treated equally. Yet these ideologies tend to have a significant intersection with each other. To say, thus, that secularism does not find its root in India or that the pre-independence Indian society was never secular is a fallacy to a large extent. It is, also, true to a certain extent in the sense that despite the aforesaid instances, one does not simply find adequate examples of the aforesaid religious tolerance in medieval India, let alone Akbar, which was largely under Islamic rule. That is one of the reasons, why the tolerance amongst certain Hindus has eroded in particular towards the Muslim community of India. Politicians deserve a fair share of credit for this erosion of tolerance as they only tend to create religiously provocative narratives around unfortunate past events of conflicts between Hindus and Muslims to create vote banks for themselves. They completely ignore the fact as to how the framers rejected the British idea of a separate electoral roll for each community and rather indulge themselves in the corrupt practice of creating vote banks on communal grounds. This author yet submits that the example of Akbar should not be neglected altogether for his reign was of utmost significance in the medieval era. Moreover, there are other significant instances, as discussed above, which testimonies the existence of religious tolerance and the secular nature of the pre-independence Indian society.

Secularism under the Indian Constitution:

The insertion of the term ‘secular’ into the Constitution took place during the most turbulent period of post-independence India. The said term was added, along with ‘socialist’ and ‘integrity’, into the Preamble of the Constitution by the 42nd Amendment Act, 1976, with retrospective effect. In this context, many individuals assert, almost axiomatically, that the terms ‘secular’ and ‘socialist’ were expressly absent from the Constitution as the founding fathers had never wanted those value concepts to be a part of the Indian polity and that it only became a part of the Constitution since 1976. It is very humbly submitted that the said argument is a mere misconception. This author has already made a discussion around this issue in his piece on socialism. There is no denying that the term ‘secular’ was voluntarily omitted from the Constitution but upon sifting through the Constituent Assembly debates, one finds that the founding fathers were repulsive only towards the separation or British model of secularism.

Despite being a strong adherent of secularism, Babasaheb Ambedkar was opposed to the expressed addition of the said terms as he viewed that as an impediment on the liberty of the people to choose the socio-economic environment in which they favored to live, according to time and circumstances, and labeled such addition an impairment of democracy. It was also argued, among other things, that the term ‘secular’ had a non-religious connotation and that the ‘separation’ model of secularism (or secularism as it was meant to be understood at its place of origin) could not be applied to the Indian civilization, where religion has been a central pillar of development and a way of life, as it would mean that the State will not be empowered to make any religious intervention. That being said the State could not have recognized religious minorities, or guaranteed other rights on a religious basis, or made the arrangement of reservation, or drafted a directive for the protection of cows, the provisions that the framers went forward with. What has to be understood is that the addition of the expression ‘secular’ would have meant that the State and religion were strictly separate inasmuch it was the original notion of secularism and the Sarva Dharma Sam Bhava, which was only followed in India, was not the original notion of secularism. So, it is the ‘separation’ model of secularism which the founding fathers deemed inappropriate for the Indian polity. The idea of Sarva Dharma Sam Bhava or Indian secularism was still embedded within the Constitution despite such omission. The insertion of the term ‘secular’ in the Constitution, by the 42nd Amendment, was a mere verbal change as it was observed by the Supreme Court of India in S.R. Bommai v. Union of India, that the 42nd Amendment by inserting the term ‘secular’ into the preamble only made explicit what was already implicit within the Constitution.

According to renowned political scientist and Constitutional law expert Subash C. Kashyap, the aforesaid insertion was a mere ‘political playing’ to show that Mrs. Gandhi stood for the poor and the minority. He suggested that India has been secular and socialist before the 42nd Amendment and it continues to be the same after it. The Constitution provides numerous arrangements on a religious basis under Part-III like articles 25-28 that guarantee freedom of religious belief and practices, article 30 that, among other things, gives recognition to the religious minorities, clauses (1) and (2) of Article 15 that prohibit discrimination on the parochial ground of religion, Article 16(2) and Article 29(2) that make similar prohibition, among other things, in the matters of public employment and admission to educational institutions– maintained by the State or receiving aid out of State funds or even recognized by the State now– respectively. All these provisions when read in total setting tend to bring about religious equality and they are nothing but a testament to the fact that Indian secularism was already implicit within the Constitution. This argument is also testified by the fact that secularism was observed by the Supreme Court, in 1973, as one of the basic features of the Constitution, which cannot be destroyed or impaired by amendments, three years before its verbal insertion by the 42nd Amendment

In Kesavananda Bharti v. the State of Kerela, Mr. Nani Palkhivala, perhaps the greatest advocate that India has ever witnessed, submitted that secularism was one of the 12 essential features of the Constitution that cannot be destroyed by the Parliament, which was a mere creature of the Constitution, and any such destruction would amount to exercise of ultimate legal sovereignty (i.e. political sovereignty) that resides in the people of India, not the Parliament. Shelat J., Grover J., and Sikri C.J. took the view that secularism was one of the basic features of the Constitution. In the S.R. Bommai case, the apex court again in no uncertain terms declared Secularism as a part of the basic structure of the Constitution which was reiterated in Kuldip Nayar v. Union of India. Thus, in light of all the aforesaid arguments, the demands and petitions asking the State to drop the term ‘secular’ from the Constitution do not hold good.

To conclude everything succinctly, secularism for the Indian State is to be construed as Sarva Dharma Sam Bhava, i.e., equal treatment of all religions, while secularism for the society means religious tolerance. That being said it merely demands one to respect other religious beliefs and practices. The inability of the laymen to properly interpret secularism has been the central reason that has caused intolerance amongst some of them towards the said term. As discussed above, however, political narratives and the intolerance of the pseudo seculars towards religion have also been important reasons behind the aforesaid intolerance amongst religious people towards secularism. Two hands clap and a sound is made! The reason why this author, constantly, refers to certain people as pseudo seculars are that though these people preach secularism, they do not follow secular ideals. May not this author ask as to how are they secular if they cannot tolerate the religious beliefs themselves? Being an atheist and being intolerant towards religion are two different things. You can be an atheist and still be secular in the sense that you tolerate religious beliefs. On a similar note, a person can very well be theistic and secular at the same time in the sense that he tolerates other religious beliefs. May not this author ask as to why do the pseudo seculars label every religious person non-secular? A complete fallacy is that for being secular you necessarily have to be atheist. It is submitted that secularism erodes traditional values of religion in one’s life but labeling secularism synonymous with atheism is an exaggeration. Many of these pseudo seculars tend to even force the secular ideals even at religious places. It has to be understood that it is a futile and needless attempt for a religious place that can never be secular. On a similar note, the people in religious lines who prefer to be intolerant towards secular ideology, based on certain parochial interpretations or false political narratives, need to develop their cognitive faculty and develop a rational understanding of the said term by referring to certain books instead of social media and news reports. Strong faith in religion has to be coupled with cognition and rationality and if not, it would only lead to dogmas that often have harmful repercussions.

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