One of the Fundamental Duties in the Constitution of India enjoins the citizens to “cherish and follow the noble ideals which inspired our struggle for freedom”. On political methods, it leaves open the question whether the Moderates or Extremists are to be regarded as worthy of emulation. The Extremists were more popular in their day, and being the political rivals of the Moderates, they ridiculed their methods. While it is now generally acknowledged that the Moderates’ work in the national struggle was significant, academic focus on the ‘Moderate Era’ continues to be far less bestowed than it is worthy of. Arguably the most important of the Moderates’ contribution to postindependence India is the liberal philosophy they exemplified and on which the Constitution is based.
Among the liberal principles enshrined in the Constitution, secularism has come under severe attack in recent times. Secularism is perhaps the most misunderstood and misused of Constitutional principles, and it has been criticised for reasons not attributable to the doctrine itself. Pandering to minorities for votes is a misuse of the doctrine, but the misuse by politicians for electoral gains is not secularism’s fault. In practice, however, the misuse is often used as an excuse to attack the principle itself. While dyed-in-the-wool critics of the doctrine may never change their minds, less hardened ones and middle-of-the-road sympathisers with the critics may ask themselves this question: Are they anguished by the misuse of secularism because they believe that it is worth preserving and cherishing? If the answer is yes, they ought to call themselves defenders, not critics or sympathisers with the critics, of secularism.
A pernicious argument made against the doctrine is that it is not applicable to India. Secularism has never been more relevant to India than it is today. Such acts as searching for Hindu idols in mosques and monuments, when they are undertaken not as scientific, archaeological exercises but to fulfil communal and political agendas, are fraught with grave danger. Since Aurangzeb cannot be brought back to life and prosecuted under modern law, the next best thing is to conscientiously refrain from indulging in activities that may awaken dormant communal animosities. In the challenging task of preventing fanatical mindsets from spreading and poisoning gullible young minds, secularism and the Fundamental Duties to promote the spirit of harmony and brotherhood and develop scientific temper are useful principles.
On this occasion of the 75th anniversary of India’s independence, if we look back at the history of independent India, it should not be difficult to imagine how badly the nation would have fared had liberal principles not been enshrined in the Constitution. To the Moderates in India’s struggle for independence, we owe a debt of gratitude not only for their work in their times but also for their gift to us in the form of the liberal ethos that permeates our Constitution. ‘India’s charter of freedom’ it was called when the Constitution was in the making. Respecting that great charter is to show respect to our nation’s struggle for independence.