On November 15, 1948, when the newly independent dominion of India was in the midst of a heated debate in the Constituent Assembly, on the nature of the Constitution, Prof K T Shah made an intervention demanding the inclusion of the word ‘secular’ in the preamble. “Sir, I beg to move, that in clause (1) of article 1, after the words ‘shall be a’ the words ‘Secular, Federalist, Socialist’ be included. The amended article or clause shall read as follows: ‘India shall be a Secular, Federalist, Socialist, Union of States’,” he said. In the ensuing discourse, while the members agreed on the nature of the Indian state adhering to secular principles, the word ‘secular’ was dropped from the preamble. It made an appearance though, about three decades later, when the Indira Gandhi led government included it in the document, as part of the 42nd Amendment of the constitution.
In the decades that followed, secularism in the Indian constitution has been appreciated by some but has come under criticism by several others who have repeatedly pointed out to the foreign origins of the words, the inapplicability of it in the Indian context and the problematic ways in which it has been applied in India as well. “Independent government implemented secularism mostly by refusing to recognise the religious pasts of Indian nationalism, whether Hindu or Muslim and at the same time (inconsistently) by retaining Muslim ‘personal law’,” writes historian Ronald Inden in his work, “Imagining India.”
The word ‘secularism’ is known to have originated in late medieval Europe. “Secularism, the theory that governments ought to have no religious connection, nor indeed anything to do with matters of religious belief or ritual, is manifestly a Western intervention, specifically a product of the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment,” writes historian Ian Copland. Thereafter, secularism as the ideal theoretical basis of nation-states was utilised in lands outside the European continent, such as the United States and Turkey. Majority of the makers of modern India, shaped as they were, by European thoughts and practices, were ardent supporters of secularism as well. Foremost among them was the first prime minister of the country Jawaharlal Nehru. For him, having a secular state was a crucial mark of modernity. “We have only done something which every country does, except for a few misguided and backward countries,” he said in the Constituent Assembly debates.
Ironically though, it was Nehru along with the chairman of the drafting committee of the constitution, B R Ambedkar, who were also most opposed to the idea of including the word ‘secular’ in the preamble of the constitution. A closer examination of the circumstances in which the constitution of India was produced, and later of the time in which the word ‘secular’ went on to be included in the preamble, will illustrate several political and historical considerations that went into the application of secularism in India.
Secularism in the Constituent Assembly debates
When the preamble to the Constitution was discussed in the Constituent Assembly, debate over the incorporation of secularism took up a large portion of time. Political scientist Shefali Jha explains in an article that “all the members agreed, of course, on the necessity of establishing a secular state. Most shared an understanding of history in which the movement for the separation of religion and state was irrevocably a part of the project for the democratisation of the latter.” The connection between secularism and effective functioning of democracy had been well established in Europe, and since India was to follow the ideals of democracy, secularism was deemed absolutely essential.
However, debates in the Constituent Assembly made clear the ambiguity inherent in the terminology when applied in the Indian context. Questions were raised regarding the nature of its application and to what extent it was even possible.
“I accepted this secularism in the sense that our State shall remain unconcerned with religion, and I thought that the secular State of partitioned India was the maximum of generosity of a Hindu dominated territory for its non-Hindu population. I did not, of course, know what exactly this secularism meant and how far the State intends to cover the life and manners of our people. To my mind, life cannot be compartmentalised and yet I reconciled myself to the new cry,” said Lokanath Misra in the debate on December 6, 1948. “Do we really believe that religion can be divorced from life, or is it our belief that in the midst of many religions we cannot decide which one to accept? If religion is beyond the ken of our State, let us clearly say so and delete all reference to rights relating to religion,” he went on to state.
Vice president of the drafting committee H C Mookherjee, on the other hand, stated that “are we really honest when we say that we are seeking to establish a secular state? If your idea is to have a secular state it follows inevitably that we cannot afford to recognise minorities based upon religion.”
Nehru and Ambedkar were strongly committed to the ideal of secularism. “It is an ideal to be aimed at and every one of us whether we are Hindus or Muslims, Sikhs or Christians, whatever we are, none of us can say in his heart of hearts that he has no prejudice and no taint of communalism in his mind or heart,” said Nehru. Yet when it came to including ‘secular’ both were wary of its usage.
Being aware of the development of the Constituent Assembly debates and of the way in which the Constitution was being shaped, they knew fully well that secularism, in the truest meaning of the term, as it was meant to be understood at its place of origin, could not be applied in the Indian context. They understood that “ since ‘Enlightenment Secularism’, with its core principle of separation, founded on the Protestant conception of religion as essentially a private concern with which states had no legitimate business, was never going to work in a country where rulers and religious publics had been interacting from time immemorial, it was better not to use the term at all, than to use it fraudulently,” wrote Ian Copland. In order to follow secularism in its truest form, the State would be disallowed from making any kind of religious interventions, which included the reservation system, protection of the Muslim personal law and the directive principle to protect cows, all of which the Constitution went ahead with.
Making clear his stance on the State following the spirit of secularism, while avoiding its inclusion in the Preamble, Ambedkar said “what should be the policy of the State, how the Society should be organised in its social and economic side are matters which must be decided by the people themselves according to time and circumstances. It cannot be laid down in the Constitution itself because that is destroying democracy altogether.” Consequently, the Constituent Assembly adopted Articles 25, 26 and 27 of the Constitution with the intention of furthering secularism. Though not formally inserted in the document, secularism was definitely embedded in the constitutional philosophy.
Secularism in the 42nd Amendment
On June 26, 1975, prime minister Indira Gandhi announced on the All India Radio that “the president has proclaimed Emergency.” This she said was a necessary response to “the deep and widespread conspiracy which has been brewing ever since I began to introduce certain progressive measures of benefit to the common man and woman of India.”
In the following two years, the prime minister was authorised to rule by decree. Elections were suspended and civil liberties curbed. Thousands were arrested under MISA- the Maintenance of Internal Security Act. Old and new political opponents of Mrs. Gandhi, student activists, trade unionists were put behind bars. Anti-poverty programs, slum demolition drives, and the forced sterilisation campaign were some of the most important measures carried out by the government during this period.
“With the opposition MPs locked away, a series of Constitutional amendments were passed to prolong Mrs. Gandhi’s rule,” writes historian Ramachandra Guha in his iconic work, ‘India after Gandhi.’ While the 38th amendment ensured that no judicial review of the Emergency could take place, the 39th amendment stated that the office of the prime minister could not be challenged by the Supreme Court, but only by a body constituted by the Parliament.
The 42nd amendment came soon after. This 20 pages long detailed document gave unprecedented powers to the Parliament. Almost all parts of the Constitution, including the preamble, was changed with this amendment. Thereafter the description of India in the preamble was changed from “sovereign, democratic republic’ to a ‘sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic.”
With the passing of the 42nd amendment, the spirit of secularism which was always part and parcel of the Constitution was formally inserted into its body.