October 24, 2016

Madhav Godbole's 'Secularism: India at a Crossroads' - Review by Jatin Desai

Free Press Journal

Secularism: India at a crossroads- Review
— By Jatin Desai | Oct 23, 2016

Secularism: India at a Crossroads: Review
Author: Madhav Godbole
Publisher: Rupa
Price: Rs. 995
Pages: 429

Political analysts believe that since mid-eighties a systematic, organised campaign began to defame word Secularism. Words like Pseudo-Secularist were used by the right wing leaders to charge Congress and other parties. What BJP means by Pseudo-secularist is that these parties are not secular in its true sense but it is a mean to exploit vote bank. This is BJP’s answer to Congress’s contention that BJP is interested in Hindu communalism and in polarizing Indian society.

Threat to secularism is a threat to Indian nationhood. India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was aware of this reality. He was categorical when he addressed officers of Indian Foreign Service in 1959 and said, “the danger to India, mark you, is not communism. It is Hindu right-wing communalism.”

Also Read : Democracy and Dissenters

Madhav Godbole’s new book Secularism: India at a Crossroads throws light on the importance of secularism. Mr. Godbole was former union home secretary. The book looks at the constitutional and administrative issues the nation has faced since the Indian Constitution came into existence. It will be interesting to know that his lecture on Is India a Secular Nation? organised by the Maharashtra branch of Indian Institute of Public Administration was cancelled couple of days before he was to speak on April 4, 2016.

Since Narendra Modi led government came to power in May 2014, various right wing fringe groups started questioning secularism. A BJP member has moved a private member’s bill in the Lok Sabha in 2015 to change the word ‘India’ to ‘Hindustan’ in the Indian constitution. Supreme Court has already made it clear that secularism is a part of basic structure of the Constitution and so parliament will not be able to amend or dilute the secularism. Even in the Constitution Assembly, lengthy debate took place on the use of word secularism in the Constitution.

However, differences prevailed and it could not be agreed. But, the provisions of the Constitution make it abundantly clear that it is meant to be secular. The Indian freedom struggle was secular and the spirit reflects in various articles of the Constitution.

The word secular became part of the preamble of the Constitution only in 1976, during emergency, through a Constitution amendment. “For a country to be secular, it is not enough that its Constitution is secular and its government respects all religions alike or is equidistant from all religions, or does not give the status of a State religion to any one religion. It is equally necessary that its society is secular and its individual citizens are secular”.

The author is clear, for a successful secular state, secular society is needed and so creation of secular society needs to be priority. The author argues in favour of separation of religion from politics. He says that founding fathers and mothers of the Constitution had fully realized the importance of separation of religion from politics. Unfortunately, till today it has not materialized.
In July 1993, P V Narasimha Rao Government introduced the Constitution (Eightieth) Amendment Bill for the separation of religion from the politics and the Representation of People (Amendment) Bill. Unfortunately, it did not get enough support and was ultimately withdrawn.

In the Constitution Assembly, Tajamul Hussain suggested an interesting amendment. He said, “No person shall have any visible sign or mark or name and no person shall wear any dress whereby his religion may be recognized needs to be added in article 19”.
Hussain was aware that his proposal will not be accepted. But, had it been accepted it would have made a lot of difference. Mr. Godbole suggested two electoral reforms and they are 1, Making
voting compulsory and 2, Making 50 per cent plus 1 vote necessary to win.

He feels unless all eligible voters participate in elections, the accountability of political parties cannot be established fully.
Voting is compulsory in around 30 nations including Australia, Brazil, Belgium, Argentina, Austria and Switzerland. But, the issue is making voting compulsory also takes away ones right to not to vote. None of the Above (NOTA) cannot be seen as an alternate to not to vote.

To compel someone to vote can be seen as suppression of his/her rights. It is also not practical in a large country like India. I agree with the spirit behind his second suggestion but it is also quite impractical. It may become reality in small country.

In fact, in our neighbouring Maldives and Afghanistan to get elected President must get more than 50 per cent vote. Now there is a talk to ban on triple talaq. Supreme Court is hearing the matter. Muslim women have come forward and challenged the medieval law.

At the same time, Law Commission of India has sought public opinion on Uniform Civil Code and ending anti-women customs in three major religions. Radical Muslims have, as expected, opposed the reforms.

It will be interesting to know how the debate on these issues took place in the Constitution Assembly. Nehru was for the Uniform Civil Code. Some of the debates of the Constitution Assembly are reproduced by the author.

During the deliberations M R Masani, Hansa Mehta and Amrita Kaur sent their note saying, “We are not satisfied with the acceptance of a Uniform Civil Code as an ultimate social objective set out in clause 41 as determined by the majority of the sub-committee. One of the factors that have kept India back from advancing to nationhood has been the existence of personal laws based on religion which keep the nation divided into water-tight compartments in many aspects of life. We are of the view that Uniform Civil Code should be guaranteed to the Indian people within a period of 5 or 10 years in the same manner as the right to free and compulsory primary education has been guaranteed by clause 24 within 10 years.” We lost opportunity then and it should not be lost now.