Secularism laid out on dissection table

Minister splits semantic hairs

By Our Special Correspondent
  • Published 27.11.15
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Video footage shows two tuskers battling it out in West Midnapore's Salboni on Thursday. The two have been fighting off and on for the past three days, apparently for the leadership of 40 elephants that got separated from a 110-strong herd. While the bigger herd moved towards Odisha, the smaller one is roaming around Salboni. "The fight will continue until one proves its superiority," said Vijaykumar Salimath, the divisional forest officer of Midnapore. Villagers living nearby are on their toes, fearing the herd may stray into their paddy fields. The forest officer said a drive had been launched to chase the fighting tuskers and the herd into the forests.
Picture by Saikat Santra, report by Naresh Jana

New Delhi, Nov. 26: Home minister Rajnath Singh today questioned the insertion of the words "secular" and "socialist" into the Preamble to the Constitution under Indira Gandhi as the Lok Sabha started a debate to commemorate B.R. Ambedkar's 125th year.

Another debate raging in the country - on intolerance - cast its shadow over today's proceedings as Rajnath initiated the House debate on "Commitment to India's Constitution".

Three points became contentious.

• Rajnath queried the insertion of "secular" and "socialist" into the Preamble by the 42nd Amendment in 1976, while adding that he was "not opposing it";

• He was accused of trying to give the entire credit for the Constitution to Ambedkar, denying any share of it to Jawaharlal Nehru; and

• He asserted that the Constitution's basic principles arose from India's ancient civilisational heritage and were not products of the freedom movement.

"I am not opposing it but the framers of the Constitution felt (that) any change to the Preamble was not desirable; the Preamble was the soul of the Constitution and should not have been changed," Rajnath said.

The amended Preamble describes India as a "sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic" republic. Today's debate was meant to coincide with the anniversary of the Constitution -- adopted on November 26, 1949, and brought into force on November 26, 1950 - and was held in honour of Ambedkar, born on April 14, 1891.

"The framers of the Constitution did not include the words 'secular' and 'socialist' because these values were (already) part of Indian civilisation," Rajnath said.

He also sought to re-ignite a debate by emphasising that the correct translation for "secularism" was " panthnirapeksh" and not "dharmnirapeksh".

Some academics had said the Constitution adopted panthnirapeksh as the translation in the 1970s but it has become customary to use dharmnirapeksh. But the Sangh insists on panthnirapeksh, having given the word its own twist.

Dharm means religion while panth can mean a sect. The Sangh wants to underline that the Constitution is nirapeksh (neutral) between "sects" - among which it counts the religions of minorities along with various Hindu sects - while Hinduism stands above all as an overarching dharm.

Rajnath reaffirmed the government's commitment to " sabka saath, sabka vikas" but seemed to be projecting the Sangh's concept of India.

"All our constitutional values existed in our ancient civilisational ethos. 'Secularism' is the most misused word today. India's religion itself is secular," he said.

He didn't spell out what "India's religion" - he had used the singular - was but said: "Parsis, Jews and Muslims had been given much respect in India."

Rajnath said the fundamental rights were the "lungs" of the Constitution but did not even obliquely allude to the widespread fears that these rights were in danger.

Sonia home truths

Sonia Gandhi termed the BJP's professed commitment to the Constitution a "mockery". "Those who never had any faith in the Constitution, neither had any role in the making of the Constitution, are today singing paeans to the Constitution.... These forces are debating their commitment to the Constitution. What can be a greater mockery than this?" she said.

"Today is a matter of happiness but of sadness as well. Sadness, because the principles and ideals that motivated us for decades are under threat today. There is a deliberate assault on them. Whatever we have seen in the last few months are inimical to the values guaranteed in the Constitution."

But Sonia faced embarrassing moments as well. There were cries of "Emergency, Emergency" when she quoted Ambedkar as having said: "No matter how good a Constitution is, if the people implementing it are bad, it will prove to be bad."

Sonia challenged Rajnath's attempt to deny the Congress any credit for the Constitution by recalling Nehru's role and the contributions of Vallabhbhai Patel, Rajendra Prasad and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad to the Constituent Assembly. She said it was the Congress that had recognised Ambedkar's talent, brought him to the Constituent Assembly and made him chairperson of the drafting committee.

BJP members ridiculed her for highlighting the Congress's role but she smiled and said: "This is history, do you have any objection?"