By: Shefali Jha
The word “secular” may have been inserted into the Preamble to the Indian Constitution in 1976, but undoubtedly, the politics of secularism, in the sense of what role to allow for religion in a democracy, was one of the dominant motifs of the deliberations of the Constituent Assembly (CA) that framed the Constitution. Religious riots were taking place and Partition was imminent when the meetings of the assembly began in December 1946. Is it not ironic that when the word “secular” is not used specifically in the Constitution that was passed by them, the members of the CA demonstrated a strong commitment to secularism as an essential prerequisite for India’s democracy? However, after that founding moment, the commitment to secularism has only weakened, to the extent that we have now come to a pass where we are again having to assert, like the CA members, that far from being a Western import, secularism is necessary for the survival of India’s democracy.
The Constitution that was passed in 1949 did not contain the word “secular”, but the debates that took place in the CA from 1946 to 1949 referred to “secularism” and “secular” countless times. Not only were there attempts to insert the word “secular” into the Preamble (for example, in October 1949), or to have the first article of the Constitution read as “India shall be a Secular, Federal, Socialist Union of States” (in November, 1948), but more importantly, secularism in the sense of an equal respect for all religions had the near unanimous support of the members of the CA. For most members, since a secular state was “neither a god-less state, nor an irreligious nor an anti-religious state” (in the words of H.V. Kamath), they did not support the idea of confining religion to the private sphere or granting religious freedom in the form of a narrow right to religious worship. This latter position did have a few advocates like Babasaheb Ambedkar and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, who argued that in the name of religious practices, discrimination against the Scheduled Castes and women should not be allowed to continue. However, for most members of the CA, secularism meant a more expansive role for religion.
Many members talked about evolving a characteristically Indian form of secularism. K.M. Munshi, who has often been described as the righthand man of Sardar Patel, stated that in Indian secularism, the “state could not possibly have a state religion, nor could a rigid line be drawn between the state and church as in the US.” This form of secularism, according to J.B. Kripalani, taught us to “respect each other’s faith — we have to respect it as having an element of truth.” We can see that since religion was being defined in positive terms, it followed then that the right to freedom of religion was to be framed widely as the right “freely to profess, practise and propagate religion”.
It is instructive to listen to Munshi defending all aspects of this right in December 1948: “Even if the word were not there, I am sure, under the freedom of speech which the Constitution guarantees, it will be open to any religious community, to persuade other people to join their faith. So long as religion is religion, conversion by the free exercise of conscience has to be recognised.” The fact that secularism was opposed in the form of what is now called negative secularism, where no religion is considered worthy of respect, should not make us forget that many CA members were clearly advocating a form of positive secularism where all religions are to be respected equally.
A constitution is a system of fundamental laws that have to be consistent with each other. As a set of consistent laws, the Indian Constitution guarantees its citizens certain democratic rights. The members of the CA understood secularism to provide space for religion in the public domain, and as a democratic constitution, the Indian Constitution guaranteed this public space for the religion of each individual, including all religions, in its sweep.
The question of socialism was also connected to the democratic nature of India’s Constitution. For both Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru, the ideal of economic democracy, with which the idea of socialism was linked, was part of the democratic vision enshrined in India’s Constitution. In January 1947, when Nehru was responding to the discussion on the Objectives Resolution (that later became the Preamble), he said that socialism was required to solve “the greatest and most important question in India”, which was “the problem of the poor and starving” people. He went on to claim that he “stood for socialism”, and that he hoped “India will stand for socialism”.
Similarly, Ambedkar, in his explanatory notes on the draft on rights that he submitted to the Fundamental Rights sub-committee, wrote about the necessity of socialism. Clarifying different articles of his draft, such as the article that specified that farm land would be “let out to villagers without distinction of caste or creed and in such manner that there will be no landlord, no tenant and no landless labourer”, he claimed that his draft “establishes state socialism by the law of the constitution and thus makes it unalterable by any act of the legislature and the executive”. Much later, in November 1948, Ambedkar said in the CA: “We do not want merely to lay down a mechanism to enable people to come and capture power… While we have established political democracy, it is also the desire that we should lay down as our ideal economic democracy… [which] I understand to mean, one man, one value.
Finally, of course, to put socialism in the Constitution was considered a constraint on the democratically elected government, in the sense that a government may prefer to achieve the goal of economic democracy, that is, address the problem of poverty, through means other than socialism. Economic democracy remained the ideal. But the specific mechanism that would be used to achieve it would remain open to the particular government elected, as we find Ambedkar explaining, “there are those who believe in individualism as the best form of economic democracy, there are those who believe in having a socialistic state as the best form of economic democracy”.
The deliberations of the CA were the site of continuous contestation, but what comes through in the continual debate is the idea of democratic equality. Many features of the Constitution — rights, including the right to religious freedom of all citizens, federalism, secularism and economic and social justice, were seen as germane to the idea of democratic equality. Democracy was not understood as merely a procedure for selecting a government; nor were they working with a majoritarian conception of democracy; the members had a more substantive idea of democracy. Equality was a fundamental goal of the members of the CA — for many of them, both secularism and economic democracy were necessary to establish equality as one of the tenets of the Indian Constitution.
The writer is professor, Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.