The winter session of Parliament got off to a rocky start Thursday when Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, initiating a discussion in Lok Sabha on the commitment to India’s Constitution as part of the 125th birth anniversary celebrations of Dr B R Ambedkar, antagonised the Opposition by saying secularism is now the most “misused” word.
With the government under attack for not doing enough to check rising acts of intolerance, Singh said “we are facing problems in ensuring social harmony because of the misuse of these expressions”. Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who spoke after the Home Minister, mounted a counter-offensive while highlighting the role of Ambedkar and the Congress in drafting the Constitution.
“Today is a day of happiness but there is also pain. The principles that inspired us for decades, a danger is lurking over them. They are being deliberately attacked,” she said. “People who have no faith in the Constitution, who have not contributed to its making, they are talking about it repeatedly, and are trying to appropriate it. There cannot be a bigger joke.”
She said Ambedkar had observed that howsoever good a Constitution may be, if those implementing it were bad people, then the ultimate effect would only be bad. The two leaders effectively drew the battlelines for the session during which the government hopes to push through key legislations, including a bill on the goods and services tax.
Before the House met, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tried to set the tone for the session saying there is no bigger centre for ‘samvad’ than Parliament. “The Parliament session will have good debates, discussions, innovative ideas and Parliament will shine. Our Constitution is a ray of Hope — H for harmony, O for Opportunity, P for People’s participation and E for equality,” he said. Entering the Lok Sabha, Modi went to the Opposition benches and greeted the leaders sitting there.
Bonhomie took a backseat when Rajnath Singh invoked Ambedkar to take what appeared to be a swipe at actor Aamir Khan who, during a conversation at the Ramnath Goenka Awards ceremony in New Delhi earlier this week, said his wife Kiran, worried over rising acts of intolerance, had asked him if they should consider leaving the country.
Singh told Lok Sabha: “Ambedkar had to go through humiliation and barbs. But he controlled his emotions and presented an objective point of view on the Constitution. He never complained how he was being ignored and humiliated in India. He said he would stay in the country, keeping India’s values and culture in mind, to strengthen the nation. He never thought of leaving India for any other country.”
This had Opposition MPs protesting and one of them shouted: “People feel like leaving the country because of you.”
Singh paid rich tributes to Sardar Patel, Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru — he said no one could deny Nehru’s role in nation building — but targeted the Opposition over what he called the “misuse” of secularism. “Misuse of the word secular should be stopped immediately. Political misuse of any expression given in the Constitution should not be there. We are facing problems in ensuring social harmony because of the misuse of these expressions,” he said.
Taking a swipe at the Congress, Singh said Ambedkar did not want the Preamble to be amended by anyone, but in 1976, through the 42nd amendment, two words — secular and socialist — were added during Congress rule. He said Ambedkar did not believe it was necessary to include these words as they were “values core to the Indian ethos”.
This led to loud protests from Opposition MPs. Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge argued that Ambedkar was in favour of adding the words to the Preamble but could not do so because “the atmosphere was not right then”.
Singh countered, saying the word secular in Hindi does not mean ‘dharam nirpeksh’ but ‘panth nirpeksh’ (non-sectarian). He described Ram as the greatest democrat since he had asked his wife Sita to take the ‘agni pariksha’ because someone had raised an issue concerning her.
In the heated exchange of words, Kharge shouted: “Ambedkar and we are from this country. Aryans (referring to the Hindi heartland) came from outside. We are the original inhabitants of this land. Despite facing insults for 5,000 years, we have been here and we continue to live in this country.”
Sonia Gandhi said the ideals and principles of the Constitution were under threat and were being deliberately attacked. Referring to acts of intolerance, she said what had been witnessed over the past few months was “totally against the principles” of the Constitution.
She sought to highlight the contribution of the Congress in the drafting of the Constitution and in the freedom struggle.She said Ambedkar had said “I was surprised when I was chosen as the chairman. There were more learned and better people than me in the committee. It was the discipline of the Congress party that enabled the drafting committee to give full information about every Act in the Constitution”.
She said it was the Congress which had spotted the “unique talent and capability” of Ambedkar who had returned after higher studies abroad. On the morning of November 26, 1949, when the Constitution was formally adopted, she said Dr Rajendra Prasad complimented Ambedkar by saying there could not have been a better chief for the drafting committee.
She said Nehru was among the four stalwarts who guided the committee — the other three were Prasad, Sardar Patel and Maulana Azad. The history of the Constitution, she said, is very old and linked to the country’s freedom struggle and that it why it is interlinked with the Congress. When some BJP members tried to protest, she said what she is saying is history to which no one could have any objection.
Earlier, in her opening remarks, Speaker Sumitra Mahajan reminded the House that India has a liberal polity, one which ensures that the trinity of liberty, equality and justice are central to governance. “Criticism and dissent, especially through the media, and intellectual discourse are vibrant, part and parcel of our democracy.” She said consensus building was a very crucial element in democratic governance and required MPs to engage each other, and the world together.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines