The Indian Constituent Assembly comprising 389 of the best and brightest minds worked for three years to produce the longest written Constitution in the world. The wise men of the Constituent Assembly debated the inclusion of the words ‘secular’ and ‘socialist’ at length and decided to leave them out of the Preamble. Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the Chairman of the Drafting Committee opined that inclusion of these terms in the Preamble would limit the scope of democracy.
Ambedkar felt that the democratic system of governance with its stress on equality for all citizens would ipso facto ensure equal religious rights. He was of the opinion that the inclusion of the word ‘socialist’ would deprive the people of a possibly better system of governance than socialism at a future time. Here was what he had said:
“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. If you state in the Constitution that the social organisation of the State shall take a particular form, you are, in my judgement, taking away the liberty of the people to decide what should be the social organisation in which they wish to live. It is perfectly possible today, for the majority people to hold that the socialist organisation of society is better than the capitalist organisation of society. But it would be perfectly possible for thinking people to devise some other form of social organisation which might be better than the socialist organisation of today or of tomorrow. I do not see therefore why the Constitution should tie down the people to live in a particular form and not leave it to the people themselves to decide it for themselves.”(Italics added.)*
It appears Ambedkar was prescient about the possibility of leaders or political parties using Constitution-tinkering as a political tool to usurp power. Here was what he had said in his speech:
“In the first place, the Constitution, as I stated in my opening speech in support of the motion I made before the House, is merely 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.” (Ibid. Italics added.)
The Constituent Assembly thereafter rejected a motion to include the words ‘secular’ and ‘socialist’ in the Preamble. However, Ambedkar’s prediction about political leaders using amendments to the Constitution as political tools did not have long to wait. In less than eighteen months after the Constitution was adopted on November 26 1949, Jawaharlal Nehru enacted the first amendment inserting Article 19 (2) to curtail the fundamental right of freedom of speech. There were other amendments but it was his daughter Indira Gandhi, who made wholesale changes to the Constitution during the 1975-77 Emergency, she imposed on the nation. Her 42nd amendment act included the words ‘secular’ and ‘socialist’ in the Preamble. Enacted in 1976, the one amendment rewrote more than 50 articles and Schedules! With the entire opposition in jail, she did not have to bother with the nuisance of debate and discussion of the clauses.
Thus, there are three different meanings to the word ‘secular’. The first was the original European connotation in which it meant separation the Church and the State. Then there is the connotation as envisaged by the Constituent Assembly and as defined by Ambedkar, which meant equality of all religions. The third connotation is the political tool, which the Congress party and more specifically Indira Gandhi and her successors put to good use for garnering minority votes. In essence, the use of secularism as a political tool involves appeasing minority vote banks to queer electoral arithmetic for electoral gains. It has different connotations in different political contexts. It has one meaning in Hindu majority states and quite a different meaning in other states where Hindus are in a minority. By the by Indira Gandhi’s famous Constitutional amendment which inserted the words ‘secular’ and ‘socialist’ in the preamble is yet to be applied in Jammu and Kashmir. The Hindu religious bodies alone are state controlled and their incomes appropriated by state governments. The Right to Education Act (RTE) 2009 enjoins public and private educational institutions to provide free education to students to the extent of 25% of their strength. However, the RTE act is not applicable to educational institutions run by minorities.
Excerpted from ‘TWISTING FACTS TO SUIT THEORIES’ & OTHER SELECTIONS FROM VOXINDICA pp. 126-128
* Debate on November 15, 1948: “Constituent Assembly Of India - Volume VII”. Accessible from http://goo.gl/21N47W