Secularism is a tired old word in India today. It springs to a sort of febrile life only at the touch of the prefix, “pseudo-”. At other times, it inhabits the realm of platonic abstractions — like the pictures of the Father of the Nation in government offices — outmoded by the clash and roar of contemporary realpolitik. But when the Supreme Court declares that it was perfectly alright for the Karnataka government to ban Mr Praveen Togadia from entering the state in February 2003, then this terminally ill word is suddenly given a new lease of life. The terms in which the apex court upheld the ban on the Vishwa Hindu Parishad general secretary go to the heart of the Constitution’s definition of a secular state: “It means that the state should have no religion of its own and no one could proclaim to make the state have one such or endeavour to create a theocratic state.”
This is, then, an admonitory return to constitutional first principles. But there are several important corollaries to this. The court has reminded the state governments of their responsibility to make their citizens feel that they have the protection of law to profess, practise and propagate their religion freely. To do this, state governments can prevent the entry of individuals or organizations whose speech or action could be a threat to communal harmony. Most important, the “past conduct and antecedents” of such persons or groups could act legitimately as the basis of barring entry. Mr Togadia has got into trouble with two other states apart from Karnataka — Rajasthan and Bihar — for making inflammatory speeches and distributing tridents. The Supreme Court’s statement clearly labels this kind of behaviour as “fundamentalist”, and then links that tendency with the notion of a theocracy. Constitutional secularism entails that there should be no state religion, but leaves the precise boundaries of state involvement with religion open. The latest clarification of these keywords by the Supreme Court anchors the notion of secularism to the specificities of legality and governance.