I have deliberately framed the question so as not to restrict it to “India as a secular state”. For, I believe, it is not enough if the Indian state is secular, which it is not. It is equally, if not more, important that we are a secular society, a secular nation. I believe this question needs to be asked, reflected upon and answered truthfully. My latest book, Secularism — India At Cross-Roads, on this subject is under print.
It is my conviction that India’s survival as a multireligious, multilingual, multiracial, multicultural society will depend on how successful it is in working its secularism. No society can prosper or be at peace with itself if one-fourths of its population feels neglected, deprived and unwanted. It is disconcerting to see that, in recent times, serious questions are being raised about India’s secularism. It is for the first time since Independence that the Hindu rashtra ideology is being talked about so openly, defiantly and persistently. It is fortunate that the proposal of the Janata government contained in the Constitution (Forty-fourth Amendment) Bill, 1978, for effecting amendment of the Constitution by holding a referendum on certain important matters did not find acceptance in the Rajya Sabha. Otherwise, attempts would even have been made to rally public opinion in favour of doing away with the secular characteristics of the Constitution and I would not be surprised if, in the present polarised political atmosphere, it would have found a majority support. The Supreme Court itself has expressed apprehensions in this regard: “India till now is a secular country… we do not know for how long it will remain a secular country.”
Secularism — Constitutional Precepts and Reality
A series of articles in the Constitution underline the precepts of secularism. The reality is, however, quite disappointing. The majority community as also the minorities are totally disillusioned with the working of secularism. Instead of being the cementing force, secularism has led to alienation of all communities.
In my forthcoming book on secularism, I have elaborately brought out the strong opposition of Hindus which had to be resisted while enacting the Hindu Code. Even prominent leaders of the Congress party were stoutly opposed to the reforms in Hindu law. We should be eternally grateful to Jawaharlal Nehru for standing firm and getting the relevant enactments passed. It is, however, unfortunate that Nehru did not show similar courage in initiating enactment of a uniform civil code. If reforms in Muslim personal law had been pursued, the social and religious ethos of the country would have undergone significant changes by now. Having lost the golden opportunity at that time, it will be impossible to enact a uniform civil code now, irrespective of the exhortations of the Supreme Court, unless there is a strong reformist and liberal move from within the Muslim community. Sadly, all political parties are remiss in encouraging modern, scientific, enlightened, progressive and liberal leadership among Muslims.
In a secular state, religion is expected to be a purely personal and private matter and is not supposed to have anything to do with the governance of the country. The Supreme Court had observed in the Bommai case that if religion is not separated from politics, the religion of the ruling party tends to become the state religion. This seems to be coming true.
India’s future is intrinsically tied up with secularism. To make a real success of it, action on a number of important points is necessary. The first is to define the word “secular”. Since secularism has been declared as a part of the basic structure of the Constitution, governments must be made accountable for implementing it. But how can they be held accountable unless the meaning of the term “secular” is clear? The second is to define the word “minority”. The concept of secularism is based on recognition and protection of minorities. The two cannot be separated. One would have, therefore, expected that the founding fathers of the Constitution would first define the term minorities. Unfortunately, this was never done.
The third, and most critical, is the setting up of a commission on secularism for ensuring adherence to the constitutional mandate on secularism. To be effective, such a commission must be appointed by an amendment of the Constitution and should be presided over by a former chief justice of India.
The fourth is the separation of religion from politics. It is of such urgency that no time should be wasted in bringing this about. The Constituent Assembly (Legislative) had passed an explicit resolution on the subject as far back as April 3, 1948. Nehru had welcomed the resolution and assured that the government “wished to do everything in their power to achieve the objective which lies behind this resolution”. But, though Nehru was prime minister for 17 years, he failed to take any action on the resolution. The only other time when any political party enjoyed a two-thirds majority in the Lok Sabha, so as to be able to see through such a constitutional amendment, was when Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi were in power. But they, too, did not find it politically expedient to act on the resolution. It was only after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, when the secular credentials of the Congress party were being seriously questioned in India and abroad, that the P.V. Narasimha Rao government brought the Constitution (Eightieth Amendment) Bill and a bill for amendment of the Representation of the People Act before Parliament in 1993 to bring about separation of religion from politics. However, the bills failed to receive adequate support and had to be withdrawn.
Unless this issue is addressed so as to carry through a suitable Constitution amendment, it will be futile to talk about India as a secular nation. On the basis of past experience and to meet the concerns expressed by some political parties during the debate on the Constitution (Eightieth Amendment) Bill in 1993 regarding the likely misuse of such an enactment, I would suggest that the amendment bill should be confined only to deregistration of a political party which has religious links and restraining such political party from contesting elections at any level in the country.
The next item for action pertains to the right to propagation of religion. There are a number of decisions of the high courts and the Supreme Court according to which the right to propagation is not a right to conversion. This problem has to be nipped in the bud by amending Article 25 to delete the word “propagation”.
Another action point pertains to doing away with the protection to minority educational institutions. There was considerable opposition to this article in the Constituent Assembly. There is no justification to continue this right.
Finally, serious thought needs to be given to deleting the provision for prohibition of cow slaughter. Article 48, though a part of the directive principles, has now been elevated in public discourse to the level of a fundamental right. The basic question is whether a total ban on slaughter of cows and their progeny is justified on any grounds at all except that of the religious sentiments of Hindus. But even in regard to them, there is no universal demand for a total ban by all Hindus. Most importantly, such a ban is not in keeping with secularism. Particularly in the drought-hit areas in a number of states such as Maharashtra, it is causing largescale distress to farmers. The Indian Constitution is a mix of several compromises, particularly insofar as its proclaimed secular ideology is concerned.
Two basic electoral reforms are imperative if secularism is to be strengthened. The first is making voting compulsory. The second is making 50 per cent plus one vote necessary to win. A great deal remains to be done if secularism is to become a way of life in India.