Secular Nation: Interpreting the Preamble

  – Chandra Shekher Mishra

The conflicts surrounding the term secularism stem primarily from its parochial interpretations. And in yesteryear, these conflicts have caused massive intolerance amongst people on religious lines. The religion-based political narratives deserve a fair share of credit for this. But there is no denying that intolerance towards religion has long permeated the so-called secular or pseudo-secular people. The pseudo-seculars, too, have a parochial interpretation of Secularism when they believe that a religious person cannot be secular. Put more simply, religious people, not all though, are as intolerant of Secularism as pseudo-seculars 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. 

Even so, this article neither aims to force the readers to a more sanguine viewpoint of Secularism nor provide any counter-argument to the aforementioned parochial interpretations. It is submitted that rationalism and cognition are certain choices an individual has to make for himself. This piece, instead, aims to elaborate upon the meaning of Secularism in the context of the preamble, unfazed by the perpetuating opinion.

Meaning of Secularism:

Secularism is another value concept, like socialism, with a very open-ended and indefinite description. Consequently, it has been celebrated and criticized in the public sphere depending on individual interpretations. The individuals who praise this principle label it the most pragmatic solution to the problems of communalism and politics-religion tryst, while others denounce the said concept for its irreligious connotation. In the recent past, it has been dubbed by 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 radicals 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, atheists (or secularists) need to compete against 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 toward religion to be called secular; instead, the only thing required is its detachment or separation from religion. 

Put another way, political power and religious affairs should be separate in any liberal democratic society, and the State should not identify with any particular religion. This separation model of Secularism is practiced in modern democracies where liberty of religious belief and practice is a fundamental right. For instance, the Constitution provides for a complete separation of the State and the Church in the United States of America.

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

However, many scholars disagree with the aforementioned Indian model of Secularism. They assert that if the State is allowed to intervene, even a bit, in religious affairs, it might gravitate 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, the Separation of the State and Religion is discussed above.

However, it is submitted that upon pragmatical analysis, one could quickly identify that the Indian State subscribes 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 only describes what secularism ‘is’ in India, 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 of different religious beliefs and practices, provided they are fair and just. After all, how long could the State reasonably expect to remain secular in a society with an entirely intolerant attitude toward 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 assertion above, however, is a fallacy to a large extent.

Even though the term was coined in nineteenth-century Britain, one could easily find traces of the ideological application of religious tolerance and sarva dharma sam bhava, Indian Secularism, in Indian society before the nineteenth century. It has to be understood that Indian Secularism does not have a non-religious or anti-religious connotation; instead, 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. At its inception, Hinduism was its only religion. Over time, the exchange of culture and foreign invasions allowed numerous other religions to find their personal 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 how Indian society was never secular since its historical practice of religious tolerance has been well echoed worldwide. 

Indian history manifests other instances 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 worldwide, not just in India. It is said that he never interfered with the religious beliefs and practices of Hindus and Jains. During his reign, Akbar adopted this liberal policy of religious tolerance in the medieval period, juxtaposed with other Mughal and Muslim rulers. 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 Indian society and devised Din-i-illahi, which synthesized different religious views 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’s inception in the ancient Indian saying Ekam Sadavipra Bahudha Vadanti, which means that 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 since the sutra of Ekam Sadavipra Bahudha Vadanti suggests that all the Hindu gods are one and equal. At the same time, Sarva Dharma Sam Bhava only indicates that all religions should 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 valid to a certain extent that despite the above instances, one does not simply find fine examples of the aforementioned religious tolerance in medieval India, let alone Akbar, which was mainly under Islamic rule. That is one of the reasons why the tolerance amongst certain Hindus has eroded, particularly towards the Muslim community of India. Politicians deserve a fair share of credit for this erosion of tolerance. 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 ignored how the framers rejected the British idea of a separate electoral roll for each community and indulged themselves in the corrupt practice of creating vote banks on communal grounds. This author submits that the example of Akbar should not be neglected altogether, for his reign was of utmost significance in the medieval era. Moreover, as discussed above, other significant instances testify to religious tolerance and the secular nature of pre-independence Indian society.

Secularism under the Indian Constitution:

The term ‘secular’ was inserted into the Constitution during the most turbulent period of post-independence India. The said term was added 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 discussed this issue in his piece on socialism. There is no denying that the term ‘secular’ was voluntarily omitted from the Constitution. Still, upon sifting through the Constituent Assembly debates, the founding fathers were repulsive only towards the separation or the British model of Secularism.

Despite being a solid adherent of Secularism, Babasaheb Ambedkar was opposed to the expressed addition of the said terms as he viewed that as an impediment to 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, guaranteed other rights on a religious basis, made the arrangement of reservation, or drafted a directive for the protection of cows, the provisions that the framers went forward with. It must be understood that the addition of the expression ‘secular’ meant that the State and religion were strictly separate since it was the original notion of Secularism. The Sarva Dharma Sam Bhava, which was only followed in India, was not the original notion of Secularism. So, the ‘separation’ model of Secularism that 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 the Supreme Court of India observed 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 insertion above was a mere ‘political playing’ to show that Mrs. Gandhi stood for the poor and the minority. He suggested that India was 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. These provisions bring about religious equality when read in a total setting. They are a testament to the fact that Indian Secularism was already implicit within the Constitution. This argument is also testified by the fact that the Supreme Court observed Secularism, 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 India has ever witnessed, submitted that Secularism was one of the 12 essential features that the Parliament could not destroy, which was a mere creature of the Constitution. Any such destruction would amount to the 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. believed that Secularism was one of the Constitution’s basic features. 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 the arguments described above, the demands and petitions asking the State to drop the term ‘secular’ from the Constitution do not hold good.

To conclude, Secularism for the Indian State is construed as Sarva Dharma Sam Bhava, i.e., equal treatment of all religions, while Secularism for society means religious tolerance. That being said, it demands one respect other religious beliefs and practices. The inability of laypeople to correctly interpret Secularism has been the primary reason that has caused intolerance amongst some of them towards the said term. However, political narratives and the pseudo-secularists’ intolerance towards religion have also been important reasons behind the intolerance amongst religious people towards Secularism. Two hands clap, and a sound is made! This author constantly refers to certain people as pseudo-seculars because though they preach Secularism, they do not follow secular ideals. May not this author ask how they are secular if they cannot tolerate the religious beliefs themselves? Being an atheist and being intolerant of religion are two different things. You can be an atheist and still be secular because you tolerate religious beliefs. On a similar note, a person can be theistic and secular simultaneously in the sense that he accepts other religious beliefs. May not this author ask why pseudo-seculars label every religious person non-secular? A complete fallacy is that you must be an atheist to be secular. It is submitted that Secularism erodes traditional values of religion in one’s life, but labeling secularism synonymous with atheism is an exaggeration. Many pseudo-seculars tend to force secular ideals even in religious places. It must be understood that it is a futile and needless attempt for a religious site that can never be secular. On a similar note, the people on religious lines who prefer to be intolerant toward secular ideology based on specific parochial interpretations or false political narratives need to develop their cognitive faculties 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 must be coupled with cognition and rationality; if not, it would only lead to dogmas that often have harmful repercussions.


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