Is Prime Minister Narendra Modi going to stoke Hindu triumphalism, or privilege the interests of one community above all others, by attending the bhumi puja being organized on August 5 to formally launch the construction of the Ram Mandir?
Some think so. Some think the prime minister is violating his constitutional duty to uphold secularism by participating in such an event. Those opposed to the visit, including members of the Opposition, have cited the precedent of India’s first prime minister, Jawahar Lal Nehru. In 1951 Nehru opposed the decision of India’s first president, Rajendra Prasad, to inaugurate the reconstructed Somnath Temple. Nehru wrote to Prasad saying, “I confess I do not like the idea of your associating yourself with a spectacular opening of the Somnath temple. This is not merely visiting a temple… but rather participating in a significant function which unfortunately has implications.”
Prasad replied saying, “I believe in my religion and cannot cut myself away from it.”
Nehru sought to distance himself from President Prasad’s move by writing to the chief ministers urging them against decisions “that come in the way of our state being secular.” And while the Opposition cites Nehru’s arguments, the BJP leans on Prasad’s reasoning to justify the Prime Minister’s presence at the mandir. The party has also slammed the Opposition’s hypocrisy accusing it of conveniently forgetting that former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi also participated in the centenary celebrations of the Islamic seminary Darul-uloom-Deoband in 1966.
But precedents only serve to draw an equivalence. They don’t settle the debate. For that we must examine what it truly means to be secular in the Indian constitutional context and why an avowed secularist and holder of a top constitutional post like Prasad had no compunctions about inaugurating the Somnath Temple. In 1948 in the tumultuous and communalized aftermath of India’s birth the framers of our Constitution were presented with a dilemma while discussing what should be considered ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’ when defining the state’s relationship with faith.
The Constituent Assembly debates document that the founders of the Republic struggled with the Western definition of secularism that traced its origins to the Protestant reformation. That definition proposes an inviolable separation of church and state. Our founders were not keen on incorporating the term secularism in the preamble of the Constitution. The vice president of the drafting committee, HC Mookherjee, summed up the popular view best when he said, “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 inevitably that we cannot afford to recognize minorities based upon religion.”
In other words the State could not have undertaken any form of religious interventions or grant religious minorities special privileges. This is understandable, given India wanted to reassure vulnerable religious minorities that the state would help protect them after the brutalities of partition. It is hypocritical to pretend otherwise as very non-secular privileges exist today in the shape of personal laws for different religions and state control over places of worship.
An India married to the western concept of secularism also would have represented a break from an ancient tradition that saw interactions between the ruler and religious masses. India was simply not ready to “reject reality of an unseen spirit or the relevance of religion to life…” as statesman-philosopher Dr Radhakrishnan observed.
A compromise was struck. The Constitution’s preamble made no reference to the word secular in exchange for a commitment to respect all faiths without favour.
But Left leaning political parties, including the Congress, from the earliest days of the Republic have consciously over-compensated minorities by signing up to the Nehruvian idea of India. Far from treating all faiths equally Hindu personal laws were codified while the personal laws of minorities were left untouched.
During the Emergency, late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who’s administration was suffering from a crisis of legitimacy, introduced the word secularism in the Constitution’s preamble to prove to her detractors that she was committed to the spirit of the Constitution. But as we all know this proved to be hollow symbolism.
In fact the left, keen to score political points over the right, have gone on to equate symbols of the Hindu community with majoritarianism. Thus Ram, a talisman of morality and a potent symbol against “irrational anger” – has been reduced to a totem of Hindu revivalism. It for this reason, more than any other, that the Prime Minister’s visit is being opposed.
On August 5th Narendra Modi has an – excuse the pun – God given opportunity to prove his critics wrong. By offering prayers to Ram in his capacity as the representative of 1.3 billion Indians, the Prime Minister could free the legacy of Ram from the clutches of a fringe that have used the deity to “excavate acrimony”. Ram is ‘maryada purshottam’ not to just Hindus but also to the adherents of other dharmic traditions like Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, mystics like Kabir and poet philosophers like Iqbal. A celebration of ‘Sabke Ram’, the embodiment of Ram Rajya, could yet prove be the antidote to the divisive discourse that has polarised our polity.
As for the left-liberal consensus they would do well to remember KM Munshi, a minister in the first Nehru cabinet, who put it thus: “A secular State is not a Godless State. Any state that seeks to outlaw God will very soon come to an end.”
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.