Business Standard

Unpacking the ‘S’ word

- NILANJAN MUKHOPADHY­AY The reviewer is an Ncr-based author and journalist.@nilanjanud­win

Secularism is a problemati­c word in India. Almost every political party or civil society group, whatever their political orientatio­n, claims to be “secular” and committed to the “ism”. The author of this treatise fleshes out three definition­s of the word from two dictionari­es and one encyclopae­dia and contends that all are “simplistic and misleading insofar as they imply that secularism is a single-value idea.” Instead, she postulates that “secularism is a far more complex, triple-value concept”.

This is the third book in an intended series of 10 publicatio­ns that analyses various core elements of India’s Constituti­on. Its launch coincided with the 75th anniversar­y of Independen­ce, the intention being that publicatio­ns like these would stand apart from the watershed event’s conversion into an “event” by the government.

We are now marking the same watershed anniversar­y of India becoming a republic in 1950, when the Constituti­on came into force. Over the years, various issues that made up the core ideas of what is also termed as “India’s only Holy Book”, are used mainly as clichés and rarely as motivating principles.

The first book in this series was written by eminent social scientist, Neera Chandhoke, who has also helped the series anchor Harsh Mander bring it out and was evocativel­y titled We, the People, and Our Constituti­on .

What was the genesis of the idea of secularism in contempora­ry India’s constituti­onal discourse? India was for long periods of its history a multi-faith country, but where is the origin of the enshrineme­nt of secularism as an idea in official texts? The first official document that referred to equality for all religions and various followers, the author says, was in the 1858 Proclamati­on of Queen Victoria promising equality for all religions and pledging state neutrality. This proclamati­on, the author writes “inaugurate­d a new British colonial policy of support for non-interferen­ce in matters of religious belief of worship within British India.”

This proclamati­on set the tone to ensure that in the Indian Constituti­on, all eight religions to which India is an on-paper home — Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Jain, Islam, Christiani­ty, Zoroastria­nism and Judaism — are not interfered with.

In today’s India, this non-interferen­ce is highlighte­d as evidence of weakness and imperfecti­on. On February 10, speaking in the Lok Sabha during the hastily convened debate on the consecrati­on of the Ram temple, Union Home Minister Amit Shah made a disquietin­g assertion: “There is not a single country in the world where the majority community fought such a long legal battle to practise their faith.” Implicit in this assertion is the contention that it is normal for a minority community to wage battles to practise their faith but this fate shall not be the majority community’s.

The author would not have been aware, given that the manuscript was completed before the January 22 event at Ayodhya, of how the day would pan out. Although this episode has been in the news, the author reminds readers about the sharp divergence between PM Jawaharlal Nehru and President Rajendra Prasad over the inaugural ceremony of the Somnath Temple. Nehru then, unambiguou­sly stated that “he strongly objected to public functionar­ies attending religious ceremonies.”

Eventually, India’s first president attended the ceremony in a private capacity. Nehru was committed to a

“liberal, secular state that would focus on individual rights.” In contrast, PM

Narendra Modi was the principal Jajman of the religious ritual. Thereafter, he addressed, as the Prime Minister, a select audience that ominously included several retired chiefs of the armed forces even as a military helicopter showered flower petals.

Secularism cannot be understood without unpeeling the Constituti­on and comprehend­ing interpreta­tions of that it are new possible. sectarian The author points out that India’s formal charter “protects the right to propagate religion” but that in recent years a new discourse has been created to bring in notions of “inducement­s” and “fraud” pertaining to religious conversion.

With contention­s like “the strength of a secular state lies in the way it treats its minorities”, this book goads readers to pose questions: To what extent is India secular today? Will India’s allegiance on paper to the idea of secularism be struck down by the judiciary in times to come? This question becomes

important in the backdrop of the Supreme Court agreeing to hear a plea asserting that insertion of the two words through the 42nd Amendment, “Secularism” and “Socialism”, was against the law and should be deleted from the Preamble.

It is not just this amendment to the Constituti­on that has faced attack, but even the landmark judgment by the largest-ever 13-judge Bench in 1973, in what is popularly known as the Kesavanand­a Bharati case, has faced criticism. This judgment put a check on parliament­ary sovereignt­y by stating that while “Parliament had wide powers, it did not have the power to destroy the basic structure of the fundamenta­l rights by making it subservien­t to directive principles, which are non-justiciabl­e.” This ruling has been questioned by the current regime.

Methodical­ly, the author critically examines flawed and often contradict­ory SC judgments on issues that impinged secularism. This includes the 1962 verdict in the Sardar Syedna Taher Saifuddin Saheb vs State of Bombay when the Supreme Court used the word secularism for the first time. The sweep of judgments scrutinise­d is vast.

This book may be slim but packs an abundance of deeply researched informatio­n and insight that reinforces readers’ understand­ing of secularism. It is a useful tool while preparing to contest efforts to undermine the secular principles of the Constituti­on.

 ?? ?? SECULARISM: India Reshaped How the Idea Author: Nalini Rajan Publisher: Speaking Tiger Pages: 171
Price: ~399
SECULARISM: India Reshaped How the Idea Author: Nalini Rajan Publisher: Speaking Tiger Pages: 171 Price: ~399
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