12/02/2015 8:11 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST

The Word "Secular" Matters, Even If It's Just A Token

The row over the omission of the words secular and socialist from the Preamble of the Constitution printed in a government ad on Republic Day has opened up a heated debate on the "relevance" of these two terms in the present time, with the Shiv Sena demanding that both words be done away with for good since India is a "Hindu Rashtra" (a sentiment in line with that of the RSS, of course).

As it stands now, the Preamble to the Constitution solemnly declares that India is a "sovereign socialist secular democratic republic." But this was not always the case. The Minister of State for I&B, Rajyavardhan Rathore, tweeted after the controversy erupted to explain that the two words were not there in the original Preamble and were added only in 1976. In a subsequent tweet, he wrote, "The controversy surrounding the ad is uncalled for. Photo of original Preamble was a way of honouring founding fathers of the Constitution. Incidentally, the same picture was used in official advertisements earlier also."

It is indeed a fact that the two words were inserted by an amendment only in 1976 during the tenure of Indira Gandhi, when a state of emergency was in place and leaders of all colours, from left to right, were put behind bars. R Jagannathan, editor of FirstPost, in a blog titled "'Secular, socialist' are relics of Congress' undemocratic past; they have no meaning now" argued that these words "mean nothing" given the historical context in which they were added: "The reason why "secular" and "socialist" were inserted in 1976 is worth retelling. With leaders from all ends of the political and social spectrum in jail... the government's actions clearly lacked legitimacy. They would have been opposed both by left and right. The word "secular" was inserted to validate the action of sending "communal" leaders to prison and banning their organisations; and the word "socialist" was intended to similarly justify the incarceration of the left. Indira Gandhi bunged in these two words to justify her undemocratic actions against leaders from right to left."

But where do we stand today? To be sure, there are several regional parties who claim to be socialist (Samajwad) in some form. However, after the liberalisation of the economy, India of course remains socialist only in name despite the welfare schemes that it still runs.

The minorities in the country have their own set of problems borne of decades of negligence, discrimination and everyday bias. The findings of the Sachar Committee report, titled "'Social, Economic and Educational Status of the Muslim Community of India", have been well documented; according to this report the status of Muslims is even worse than SC/STs in several socio-economic parameters.

The row over Vice President Hamid Ansari not saluting the national flag on Republic Day this year reflected not only ignorance about protocol but also deep-seated prejudice against Muslims regardless of what they may have achieved for the country. This, of course, is not the first time that the patriotism of a Muslim has been questioned. In July 2014, Sania Mirza had to face similar ire when she was appointed as the Brand Ambassador of the newly created state of Telangana. These are only a couple of high-profile examples - one can imagine the everyday travails of average Muslims.

Most communal riots in the country have been justified by certain parties on the ground of the action-reaction theory, while victims of targeted arsons, rapes and murders from Hashimpura, Bhagalpur, Mumbai and Muzaffarnagar still await justice.

So, yes, this is the reality for many Muslims in "secular" India. However, the word is not entirely meaningless. That the Constitution acknowledges them is a source of hope for the minorities. At least on paper, they are equal citizens of the country and are thus eligible for all the rights and protections that the Constitution guarantees. Despite the endless delays of the judicial system and often biased police forces (reflected in several false cases on Muslim youth) the minorities still feel they can seek recourse in the legal system.

With the rise of the BJP at the Centre and in many states, there are growing fears of communal flare-ups. Already, terms like ghar wapsi and love jihad are being bandied about. It is probably no coincidence that US President Barack Obama invoked the Constitution to underline the importance of upholding religious freedom. In the recent past President Pranab Mukherjee and Vice President Hamid Ansari have also stressed on India's pluralistic identity.

If the Shiv Sena had its way and the words secular and socialist deleted from the Preamble, would it matter? The more pertinent question is: would it stop there? Or would then certain laws - which guarantee certain rights to the minorities, such as the freedom to practice religion, to run their educational institutions, etc - be fair game for a change as well?

The argument that India's Constitution is in its essence secular and that the mere deletion of the word does not affect it any way is disingenuous. If it does not really affect the Constitution, then why bother to delete it at the first place? Removing the word "secular" is particularly dangerous because it will end all pretensions of secularism too.