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India: In defence of Secularism

Wednesday 13 August 2014, by siawi3


From: The Hindu, 2 August 2014

In defence of secularism

Pushpa M. Bhargava

No other term has been discussed, interpreted, re-interpreted and misinterpreted in our country as “secularism†has been since the campaign for the recent general elections began.

The first sentence of the Preamble to our Constitution describes our country as “a Sovereign Socialist Secular Democratic Republic†. The attributes of secularism have been best described by P.M. Bakshi, former Member of our Law Commission, and by S. Radhakrishnan, our former President.

Bakshi, in his book, The Constitution of India, says the following about secularism:

“The State has no official religion. Secularism pervades its provisions which give full opportunity to all persons to profess, practice and propagate a religion of their choice. The Constitution not only guarantees a person’s freedom of religion and conscience, but also ensures freedom for one who has no religion, and it scrupulously restrains the State from making any discrimination on grounds of religion.â€

Bakshi goes on to list the important components of secularism as follows: samanata (equality) as incorporated in Article 14 of our Constitution; prohibition against discrimination on the ground of religion, caste, etc. (Articles 15 and 16); freedom of speech and expression and all other important freedoms (Articles 19 and 21); right to practice religion (Articles 25 to 28); and fundamental duty of the state to enact uniform civil laws treating all the citizens as equal, (Article 44).

Radhakrishnan, in his book, Recovery of Faith, explains secularism in our country as follows:

“When India is said to be a secular state, it does not mean that we reject the reality of an unseen spirit or the relevance of religion to life, or that we exalt irreligion. It does not mean that secularism itself becomes a positive religion or that the state assumes divine prerogatives…. We hold that not one religion should be given preferential status.â€

These descriptions leave no doubt as to what secularism means in our country in functional terms if we are to follow our constitutional obligation.

Therefore, to consider secularism per se as “intolerant of conversation†(Shiv Vishvanathan, The Hindu of June 26, 2014) is not fair. This is not to say that secularism has not been misinterpreted or not converted by a section of our elite, as Vishvanathan says, “into a modernised form of snobbery†. This has happened to seek justification — sometimes overt — to vote for BJP which is the political front of a non-secular organisation, the RSS.

There has been a massive organised effort to decry, denigrate and denounce secularism as described by Bakshi and Radhakrishnan, and to incorporate secularism in the traditional definition of Hindutva. One of the ways by which this has been done is to label the truly secular as pseudo-secular.

The Congress party and the UPA failed so miserably in its second term that it just had to go. Narendra Modi provided what seemed to be the only alternative. That he is not committed to secularism from the functional point of view, as defined above, is not debatable. So an alibi had to be found to debunk secularism, which has been an important platform for UPA. Those who wanted to vote for BJP did not want to be labelled unsecular; hence, the wide discussion on secularism during the election campaign. Never before has a simple, dignified and precise term been mutilated as secularism has been in the last two years.

To support what I have said, let me recall the fact that we had two magazines in the country after Independence — Secular Democracy and The Secularist —that dealt with various aspects of secularism in tune with what Bakshi and Radhakrishnan have said. Secular Democracy was published by the Qaumi Ekta Trust and The Secularist by the Indian Secular Society founded by the late Prof. A.B. Shah. Both magazines stopped publication some years ago. That void needs to be filled as it is important to initiate a fair and continuing debate on how India can meet its constitutional requirement to be a secular democracy. We need to ensure that we do not weaken one of the four pillars of our country’s Constitution by deliberate misinterpretation of secularism by the followers and sympathisers of BJP, RSS and/or Hindutva.