Understanding Secularism in the Indian Context: THE HINDU EDITORIAL

Understanding Secularism in the Indian Context: THE HINDU EDITORIAL

There was a point of time, perhaps, when we might have taken the idea of a secular, pluralistic India, tolerant of all sects and religions, as a position set in stone. But, incidents, especially since the early 1990s, have radically altered both reality and our imagination. That certain groups, including many within the political party presently in power at the Centre and in many States, actively believe in a different kind of India is today intensely palpable. Against this backdrop, statements made on December 24, in a public address, by the Minister of State for Employment and Skill Development, Anantkumar Hegde, scarcely come as a surprise.
Understanding Secularism in the Indian Context: THE HINDU EDITORIAL

Secularism and us

“Secular people,” he declared, “do not have an identity of their parental blood.” “We (the BJP),” he added, “are here to change the Constitution,” making it quite clear that in his, and his party’s, belief secularism was a model unworthy of constitutional status. Since then, the ruling government has sought to distance itself from these comments, and Mr. Hegde himself has, without explicitly retracting his statements, pledged his allegiance to the Constitution and its superiority. But the message, as it were, is already out, and its discourse is anything but opposed to the present regime’s larger ideology. Indeed, Mr. Hegde’s comments even mirror those made on several occasions by people belonging to the top brass of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, who have repeatedly stressed on what they view as their ultimate aim: the recognition of India as a Hindu state, in which secularism lies not at the Constitution’s bedrock, but entirely outside the document’s aims and purposes. The reactions to Mr. Hegde’s speech have been manifold. Some have welcomed it, as a call for debate, while others have viewed it as the ringing of a veritablealarm bell. Those on the far right in particular, though, have embraced the message, and have gone as far as to suggest that India has never been a secular state, that the Constitution, as it was originally adopted, did not contain the word “secular”, which was inserted into the Preamble only through the 42nd amendment introduced by Indira Gandhi’s government during the height of Emergency rule. They also point to B.R. Ambedkar’s pointed rejection of proposals during the Constitution’s drafting to have the word “secular” included in the Preamble. Given that the Constitution is mutable, these facts, in their belief, only buttress arguments against the inclusion of secularism as a constitutional ideal. But what statements such as those made by Mr. Hegde don’t quite grasp is that our Constitution doesn’t acquire its secular character merely from the words in the Preamble, but from a collective reading of many of its provisions, particularly the various fundamental rights that it guarantees. Any move, therefore, to amend the Constitution, to remove the word “secular” from the Preamble, before we consider whether such a change will survive judicial review, will have to remain purely symbolic. Yet, Mr. Hegde’s statements nonetheless bear significance, for they exemplify the confidence that he has in the broader project that is already underway. The endeavour here is to steadily strike at the secular values that the Constitution espouses, to defeat it not so much from within, but first from outside. Negating this mission requires sustained effort, not only in thwarting any efforts to amend the Constitution, if indeed they do fructify, but, even more critically, by working towards building a contrary public opinion, not through rhetoric, but through facts, by reaffirming our faith in constitutionalism, and in the hallowed values of plurality and tolerance that our democracy must embody.

Inbuilt freedoms

Now, it is certainly true that the Constituent Assembly explicitly rejected a motion moved by Brajeshwar Prasad from Bihar to have the words “secular” and “socialist” included in the Preamble. But this was not on account of any scepticism that the drafters might have had on the values of secularism. Quite to the contrary, despite what some might want us to believe today, the assembly virtually took for granted India’s secular status. To them, any republic that purports to grant equality before the law to all its citizens, that purports to recognise people’s rights to free speech, to a freedom of religion and conscience simply cannot be un-secular. To be so would be an incongruity. Secularism, as would be clear on any morally reasonable analysis, is inbuilt in the foundations of constitutionalism, in the idea of a democracy properly understood. In the case of our Constitution, it flows from the series of fundamental rights guaranteed in Part III. How can a person be guaranteed a right to freedom of religion without a concomitant guarantee that people of all religions will be treated with equal concern? To fully understand what secularism in the Indian context means, therefore, we must read the Constitution in its entirely. There is no doubt that within the Assembly, there existed a conflict between two differing visions of secularism: one that called for a complete wall of separation between state and religion, and another that demanded that the state treat every religion with equal respect. A study of the Constitution and the debates that went into its framing reveals that ultimately it was the latter vision that prevailed. As the political scientist Shefali Jha has pointed out, this constitutional dream can be best comprehended from K.M. Munshi’s words. “The non-establishment clause (of the U.S. Constitution),” Munshi wrote, “was inappropriate to Indian conditions and we had to evolve a characteristically Indian secularism… We are a people with deeply religious moorings. At the same time, we have a living tradition of religious tolerance — the results of the broad outlook of Hinduism that all religions lead to the same god… In view of this situation, our state could not possibly have a state religion, nor could a rigid line be drawn between the state and the church as in the U.S..” Or, as Rajeev Bhargava has explained, what secularism in the Indian setting calls for is the maintenance of a “principled distance” between state and religion. This does not mean that the state cannot intervene in religion and its affairs, but that any intervention should be within the limitations prescribed by the Constitution. Sometimes this might even call for differential treatment across religions, which would be valid so long as such differentiation, as Mr. Bhargava explains, can be justified on the grounds that it “promotes freedom, equality, or any other value integral to secularism.” We can certainly debate the extent to which the state intervenes in religious matters, and whether that falls foul of the Constitution’s guarantees. We can also debate whether an enactment of a Uniform Civil Code would be in keeping with Indian secularism or not. But what’s clear is that a diverse, plural society such as India’s cannot thrive without following the sui generis form of secularism that our founders put in place. It might well yet be inconceivable that the government chooses to amend the Constitution by destroying its basic structure. But these are not the only efforts we must guard against. We must equally oppose every move, every action, with or without the state’s sanction, that promotes tyrannical majoritarianism, that imposes an unreasonable burden on the simple freedoms of the minority. We can only do this by recognizing what constitutes the essence and soul of the Constitution: a trust in the promise of equality. What, we might want to keeping asking ourselves, does equality really entail? What does it truly demand?


1) Set in stone
Meaning: To be very difficult or impossible to change.
Example: The schedule isn’t set in stone, but we’d like to stick to it pretty closely.
2) Intensely
Meaning: With extreme force or strength.
Example: “the fire was burning intensely”
3) Palpable
Meaning: (of a feeling or atmosphere) so intense as to seem almost tangible.
Example: “a palpable sense of loss”
Synonyms: Perceptible, Visible
Antonyms: Intangible, Imperceptible
4) Backdrop
Meaning: Lie behind or beyond; serve as a background to.
Example: “the rolling hills that back dropped our camp”
5) Secularism
Meaning: The principle of separation of the state from religious institutions.
Example: “he believes that secularism means no discrimination against anybody in the name of religion”
6) Discourse
Meaning: Engage in conversation.
Example: “he spent an hour discoursing with his supporters”
Synonyms: Talk, Speak
7) Top brass
Meaning: The people with the highest positions of authority, especially in the armed forces.
Example: “the top brass of the Jockey Club”
Synonyms: Bosses, Managers
8) Bedrock
Meaning: The fundamental principles on which something is based.
Example: “honesty is the bedrock of a good relationship”
Synonyms: Core, Foundation
9) Manifold
Meaning: Many and various.
Example: “the implications of this decision were manifold”
Synonyms: Many, Numerous
10) Ringing alarm bell
Meaning: If something rings/sounds alarm bells, it makes you start to worry because it is a sign that there may be a problem.
Example: The name rang alarm bells in her mind.
Synonyms: Threats, Warning
11) Veritable
Meaning: Used for emphasis, often to qualify a metaphor.
Example: “the early 1970s witnessed a veritable price explosion”
12) Embraced
Meaning: Accept (a belief, theory, or change) willingly and enthusiastically.
Example: “besides traditional methods, artists are embracing new technology”
Synonyms: Welcome, Accept
Antonyms: Reject
13) Preamble
Meaning: The introductory part of a statute or deed, stating its purpose, aims, and justification.
Example: “Lord Denning’s preamble to the report”
Synonyms: Introduction, Preface
14) The height of
Meaning: The time when a situation or event is strongest or most full of activity.
Example: August is the height of the tourist season.
15) Buttress
Meaning: Increase the strength of or justification for; reinforce.
Example: “authority was buttressed by religious belief”
Synonyms: Strengthen, Support
16) Grasp
Meaning: Seize and hold firmly.
Example: “she grasped the bottle”
Synonyms: Grip, Clutch
Antonyms: Release
17) Judicial
Meaning: Of, by, or appropriate to a law court or judge; relating to the administration of justice.
Example: “a judicial inquiry into the allegations”
Synonyms: Legal, Juridical
18) Exemplify
Meaning: Be a typical example of.
Example: “he exemplified his point with an anecdote”
Synonyms: Illustrate, Demonstrate
19) Underway
Meaning: Having started and in progress; being done or carried out.
Example: “recruitment is well under way”
20) Endeavour
Meaning: An attempt to achieve a goal.
Example: “an endeavour to reduce serious injury”
Synonyms: Attempt, Effort
21) Espouses
Meaning: Adopt or support (a cause, belief, or way of life).
Example: Vegetarianism is one because she does not espouse.
Synonyms: Adopt, Embrace
Antonyms: Reject, Oppose
22) Negating
Meaning: Deny the existence of.
Example: “negating the political nature of education”
Synonyms: Deny, Dispute
Antonyms: Conform, Ratify
23) Thwarting
Meaning: Oppose (a plan, attempt, or ambition) successfully.
Example: “the government had been able to thwart all attempts by opposition leaders to form new parties”
Synonyms: Foil, Frustrate
Antonyms: Assist, Facilitate
24) Fructify
Meaning: Make (something) fruitful or productive.
Example: “they were sacrificed in order that their blood might fructify the crops”
25) Rhetoric
Meaning: Language designed to have a persuasive or impressive effect, but which is often regarded as lacking in sincerity or meaningful content.
Example: “all we have from the Opposition is empty rhetoric”
Synonyms: Bombast
26) Hallowed
Meaning: Make holy; consecrate; greatly revere and honour.
Example: “hallowed ground”
Synonyms: Sacred, Blessed
Antonyms: Cursed
27) Plurality
Meaning: A large number of people or things.
Example: “a plurality of critical approaches”
Synonyms: Lot, Diversity
28) Purports
Meaning: Appear to be or do something, especially falsely.
Example: “she is not the person she purports to be”
Synonyms: Claim, Profess
29) Concomitant
Meaning: Naturally accompanying or associated.
Example: “she loved travel, with all its concomitant worries”
Synonyms: Attendant, Associated
Antonyms: Unrelated
30) Conflict
Meaning: A prolonged armed struggle.
Example: “regional conflicts”
Synonyms: Action, Battle
Antonyms: Calm, Peace
31) Prevailed
Meaning: Prove more powerful or superior.
Example: “it is hard for logic to prevail over emotion”
Synonyms: Win, Triumph
32) Comprehended
Meaning: Include, comprise, or encompass.
Example: “a divine order comprehending all men”
Synonyms: Comprise, Include
Antonyms: Exclude
33) Moorings
Meaning: The ropes, chains, or anchors by or to which a boat, ship, or buoy is moored.
Example: “the great ship slipped her moorings and slid out into the Atlantic”
34) Rigid
Meaning: Not able to be changed or adapted.
Example: “rigid bureaucratic controls”
Synonyms: Fixed, Set firm
Antonyms: Flexible
35) Foul
Meaning: Very disagreeable or unpleasant.
Example: “the news had put Michelle in a foul mood”
Synonyms: Unkind, Unfriendly
Antonyms: Kind
36) Enactment
Meaning: The process of passing legislation.
Example: “the enactment of equal pay legislation”
Synonyms: Passing, Ratification
Antonyms: Repeal
37) Thrive
Meaning: Prosper; flourish.
Example: “education groups thrive on organization”
Synonyms: Flourish, Prosper
Antonyms: Decline, Wither
38) Sui generis
Meaning: Unique.
Example: “the sui generis nature of animals”
Synonyms: Individual, Special
Antonyms: Common, Ordinary
39) Tyrannical
Meaning: Exercising power in a cruel or arbitrary way.
Example: “a tyrannical government”
Synonyms: Autocratic, Oppressive
Antonyms: Democratic, Liberal
40) Essence
Meaning: The intrinsic nature or indispensable quality of something, especially something abstract, which determines its character.
Example: “conflict is the essence of drama”
Synonyms: Spirit, Quintessence

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