May 14, 2002


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Arvind Lavakare

The definition of 'secular'

It is on record that 'at least twice in the Constituent Assembly efforts were made to make a specific mention of the principle of secularism in the Constitution. For example, an amendment had sought to ensure that no law could be made which discriminates between man and man on the basis of religion, or applies to adherents of any one religion and leaves others untouched. All such amendments were summarily rejected by Dr Ambedkar. Later... he made it clear that he did not believe that our Constitution was secular because it allowed different treatment to various communities.' (Subhash C Kashyap, a renowned constitutional authority, in Reforming The Constitution, UBS Publishers & Distributors, 1992).

It is a fact of history that despite Ambedkar's erudite view above, the Indira Gandhi government's Constitution (42nd Amendment) Act, 1976, thrust the term 'secular' into the Preamble of the Constitution without defining or explaining the significance of that term. It was, you see, the period of the Emergency, and Madam Gandhi didn't need to explain anything to anyone.

It is another fact of history that the Congress party of the Nehru dynasty ran away from the definition of 'secular' in 1978. That was when ex-Congressman Morarji Desai's Janata Party government introduced the Constitution (45th Amendment) Bill seeking to define 'secular' to mean 'equal respect for all religions'. The Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha where the Janata government had a large majority, but was voted down in the Rajya Sabha by the Congress party's majority in that house. The result: the nation has been subjected to a harangue of 'secular' language and to a haemorrhage of 'secularism' by those 'intellectuals' in the media or elsewhere who have never been called to explain those two words.

Indeed, there are people around who endorse the term remaining undefined. Thus, A M Ahmadi, a former chief justice of India, is on record as having said that 'the term "secular" has advisedly not been defined presumably because it is a very elastic term not capable of a precise definition and perhaps best left undefined' (S R Bommai v Union of India, 1994, AIR SCW 2946 pg 2992).

Judges are known to pronounce verdicts based on reference to the Oxford and other internationally recognised dictionaries. But someone holding the nation's highest judicial office ignores that word's dictionary definitions such as 'not concerned with religion' and 'keeping State and education independent of religion' and even the Janata Party government's definition of 'equal respect for all religions'. Instead, he prefers the shelter of undefined 'secular'.

The result of such nebulousness is clear: one can be 'very elastic' and interpret 'secular' according to one's fancy and fetish. One can thus consider the Muslim League as 'secular' though that party doesn't sport a member of any other community, and one can consider the BJP as 'communal' (also known as 'anti-secular') although it has a Muslim as a member of the nation's council of ministers, another Muslim as a party general secretary, yet another Muslim as its most respected leader in Rajasthan, Christian members from Jabalpur, Mizoram and Nagaland and a Sikh as a prominent party spokesman in television discussions. Similarly, one can dub the pope 'secular' though he has openly pronounced that man's salvation lies only through Christianity.

Some other results of our undefined 'secular' country are as follows:

  • The government extends financial assistance to religious institutions. Why, under the 1925 Sikh Gurdwara Act, the state government spends millions of rupees for conducting elections to the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee that controls Akali politics.
  • The State allows public celebration of religious functions. Why, the holders of the highest offices of state and tallest political leaders make it a point to visit religious shrines and make a demonstration of paying obeisance to imams or cardinals or sadhus or swamis.
  • The state grants funds to educational institutions run for the benefit of one religion only. Why, the Government of India and state governments share the financial burden of 'modernisation' of madrassas and the Aligarh Muslim University is run entirely on government grants.
  • Minority educational institutions can prescribe religious courses and appoint or dismiss a teacher/faculty member according to their whims, but rules and regulations are in force for majority religion educational bodies. The various interpretations of the Supreme Court on Articles 29 and 30 have ensured that unholy scenario.
  • Government subsidises the salaries of imams, naib imams and muezzins of mosques, but not of granthis in gurdwaras and pujaris in temples. Why, the Supreme Court itself has prescribed the scale of these subsidies, which amounted to over Rs 6,000 million annually, according to a publication of the Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Nyasa.
  • Though the Jama Masjid of Delhi is not classified as a protected monument, Rs 0.7 million were doled out to it in the eighties by the governments of Indira Gandhi and V P Singh, while nearly Rs 10 million were spent on that institution by the department of archaeology between 1990 and 1996. This 'secular' largesse is in contrast to the denial of even a rupee to ancient Hindu temples like Badrinath and Kedarnath.
  • Government-appointed administrators run several Hindu temple trusts while the mosques of Hazratbal and Charar-e-Sharif are free of such control.
  • Public holidays for religious occasions are accepted as being in consonance with a 'secular' State. Why, V P Singh's government declared the birthday of the Prophet as a gazetted holiday although no Islamic country gives that privilege to its citizens.
It is the above perverse version of 'secular' that's been in vogue in India for 50 years and more. And yet it is precisely that undefined 'secular' which the Kesavananda Bharati majority judgment (1973) of the Supreme Court held as being part of the basic structure of our Constitution that Parliament could not alter. And in the case of S R Bommai v Union of India (1994), 'secularism' (whatever it may mean) was pronounced as a basic feature of our Constitution.

That is why N S Rajaram, a leading pro-Hindutva intellectual, had, in an article in Organiser of June 18, 2000, warned that 'it is only a matter of time before the Hindus see through this fraud'. He warned that, if uncorrected, what existed was a ticking time bomb leading the country to chaos and conflict. The apparently endless mob violence in Gujarat following the Godhra carnage of karsevaks returning from Ram's Ayodhya is a traumatic, tragic reminder of that unheeded warning. Rajaram's article had therefore pleaded for a Constitution that does not allow room for discrimination in any shape or form.

It's a great pity therefore that the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution simply shut out the resolution of that deadly, dangerous issue by recommending a definition of 'secular' and 'secularism' even when, as its tenure was ending, the nation was witness to the gory aftermath of Godhra.

The irony of it all is that the NCRWC was headed by M N Venkatachaliah, who, on the day he retired as India's chief justice in 1994, had told PTI in an interview that secularism cannot mean anti-majority.

Arvind Lavakare

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