How fragile is our secularism?

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modi-on-ambedkar-issueDemocracy is strengthened when there is consensus and discussion. Majority doesn’t give (the government) the right to impose its views. Majority and minority is the last step because we have to promote consensus, debate and discussion.


When Prime Minister Narendra Modi said those words in Parliament, many saw in it an attempt to strike a conciliatory note with the Opposition. Coming soon after the Bihar drubbing, the PM’s words seemed to suggest that the government is giving up its belligerent attitude in pursuing issues close to the RSS heart. Even detractors thought the Modi- Amit Shah-led party was trying an image makeover of sorts by appearing to shed some of the obstinacy that has so far been an unmistakable trait of the BJP style of exercising power.

If at all Modi’s words could be taken as testimony to such an attempt, it was marred in advance by what Home Minister Rajnath Singh and other seniors in the party had been quite vocal about just a day earlier. The apparent dissonance within makes it easier to go deeper than the skin into how the party ruling India today thinks.

The Home Minister minced no words while questioning the inclusion of secularism in the Constitution during Indira Gandhi’s reign, going against the grain of an unsaid consensus among all other political parties. Rajnath used the occasion of the Constitution Day (the Constituent Assembly adopted the Constitution of India on 26 November 1949) to drive home the well-known critical stance of his party and its ideological fountainhead, the RSS , on secularism as a founding principle of the republic.

No wonder the statement reopened an old tug-of-war between the Hindu Right and the rest of the political spectrum, and cast a shadow on how Modi’s “consensus” speech the following day was received.

Being critical of secularism has been a key element of the worldview of the RSS  and the BJP. And this was certainly not the first time the Modi government courted controversy on the issue of secularism and socialism. On Republic Day this year, the government had issued an advertisement in which the Preamble of the Constitution had been reproduced without the words secularism and socialism, which had been incorporated through the 42nd Amendment in 1976 during the Emergency. That omission led to a lot of hue and cry.

While making it clear that the government had no objection to retaining the words secularism and socialism in the Constitution, Rajnath came down heavily on the idea of secularism. “Secularism is the most misused word in the country,” he told Parliament. “Its misuse should come to an end. Because of the rampant misuse of the word, there have been instances of tension in the society.” Though the Opposition parties contradicted the home minister’s statement, his Cabinet colleagues joined him in criticising both secularism and socialism.

“This is just another of the BJP’s attempts to delegitimise the word secularism,” says Manisha Sethi, a professor at the Jamia Milia Islamia university, New Delhi. “The BJP never cared for constitutional values. The current controversy once again shows that the RSS has not changed its position in any way. The Hindutva groups were against the Constituent Assembly itself, so for them to say now that BR Ambedkar was against the word secularism is little more than a convenient way to push their agenda.” Indeed, the RSS has been vocal in its opposition to the Indian Constitution since its adoption.

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