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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 41 New Delhi September 29, 2018

The Essence of Our Secularism

Saturday 29 September 2018, by Manmohan Singh


The following is the speech of former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh at the Second Memorial Lecture in honour of the late CPI General Secratary, A.B. Bardhan, on “Defence of Secularism and Constitution” at the Constitution Club, New Delhi on September 25, 2018.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am grateful to you for inviting me to deliver the Second Memorial Lecture in honour of Shri A.B. Bardhan. I had the privilege of knowing Shri Bardhan for a long time. Though he and I belonged to different political parties, Shri Bardhan always impressed me as a committed nationalist, dedicated to the Constitution and its republican values.

Every civilised society is known and defined by the terms it offers to its minorities, especially its religious minorities. And that was one of the principal issues facing our national leaders when they got down to writing a Constitution for the newly-Independent India.

It will be helpful to keep in mind that there was a definite context—a global context and a domestic context—to the Constitution-writing exercise. The global context was that the world was still reeling from the brutalities of the Second World War, a war whose origin can primarily be traced to the ideology of Fascism and its ugly demands. This ideology, of National Socialism in Germany, was a violent assertion of one race over another; in practice, it took pride in a naked use of aggression against the minorities in Germany.

Our national leaders were deeply influenced by the havoc caused on the world by the proponents of the Fascist ideology in Europe. After the Second World War, there was a definite global aversion to any kind of idea of mistreatment of minorities; our national leaders were determined to draw the appropriate lessons from the European experiments in bigotry and racsim.

The domestic context for our Constitution-makers was the extremely unhappy experience and the large-scale violence that followed the Partition. Our national leadership was painfully conscious, now more than ever, of the need to avoid the trap of any kind of racial or religious superiority in the constitutional scheme in the making. Indeed a secular promise—and a rejection of communal arguments—had been very much at the heart of our national discourse. It is worth recalling that, as early as in 1929, in his presidential address at the Lahore session of the Indian National Congress, Jawaharlal Nehru had spelled out the emerging nationalist consensus. Nehru made it abundantly clear that he disliked “communalism in any shape or form”. He was categorical that “no majority can crush a determined minority, and no minority can be sufficiently protected by a little addition to its seats in legislatures”. And, he was unambiguously clear that “we must give the fullest assurance to minorities by our words and deeds that their culture and traditions will be safe”.1

Throughout our glorious freedom struggle, under the magnificent leadership of the Mahatma, the national mind was unwaveringly clear: we were determined to be a completely independent, sovereign nation, with a democratic arrangement in which all minorities—religious, linguistic, ethnic—will have their place under the sun. Our national leaders never wavered in this conviction, even after the birth of Pakistan. The commitment to a secular order was unequivocal indeed, in the midst of urgly passions and uglier appetites aroused by the Partition and its attendant bloodbath.

Nehru felt it all the more necessary to reassert the character of the new Indian State: “Every citizen of India, whatever his religion, has the right to live in this country and call for protection from the State. The Muslims who really consider India as their own country and do not look to any outside agency for help are welcome to live in the country. The Government must and will give full protection to them.”2

That was on September 29, 1947 and he was speaking at a public meeting in Delhi. A day later, in another speech, this time before a gathering of workers and labourers in Delhi, Nehru was even more categorical: “As long as I am at the helm of affairs India will not become a Hindu State.”3

It is now somewhat fashionable to suggest that it was Nehru alone who insisted on introducing this European concept of a secular state in the Indian constitutional and political discourse. This suggestion is grossly unfair to the entire national leadership—including Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Patel, Maulana Azad and others—which fully endorsed and shared Nehru’s secular ideas and formulations. In a speech at Calcutta, just two days after India became Independent, the Mahatma was categorical in what kind of social order an Independent India would have; in his characteristic frank manner of speaking, the great man noted that ”some Hindus were now beginning to feel that they had the upper hand, and some Muslims were afraid that they would have to play the underdog in the Union”. If this was to be so, Gandhiji said that this India was not the India of his dreams. In the India, for whose fashioning he had worked all his life, every man enjoyed equality of status, whatever his religion was. “The State was bound to be wholly secular.”4

As it turned out, some Hindu fanatics never forgave Mahatma Gandhi for his steadfast commitment to a secular state. They settled their score with this greatest son of India on January 30, 1948. The idea of a secular India did not die—and, could not die—with the Mahatma’s assassination. It is necessary to underline that the idea of a secular state was very much familiar in our traditional statecraft practices. As Prime Minister Atal Behari, had observed, in his 2001 New Year “Musings” from Kumarakom:

“Secularism is not an alien concept that we imported out of compulsion after Independence. Rather, it is an integral and natural feature of our national culture and ethos.”5

The Constitution of India, that was promu-lgated on January 26, 1950, was a wonderfully enlightened document—and, at the heart of this remarkably progressive arrangement were modern stipulations like adult franchise, cabinet system of government, federalism, fundamental rights and a secular polity. The farmers of our Constitution had, in effect, invited this traditional land to experment in the most advanced democratic practices.


Let me now very briefly mention the elements of our secular architecture, as provided for in the Constitution: Apart from provisions in the cluster of fundamental rights in Articles 25 to 28 under the category of “Right to Freedom of Religion”, Article 5 needs to be mentioned foremost. This article granted citizenship to every person who had his or her domicile in India, irrespective of religion.

Article 14 promises “equality before the law” and “equal protection of the laws”; Article 15 (1) mandates that “The State shall not discri-minate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them;”

Whereas Article 15 (2) prescribes that “No citizen shall, on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them, be subject to any disability, liability” in matters of access to public places,

Article 16 (2) insists that “No citizen shall on grounds only of religion, caste, sex, descent, place of birth, residence or any of them, be ineligible for, or discriminated against in respect of, any employment or office under the State.” And, then, Article 29 (2) ensures that “No citizen shall be denied admission into any educational institution maintained by the State or receiving aid out of State funds on grounds only of religion, race, case, language or any of them.”

And, not to be overlooked is Article 325 that stipulates that: “No person to be ineligible for inclusion in, or claim to be included in a special, electoral roll on grounds of religion, race, caste or sex.” In totality, the founding-fathers of our nation had dared to put together a secular State in a land teeming with religions and religious strife. What it meant was that, as an eminent constitutional scholar has aptly summed up, ”at no stage India was conceived as a theocratic State.”6

It was one thing for the Constitution-makers to put together an exquisitely democratic document, it was a somewhat different proposition when it came to implementing its intent in this ancient land, given our civic deficits and social divisions. Towards the end of his long prime ministerial innings, Nehru, definitely sobered by the decade-long experience of presiding over democratic India, felt the need to reiterate that we had opted for “...a State which honours all equally and gives them equal opportunities; that, as a state, it does not allow itself to be attached to one faith or religion, which then becomes the State religion..

“When the great majority of the people in a state belong to one religion, this fact alone may colour, to some extent, the cultural climate of that state. But nevertheless the state, as a state, can remain independent of any particular reglion.”7

After Nehru’s departure, our secular project came under renewed challenges from various quarters. Regrettably it also became obvious that electoral practices and habits only tended to stoke religious passions and animosities.


By the early 1990s, the quarrels among the political leaders and political parties over the terms of co-existence between the majority and the minorities had become intractable. It was only natural that incresingly the higher judiciary found itself called upon to settle matters of constitutional provisions regarding our secular republic. The politicians’ quarrel over the Babri Masjid ended up in the Supreme Court and the judges had to try to redefine and reinforce the secular spirit of the Constitution.

The demolition of the Babri Masjid was a traumatic event, bringing into disrepute our secular commitments. The entire political leadership too came in for criticism for failing to protect a place of worship. In particular, concerned citizens were deeply disappointed at the judiciary’s stance in the events leading up to the demolition. December 6, 1992 was a sad day for our secular republic. It was, therefore, a matter of considerable consolation that in the Bommai case, a nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court found an opportunity to reaffirm that secularism was a basic feature of the Constitution. The Court noted: “...The State is enjoined to accord equal treatment to all religions and religious sects and denominations.... Religious tolerance and equal treatment of all religious groups and protection of their life and property and of the places of their worship are an essential part of Secularism enshrined in our Constitution.”8

The Bommai judgment was eagerly seized upon by most as a much-needed reaffirmation of secularism. A kind of constitutional sanity seemed to have been restored to our political discourse.

Unfortunately, that satisfaction was short-lived. Not long after the Bommai verdict, came Justice J.S. Verma’s famous but controversial ‘Hindutva a way of life’ judgment. In his wisdom, Justice Verma opined: “It is therefore a fallacy and an error of law to proceed on the assumption that any reference to Hindutva or Hinduism in a speech makes it to be automatically a speech based on the Hindu religion as opposed to other religions or that the use of the words Hindutva or Hinduism per se depict an attitude hostile to all persons pactising any religion other than Hindu religion.“9

This verdict had a decisive impact on the on-going debate among the political parties about the principles and practices of secularism in our republic. The judgment ended up making our political discourse somewhat lopsided; and, many believe that “there can be no doubt that the decision requires to be revisited.”10


No constitutional arrangement can be protected and preserved only by the judiciary, however vigilant or enlightened the judges may be. Ultimately, it comes down to the political leadership, civil society, religious leaders, and intelligentsia to defend the Constitution and its secular commitments. It is necessary to remind ourselves tht the framers of the Constitution in their wisdom had conceived this secular order as part of a larger, greater egalitarian polity. It was not an easy task, especially in this ancient land with its centuries-old practices of inequality and discrimination. After all, religion was not the only ground of discrimination; sometime it is caste that becomes the basis for discrimination and injustice; sometime it is gender that is invoked to justify unfairness; sometime it is language, sometime it is ethnicity that is used to visit violence and injury on the hapless and the marginalised.

We should be unambiguously clear that any attempt to weaken the secular fabric of our republic would be an attempt to dismantle the larger egalitarian project—a secular, progressive, democratic polity. And, the onus of preserving the secular robustness of our republic rests on all our constitutional institutions.

First of all, the Judiciary as an institution needs to lose sight of its primary duty to project the secular spirit of the Constitution; this task has become much more demanding than before because the politicl disputes and electoral battles are incresingly getting over-laced with religious overtones, symbols, myths, and prejudices.

The Judiciary needs to arrive at its own enlightened view of its custodianship of the Constitution—irrespective of the irresponsible and selfish politicians who have no qualms in injecting the communal virus in our body politic. The same expectation must also be voiced in regard to our armed forces. Our armed forces are a splendid embodiment of our secular project. Our armed forces have a glorious record of keeping away from the politicians’ manipulations and intrigues. It is vitally important that the armed forces remain uncontaminated from any sectarian appeal.

I will be amiss if I did not mention the Election Commission and its role in preserving the secular fabric of the republic. As the custodian of the integrity of the electoral process, it is incumbent upon the Election Commission to see to it that religion and religious sentiments and prejudices do not get worked into the election discourse; the Commission must be thinking of rolling back the easy acceptance of over-manipulation of religious imagery.

And, then, there is the media. As a democratic institution, the media is an equal partner in upholding our secularism, both in letter and spirit.

Above all, it is the duty of the political parties to keep on educating, enlisting and mobilising our citizens in the cause of secular values and practices as the highest republican virtues, so centrally located in our Constitution.

Jai Hind.


1. Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Volume 4, pp. 184-198.

2. Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, (Second Series), Volume 4, pp. 104-105.

3. Ibid., p. 106.

4. Harijan, August 31, 1947.

5. Text in Outlook, January 2001.

6. V.N. Shukla’s Constitution of India (revised by Mahendra P. Singh), Tenth Edition, (Lucknow: Eastern Book Company, 2001), pp. A -26-27.

7. Nehru, Foreword to Dharam Nirpeksh Raj by Raghunath Singh, in The Essential Writings of Jawaharlal Nehru, edited by S. Gopal and Uma Iyengar (Volume 1), (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 194-195.

8. Quoted in O. Chinnappa Reddy, The Court and the Constitution of India [New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2010], pp. 157-158.

9. Ibid., p. 161.

10. Ibid., p. 162.

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