Insights into Editorial: Secular in spirit and in letter + MINDMAPS on Current Issues
07 December 2015
On November 26, Constitution Day, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh bemoaned in Parliament that secularism was the most misused term in the country. According to him, the framers of the Constitution did not include the words ‘secular’ and ‘socialist’ because these values were already part of Indian civilisation. The Home Minister was essentially voicing a belief that secularism was alien to the Constitution, and that it was only during the Emergency that secularism stealthily crept into the Constitution. However, for some, this belief, though popular, is not quite right.
- It is indeed true that the Constitution originally had no reference to secularism, and that the word was introduced only in 1976. Yet, in terms of the emphasis it gave to religious freedom, freedom of conscience, equality and non-discrimination, the Constitution was indeed imbued with the secular spirit. The 42nd Amendment merely made it explicit.
First of all, what does secularism in the Indian Constitution mean?
There is no easy answer to this question and the definition cannot be restricted to textual interpretation alone. Simply put, Secularism is a constitutional value that seeks to manage India’s diverse and plural society, in an atmosphere of cohesiveness of national purpose.
- Secularism is implicit in the entire constitutional framework. Articles 14, 15, 16, 27, 28, 29, 30 and 325— all make for a constitutional architecture which is devoid of any religious preference whatsoever.
- There are however provisions which seek to enforce equality within the Hindu religion in Articles 17 and 25(2)(b). Deference to Hindu sentiments on cow slaughter is also provided for in Article 48, as is the pious hope for a uniform civil code in Article 44.
- In Article 25(2)(a), we can find constitutional permission for the state to regulate or restrict “any economic, financial, political or other secular activity which may be associated with religious practice”.
- Taken as a whole package, the constitutional vision of secularism is one of principled equidistance from all religious matters, while at the same time regulating its practice in a manner consistent with the demands of a modern society.
Thus, it is fallacious to argue that the original Constitution as adopted, enacted and given to ourselves on November 26, 1949, was not a secular document. The inclusion in the Preamble of the words “socialist” and “secular” by the 42nd Amendment on January 3, 1977, only headlined what was already present in the original text of the Constitution.
Debate over its inclusion in the constituent assembly:
Professor K.T. Shah wanted to include the words “secular, federal, socialist” in Article 1 of the Constitution. He wanted to include it in the constitution to guard against any possibility of misunderstanding or misapprehension.
- But declining the proposal, Dr. Ambedkar said, “What was already explicit in the Constitution need not be reiterated.”
Secularism as part of Basic Structure:
- On April 24, 1973, the Supreme Court, with its then full strength of 13 judges, ruled in the Kesavananda Bharati case that secularism was part of the basic structure of the Constitution.
- It also held that elements constituting the basic structure were beyond Parliament’s power to amend the Constitution.
- The court reiterated this principle in 1994 in the S.R. Bommai case when dealing with the challenge to the dismissal of four Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled State governments after the demolition of the Babri Masjid.
- Despite the Constitution’s secular nature being held to be part of its basic structure, matters did not rest. During the Emergency came the 42nd Amendment on January 3, 1977. Apart from many significant changes otherwise, it resurrected Prof. Shah’s cosmetic suggestion and inserted the word “secular” in the Preamble.
- After the Emergency, the 44th Amendment by the Janata government undid most of the substantial damage achieved by the 42nd Amendment. But it, too, chose to preserve the addition of the words “socialist” and “secular” to the Preamble.
Thus, it can be said that Secularism is inherent in the basic structure of the national book, and is beyond the power of any transient parliamentary majority to efface or abridge.
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