Monday, January 25, 2016

Republic Day Lecture: A Secular Constitution

Since the days of the French revolution, the idea that a nation state could be founded on something other than religion gained traction. The idea of the nation state itself was inexplicably linked to religion - the peace of Westphalia, after all, divided Europe into nation states based on their religion. And yet, the French revolution tried to break the religious nation state away from religion - separation of church and state. Thus, a new era war born, the secular nation state. Today, a large number of countries, including the three largest by population, are secular nation states, with no state religion. Is the Indian constitution secular, or does it merely proclaim itself to be so?

The original Preamble of the Constitution declared India to be a sovereign democratic republic, with Indira Gandhi's emergency-era amendments introducing the terms secular and socialist into it, ostensibly to make a political point. And yet, the Preamble is merely a statement of intent, and intent can quite easily be lost along the way. The question is - is the Constitution really a secular document in every sense of the term? To answer that, we must understand what the Constituent Assembly meant by the term secular itself.

The West would define a secular state as that where religion is separate from the state. In India however, the concept of secular came to mean a multi-theocratic state, in effect, as the state would have wide powers to interfere in religion, but all religions. Perhaps, for a very feudal society as India's, it is indeed not possible for the state to stay away from religion. It was on this basis that laws that broke centuries of Hindu tradition were enacted, laws that ultimately led to followers of Hinduism becoming more progressive.

Unfinished agenda
And yet, it stopped right there. The Directive Principles did call for the establishment of a uniform civil code - in effect, equal laws for all - but they cannot be implemented without legislative action. What you have instead is a Hindu society that is quite progressive, and has moved far away from the millenniums of repression unleashed upon the downtrodden, but all others continuing their regressive, feudal ways. It is then the state today that Muslim women remain on the very bottom of society.

On the other side, the state has completely taken over Hindu institutions while making it impossible to do the same to others. Many state governments have whole endowment ministries that run temples, and nothing else! From being a secular country, India became a multi-theocratic one, and now it seems to be just a Hindu state! Clearly, the founders of the Constitution never envisaged this - had they, they would've written the Constitution in the Western style.

Clearly, we are very far from a secular Constitution. The Left-Liberal architecture that has a vice-like grip on the country, and the two nation theorists that abound, will make it very hard for it to happen. But as Hindu philosophy has taught us, the inevitable can be slowed down, but not stopped.

Happy Republic Day
Jai Hind! 

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