The Demise of Constitutional Secularism in India

by Aditya Shankar

India attained Independence from the British in the wake of violent communal clashes that stemmed from the Britishers’ policy of divide and rule’. The forerunners of India’s Independence movement strongly advocated for a secular India, thereby discarding Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s idea of a “two-nation theory” – Pakistan for Muslims and India for Hindus. Post-Independence, Pakistan was created and formally declared itself to be an Islamic state. India, however, took pride in adopting a secular identity.

Two factors, broadly speaking go into the making of a secular state — the absence of an official state religion and all citizens should have the freedom to practice their own religious beliefs. Secularism is part of the basic structure of the Indian Constitution and advocates for the absence of favour or bias to a particular religion and for equal respect of all religions . This, however, is not absolute. The State may intervene in cases of communal disharmony or discrimination on the basis of religion if it is in the interest of justice, equality and fraternity as enshrined in the Preamble to the Indian Constitution. At the same time, the State may assist the persons of a certain religion to open educational institutions and provide aid for its development, as long as communal harmony is maintained. The State exercises discretion as to when it wishes to intervene and when it wishes to distance itself from religious matters. The determining factor to intervene is if the core values of the Constitution have been affected by religious activities.

One needs to keep these core constitutional values in mind while looking at the ‘Ram Janma Bhoomi Puja’ that took place in Ayodhya on August 5th, 2020. The events of August 5th are the outcome of a long legal battle. Fundamentally a property issue, the Ayodhya battle dealt with the location of the Babri Masjid, which was contended to be built on a land where a Ram temple once existed and where Lord Ram was believed to be born. By a landmark judgement , the Supreme Court, in 2019, ordered for the disputed piece of land to be utilised for the construction of the Ram temple while the State was ordered to allot an alternate piece of land, in Ayodhya itself, for the construction of the Babri Masjid. It is important to note that this case merely adjudicated upon the title of the property. The Court did not declare the disputed land to be the birth-place of Lord Ram. The judgment must not be construed as a victory of Hindus over Muslims.

What requires scrutiny and introspection are the events of August 5th, when the Prime Minister of India, was made the front-runner for laying the foundation stone of the temple in Ayodhya (Ram Janma Bhoomi ceremony). The question that needs to be answered is whether the Prime Minister attended the occasion in his personal capacity as a citizen and if not, whether it warranted the participation of the State, especially in the midst of a global pandemic? If either is held in the negative, it signals the demise of constitutional secularism in India.

On the face of it, the participation of the Prime Minister in a ceremony for the opening of a temple implicitly indicates the State is advocating for a particular religion. It instils the mindset that the State is gradually identifying itself with a particular religion rather than respecting all religions. The media and the news agencies also glorified the fact that the Prime Minister was made the Chief Guest of the ceremony. Moreover, none of the litigators of the case were called as chief guests. In addition to the Prime Minister the Chief Minister of UP, Yogi Aditya Nath and the RSS (a right-wing Hindu nationalist organisation) Chief, Mohan Bhagwat were guests at the ceremony. This only further strengthens the idea that the State is promoting a particular religion rather than maintaining a safe distance from it.

This however, was not the first instance where an official of the State has participated in the inauguration of a temple. Historically, just after India attained Independence, the then President, Rajendra Prasad attended the inauguration of the Somnath Temple. The only difference was that his participation was expressly condemned by Jawaharlal Nehru, the Prime Minister and he openly stated that the Central Government didn’t have any relation to the participation of the President in the inauguration of the Somnath Temple. So far, no similar declaration has been made by the Government of India in regard to the Prime Ministers attendance at the inauguration of the Ram Mandir, implicitly indicating the changing structure of India’s secular identity.

On closer examination, the proceedings of August 5th indicate the advent of opportunistic secularism in India. The State has been smart in its use of discretionary power to intervene or participate in religious activities to further strengthen its political agenda. The timing of the ceremony and the attendance of the Prime Minister in spite of a global pandemic stands testament to this. ‘Propaganda’ and ‘image-politics’ are two terms that resonate with the concept of opportunistic secularism. To the majority of citizens, the ‘Ram Janma Bhoomi Ceremony’ was only possible because of the Prime Minister and the governments’ efforts whereas the Supreme Court decision is merely a footnote in the entire process. The Government has used the ceremony as a means to instil the faith of the people in religious values and also to improve the image of the Prime Minister in the eyes of the people at a time when there is a growing doubt about his capabilities with respect to the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic in the country, the intrusion of China into our borders and the growing rate of unemployment and poverty in the country.

This opportunistic secularism is one that is common to not only the ruling government but also the opposition and other political parties. The political parties instead of respecting all religions only cater to the interests of the majority religion. At the same time, they distance themselves from issues in which they are required to intervene but choose not to as it would affect their electoral power. It is very ‘Machiavellian’ of the government and political parties to use whatever means to attain power — in this case, opportunistic secularism. The irony in all this is what the framers of the Constitution sought to prohibit has been corrupted by the greed for power and the State’s practices have become similar to those of our colonial rulers in their practice of “divide and rule”. Truly, what goes around comes around!

[The author is a final year law student at Christ University, Bangalore]

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