On the campaign trail, Narendra Modi had sought to allay minority anxieties by declaring that the government’s sole religion should be “India first” and the Constitution its “only holy book”. But now, NDA member Shiv Sena declares that the Hindu rashtra is a valid replacement for the secular state, and cabinet minister Ravishankar Prasad sees no harm if the issue is debated. Certainly, debate is the democratic way, but it cannot be blind to the context — a political party is trying to stir the pot. And it is generally agreed that some things are beyond debate — foundational ideas, progressive goals and the basic structure of the Constitution.
The controversy was provoked by the government’s use, in a Republic Day advertisement, of the Preamble to the Constitution in its original form, before the 42nd Amendment of 1976 introduced the words “secular” and “socialist” to describe India. The government did not excise these words from the current text and to that extent, cannot be faulted. Besides, socialism is usually read as a political and economic ideology, and its appropriateness in a directional document may be open to debate. The people of India choose their ideologies by the electoral process. They change their minds every five years, and nothing is etched in stone. But civilisational goals like secularism should be immutable. Despite their apparent confidence, the proponents of the Hindu rashtra cannot create it in the rainbow coalition of ethnicities, cultures, faiths and languages that the people of India constitute, except by expelling, expunging or invisiblising all minorities, a laughably improbable project.
Secularism should be — and is — widely debated, and the process enriches its content in the Indian context. The Constituent Assembly rejected the European model of socialism, wherein the state denies all that is beyond the secular (literally, worldly) realm, in favour of a state equidistant from all faiths. In the course of its judgment on the S.R. Bommai case, the Supreme Court had elaborated that though the word was inserted in the Constitution in 1976, “the concept of secularism was very much embedded in our constitutional philosophy”. Jawaharlal Nehru had made secularism a professed goal of the Indian state. Mahatma Gandhi, who fell this day 67 years ago, had written: “In no part of the world are one nationality and one religion synonymous, nor has it been ever so in India.” (Hind Swaraj, 1909) Today, we should continue to debate and evolve the specific content of secularism. But the validity of secularism as a goal of the progressive Indian state always remains beyond question.