The secular vision of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was largely forsaken by his successors, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi. In this photograph, the three of them are seen together.
If the masses are aroused, they will be better prepared to face Modi’s onslaughts on democracy, fundamental rights and the rights, specifically, of the downtrodden.
On the morrow of his election victory in 2014 Narendra Modi declared that the country had been liberated from a thousand years of slavery. The claim was widely criticised. It was an assertion of M.S. Golwalkar’s thesis that the Mughal rule was Muslim rule. Implicit in it was a promise that Hindu rule would be established. If this was the high point of the 2014 speech, the speech on May 31, 2019, after the results of the general election were out, had an even more menacing remark. None, he said, had spoken of secularism in the last five years. Implicit in it was a note of triumph, a threat and an ominous pledge. He is happy that secularism has been sidelined. Even Congress leaders at the top, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, did not fight for it during the election campaign. This is coupled with an implicit threat. Its “remnants” can expect no quarter from him in the days ahead.
The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and its political department, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have always been restive about secularism. On October 2, 1990, L.K. Advani complained that “secular policy is putting unreasonable restrictions on Hindu aspirations”. Three days earlier, he had boasted: “Henceforth only those who fight for Hindu interests would rule India.” The people of India proved him wrong. In 1991 the Congress was returned to power as it was again in 2004 and 2009. Modi is not invincible.
But, let alone secularism, the Constitution itself is not absent from the RSS-BJP’s wild plans. In January 1993, the then de facto RSS supremo, Rajendra Singh, wrote: “The present conflict can be partially attributed to the inadequacies of our system in responding to the needs of the essential India, its tradition, values and ethos…. Certain specialities of this country should be reflected in the Constitution. In place of ‘India that is Bharat’, we should have said ‘Bharat that is Hindustan’. Official documents refer to the ‘composite culture’, but ours is certainly not a composite culture. Culture is not wearing of clothes or speaking languages. In a very fundamental sense, this country has a unique cultural oneness. No country, if it has to survive, can have compartments. All this shows that changes are needed in the Constitution. A Constitution more suited to the ethos and genius of this country should be adopted in the future” (Indian Express, January 14, 1994).
On January 24, 1993, at Anantapur, Andhra Pradesh, M.M. Joshi, the then BJP president, “reiterated the demand for a fresh look at the Constitution”.
On June 5, 1947, B.M. Birla wrote to Vallabhbhai Patel: “I am so glad to see from the Viceroy’s announcement [of the Partition of India] that things have turned out according to your desire. It is no doubt a very good thing for the Hindus and we will now be free from the communal canker.
“The partitioned area, of course, would be a Muslim state. Is it not time that we should consider Hindustan as a Hindu state with Hinduism as the state religion? We have also to strengthen the country so that it may be able to face any future aggression.” Pate’s retort was swift. He replied on June 10, 1947: “I also feel happy that the announcement of June 3 at least settles things one way or the other. There is no further uncertainty.… I do not think it will be possible to consider Hindustan as a Hindu state with Hinduism as the state religion. We must not forget that there are other minorities whose protection is our primary responsibility. The state must exist for all, irrespective of caste or creed” (Durga Das, Sardar Patel’s Correspondence, volume 4, page 56). If a Hindu state was excluded, what other state had Patel in mind but a secular one?
The Constituent Assembly Debates shows that the members of the Assembly simply took secularism for granted and saw no need for its explicit mention. The Supreme Court has also held that secularism is part of the unamendable “basic structure” of the Constitution. What is more, the judges explicitly referred to the 42nd Amendment of 1976 and said that it only made explicit what was implied in the Constitution. Consult the Debates and the Supreme Court’s ruling, and the BJP’s sophistry becomes all too clear. Member after member said, months before the Constitution was adopted, that India had “declared” secularism as its credo.