The fears of the constituent assembly members regarding politicisation of religion have come true.
In its young life, India has broken the norms of democracy in many ways; its “secularism” is just one of them. In studying the debates of the Constituent Assembly around the freedom of expression of religion, it is useful to go back to what the framers of our Constitution meant when they defined it, as well as appreciate how accurately they predicted the current complex state of secularism in India.
The most important point that every member of the Constituent Assembly stressed on was that secularism to India must mean a separation of government and religion, but not an absence of spirituality. H V Kamat said, “a secular state [was] neither a godless state nor an anti-religious state”. While they acknowledged the danger of allowing religion to be a part of governance, they also recognized the need all communities in their newfound republic would have for representation.
Two details were debated in the process of putting this broad-minded proposition of secularism into the Constitution. The first was whether the government should be allowed to “prevent” secular activity done in the name of religion, in addition to “restrict” it. The second was whether citizens should have a right to “propagate” their religion in addition to practicing it.
As pointed out in the debate, temples and churches were known even at the time to have ways of collecting large sums of money, getting tax exemptions by identity of being religious institutions, and showing the potential for corruption. The speakers who argued for the State’s right to “prevent” secular activity done in the name of religion were afraid that religion would become politicized and have more of a role to play in propaganda than in inward spiritualism. This dichotomy between a more communal, institutionalized religion and an inward, personal religion, which is a prominent narrative even today, was identified then and debated upon in great detail.
One point that arose from the appeal to prevent secular activity was the possibility that it could restrict citizens from following the personal laws of their religion. These personal laws are very much community based and deal with issues like property distribution, which is not spiritual, but are nevertheless deeply rooted cultural practices.
The worry that was constantly repeated in the court was that allowing some communities to operate with laws of their own would exacerbate differences between people who were supposed to identify as citizens of the same country. This is the real value of the personal laws over civil code discussion, and the reason it is still relevant after sixty years. The process of drafting our Constitution brought out the same regional-national identity crises we face today as Indian citizens, members of communities and practitioners of faith.
In discussing whether the right to “propagation” of religion should be included in the Constitution, K T Shah and others implored that the word be removed because it implied external motives, unlike the practicing of “religion in the widest sense…as the highest value of spirit”. L. Krishnaswami Bharati’s response to that, however, was that, “all religions have one objective and if it is properly understood by the masses, they will come to know that all religions are one and the same. It is all God, though under different names. Therefore this word ought to be there.” Mohammad Ismail Sahib agreed, saying that problems between religions did not arise because of practice or propagation, but of misunderstanding, and only when people were allowed to practice and propagate would there be a chance for others to understand them.
All these points show the members to be incredibly broad-minded and far ahead of their time. However, the one unarguable point in this whole debate was that propagation of one’s religion had been a basic right of every human being “from the beginning of time”. Clearly, for the writers of a Constitution for a country which was younger than all its cultures and values, deciding the “rights” of citizens who already identified with other, older communities, was not an easy task. Still, it is remarkable to note the intimate yet communal construct of religion these people were trying to create for future generations.
The important corollary to the right to propagate was also brought up – that propagation should not mean the decrying of other religions. Shri K. Santhanam suggested that “the article [was] not so much an article on religious freedom, but an article on religious toleration.” Today’s Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s teachings, which are disseminated to thousands of youth and include whole modules focused solely on the dangers of Islam, are only one example of what the framers of the Constitution were clearly afraid of.
The important undercurrent in these lengthy debates was the danger that protecting one community’s freedom of religion might violate other freedoms of another community or the general public. This was why, towards the end of the debate, K. Santhanam reminded the court that whatever rights were granted or not granted to the citizens of India, they would at the end of the day be determined by what was best for “public order, morality and health”, and that social practices would change over time, changing public interest also. “The full implications of [public order, health and morality]…will grow with the growing social and moral conscience of the people. I do not know if for a considerable period of time the people of India will think that purdah is consistent with the health of the people. Similarly, there are many institutions of Hindu religion which the future conscience of the Hindu community will consider as inconsistent with morality.”
Once again, Indian society has shown its “public health” to depend on exactly the kind of things the Assembly hoped would not define us. As we can see by the ban on Wendy Doniger’s book “The Hindus: An Alternative History”, which was taken to court by the Shiksha Bachao Aandolan Samiti, what some members of the Hindu community argue is their right to freedom of religion blatantly violates another basic fundamental right. The change that K. Santhanam assumed would happen is not doing so to the extent we would hope. The politicization of religion they so idealistically denounced is strong and particularly relevant today.