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Secularly swearing

Oaths with God: a sign of ‘accommodationist’ secularism

Written by Abhinav Chandrachud |
May 26, 2009 12:36:55 am

The first swearing-in,at Rashtrapati Bhavan on Friday,featured many ministers taking the oath of office “in the name of God”. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh,Pranab Mukherjee,and others such as Kapil Sibal and Murli Deora prefaced their oaths thus. Others,notably P. Chidambaram,Sushilkumar Shinde and Veerappa Moily,took the oath exclusively in the name of the Constitution,replacing the words “swear in the name of God” with “solemnly affirm”. The Third Schedule gives ministers the option of either swearing by God or of leaving God out of the oath altogether. What does this say about the “secular” nature of India — one of the founding pillars of Indian democracy,and the cornerstone of the Congress manifesto?

In some secular countries,like France,the official utterance of the word “God” would have been unthinkable. In the United States of America,however,the birthplace of the Jeffersonian ideal of the “wall of separation between Church and State”,the word “God” is mired in controversy,though often used officially. For example,the words “God grant us wisdom” were famously used in a speech by George W. Bush after the terrorist attacks on September 11,while the American presidential oath ends with the words “so help me God”.

Does the fact that the prime minister and others used the word “God” in an official oath “establish” religion and violate Indian secularism? Of course,in India,there is an idea that the word “God” itself is secular in nature — it doesn’t reveal an affirmation of any particular deity,Hindu or otherwise. But its use does betray an affirmation that some form of God does exist. Is the Indian government permitted by the Constitution to acknowledge that God exists,thereby officially denying the atheistic view?

The secular nature of a country could conceivably have an inhibiting effect on the religious beliefs of its citizens. For example,in France,a professedly secular country,Sikh school children were prohibited from wearing their turbans to school,since French citizens are supposedly expected to have no identity in public besides their French identity. The headscarves debate there similarly ignited controversy throughout Europe,while the Mormon Church was seen by many as having been forced to renounce bigamy in the US. By contrast,Indian citizens can have various identities besides their Indian identity; we can display our religious garb in public,and even utter an affirmation of “God” in a public ceremony,while various personal laws protect the personal religious practices of various groups,despite a constitutional directive for a uniform civil code. The free exercise of religion and secularism are therefore not necessarily positively related.

Further,the word “secularism” means different things in different systems. India is not religion-blind; rather than using the term “secular”,it could be classified as being “benevolently neutral” or “accommodationist” towards religion. Consider the following things about India that obscure its pure “secular” character: female public school teachers and government employees can wear vermilion on their forehead while at work; and a Hindu ceremony,lighting the ceremonial lamp,is often conducted at government educational institutions. Consider further that India’s motto,Satyameva Jayate (Truth Always Triumphs) is borrowed from the Upanishads — although,because of its invocation of “Truth” as opposed to “God”,it works better than America’s “In God We Trust”. While many of these practices can perhaps be said to have acquired a secular character over the ages (fire crackers on Diwali are,after all,not an exclusively Hindu phenomenon),their religious origin is hard to ignore.

It could be said that India’s repudiation of secularism proper helps secure uninhibited religious exercise for its citizens. Because of the US Supreme Court,for example,Jews in the American armed forces were at one point not permitted to wear their yarmulkes,while Native Americans were once not permitted in their ancient ceremonies to use peyote,a controlled substance (the decisions were subsequently reversed by the US Congress). In India,licensed marijuana is dispensed at some select outlets,perhaps in tacit acknowledgment of its possible religious uses.

The force of Indian secularism lies in its constructive rather than its destructive ability. Here,“secular” is not a talismanic catchphrase which encapsulates a nation’s identity,but a complex amalgam of ideas which mean different things to different people. But the fact that some ministers chose not to mention God tells us that our ministers’ individual convictions cannot be tampered with — whether they choose to act in the name of a superior being or of their own conscience,the Constitution of India gives them that freedom of choice.

The writer is at Harvard Law School

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