• Suraj Ray

Secularism in the Indian Constitution a Threat or Not?

India is the largest democracy in the world. This is not because that the democratic system involves 1.3 billion people; rather because it incorporates and adjusts rich diversity of religion, race, language, custom, ethnicity, and tradition. The richness in diversity is the beauty of India and the Indian Constitution which upholds them. Secularism in the Constitution of India ensures the protection and equal treatment of religious diversity. However, these days, there are continuous and systematic attacks over the constitutional identity of India, with the rising demands to read out secularism from the Constitution. One of the recent is, the speech of Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh State, who speaking at the lunch of the Global Encyclopedia of the Ramayan said, “This word ‘Secularism’ is the biggest threat to develop India's prosperous traditions and give it a spot on the global stages”.[1]

Secularism is a concept which evolved in the west, to separate state from religion, and was aimed to prevent state interferences in religious practices. In 1949, when newly independent India was drafting its Constitution, through a constituent assembly, the modern western concept of secularism was domesticated with its own flavor.[2] Before independence, religion used to be an integral aspect of state in India, yet, in the aftermath of independence, while Pakistan chooses to be an Islamist republic, the framers of the Indian Constitution were determined to continue being a liberal state by ensuring equal treatment of all religions and prevent communalism. And thus, provisions like the state shall not differentiate on the basis of religion, freedom to profess and promote religion, all religions are the same, the government can't fund any particular religion, etc. were ensured as the fundamental rights of citizens against the state. Further, the preamble incorporated concepts like, liberty, equality, and fraternity, which upholds the secular norms.

However, the Constitution nowhere mentioned the word ‘secular’. In the constituent assembly, there were long debates in support and against incorporating the word ‘secular’. Though Ambedkar advocated secular values of the constitution, he was against the inclusion of the word secular in the constitution. He said;

If you state in the Constitution that the social organization of the State shall take a particular form, you are taking away the liberty of the people to decide what should be the social organization in which they wish to live. I do not see therefore why the Constitution should tie down the people to live in a particular form and not leave it to the people themselves.

It was only 1977 when the word was introduced in the Preamble of the Constitution, along with socialist, with the 42nd amendment in the Constitution.

The Preamble is a mirror of the Constitution that reflects its values. Though it is not enforceable by the court, it is widely relied on by the courts while interpreting the Constitution.[3] The addition of the word 'secular' in the Preamble ensured protection to the religious minorities. The governments afterward, while challenging the amendment didn’t touch secularism, which showed their allegiance toward it.

These days secularism under the Constitution is decried as a threat to India. Political parties and religious organizations have been widely speaking against secularism. Similarly, a writ petition is also filed in the Supreme Court[4], seeking to remove 'secular' and 'socialist' from the Constitution, which is currently sub-judice under the court.

The Constitution is a vibrant document. Due to its ability to change itself as per the need of time and will of people, the Constitution has received its acceptability. To ensure its vibrancy, the people elected representative, i.e., parliament is given authority to amend the Constitution. But, such amending power of parliament is not unlimited. The Supreme Court in the Kesavananda Bharati case[5] has held that the amending power of the Parliament is not unlimited, it can amend the Constitution only in a way that doesn’t change the basic structure of the Constitution. In the same case, the Court also held secularism a basic structure of the Constitution, four years before the word 'secular' was introduced in the Constitution. Secularism being a basic structure of the Constitution means that the secular character of the Constitution can only be changed by any 15 judges-bench, by inverting the judgment of the court, which is that not easy.

Arguments are also put forward that removing secularism from the preamble[6] won't affect the secular character of the Constitution[7], as it is deeply embedded in the Constitution. However, these voices for the exclusion of secularism should not be taken so easily for granted. The advocates are also aware that secularism is the basic structure of the Constitution and mere removing secularism from the Preamble won't make it a Hindu nation. These voices are part of their political agenda to make India a Hindu state, for which they have been selling the fear that, India’s Hindu majority, who account for almost 80 percent of the population, are at risk of being taken over and dominated by minorities. And by raising such an urge for removal of the word ‘secular’ among the public, rage against a religious minority is slowly growing among the public which pushes India being communal.[8] There are several incidents of Muslims being treated as second-class citizens, threatening their life, liberty, dignity, and right to equality. The recent narratives like: Love Jihad, Tabliqi Jamat, Cow Vigilant, etc, which are targeted against the Muslim minority of India, do support that the secular nature of the Indian Constitution, which thrived to upheld inclusion and pluralism, is under threat.

On the statement of Shri Yogi Adityanath, we need to understand that the Indian is the birthplace of four religions, i.e., Hindu, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism, it has developed with the concept of ‘Sarva Dharma Sambhavah’, which means all religions are possible. As said earlier, the recognition and protection of diversity in India is what makes it incredible. The secular feature of its Constitution ensures equality, fraternity, and peaceful co-existence of peoples, which is an important message to the entire world. Therefore, all attempts to read out the secular nature of the Constitution will affect the democratic nature of the Constitution and India.

_____________________________ [1] Staff, CM: Secularism biggest threat to India’s tradition on Global Stage, INDIAN EXPRESS (June 18, 2021, 02:37) https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/lucknow/cm-secularism-biggest-threat-to-indias-tradition-on-global-stage-7217637/. [2] Subhodeep Mukhopadhyay, Secularism in India: History, Implications and Alternatives, INDIA FACTS (June 18, 2021, 04:13 PM) https://indiafacts.org/secularism-india-history-implications-alternatives/ [3] Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala, (1973) 4 SCC 225; AIR 1973 SC 1461. [4] PTI, Plea in SC to Remove ‘Socialist’ and ‘Secular’ From Constitution’s Preamble, THE WIRE (June 19, 2021, 01:24 PM) https://thewire.in/law/supreme-court-plea-socialist-secular-constitution-preamble. [5] Supra note 3. [6] Girish Shahane, Why I’d be happy if the word ‘secular’ was removed from India’s Constitution, SCROLL (June 19, 2021, 06:44 PM) https://scroll.in/article/863697/why-id-be-happy-if-the-word-secular-was-removed-from-indias-constitution. [7] Sruthisagar Yamunan, The BJP is wrong: Merely removing the word ‘secular’ from the Constitution won’t make it any less so, SCROLL (June 19, 2021, 06:51 PM) https://scroll.in/article/862935/the-bjp-is-wrong-merely-removing-the-word-secular-from-the-constitution-wont-make-it-any-less-so. [8] Mohammed Wajihuddin, Communal rage in secular India, THE TIMES OF INDIA (June 20, 2021, 11:37 AM) https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/beyond-the-burqa/communal-rage-in-secular-india/.

* The author of this post is Suraj Ray. He is a law student at Nepal Law Campus, Tribhuvan University, Nepal. He has a keen interest in Freedom of Expression, Constitutional Law, and Social Justice. He has an interest in expressing his opinion on legal issues related to rights and public policy issues.

Article Number: 2021/LKLR/06B28


The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Journal.

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