1. a) Understanding secularism in the Indian context

There was a point of time, perhaps, when we might have taken the idea of a secular, pluralistic India, tolerant of all sects and religions, as a position set in stone. But, incidents, especially since the early 1990s, have radically altered both reality and our imagination. That certain groups, including many within the political party presently in power at the Centre and in many States, actively believe in a different kind of India is today intensely palpable. Against this backdrop, statements made on December 24, in a public address, by the Minister of State for Employment and Skill Development, Anantkumar Hegde, scarcely come as a surprise.

Secularism and us

“Secular people,” he declared, “do not have an identity of their parental blood.” “We (the BJP),” he added, “are here to change the Constitution,” making it quite clear that in his, and his party’s, belief secularism was a model unworthy of constitutional status. Since then, the ruling government has sought to distance itself from these comments, and Mr. Hegde himself has, without explicitly retracting his statements, pledged his allegiance to the Constitution and its superiority. But the message, as it were, is already out, and its discourse is anything but opposed to the present regime’s larger ideology. Indeed, Mr. Hegde’s comments even mirror those made on several occasions by people belonging to the top brass of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, who have repeatedly stressed on what they view as their ultimate aim: the recognition of India as a Hindu state, in which secularism lies not at the Constitution’s bedrock, but entirely outside the document’s aims and purposes. The reactions to Mr. Hegde’s speech have been manifold. Some have welcomed it, as a call for debate, while others have viewed it as the ringing of a veritable alarm bell. Those on the far right in particular, though, have embraced the message, and have gone as far as to suggest that India has never been a secular state, that the Constitution, as it was originally adopted, did not contain the word “secular”, which was inserted into the Preamble only through the 42nd amendment introduced by Indira Gandhi’s government during the height of Emergency rule. They also point to B.R. Ambedkar’s pointed rejection of proposals during the Constitution’s drafting to have the word “secular” included in the Preamble. Given that the Constitution is mutable, these facts, in their belief, only buttress arguments against the inclusion of secularism as a constitutional ideal. But what statements such as those made by Mr. Hegde don’t quite grasp is that our Constitution doesn’t acquire its secular character merely from the words in the Preamble, but from a collective reading of many of its provisions, particularly the various fundamental rights that it guarantees. Any move, therefore, to amend the Constitution, to remove the word “secular” from the Preamble, before we consider whether such a change will survive judicial review, will have to remain purely symbolic. Yet, Mr. Hegde’s statements nonetheless bear significance, for they exemplify the confidence that he has in the broader project that is already underway. The endeavour here is to steadily strike at the secular values that the Constitution espouses, to defeat it not so much from within, but first from outside. Negating this mission requires sustained effort, not only in thwarting any efforts to amend the Constitution, if indeed they do fructify, but, even more critically, by working towards building a contrary public opinion, not through rhetoric, but through facts, by reaffirming our faith in constitutionalism, and in the hallowed values of plurality and tolerance that our democracy must embody.

Inbuilt freedoms

Now, it is certainly true that the Constituent Assembly explicitly rejected a motion moved by Brajeshwar Prasad from Bihar to have the words “secular” and “socialist” included in the Preamble. But this was not on account of any scepticism that the drafters might have had on the values of secularism. Quite to the contrary, despite what some might want us to believe today, the assembly virtually took for granted India’s secular status. To them, any republic that purports to grant equality before the law to all its citizens, that purports to recognise people’s rights to free speech, to a freedom of religion and conscience simply cannot be un-secular. To be so would be an incongruity. Secularism, as would be clear on any morally reasonable analysis, is inbuilt in the foundations of constitutionalism, in the idea of a democracy properly understood. In the case of our Constitution, it flows from the series of fundamental rights guaranteed in Part III. How can a person be guaranteed a right to freedom of religion without a concomitant guarantee that people of all religions will be treated with equal concern? To fully understand what secularism in the Indian context means, therefore, we must read the Constitution in its entirely. There is no doubt that within the Assembly, there existed a conflict between two differing visions of secularism: one that called for a complete wall of separation between state and religion, and another that demanded that the state treat every religion with equal respect. A study of the Constitution and the debates that went into its framing reveals that ultimately it was the latter vision that prevailed. As the political scientist Shefali Jha has pointed out, this constitutional dream can be best comprehended from K.M. Munshi’s words. “The non-establishment clause (of the U.S. Constitution),” Munshi wrote, “was inappropriate to Indian conditions and we had to evolve a characteristically Indian secularism… We are a people with deeply religious moorings. At the same time, we have a living tradition of religious tolerance — the results of the broad outlook of Hinduism that all religions lead to the same god… In view of this situation, our state could not possibly have a state religion, nor could a rigid line be drawn between the state and the church as in the U.S..” Or, as Rajeev Bhargava has explained, what secularism in the Indian setting calls for is the maintenance of a “principled distance” between state and religion. This does not mean that the state cannot intervene in religion and its affairs, but that any intervention should be within the limitations prescribed by the Constitution. Sometimes this might even call for differential treatment across religions, which would be valid so long as such differentiation, as Mr. Bhargava explains, can be justified on the grounds that it “promotes freedom, equality, or any other value integral to secularism.” We can certainly debate the extent to which the state intervenes in religious matters, and whether that falls foul of the Constitution’s guarantees. We can also debate whether an enactment of a Uniform Civil Code would be in keeping with Indian secularism or not. But what’s clear is that a diverse, plural society such as India’s cannot thrive without following the sui generis form of secularism that our founders put in place. It might well yet be inconceivable that the government chooses to amend the Constitution by destroying its basic structure. But these are not the only efforts we must guard against. We must equally oppose every move, every action, with or without the state’s sanction, that promotes tyrannical majoritarianism, that imposes an unreasonable burden on the simple freedoms of the minority. We can only do this by recognising what constitutes the essence and soul of the Constitution: a trust in the promise of equality. What, we might want to keeping asking ourselves, does equality really entail? What does it truly demand?


1) Set in stone

Meaning: To be very difficult or impossible to change.

Example: The schedule isn’t set in stone, but we’d like to stick to it pretty closely.

2) Intensely

Meaning: With extreme force or strength.

Example: “the fire was burning intensely”

3) Palpable

Meaning: (of a feeling or atmosphere) so intense as to seem almost tangible.

Example: “a palpable sense of loss”

Synonyms: Perceptible, Visible

Antonyms: Intangible, Imperceptible

4) Backdrop

Meaning: Lie behind or beyond; serve as a background to.

Example: “the rolling hills that back dropped our camp”

5) Secularism

Meaning: The principle of separation of the state from religious institutions.

Example: “he believes that secularism means no discrimination against anybody in the name of religion”

6) Discourse

Meaning: Engage in conversation.

Example: “he spent an hour discoursing with his supporters”

Synonyms: Talk, Speak

7) Top brass

Meaning: The people with the highest positions of authority, especially in the armed forces.

Example: “the top brass of the Jockey Club”

Synonyms: Bosses, Managers

8) Bedrock

Meaning: The fundamental principles on which something is based.

Example: “honesty is the bedrock of a good relationship”

Synonyms: Core, Foundation

9) Manifold

Meaning: Many and various.

Example: “the implications of this decision were manifold”

Synonyms: Many, Numerous

10) Ringing alarm bell

Meaning: If something rings/sounds alarm bells, it makes you start to worry because it is a sign that there may be a problem.

Example: The name rang alarm bells in her mind.

Synonyms: Threats, Warning

11) Veritable

Meaning: Used for emphasis, often to qualify a metaphor.

Example: “the early 1970s witnessed a veritable price explosion”

12) Embraced

Meaning: Accept (a belief, theory, or change) willingly and enthusiastically.

Example: “besides traditional methods, artists are embracing new technology”

Synonyms: Welcome, Accept

Antonyms: Reject

13) Preamble

Meaning: The introductory part of a statute or deed, stating its purpose, aims, and justification.

Example: “Lord Denning’s preamble to the report”

Synonyms: Introduction, Preface

14) The height of

Meaning: The time when a situation or event is strongest or most full of activity.

Example: August is the height of the tourist season.

15) Buttress

Meaning: Increase the strength of or justification for; reinforce.

Example: “authority was buttressed by religious belief”

Synonyms: Strengthen, Support

16) Grasp

Meaning: Seize and hold firmly.

Example: “she grasped the bottle”

Synonyms: Grip, Clutch

Antonyms: Release

17) Judicial

Meaning: Of, by, or appropriate to a law court or judge; relating to the administration of justice.

Example: “a judicial inquiry into the allegations”

Synonyms: Legal, Juridical

18) Exemplify

Meaning: Be a typical example of.

Example: “he exemplified his point with an anecdote”

Synonyms: Illustrate, Demonstrate

19) Underway

Meaning: Having started and in progress; being done or carried out.

Example: “recruitment is well under way”

20) Endeavour

Meaning: An attempt to achieve a goal.

Example: “an endeavour to reduce serious injury”

Synonyms: Attempt, Effort

21) Espouses

Meaning: Adopt or support (a cause, belief, or way of life).

Example: Vegetarianism is one because she does not espouse.

Synonyms: Adopt, Embrace

Antonyms: Reject, Oppose

22) Negating

Meaning: Deny the existence of.

Example: “negating the political nature of education”

Synonyms: Deny, Dispute

Antonyms: Conform, Ratify

23) Thwarting

Meaning: Oppose (a plan, attempt, or ambition) successfully.

Example: “the government had been able to thwart all attempts by opposition leaders to form new parties”

Synonyms: Foil, Frustrate

Antonyms: Assist, Facilitate

24) Fructify

Meaning: Make (something) fruitful or productive.

Example: “they were sacrificed in order that their blood might fructify the crops”

25) Rhetoric

Meaning: Language designed to have a persuasive or impressive effect, but which is often regarded as lacking in sincerity or meaningful content.

Example: “all we have from the Opposition is empty rhetoric”

Synonyms: Bombast

26) Hallowed

Meaning: Make holy; consecrate; greatly revere and honour.

Example: “hallowed ground”

Synonyms: Sacred, Blessed

Antonyms: Cursed

27) Plurality

Meaning: A large number of people or things.

Example: “a plurality of critical approaches”

Synonyms: Lot, Diversity

28) Purports

Meaning: Appear to be or do something, especially falsely.

Example: “she is not the person she purports to be”

Synonyms: Claim, Profess

29) Concomitant

Meaning: Naturally accompanying or associated.

Example: “she loved travel, with all its concomitant worries”

Synonyms: Attendant, Associated

Antonyms: Unrelated

30) Conflict

Meaning: A prolonged armed struggle.

Example: “regional conflicts”

Synonyms: Action, Battle

Antonyms: Calm, Peace

31) Prevailed

Meaning: Prove more powerful or superior.

Example: “it is hard for logic to prevail over emotion”

Synonyms: Win, Triumph

32) Comprehended

Meaning: Include, comprise, or encompass.

Example: “a divine order comprehending all men”

Synonyms: Comprise, Include

Antonyms: Exclude

33) Moorings

Meaning: The ropes, chains, or anchors by or to which a boat, ship, or buoy is moored.

Example: “the great ship slipped her moorings and slid out into the Atlantic”

34) Rigid

Meaning: Not able to be changed or adapted.

Example: “rigid bureaucratic controls”

Synonyms: Fixed, Set firm

Antonyms: Flexible

35) Foul

Meaning: Very disagreeable or unpleasant.

Example: “the news had put Michelle in a foul mood”

Synonyms: Unkind, Unfriendly

Antonyms: Kind

36) Enactment

Meaning: The process of passing legislation.

Example: “the enactment of equal pay legislation”

Synonyms: Passing, Ratification

Antonyms: Repeal

37) Thrive

Meaning: Prosper; flourish.

Example: “education groups thrive on organization”

Synonyms: Flourish, Prosper

Antonyms: Decline, Wither

38) Sui generis

Meaning: Unique.

Example: “the sui generis nature of animals”

Synonyms: Individual, Special

Antonyms: Common, Ordinary

39) Tyrannical

Meaning: Exercising power in a cruel or arbitrary way.

Example: “a tyrannical government”

Synonyms: Autocratic, Oppressive

Antonyms: Democratic, Liberal

40) Essence

Meaning: The intrinsic nature or indispensable quality of something, especially something abstract, which determines its character.

Example: “conflict is the essence of drama”

Synonyms: Spirit, Quintessence

Other THE HINDU EDITORIALS from the month of December :