The Great Secularism Debate

Why did the embodiment of Secularism - Nehru and Ambedkar - reject the insertion of the word SECULAR in our Constitution?

ByAnand Ranganathan
The Great Secularism Debate
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People are worried. They feel their Idea of India is under threat. Some even think the India envisioned by Nehru and Ambedkar may not last a Modi term. And it’s that word to blame again – Secularism. Ever since the Modi government placed a newspaper ad that displayed the original Preamble and not the altered one that contains the word SECULAR, we have begun demanding answers – without, one might add, asking the right questions. The question we should be asking is not whether the Modi government, by publishing the original copy of the Preamble, has laid bare its intent of doing away with the word SECULAR but, rather, why on earth did Nehru and Ambedkar not allow this word to be added to our Preamble in the first place? And it is the answer to this question that should concern us for it would not only quieten those frothing at the mouth but also illuminate them – that the India of Nehru’s dreams stood SECULAR for a quarter of a century till such time it was demolished by the very same person we now want to hoist upon our shoulders as a champion of Justice, Liberty, and Secularism.

Soon after independence, when our founding fathers set to work on the Constitution, they indeed had in mind to construct a secular state, except that – as will become clear shortly – their version of secularism was an Indianised one. They discussed robustly, whether or not to add the word SECULAR to our Constitution, but in the end vetoed the idea.

Why would die-hard secularists like Nehru, Ambedkar, Patel, Radhakrishnan and countless others reject the insertion of this word?

After all, if anyone had to make a guess as to which of the two – Nehru or Indira – might be more inclined to slip in the word SECULAR, ten times out of ten the answer would be Nehru. Why, then, did the exalted guardians of Secularism decide to not add SECULAR to our constitution?

This is a circuitous story, at once riveting and revealing, and one that must begin with us understanding the minds of the chief protagonists themselves – Nehru and Ambedkar. Ambedkar was secular but religious, while Nehru was secular and atheist (who believed in horoscopes). Ambedkar saw religion first and foremost as a political entity. “Religion,” he said, “like language is social for the reason that either is essential for social life and the individual has to have it because without it he cannot participate in the life of the society”.

It cannot be over-emphasised that Ambedkar, himself a victim of religious ill-practises and caste dogma, had in him to reform Hinduism through decree rather than wait till its natural inherent force did the same. There are numerous articles in our Constitution, like for example 17 and 25, which bear witness to this fact. He was a secular but in wanting upliftment of the oppressed he knew nothing could bring this change faster than through constitutional means. Some historians have rightly argued that Ambedkar wanted an “interventionist secular state”. True, this was indeed in pursuit of equality and justice for those who had been denied both for centuries but it wasn’t strictly secular – for the state to intervene in religion thus. It is the remarkable self-effacement of Ambedkar that he realised inserting the word SECULAR in the Preamble, after having made numerous interventionist changes, would be wrong and more importantly, not true to the principles of Secularism.

Nehru, too realised this, as is clear from the Constituent Assembly debates (see below). He knew, of course, what Secularism meant, but he also knew that the Constitution drafted by them did not adhere to the principles of what was, in his words, dictionary Secularism.

Reservations, restrictions on freedom of religion, Anglo-Indian quota, banning centuries-old caste beliefs of Hinduism – were interventions both felt were required, and rightly so. They were also grand enough to realise that true Secularism would have disallowed those interventions. As historian Ian Copland in his authoritative book, A History of State and Religion in India writes, “Their reasoning appears to have been twofold. (1) That, since ‘Enlightenment Secularism’, with its core principle of separation, founded on the Protestant conception of religion as essentially a private concern with which states had no legitimate business, was never going to work in a country where rulers and religious publics had been interacting from time immemorial, it was better not to use the term at all, than to use it fraudulently; and (2) that giving official recognition to the term might lead people to think that the new government had religion in its sights. Ambedkar felt sufficiently worried by this prospect to remind the Lok Sabha in 1951 that continued references in Parliament and the media to India being a secular state did not reflect what the Constitution was ‘intended to mean’.”

Reading the Constitutional debates, one astonishing fact emerges – that our founding fathers might not have inserted the word SECULAR in our Preamble but they drafted for us a secular Constitution, or as close to a secular Constitution they could get. Their minds lived and breathed secularism. They were convinced that the future for India lay in secularism. But it wasn’t enlightened European secularism. It was a glorious Indianised version of it. Glorious because it took into account our history and civilisation and yet stayed true to the path of religious equality.

So why didn’t these seculars insert the word SECULAR in the Preamble? Because they knew their draft intervened heavily in religious matters when a secular Constitution technically must not. The founding of Articles 15(4), 16(5), 17, 25, and 45 meant that our Constitution was laying down rules as to how certain practices within religions are unconstitutional, even criminal, while other practices that hurt a particular religious sentiment but are practiced by other religious groups – like cow slaughter – are to be banned. Additionally, the question of religious education – that entailed extraordinarily heated debates on how a secular state should conduct itself – made it obvious that the word SECULAR was now redundant in the Indian context.

And this here is the beauty of our Constitution – everyone who wrote it was pluralistic and secular and yet what they wrote doesn’t have the word secular. They were all concerned with one thing – that India should not be a religious state or a theocracy. Time and again, in debate after debate, they declared India to be a secular state. Inserting the word SECULAR, as Ambedkar said, was therefore superfluous. It is apparent from reading the constitutional debates that, yet again, Ambedkar was correct.

Many legislators were confused as to what secularism was. Some thought it was the negation of all religion, while to others it meant an absolute separation of religion and state. Still others insisted the Constitution should advocate articles that govern aspects of a religion; a few said the state should not involve itself in matters of religious education; a tiny minority even felt that a truly secular Constitution should demand a uniform civil code. The result of all this was that, in the end, India got a secular Constitution but in which the word Secular was omitted. It wasn’t a glaring typo or a faux pas; it was intentional. No point labelling it when you can recognise the fragrance.

It must rank as a tragedy that, 65 years from the time our forefathers gifted to us our most precious possession, we are happy to uphold the Preamble written by Indira Gandhi but not one written by Ambedkar. But then we are like that – we still don’t understand what the word Secular actually means. As Wittgenstein said, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”


Excerpts from the Constitutional Debates on the topic of Secularism

S Radhakrishnan: What is our ideal? It is our ideal to develop a homogeneous democratic State. That is why we have provided for fundamental rights, we allow no discrimination in public employment, we say, it is a secular State. We have to effect a compromise between the ideal we have in view and the actual conditions which have come down to us. (

KT Shah: Sir, I beg to move that in clause (1) of article 1, after the words “shall be a” the words SECULAR, FEDERAL, SOCIALIST be inserted. Next, as regards the secular character of the State, we have been told time and again from every platform, that ours is a secular State. If that is true, if that holds good, I do not see why the term could not be added or inserted in the constitution itself, once again, to guard against any possibility of misunderstanding or misapprehension. The term SECULAR, I agree, does not find place necessarily in constitutions on which ours seems to have been modelled. (

BR Ambedkar: Sir, I regret that I cannot accept the amendment of Prof KT Shah. The Constitution is merely a mechanism for the purpose of regulating the work of the various organs of the State. It is not a mechanism whereby particular members or particular parties are installed in office. What should be the policy of the State, how the Society should be organised in its social and economic side are matters which must be decided by the people themselves according to time and circumstances. It cannot be laid down in the Constitution itself, because that is destroying democracy altogether. (

Vice-President: The question is: That in clause (1) of Article 1 after the words “shall be a” the words SECULAR, FEDERAL, SOCIALIST be inserted. The motion was negatived.

I want to make one thing clear. After the reply has been given by Dr Ambedkar, I shall not permit any further discussion. I have made a mistake once. I am not going to repeat it. (Laughter). (

Frank Anthony: Believe me, Sir, when I tell you that I do not think that there is a single right-minded minority that doesn’t want to see this country reach the goal of a real secular democratic State. As Dr Ambedkar has said, we have struck a golden mean in this matter. (

Tajamul Husain: I want to tell the House, Sir, that there is no minority in this country. I do not consider myself a minority. In a secular State, there is no such thing as minority. (

Lokanath Misra: Gradually it seems to me that “Secular State” is a slippery phrase, a device to bypass the ancient culture of the land. Do we really believe that religion can be divorced from life, or is it our belief that in the midst of many religions we cannot decide which one to accept? If religion is beyond the ken of our State, let us clearly say so and delete all reference to rights relating to religion. (

HV Kamath: When I say that a State should not identify itself with any particular religion, I do not mean to say that a State should be anti-religious or irreligious. We have certainly declared that India would be a secular State. But to my mind a secular state is neither a God-less State nor an irreligious nor an anti-religious State. Dharma, Sir, must be our religion. (

Pandit Lakshmi Kanta Maitra: The right to profess, practise and propagate any religion has been circumscribed by certain conditions. Some of my friends argued that this right ought not to be permitted for the simple reason that we have declared time and again that this is going to be a secular State. This glorious land of ours is nothing if it does not stand for lofty religious and spiritual concepts and ideals. Even in a secular state I believe there is necessity for religion. (

Jawaharlal Nehru: Another word is thrown up a good deal, this SECULAR STATE business. May I beg with all humility those gentlemen who use this word often, to consult some dictionary before they use it? It is brought in at every conceivable step and at every conceivable stage. I just do not understand it. It has a great deal of importance, no doubt. But it is brought in in all contexts, as if by saying that we are a secular State we have done something amazingly generous, given something out of our pocket to the rest of the world, something which we ought not to have done. We have only done something which every country does except a very few misguided and backward countries in the world. Let us not refer to that word in the sense that we have done something very mighty. (

Alladi Krishnaswami Ayyar: We are plighted to the principles of a secular State. (

Sardar Bhopinder Singh Man: On the one hand, we are short of property and on the other hand, concessions are being given to Muslims. This is secularism no doubt, but a very one-sided and undesirable type of secularism which goes invariably against and to the prejudice of Sikh and Hindu refugees. (

PS Deshmukh: The specious, oft-repeated and nauseating principle of secularity of the State. I think that we are going too far in this business of secularity. (

Seth Govind Das: When we want to frame the Constitution of our country in our national language, when we want to make it a secular state, neither India nor Hindustan are suitable names for this country. In my opinion, we should give this country the ancient name Bharat. (

Mohamed Ismail Sahib: It is not necessary for a secular State to ban religious education in State institutions. Sir, it will not be in contravention of the neutrality or the secular nature of the State to impart religious instruction. (

Sardar Bhopinder Singh Man: What is the use of calling India a secular State if you allow religious instruction to be imparted to young boys and girls? (

Mahboob Ali Baig Sahib Bahadur: Legislate with regard to personal laws would go against the claims that this government is going to be secular. (

Mohamad Ismail Sahib: If anything is done affecting the personal laws, it will be tantamount to interference with the way of life of those people who have been observing these laws for generations and ages. This secular State which we are trying to create should not do anything to interfere with the way of life and religion of the people. (

Mahboob Ali Baig Sahib Bahadur: Now, Sir, people seem to have very strange ideas about secular State. People seem to think that under a secular State, there must be a common law observed by its citizens in all matters, including matters of their daily life, their language, their culture, their personal laws. That is not the correct way to look at this secular State. (

Hussain Imam: The apprehension felt by the members of the minority community is very real. Secular State does not mean that it is anti-religious State. It means that it is not irreligious but non-religious and as such there is a world of difference between irreligious and non-religious. (

KM Munshi: If a religious practice followed so far covers a secular activity or falls within the field of social reform or social welfare, it would be open to Parliament to make laws about it without infringing this Fundamental Right of a minority. If the religious practices in the past have been so construed as to cover the whole field of life, we have reached a point when we must put our foot down and say that these matters are not religion, they are purely matters for secular legislation. (

Jaipal Singh: We have heard such a lot of pious language about a democratic State, of a secular State, of our being voluntarily opposed to the establishment of theocracy in India. Here, Sir, I submit, by the back door we are trying to interfere with the religious rights of the most ancient people of this country. (

HC Mookherjee: Sir, are we really honest when we say that we are seeking to establish a secular state? If your idea is to have a secular state it follows inevitable that we cannot afford to recognise minorities based upon religion. This to my mind is the strongest possible argument why reservation of seats for religious groups should be abolished immediately. (

Begum Aizaz Rasul: Sir, to my mind it is very necessary that the Muslims living in this country should throw themselves entirely upon the good-will of the majority community, should give up separatist tendencies and throw their full weight in building up a truly secular state. (

Mohammed Ismail Sahib: Some of my friends claimed that Constitution is an apolitical Constitution but really is it so? I don’t know. It deals with untouchability, temple-entry and Religious instruction. I don’t blame the Constitution or its drawers for this. I say it is quite right in noting these things; but one important fundamental thing I want to refer to and that is regarding religious instruction. That right is not derogatory to the neutrality or secular nature of the State. (

Govind Ballabh Pant: Do you want a real national secular State or a theocratic State? If the latter, then in this Union of India a theocratic State can by only a Hindu State. Will anything be more dangerous than that? (

M Thirumala Rao: We have been talking too much of a secular State. What is meant by a secular State? We must make it clear that the ancient traditions and culture of this country will be fully protected and developed by the Constitution and through the Constitution. (

BR Ambedkar: That in State institutions there shall be no religious instruction, we have in my judgment travelled the path of complete safety. (

Pandit Lakshmi Kanta Maitra: May I put to Dr Ambedkar one question? There is an educational institution wholly managed by the Government, like the Sanskrit College, Calcutta. There the Vedas are taught, Smrithis are taught, the Gita is taught, the Upanishads are taught. Would it be interpreted that the teaching of Vedas, or Smrithis, or Shastras or Upanishads comes within the meaning of a religious instruction? In that case all these institutions will have to be closed down. (

BR Ambedkar: My own view is that religious instruction is to be distinguished from research or study. A dogma is quite different from study. (

Mahavir Tyagi: The Constituent Assembly having passed a resolution saying that the State will be a secular State, a lot of misunderstandings have been created on account of that resolution. The name of God does not, in my opinion, interfere with the secularity of the State. Therefore if we bring in the name of God in the constitution of our State, it will help us to unify the state, and will implement the secular character of the State rather than disturb its secularity. Real Swaraj means Ram Rajya. If secular State means that our children will not know about the Ramayana or listen to the Gita or the Koran or the Granth what is political freedom worth? Sir, by “Ram” I mean Hindu God and also Christian God. (Laughter) (

KM Munshi: A secular State is not a Godless State. Any State that seeks to outlaw God will very soon come to an end. (

BR Ambedkar: Some members are afraid that the introduction of the word God in the Constitution is going to alter the nature of what has been proclaimed to be a secular State. In my judgment, the introduction of the word God does not raise that question at all. (

M Ananthasayanam Ayyangar: All people have come to the same opinion that there should be a secular State here; so we should not allow conversion from one community to another. I therefore want that a positive fundamental right must be established that no conversion shall be allowed, and if any occasion does arise like this, let the person concerned appear before a Judge and swear before him that he wishes to be converted. (

Krishna Chandra Sharma: The phrase SECULAR should not frighten us in saying that every person who is a Hindu or a Sikh by religion and is not a citizen of another State shall be entitled to citizenship of India. (

Damodar Swarup Seth: I feel, Sir, that in a secular state minorities based on religion or community should not be recognised. If they are given recognition then I submit that we cannot claim that ours is a secular state. Recognition of minorities based on religion or community is the very negation of secularism. I therefore submit that only minorities based on language should be recognised. (

Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel: It is not our intention to commit the minorities to a particular position in a hurry. If they really have come honestly to the conclusion that in the changed conditions of this country, it is in the interest of all to lay down real and genuine foundations of a secular State, then nothing is better for the minorities than to trust the good sense and sense of fairness of the majority, and to place confidence in them. In the long run, it would be in the interest of all to forget that there is anything like majority or minority in this country and that in India there is only one community. (hear, hear). (

Lokanath Misra: Sir, deliberately we have chosen that our state is a secular state and we have tried to get rid of all the wrangling of religion because of the belief that although religion was made to unite mankind it has been found that it has disunited mankind and has brought various disputes. (

KT Shah: The draftsmen seem to be torn between two rival ideals: one suggesting the Constitution for a wholly secular State, in which religion has no official recognition. On the other hand, there seems to me to be a pull – somewhat sub-conscious pull, if I may say so – in favour of particular religions or denominations, whose institutions, whose endowments, whose foundations, are sought to be protected. (

HV Kamath: I should like to plead with the House that in spite of repeated admonitions to us that ours is and will remain a secular State, I am convinced that the secularity of the State cannot act as a bar to men of religion or philosophy. Have we gone so far in our interpretation of a secular State that we consider that there is no place in our legislatures for men of philosophy and religion? (

Jagat Narain Lal: Again, the words “Secular State” should not have come into the Constitution.

It would have been enough if it had been said that the State should not interfere with any religion. Or, we could have said that the State should have a spiritual and moral outlook, instead of saying that it should be secular. The introduction of these words has created a lot of misunderstanding. (

Tajamul Husain: I submit, Sir, that this is a secular State, and a secular state should not have anything to do with religion. So I would request you to leave me alone, to practise and profess my own religion privately. (

Lokanath Misra: We have declared the State to be a Secular State. For obvious and for good reasons we have so declared. (

SV Krishnamurthy Rao: One thing I would like to see omitted is the provision for freedom to propagate religion. In a secular State, such a provision is out of place in our Constitution. (

Shibban Lal Saksena: Ban on religious instructions in State schools may result in the prohibition even of the teaching of books like the Gita and Ramayana in schools. I am sure peoples’ representatives will not tolerate this ban and the article will soon have to be amended. This is an instance where secularity has gone too far. (

Rev. Jerome D’Souza: Sir, Mahatma Gandhi, in one of his unforgettable phrases, referring to the desire to have a secular Constitution and to avoid the name of the Supreme Being in it, cried out, “You may keep out the Name, but you will not keep out the Thing from that Constitution”. (

Brajeshwar Prasad: I am quite clear in my own mind that secularism is the negation of all religion. (

LS Bhatkar: This Constituent Assembly has declared time and again that India is a secular State. (

Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel: With the grace of God and with the blessings of the Almighty, we lay the foundations of a true secular democratic State, where everybody has equal chance. Let God give us the wisdom and the courage to do the right thing to all manner of people. (Cheers). (

Tajamul Husain: We are strong. We are Indians first and we are Indians last. I appeal to all minorities to join the majority in creating a secular State. (

Jawaharlal Nehru: Now I use the words “Secular democracy” and many others use these words. But sometimes I have the feeling that these words are used today too much and by people who do not understand their significance. It is an ideal to be aimed at and every one of us whether we are Hindus or Muslims, Sikhs or Christians, whatever we are, none of us can say in his heart of hearts that he has no prejudice and no taint of communalism in his mind or heart. (

Author’s note: Because of paucity of space, the quotes have been abridged. Every effort has been made to keep them in context. These quotes are taken from transcripts of 52 Constituent Assembly debates.


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