Revisiting the concept & practice of secularismin India
By J P Rajkhowa
‘Secularism’ is one of the most commonly used, misused, discussed, debated, misunderstood, misinterpreted and popularly known words in the context of Indian Politics. Politicians, academics and other members of the intelligentsia influenced by pure vested interest, have, over the decades, deliberately spread a misconception about it. Nowhere else the word ‘secularism’ is used extensively as we do in India. If we follow the language of the Bible, the practical meaning of ‘Secularism’ is: ‘Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s’. That is, the State and Religion are different things. In Bharat the institution of the State has always been secular. ….In Hindu history the State has always been non-sectarian. Hindu rule means secular rule. The cruel religious court of Ferdind and Isabel cannot be imagined in our country. At the same time, it is wrong to translate ‘secular’ as irreligious.” [tiolist Pursuit, Dattapant Thengadi, Ch. 17, P. 185] Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the father of our Constitution, says: “It [Secular State] does not mean that we shall not take into consideration the religious sentiments of the people. All that a Secular State means is that this Parliament shall not be competent to impose a particular religion upon the rest of the people. That is the only limitation that the Constitution recognizes. Secularism does not mean abolition of religion”. ( Dattapant, ibid, PP. 186-7).
Though the people of India represented by the Constituent Assembly, declared to constitute India into a SOVEREIGN, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC, on the twenty-sixth day of November, 1949, subsequently, at the initiative of the Ruling Congress, the words ‘SOCIALIST” and “SECULAR’ were incorporated after the word “SOVEREIGN” in the Declaration Part of the Preamble. It seems the word “SECULAR” was added, as a post- emergency measure by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, just to placate the religious minorities, particularly the Muslims, as a component of ‘vote bank’ politics. There was no genuine ground for any apprehension by any minority religious group, even without this word, as ‘Hinduism’ has never been known to be non- secular. ‘Sarva dharma sama bhaba’ (Treat all religions equally) and ‘Vasudhaiba kutumbakam’ (the whole world is a family) are the main principles of ‘Hinduism’, pursued for centuries. Besides, the Constitution has incorporated various provisions, including Right to Freedom of Religion, in Part III, under Articles 25 to 30, apart from equality before law or equal protection of the laws under Art.14, prohibition of all kinds of discrimition under Art.15, equality of opportunity in matters of public employment under Art.16 and Right to Freedom under Art.19 and the Right to vote under Art.325.
The Constitution also provides the Right to Constitutiol Remedies vide provisions under Art. 32 by moving the Supreme Court for any violation of the Fundamental Rights conferred under chapter III, by the State. Besides, Art. 226 empowers the High Courts to issue certain Writs to any person or authority, including any State or the Central government for the enforcement of any of the rights conferred by Part III and for any other purpose. In my column dated 22 February, 2015 I have discussed in detail about the Constitutiol provisions mentioned above, whereby the ‘secular’ character of our polity has been re-affirmed and hence do not want to repeat those due to space constraint. Now incorporation of the word ‘Secular’ in the Preamble by the Constitution 42nd Amendment Act, 1976 has set right any doubt whatsoever, and declared in unequivocal term, the commitment of the Constitution to run the affairs of the Indian Polity on purely secular lines. The word ‘Secularism’, has however, not been defined anywhere in the Constitution, perhaps for the reason that, no State Religion has been adopted in this country as in some ‘theocratic’ States. However, there are a number of Rulings by the Apex Court on the subject. We may also explore the ‘Dictiory’ meaning(s) of what ‘Secularism’ stands for.
According to DK Illustrated Oxford Dictiory, ‘Secularism’ means (1) concerned with the affairs of the world, not spiritual or sacred. (2) Not concerned with religion or religious belief (of education etc.). The Anglo Assamese Dictiory (P.698, edited by Dr. Hiren Gohain, Dec. 2003) refers to ‘Secularism’ as ‘the view that the Church and State should be separated- the policy of non- interference by the State on religious matters’. Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictiory of Current English (P. 785) uses the word ‘Secularism’ to indicate ‘the view that morality and education should not be based on religion’. It uses the word ‘Secular’ to mean ‘worldly or material, not religious or spiritual power, the State contrasted with the Church’. According to Chambers’ ‘20th Century Dictiory’- “Secular: pertaining to the present world or to things not spiritual: civil, not ecclesiastical: not concerned with religion- not bound by the mostic rules. Secularism: the view that the State, morals, education etc. should be independent of religion.” Grolier’s New Webster Dictiory states that, “Secular” means, of or concerned with temporal, worldly matters rather than with religion// not belonging to a religious order // not under the control of a religious body //. “Secularism” it states is ‘the belief that religious influence should be restricted, and in particular that education, morality, the sate etc. should be independent of religion’’.
Thus the core meaning of ‘Secularism’ with reference to a State, as derived from these explations, would be distancing of the State from religious or spiritual matters, through a policy of non-interference or non- involvement in the affairs of any religion that its citizens may like to profess or pursue. That would also mean equal treatment by the State to all religions, without any discrimition, for or against any religious group. The state of confusion on the meaning and implication of ‘secularism’ has been set at rest by the authoritative pronouncements made by the Supreme Court, in a nine-Judge decision [Bommai v. Union of India, AIR 1994 SC 1918] as follows:
(a) Secularism, in India, does not mean that the State should be hostile to religion but that it should be neutral as between the different religions.
(b) Every individual has the freedom to profess and practise his own religion, and it cannot be contended that “if a person is a devout Hindu or a devout Muslim, he ceases to be secular.”
(c) The use of the vague word ‘secular’ in the Preamble would not override the ected provisions in Arts.25-30 or Art.351, so that the preference of Sanskrit in the academic syllabus as an elective subject, while not conceding this status to Arabic or Persian or the like, would not militate against the basic tenets of secularism.
(d) The neutrality of the state would be violated if religion is used for political purposes and advocated by the political parties for their political ends. An appeal to the electorate on grounds of religion offends secular democracy. Politics and religion cannot be mixed. If a State Government does this, it will be a fit case for application of Art.356 of the Constitution, against it.
(e) It is in this sense that secularism is to be regarded as a basic feature of the Constitution.
“It is amazing that some Christian leaders assert that the word ‘propagate’ in Art. 25 (1) gives them a fundamental right to convert people of other Faiths into Christianity, by any means. This assertion, followed by agitation, is particularly amazing because it seeks to undermine the decision of the Supreme Court in Stainislaus’s case in January, 1977, which had been brought by a Christian Father, who sought to invalidate a Madhya Pradesh act, because it made it a pel offence to convert or attempt to convert a person by means of ‘force, fraud or allurement’. Orissa had earlier passed a similar Act (which used the word ‘inducement’ in place of allurement) and the constitutiolity of that Act had been challenged by several members of the Christian community, including a Christian Society, a Professor of Geology and several priests. Both the Acts were taken up together by the Supreme Court and the contentions of the Christian community were rejected in toto, by the Supreme court, laying down the following propositions of law which are, under the Constitution, binding upon all Courts in India.
1. The right to ‘propagate’ in Art. 25 (1), gives to each member of every religion the right to spread or dissemite the tenets of his religion (say, by advocacy or preaching), but it would not include the right to convert another, because each man has the same freedom of ‘conscience’ guaranteed by that very provision [Art. 25 (1)], on which the Christians relied.
(ii) The equal ‘freedom of conscience’ belonging to each man, under Art. 25 (1), means that he has the freedom to choose and hold any faith of his choice and not to be converted into another religion by means of force, fraud, inducement or allurement. He can, of course, voluntarily adopt another religion, but ‘force, fraud, inducement or allurement’ takes away the free consent from the would-be convert.
(iii) Even assuming that a particular religion had the right to propagate its tenets by any means, including conversion- the State has the right and duty to intervene if such activity of conversion offended against ‘public order, morality or health’, because the guarantee of freedom of religion in Art. 25 (1) is subject to the imitations of ‘public order, morality, or health’.
(iv) If any such right to convert be conceded, such right would belong to every religion, so that there would inevitably be a breach of the public peace if every religious community carried on a campaign to convert people belonging to other faiths, by the use of force, fraud, inducement or allurement. The State was, therefore, constitutiolly authorised, y, enjoined- to maintain public order by prohibiting and pelising conversion (including attempt to convert) if force, fraud, inducement or allurement was used by the person or persons advocating conversion in any particular case. This is exactly what had been done by the M.P. and Orissa Acts. The Supreme Court, therefore, upheld the constitutiol validity of both the M.P. and Orissa Acts, after rejecting every plea raised on behalf of the Christian parties. [Introduction to The Constitution of India; Dr. Durga Das Basu, PP126-7]. Modelled on the aforesaid M.P. and Orissa Acts, the Aruchal Pradesh Anti-Conversion Bill was passed by the State Legislature and sent to the President for his assent. The Christian community at once stared agitations and demonstrations against that Bill, with threats against severer resistance if the Bill was passed. They politicised the issue, with the slogan that it was a campaign against the Christian religion in particular, which is not justified because of the following.
(i) The Bill would have operated against any religious community (including the Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, etc.) which resorted to any of these unlawful means- force, fraud, inducement or allurement, in order to convert a member of another Faith to its own fold.
(ii) That all the legal points now raised by the Christian parties were definitely rejected by the Supreme Court.
(iii) Those who rely on the Intertiol Charters in support of their freedom to convert have not mentioned Art. 18 (2) of the Intertiol Covent on Civil and Political rights, 1966, which says- “No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.”
Meanwhile the Aruchal Pradesh Bill has become an Act after the assent of the President was given to it, but no challenge against it in the Courts appears to have yet been made. A registered letter addressed to the Pope John Paul enquiring of the scriptural authority to justify conversion against a person’s free will, remains unswered. [Basu ibid, PP 153-4].
Thus, the constitutiolly valid position on practicing ‘secularism’, as declared by the Apex Court- the custodian of the Constitution, should be clear to all, including the pseudo-secularists, who believe that, real secularism means fulfilling the whims and caprices of some ‘religious minorities’, even at the cost of the vast ‘majority’ community.
Filly, we observe that, even after sixty six years of the Constitution having come into force, the Indian State has not been able to ect a ‘Uniform Civil Code’ (Art.44) for its citizens nor prevent ‘slaughter of useful cattle, i.e., cows, calves, and other milch and draught cattle’ (Art.48). That way, in my humble opinion, the State has deviated from the ‘principle of Secularism’ by discrimiting against the ‘religious majority’ and favouring the whims and caprices of particular ‘religious minority community (s)’. Sooner this glaring discrimition and inequality be removed, the better for the ‘unity and integrity’ of the country, which is a very basic objective of our Constitution. At the same time, it is necessary that, various political parties and their candidates indulging in commul politics be totally debarred from contesting elections. It should also be borne in mind that, any ‘appeasement policy’ in the me of minorities, would militate against the spirit of ‘Secularism’ enshrined in our Constitution. It is believed, the Supreme Court of India- the ‘guardian’ of our Constitution, would rise to the occasion, as in the past and work out an effective monitoring system, in order to put a halt to any ‘appeasement policy’ by the Government. Meanwhile, the newly elected BJP-led NDA Government at the Centre should implement the provisions of Art.44 and Art.48 of the Constitution, on priority basis.