It was in 1961 that Jawaharlal Nehru elaborated on the concept of secularism. Some people think that secularism means something opposed to religion. But this is not the correct notion of secularism. A state can be held to be secular if it honours all religious faiths equally.

Strictly speaking, we do not need to proclaim secularism in order to grant religious freedom. This freedom can emerge from Article 19 the Constitution. The principle of secularism goes further and establishes equality between all religious groups. The right to equality granted by Article 14 of the Constitution can protect equality among religious communities. In order to ensure the equality of religions no religion will be at risk in a secular India.

The government should not be aligned to any religion in India. There should be an essential connection between secularism and democracy. But it is surprising that the concept of secularism did not form part of the preamble to the Constitution till 1976. The constitution, as it was originally adopted, did not contain the word ‘secular’, which was inserted into the preamble only through the 42nd amendment introduced by Indira Gandhi’s government during the height of Emergency.

Some commentators also point to B.R. Ambedkar’s pointed rejection of proposals during the Constitution’s drafting to have the word ‘secular’ included in the preamble. These facts only buttress arguments against the inclusion of secularism as a constitutional deal. In this context it is to be pointed out that our Constitution does not acquire its secular character merely from the words in the preamble, but from a collective reading of many of its provisions, particularly the various fundamental rights that it guarantees. The endeavor here should be to steadily buttress the secular values that the constitution espouses.

It is certainly true that the Constituent Assembly explicitly rejected a motion moved by Brajeshwar Prasad from Bihar to have the words “secular” and “socialist” included in the preamble. But this was not on account of any skepticism that the drafters might have had on the values of secularism. Quite to the contrary, despite what some might want us to believe today, the assembly virtually took for granted India’s secular status. For the Assembly members, any republic that purports to grant equality before the law to all its citizens, that purports to recognize people’s rights to free speech, to a freedom of religion and conscience cannot be un-secular.

How can a person be guaranteed a right to freedom of religion without a concomitant guarantee that people of all religions will be treated with equal concern? To fully understand what secularism in the Indian context means, therefore, we must read the Constitution in its entirety. There is no doubt that within the Constituent Assembly, there existed a conflict between two differing visions of secularism: one that called for a complete wall of separation between state and religion, and another that demanded that the state treat every religion with equal respect.

A study of the Constitution and the debates that went into its framing reveals that ultimately it was the latter vision that prevailed. In K.M. Munshi’s words, “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.”

Rajeev Bhargava has explained that what secularism in the Indian setting calls for is the maintenance of a “principled distance” between state and religion. This does not mean that the state cannot intervene in religion but that any intervention should be within the limitations prescribed by the Constitution. Sometimes this might even call for differential treatment across religions, which would be valid so long as such differentiation can be justified on the grounds that it promotes freedom, equality or any other value integral to secularism.

Suhrith Parthasarathy maintains: “It might well yet be inconceivable that the government chooses to amend the Constitution by destroying its basic structure. But these are not the only efforts we must guard against. We must equally oppose every move, every action, with or without the state’s sanction, that promotes tyrannical majoritarianism, that imposes an unreasonable burden on the simple freedoms of the minority. We can only do this by recognizing what constitutes the essence and soul of the Constitution: a trust in the promise of equality. What, we might want to keeping asking ourselves, does equality really entail?”

Vir Narain holds: “The plain fact is that those who want to establish Hindu Rashtra in India see secularism as a real obstacle; …Those who want democracy in India know … that there can be no effective democracy without secularism.”

But in his view, one thing that needs to be done urgently is to clarify the term secularism as enshrined in our Constitution. In India religious nationalism is still a potent force. The emergence of the Hindu-oriented Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as a major political player in the 1991 elections and the spectacular destruction of the mosque at Ayodhya by Hindu nationalist mobs in 1992 has been followed by the stabilisation of BJP as an important party.

Elections in December 1994 and February 1995 showed persistent gains by the BJP and indicated that Hindu politics would be a factor on the Indian scene for some time to come. How should one respond to the rise of religious politics in India? Is it a relatively benign force or a demonic one? Does it have legitimate roots in Indian tradition or is it a virus imported from some sort of world-wide fundamentalist plague? Is it a symptom of social and economic problems or is it purely a religious aberration? Is it a cynical use of religion by politicians or a corruption of politics by religious activists? Is it a matter for only Indians to be concerned about, or should it also alarm foreigners – including Americans – concerned about human rights around the world?

These questions are subjects of lively debate in India and they cause controversy in Europe and America as well. Indians tend to emphasise issues specific to the Indian subcontinent and their own colonial past, whereas non-Indians often look at global issues, especially those similar or related to Euro-American concerns.

Within the Indian perspective there is a split between the secularist and non-secularist camps, and within the EuroAmerican points of view there are differences between classic liberal and relativist positions. The topic up for debate is Hindu, Hinduism and Hindutva. Hindutva as Savarkar famously said has nothing to do with Hinduism. The relationship between Hinduism and Hindutva is a highly perverted vision of what India is. Hindutva is a toxic ideology which divides people and whose basis is to create hate against the other, particularly Muslims but also Christianity.

Analyzing the democratic spirit of Hinduism, Pawan Varma says, “One of the inalterable inferences is that Hinduism is essentially and fundamentally dialogic, it is eclectic, it is inclusive and it is based on something called Shastra, where you can talk with somebody you disagree with respect …” He maintains further: “I also realize Hinduism is in many ways remarkably revolutionary – of the six systems of philosophy, five are technically, atheist. So their search traditionally, at least in Hindu thought, was not for god, not for ritual, but for what could be the ultimate truth that underlines our lives and this (universe) around us. That is the Hinduism that exists.”

Dwelling on Hindutva he utters: “Hindutva which is a derivative, artificially implanted on the great tradition of Hinduism, largely for political reasons, is by contrast quite the opposite in terms of being aggressive, in being inflexible, in being prescriptive, in being superficial and in being intolerant…” An expert commentator argues that what binds India together is a lot of diversity within Hinduism. It is, in her view, a cultural identification as opposed to a very organized religious affinity. According to some experts, no civilized nation can thrive if it is possessed with the spirit of Hindutva. Hindutva is a political project. But Hinduism is very diverse and pluralistic. The question arises as to what instruments we need to create an environment of pluralism. There is an attempt, as Romila Thapar, the historian, calls it to have a Syndicated Hinduism, where one gets everything together.

(The writer is retired Head of the Department, Political Science Asutosh College, Kolkata.)