As the nation prepares to remember again its illustrious son Dr. B. R. Ambedkar on his birthday later this month and pays tribute to his seminal contribution to national life, one cannot help pondering over some recent controversies over the viability of some features of India’s Constitution, a stupendous charter of rights and duties of citizens and directives to state masterfully crafted by Babasaheb and his illustrious colleagues.
Of particular interest is the aversion expressed by some members of the ruling dispensation to the word ‘secular’, incorporated in the Preamble to our Constitution in 1976 by the government of Indira Gandhi through the 42nd amendment and their insistence that Dr. Ambedkar was opposed to such inclusion.
In this age of post-truth, such a reading of Dr. Ambedkar’s position on including the word ‘Secular’ in our Constitution needs to be probed contextually so as to thwart attempts of interested parties to twist the utterances or silence of the chief architect of our Constitution and use it to serve their interests.
The seventh volume of the proceedings of the Constituent Assembly Debates mentions that on 15 November 1948, Prof. K.T. Shah moved an amendment to incorporate the words “secular, federal, socialist” in Clause 1 of Article 1 of the Constitution.
He argued that though major secular constitutions of the world did not specifically proclaim their secular credentials, it was needed in case of India as the nation was still struggling to come out of the trauma of partition, the horrendous memory of intense communal and sectarian bloodbath and was keen to prevent such internecine violence in future. However, he devoted major part of his speech in defending the need to incorporate the word ‘socialist’ in our Constitution.
While responding to this proposal, Dr. Ambedkar took no specific note of the demand for including the word ‘secular’ but presented his views against accepting the amendment as a whole.
The sagacity and liberal bend of his mind gets reflected in his views that the ‘Constitution is (a) mechanism for the purpose of regulating the work of the various organs of the state. It is not a mechanism whereby particular members or particular parties are installed in office.
What should be the policy of the state, how the society should be organised in its social and economic side are matters which must be decided by the people themselves according to time and circumstances. It cannot be laid down in the Constitution itself, because that is destroying democracy altogether.’
He went on to argue that the amendment was superfluous since the Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles of State Policy, already incorporated in the draft, bore testimony to the fact that socialist principles of justice, equality and fair play were embedded in the Constitution.
In fact, Ambedkar’s commitment to secularism stems from his forceful espousal of the principles of justice and equality and his eloquent propagation of fraternity as a lofty ideal of our nation building process.
A thorough reading of the proceedings of the Constituent Assembly leaves no doubt in the mind of a sensitive reader that the framers of our Constitution took the secular undertone of our nascent republic as axiomatic and had no intention of making India a theocratic state.
The extensive freedom granted by our Constitution through incorporation of the Fundamental Rights, the provisions of equality before law and equal protection of law, freedom of expression, right to life with dignity, freedom to practice, profess and propagate any religion of one’s choice, freedom to manage one’s religious affairs, all within reasonable restrictions, have been extended not only to Indian citizens but also to foreigners residing on our soil, thereby establishing beyond doubt the secular character of the Indian state.
Ambedkar’s vision of making India not just a political but also social democracy, based on the edifice of liberty, equality, justice and fraternity, his urge to end centuries of oppression and ill-treatment meted out to the depressed classes could only materialise in the context of a secular state where pursuit of knowledge, cultivation of excellence of mind and inculcation of fellow feeling towards members of other communities would get priority.
Nevertheless, there was some divergence of opinion among members of the Constituent Assembly regarding the nature of Indian secularism. One group called for a complete wall of separation between state and religion, while another demanded that the state treat every religion with equal respect.
While K T Shah belonged to the first group, K.M Munshi belonged to the second, who argued, ‘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.’
A study of the Constitution and the debates that went into its framing reveals that ultimately it was the latter vision that prevailed as it received endorsements from stalwarts like Ambedkar and Nehru.
Unfortunately, those at the helm of affairs and responsible for implementing the provisions of our Constitution have failed Babasaheb and his erudite co-framers as their partial, non-judicious implementation of Constitutional provisions have created deep-seated chasms between communities.
The riders attached to right to freedom of religion have been ignored, many offensive practices in the name of religion have been allowed to continue despite their incongruity with ‘public order and morality’ so long as they fitted into the electoral considerations of political elite.
State and public institutions’ engagement with religious groups have opened up charges of majoritarian tyranny and rising intolerance at one extreme and minority appeasement at the other, particularly in recent years and seventy years after independence. Despite rapid progress in technology and scientific achievements, resurgence of primordial sentiments and obscurantist ideas, sectarian animosities and communal belligerence are tearing asunder our heterogeneous, diverse, pluralist social fabric.
Without going into the intense polemic debates about the viability of Indian ‘secularism’, which has been admonished as a foreign implant by some notable scholars, one can use simple sense of probity to deduct that things would not have come to such a pass if public money would not have been spent in making huge statues of a mythical character or for giving stipends to clerics, but to impart education, to set up health care facilities and improve industry and infrastructure.
Leaders make a mockery of democracy when they insist that the cultural norms of the majority community are to be equated to that of the entire nation or when they allow archaic, illiberal, gendered practices to continue out of anxiety of losing the votes of a minority community, thereby ignoring the wishes and sentiments of sane members of all communities and playing into the hands of the most radical, regressive sections of society.
This whole debate about religious intolerance and communal animosities should be reviewed through the prism of the principle of Fraternity, incorporated in our Constitution at the insistence of Babasaheb.
Fraternity postulates a sense of solidarity and strong empathy among citizens, an acknowledgement that different faiths and practices are not just to be ‘tolerated’, a term smacking of superciliousness and condescension, but to be accepted and respected as sacrosanct and reverential, just like our own.
Fraternity calls for a commitment to move with time, to educate ourselves and to contribute to the progress of nations, while extending our helping hand to those sections of society who are lagging behind and need our support.
More than ever before, we need to cling to the magnificient ideas of secularism, equality, justice, fraternity and social democracy embedded in our Constitution, all of which can coalesce into making India a country which values religion but doesn’t propagate infallibility of religion, which progressively treats religion as a matter of private faith rather than public posturing, which is free from exploitation and discrimination, which prioritises rationality and social harmony.
The writer is Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Women’s Christian College, Kolkata.