The “Constitution is workable, flexible and strong enough to hold the country together both in peace time and in war time. If things go wrong under the new Constitution, the reason will not be that we had a bad Constitution.
What we will have to say is that Man is vile,” observed Dr. B R Ambedkar in the Constituent Assembly. Dr. Rajendra Prasad too raised similar anxieties.
Today, when the ruling party espouses Hindutva and romanticises it for electoral gain, anxieties are but obvious. By careful design, the party is colourfully using Hindutva in its electoral campaign and policy initiatives without calculating the damage done to syncretic India.
All other religions as a way of life have been pushed to a less favourable or secondary status.
Stimulated by the specific inclusion of “secularism’ in the Constitution in 1976, the Supreme Court declared ‘secularism’ to be part of the ‘basic structure’ and invoked it to be a relevant ‘factor’ in imposing President’s Rule on four BJP state governments after the Babri Masjid was razed in 1992.
However, there is an amazing lack of consistency and clarity about the meaning of Indian ‘secularism’. Even the Supreme Court could not confine the concept of secular state within the precise bounds of a definition.
One element, though appears to be indispensable and common to all the various patterns state-secularism presents in combination with a range of variables. That common element, the invariable, is the absence of state-sponsored or state favoured religion.
Models of Secularism
The Russian communist pattern of state-secularism, for instance, besides abstaining from sponsoring or favouring any religion, actively favours and encourages anti-religious beliefs.
The United States’ concept of state-secularism presents a significantly different pattern, essentially, on the principle of freedom for the individual in the exercise of religion as a segment of the general scheme of individual liberty.
Secularism is at the core of modernity. It records a history of progress and gradual emancipation from religion through the exercise of reason.
The doctrine of secularism was institutionalised with the historic separation of Church and State in the 19th century and eventually globalised through colonialism.
This is another pattern of state-secularism where religion is a completely private affair. State will neither favour nor oppose any religion [Everson v. Board of Education (1947) 330 US].
The question is whether a model in which the state has no religion but it equally favours all the religions can be termed as a secular state or not?
Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, whose fondness for India’s social diversity was as strong as his overriding commitment to social reform and modernity, is wrongly vilified as personifying a new modern India directed towards reforming its traditional life out of existence.
A balanced ‘secularism’ is hostile to both invidious, unjust, and discriminatory social practices as well as the politicised appropriation of religion in order to effect a ‘fundamentalist’ takeover by the State. Indian secularism hence is founded on three constituent elements:
(i) the principle of religious freedom which expansively protects all aspects of a religion including its beliefs, rituals, practices, thoughts, ideas and philosophies, and injuncts discrimination on grounds religion, race, caste, place of birth or gender;
(ii) the principles of depoliticisation and celebratory neutrality which prevent the state from being taken over by any one community but permits it to assist all faiths in their endeavours and celebrate their existence as part of the pageantry of India; and
(iii) the principle of social welfare and reform which requires religions to yield to regulatory and reformative regulation and cleanse their inegalitarian, gender-unjust, and other constitutionally unacceptable prescriptions.
Drafters of the Indian constitution perhaps aspired for this model of secularism and based on this, subsidies were provided to Hindu places of worship along with financial support for the Haj. Now, when the government has scrapped the Haj subsidy, continuance of subsidies to Hindu places of worship raises serious doubts on this model too.
The government in Uttar Pradesh celebrated the ‘Latthmaar Holi’ and organised a two-day ‘Rangotsav’, on 23-24 February in Mathura and Barsana, the birthplaces of Lord Krishna and Radha respectively. For the event, the state exchequer was burdened heavily.
Profound security arrangements were made and the city had been divided into 20 zones, each controlled by an additional superintendent and 40 sectors, each supervised by a deputy superintendent to ensure safety of people and dignitaries for those two days.
Approximately 80 officers, including four IPS officers, were deputed, five companies of PAC, one company of flood PAC and one unit of ATS had been requisitioned by the district police for two days of the celebrations.
In a similar state sponsored event last year, the government of Uttar Pradesh had organised ‘Deepotsav’ on the occasion of Diwali. The government granted around Rs. 165 crore toward Diwali celebration.
Considering the 2019 elections, the government has already allocated Rs 1,500 crores for organising the Ardh Kumbh Mela at Allahabad (in 2019) and various special budgetary allocations in the name of religious circuits in the State. Yogi has also sworn to construct a 100-metre tall idol of Shri Ram on the banks of river Saryu.
However, the deceptive discrimination can be seen when the BJP government of Gujarat successfully argued in the Supreme Court against the reconstruction of Islamic shrines destroyed during the 2002 riots (State of Gujarat v IRCG).
Little after the judgment, Prime Minister bemoaned how his appeal to reconstruct the Kedarnath Shrine after the 2013 flash floods was vetoed by the UPA government.
All political parties indulge in some form of religious electioneering. Indeed, the Congress Party’s statutory reversal of the Supreme Court’s decision is criticised precisely because this initiative was to woo the Muslim vote.
Similarly, kabristan -shamshaan slogan and “Ramzan aur Eid mein bijli to Diwali mein bhi Bijli” were used to polarize Hindu vote. India’s election law specifically forbids invoking threats of social ostracism, excommunication, or expulsion from religious groups or castes, divine displeasure or special censure, making appeals to religion, race, caste, community, or language or religious symbols, or attempts to promote feelings of enmity amongst such groups or the propagation or glorification of sati as part of the election process.
Politicians pander to religious sentiments – both when they are in power and at the husting. But, being part of the government publicly promoting a particular religion at the cost of public money and discriminating against others is prima facie against the liberal constitutionalism premised on equality between individuals and different groups. Secularism is a facet of equality, envisaging equality between groups, another basic structure stands violated.
The Yogi government has been belligerently advertising Hindutva ideology at state expense. In response to a question on whether he has also planned to celebrate Eid he firmly said: “We will celebrate Deepotsav in Ayodhya, Holi in Barsana, Dev Deepawali in Kashi, Ramayana Mela in Chitrakoot and Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj. I will participate in all the celebrations as protection and promotion of all these festivals is my government’s responsibility.”
As an individual belonging to the Hindu community, he may be allowed to do all this, but he epitomizes ‘state’ in terms of Article 12 of the Constitution.
The cautiously designed system of checks and balances is being debilitated. All-important institutions are strikingly weaker than they were. Disparity between the trivial number of people with power and wealth and the poverty-stricken masses without political influence makes this a situation ripe for revolt.
The writer is Associate Professor of Law, National Law University of Odisha and Deputy Registrar, Supreme Court of India.