Updated: Mar 14
The several textbooks on the Constitutional Law of India undoubtfully and clearly define the nature of our Constitution as written, but AMENDABLE. Justifying this approach Dr. B.R. Ambedkar had put up an appropriate argument that Constitution is an organic document which is ought to go under change as per demand of time. The crucial development of adding SECULAR in the Preamble during the time of Emergency, is one significant step taken towards modernization of the Constitution.
IT was on 15th of November, 1948 that K.T. Shah, a dignified member of the Constituent Assembly had proposed the term “SECULAR” to be added to the Article 1 (of the capacity of the Preamble then) first time ever, in reference to the State in order to delineate the political identity of our country. As he justified his proposal, he pointed out that the State is already considered a secular one across several platforms. He further points out that the State should be declared a secular state so that there may not arise any interference in the dealings between man to man or man and State. The proposal was objected to by reverent Dr. B.R. Ambedkar on the lines that how the State shall function and the mechanism to be followed thereafter is a matter of concern for the people of India, and each and everything decided beforehand will be against the ethics of the democratic structure which is the primary aspiration for our country. He further argued that an explicit declaration of a SECULAR STATE was not needed as various provisions of the Constitution are based on the lines of secularism. Hence, the proposal was subsequently rejected.
Since then “SECULAR” has become a part of the Preamble to our Constitution, by the 42nd Amendment Act under the Indira Gandhi government. What changed coming to this were not only the circumstances and the stand of the government but the ideological explanation behind the political concept.
Upon a close observance of the constituent assembly debates, one element which can be inferred is that SECULARISM was understood to be the negation of all religions. Several of the documents suggest that the dignified members were against the concept of secularism merely because there were diverse religions in India, all of which exhibiting their separate individualities. They would argue that secularism is impossible to exist in India because there are different cultures in our country.
Till the time the Amendment came in place not only there was an acceptance towards the so- called heterogeneity of the religions and culture but also a shift in the ideology of secularism as per the contemporary times and need; moving forward from the “Negation of the religions” it came to be understood as “Tolerance towards the religion”. During the Parliamentary debate Gandhi made a pivotal interference for the Amendment to come into place, saying that to include the terminology in the Preamble itself (referring to SECULAR and SOCIALIST) is for a larger objective to be fulfilled referring to the contemporary crisis of the Emergency, and that the sacrosanct goals of our constitution are not worthy to be left at the mercy of the interpretation of the judiciary. Hence the Amendment was successfully made. This amendment has been well accepted by the judiciary thereafter. In the milestone case of SR Bommai the Supreme Court held that secularism is a basic feature of the Constitution which is inalterable and in omittable from the Preamble through any amendment proceedings. Thus, the word has stood thereafter.
What remains a matter of concern in the contemporary time is that these Constitutional values, are being considerably derogated, as believed by several experts. Justice Vikramajit Sen, a retired judge of the Supreme Court, once observed during the hearing of a case in 2015: “India is a secular country, but I don’t know how long it will remain so.” Ever since the amendment came into being it has been under danger and severely criticized many a times.
First integral criticism regarding this is of inapplicability in Indian context. The word ‘secularism’ is known to have originated in late medieval Europe. “Secularism, the theory that governments ought to have no religious connection, nor indeed anything to do with matters of religious belief or ritual, is manifestly a Western intervention, specifically a product of the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment,” writes historian Ian Copland. But the approach was suitable in the context of Britain where their was comparatively more homogeneity in regard to culture and religion. But the situation is quite contrasting in case of India, which is substantially marked by cultural and religious diversity; many of which might regard government intervention for its protection and sustenance. Hence the idea of divorcing the role of State from religion in the Indian societal scenario cannot be maintained.
Secondly, the method of implementation was rather flawed. The minorities were prioritised in the name of protection, so much so that the majority was started being considered as a victim. The approach of the secularists was inaccurate as they went on to sought the country on caste lines under the illusion of unifying the country on religious grounds. Moreover, no matter how much the secularism is reflected in the Constitution, but several might argue that it was never truly implemented as right to religion was imparted as the fundamental right in the Constitution, implying that the State was never divorced from the religion altogether.
Hence, we see that including the term Secular in the Preamble has turned out to be more of an aspirational one rather than a pragmatic one.
The important question thus is not to question the principle of Secularism itself but rather to come out with ways in order to make it pragmatic too because as stated earlier it is an integral Constitutional value and a feature of the basic structure of the Constitution. This is because secularism complemented by the socialist principles are imperative for the kind of democracy which we need for our State.
References  “Constitution of India Debate Proceedings- Volume VII”, Volume 9, Document 138, Paragraph 397.  “Debating Secularism”, V. Venkatesan, Frontline, Print Ed. 21st July 2017.  SR Bommai v UOI (1994).  Supra Note 2.  ” Secularism- Why Nehru dropped and Indira inserted the S- word”, Adrija Roy Chowdhury, The Indian Express, June 4, 2020.  Supra note 3.
Author - Pragati Gupta
Student of Faculty of Law, University of Delhi.