Reclaiming Indian Secularism in the Public Domain


 On 8th December 2023, a panel discussion was jointly organized by the India International Centre, and the  Centre For Equity Studies on  the theme of  “Secularism in the Indian Constitution”, in which eminent  academics and Member of Parliament(Rajya Sabha) Prof. Manoj Jha,  Prof. Apoorvanand , Prof. Zoya Hasan and Dr. Harsh Mander have spoken and put forward their views on range of ideas such as secularism, constitutional morality, equality, freedom, fraternity, compassion, solidarity and justice including democracy. However , all these constitutional values and more   importantly, secularism  as concept is now under threat and seen as appeasement  of minority  communities(especially Indian Muslims) by the current ruling political dispensation, and  as a result  now  disappearing from public and political discourse. Forget for a while ruling  dispensation like BJP’s stand on secularism and minority rights, even so-called secular  including  social  justice parties are now maintaining strategic silence on  said issues especially related to Indian Muslim, as reminded  by Harsh Mander. The discussion was moderated by an eminent political theorist Prof. Neera Chandhok.

   It has to be noted both the Indian Constitution,  as political document and Secularism as a concept, are under threat in the current political scenario.  Recently,  Chairman  of Economic Advisory   Council to the Prime Minister, Bibek Debroy  in his article  has argued that Constitution is  Colonial document  and need  to be changed. Similarly, members of Hindu nationalist party had have often argued that the words like socialism and secularism need be removed from  the Constitution of India ,because  both  words   were added  in the preamble  during  emergency phase  by  the then Prime Minister  of India , Indira Gandhi .

Apart from Hindu nationalist forces, even well-known academics like, Prof. Ashis Nandy and Prof. T. N Madan have consistently argued that secularism  as concept  that  had emerged  in  the European society and therefore, it  is an alien concept and cannot be implanted in  deeply religious society   of South Asian countries including India.

 Contrary to Nandy and Madan,  eminent political theorists like Neera Chandhoke, and Rajeev Bhargava in their writings have consistently argued that Indian Secularism is not an alien concept, it is deeply embedded in the Constitution of India and inherited from the freedom struggle. Historically speaking, secularism  is  deeply rooted in heterodox  traditions of history and culture of our country. From Budha, Ashoka, Akbar,  and Kabir to Gandhi, Ambedkar and Nehru all had represented secular and  pluralistic traditions of India. While deliberating on pertinent theme, the speakers like Mander and Zoya Hasan have argued that, it is worthwhile to reclaim the secularism as relevant concept and need to be forcefully defended amidst  threat of majoritarian right-wing politics.

  Prof. Zoya Hasan has underlined that secularism and democracy is companion concepts and cannot be conceptualized separately.  Normatively speaking, Indian secularism (contrary to western secularism) is based on “principled distance” which promote diversity, pluralism and maintain critical respect to all religion, as argued by Prof. Rajeev Bhargava. While referring to judgment of S.R. Bommai case vs. Union of India(1994) , Prof. Hasan has said that  concept of secularism is  considered  as part of ‘basic structure’ of Indian Constitution and therefore, it cannot be   amended by the Parliament.  Secularism as an egalitarian concept based on substantive equality not limited to formal equality. In other words, Indian secularism is committed  to protect and safeguards the rights of  Dalits, women and minorities.  It is not based on domination of one religion, one language, one culture and  promote homogeneity over heterogeneity, said the speakers

 Secularism as concept is needed to maintain harmonious relations between communities, said speaker.

 While expressing his views, Prof. Apoorvanad has said that discourse around secularism is limited to section of  academic  circles and  civil society institutions like Centre for  Equity Studies and disconnected with masses. He also reminded that secularism as concept has been compromised by Ram Manohar Lohia, ( a socialist leader who championed anti-caste movement), Jayaparkash Narrayan( it was JP who launched  ‘total revolution’ and fought against authoritarianism of Indira Gandhi) and  V.P Singh,  in name of  defending democracy and fighting against corruptions. The similar  trend  could be noticed when the so called Gandhian leader like Anna Hazare for sake of restoration of democracy fighting against corruptions indirectly paved way for majoritarian politics  that we are now witnessing in the larger  public and political domain.

For instance, it was J.P. who tacitly supported the slogans (  such as  Gai humari Mata hai, Abdul  Ghafur use Khata hai) launched by communal forces against  then the Bihar’s first Muslim Chief Minister Abdul Ghafur,   reminded by speaker.

 Another speaker, a noted activist Harsh Mander has said that we need to defend secular democracy and equal citizenship rights, freedom, justice and fraternity to promote shared ideas and  equal belonging for all without conditionality. For Mander, secularism is equal belonging without conditionality, that is a soul of our Constitution.   In  a secular state, citizen have more rights and it is the duty of state to protect rights of every citizen irrespective caste, gender and religion,etc. Fighting against, caste and protecting gender rights is part of Secularism and Constitutional morality, emphasized by speaker. State can intervene when communities violates principle of constitutional morality.  More importantly, Mander has reminded that concept of fraternity- bandhutva, (derived from Sanskrit word) is based on idea of shared bond to each other.  Apart from fraternity, solidarity and egalitarian compassion that focus on sharing ideas of each other, should be taken seriously. While citing views  of  a noted  American public intellectual like Noam Chomsky who has reminded that the purpose of public policy is to take care of each other,  as emphasis by speaker. Indian secularism is based on radical idea of love, as Gandhiji in his last phase of life had practiced and for that finally he was assassinated.  In short, feeling of the pain and sharing ideas of fellow human being, is core idea of Indian  secularism, added by Mander.

 While sharing his idea, Prof, Manoj Kumar  Jha has admitted that my optimism is now fading because of  political parties have lost battle. While referring to Mohammad Adeeb ( who was former member of Rajya Sabha) earlier suggestion on  withdrawal of Muslims from voting and  should not participate in election, Jha has pointed that   his suggestion  on  said issue  is right in  the current political scenario.

  It is fact that no political  parties are   caring about now  concept of  secularism seriously especially in realm  of electoral politics. While expressing his concern about secularism,  Jha stated  that  these days it is  pejoratively  called “ sikular” by a section of  Hindu nationalist  forces and now disappear as concept  in the public  domain and seen as appeasement of minority community especially Indian Muslim. 

 While responding the question raised by  audience, Chandhoke said that that we need to find “third way” in realm of electoral politics and think of how can egalitarian and just society will be realized. The purpose of normative political theory is to realize a goal of a “decent society”. While citing stories of film like Gram  Hava( 1974,), Chandhoke said that there is hope for Indian Muslim  within the framework  of  India Constitution.  The film depicts that  the future of Indian Muslims  are not  secure in  the Islamic state( like Pakistan) or Hindu India ,  it will be protected  in secular state.

While responding question raised by audience on why concepts like secularism  and fraternity are now declining in the most public institutions, Mander said that  fraternity is most important values of our Constitution  and without it, we can’t live together in diverse society like India , as envisioned by Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar long ago. The fact is that all political  parties irrespective  of ideological  affiliations are now maintaining strategic silence on minority rights and hesitant to speak on  concern  of Muslim community, said Mander. To overcome extremely critical situations,  we the people of India, need to fight  and defend the Secularism and Constitutional morality in the lager public domain, he added.

 While responding the question on legitimacy of Constituent Assembly( to frame the Constitution)   especially because it was not elected body, respective speakers have underlined that the CA ( Constituent Assembly) was an elected body   through limited electoral base and came into existence after anti-colonial movement. The legitimacy of CA was  based on idea that it was represented by different  shades of thinking and accommodated all kinds  of socio-religious groups and political affiliations.

 On the question of how  can change  and fight  against prevailing political scenario in our country, speakers have argued that if  India  will adopt the method of proportional  representation(PR) in realm of electoral politics ( most democratic country of world have adopted method of PR),we would  have different political scenario. Therefore, problems also  lies in method  of First-past-the-post(FPP) voting system currently in  practice, added by Hasan.

 To summarize discourse so far, one could  argued that    Indian  Secularism and Constitutional  morality including egalitarian values like equality, fraternity, freedom and solidarity are under serious threat amidst the rise of majoritarian right-wing politics, as hinted by speakers.  To note that  the task  of  political  theory  is not only diagnosed  the problems    but suggest  possible way  and search alternative path to bring out  change  in the society and politics.  In this respect,  Neera Chandhoke has put forward hope   amidst  despair and  argued that we need to find “third way”  in the light of Constitutional values.  Similarly, Prof. Hasan has suggested that  majority  people still  vote against  the BJP, if India will adopt the proportional representation(PR)  in the realm  of electoral politics, it  will  be difficult  for  the curent political dispensation  to win elections, as stated above.

Dr. Badre Alam khan  is PhD from Department of Political Science, University of Delhi.  He is currently  associated with  Karwan-e-Mohabbat.

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