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Political Antecedents of Indian Secularism: Indian Nationalism and the Framing of the Indian Constitution – Part-II


In the last issue, we gave a brief introduction to the key issues involved in understanding Indian secularism. The popular conceptions of Indian secularism have been interpreted by the leading Left-leaning intellectuals of the country. They see Indian secularism as a concept which has evolved independent of party politics, although influenced by it in the immediate contexts. Contrasting it with the Western notions of secularism and going back to the ‘tolerance’ and ‘pluralism’ practiced by rulers like Ashoka, Akbar et al, they have argued that India has its own unique brand of secularism. This is characterised by – multiple, competing or plurality of ideas and equality of all religions. Even though there are many debates among the Leftist Indian secularists on how secularism should be defined, whether there is a separate public sphere regulated by the state and the place of religion in the public sphere, they all converge on one key point: they all view ‘majoritarian’ Hindu nationalism as a threat to the secular ideal and only secondarily acknowledge the communalism perpetrated by Muslims and Christians. This is because either they are stuck in their abstract political theory frames and fail to recognize the other side of the secularism debate or/and are hostile to all mysticism and spirituality of which India has been the perennial fountain since times immemorial.

Going back into nationalist history: The politics of Gandhi’s Congress from a secularist viewpoint

Secularist history has widely vilified nationalist Hindu organizations and relegated them to the fringes of extremists or revolutionaries. It has often been argued that Gandhi was a devout Hindu and was yet a highly secular individual, and that the freedom movement, spearheaded by the Congress, was a diverse, pluralistic and secular movement. However, as the narrative below will show, ideas like secularism were just a sham to mask the real political agenda of minority appeasement right through the early decades of the freedom struggle.

According to B.R. Ambedkar, who is venerated by all secularist intellectuals for his sense of social justice, formations like Hindu Mahasabha were a result of the survival instinct of the Hindu Nation when it had freed itself from the ‘pseudo-nationalistic ideology of the Congress’. “It grew up of a fundamental necessity of the National life and not of any ephemeral incident. The constructive side of its aims and objects make it amply clear that its mission is as abiding as the life of the Nation itself. But that apart, even the day to day necessity of adapting its policy to the ever changing political currents makes it incumbent on Hindudom to have an exclusively Hindu organization independent of any moral or intellectual servility or subservience to any non-Hindu or jointly representative institution, to guard Hindu interests and save them from being jeopardised. It is so not only under the present political subjection of Hindustan but it will be all the more necessary to have some such exclusively Hindu organization, some such Hindu MahaSabha in substance whether it is identical with this present organization or otherwise to serve as a watchtower at the gates of Hindudom for at least a couple of centuries to come, even after Hindustan is partially or wholly free and a National Parliament controls its political destiny.”1

“Mr. Gandhi (Mahatma Gandhi)…He has never called the Muslims to account even when they have been guilty of gross crimes against Hindus. It is a notorious fact that many prominent Hindus who had offended the religious susceptibilities of the Muslims either by their writings or by their part in the Shudhi movement have been murdered by some fanatic Musalmans…But whether the number of prominent Hindus killed by fanatic Muslims is large or small matters little. What matters is the attitude of those who count, towards these murderers. The murderers paid the penalty of law where law is enforced. The leading Moslems, however, never condemned these criminals. On the contrary, they were hailed as religious martyrs and agitation was carried on for clemency being shown to them.”2

Thus, the relationship between the Hindu and the Muslim communities during the peak years of the national movement from 1920 to 1940, as described by Ambedkar highlights the irreconcilability of the two communities and the fanaticism bubbling just beneath the surface of the Muslim community.

In 1920 took place the Mopala rebellion in Malabar, spearheaded by two Muslim organizations viz. the Khuddam-i-Kaba and the Central Khilafat Committee. “Agitators actually preached the doctrine that India under the British Government was Dar-ul-Harab and that the Muslims must fight against it and if they could not, they must carry out the alternative principle of Hijrat…The outbreak was essentially a rebellion against the British Government. The aim was to establish the kingdom of Islam by overthrowing the British Government…As a rebellion against the British Government it was quite understandable. But what baffled most was the treatment accorded by the Moplas to the Hindus of Malabar. The Hindus were visited by a dire fate at the hands of the Moplas. Massacres, forcible conversions, desecration of temples, foul outrages upon women, such as ripping open pregnant women, pillage, arson and destruction — in short, all the accompaniments of brutal and unrestrained barbarism, were perpetrated freely by the Moplas upon the Hindus…In the year 1921-22 communal jealously did not subside. The Muharram Celebrations had been attended by serious riots both in Bengal and in the Punjab.”3

“Though the year 1922-23 was a peaceful year the relations between the two communities were strained throughout 1923-24. But in no locality did this tension produce such tragic consequences as in the city of Kohat [1924]. The immediate cause of the trouble was the publication and circulation of a pamphlet containing a virulently anti-Islamic poem…As a result of this reign of terror the whole Hindu population evacuated the city of Kohat. After protracted negotiations an agreement of reconciliation was concluded between the two communities. Government giving an assurance that, subject to certain reservations, the prosecution pending against persons concerned in rioting should be dropped.”4

The two decades – the prime years of the national movement spearheaded by Gandhi and the Congress – were marked by vicious communal riots between the Hindus and the Muslims. “The examination of the circumstances of these numerous riots and affrays shows that they originated either in utterly petty and trivial disputes between individuals, as, for example, between a Hindu shopkeeper and a Mahomedan customer, or else, the immediate cause of trouble was the celebration of some religious festival or the playing of music by Hindu processionists in the neighbourhood of Mahomedan places of worship.”5

“There was carnage, pillage, sacrilege and outrage of every species, perpetrated by Hindus against Musalmans and by Musalmans against Hindus — more perhaps by Musalmans against Hindus than by Hindus against Musalmans. Cases of arson have occurred in which Musalmans have set fire to the houses of Hindus, in which whole families of Hindus, men, women and children were roasted alive and consumed in the fire, to the great satisfaction of the Muslim spectators. What is astonishing is that these cold and deliberate acts of rank cruelty were not regarded as atrocities to be condemned but were treated as legitimate acts of warfare for which no apology was necessary.”6

Ambedkar went on to conclude the impossibility of Hindu-Muslim unity under the given conditions. “Hindu-Muslim unity up to now was at least in sight although it was like a mirage. Today it is out of sight and also out of mind. Even Mr. Gandhi has given up what, he perhaps now realizes, is an impossible task.

But there are others who notwithstanding the history of the past twenty years, believe in the possibility of Hindu-Muslim unity. This belief of theirs seems to rest on two grounds. Firstly, they believe in the efficacy of a Central Government to mould diverse set of people into one nation. Secondly, they feel that the satisfaction of Muslim demands will be a sure means of achieving Hindu-Muslim unity…It is an illusion to say that the Central Government in India has moulded the Indian people into a nation. What the Central Government has done, is to tie them together by one law and to house them together in one place, as the owner of unruly animals does, by tying them with one rope and keeping them in one stable.”7

The present delusion of secularism in India: The constitutional architecture

This essay chose to extensively take excerpts from thinkers like Ambedkar who are venerated by the current generation of our secularist intellectuals for ideas of social justice. Yet, as these core excerpts show, the Hindu-Muslim situation has become no better. It is clear that the central concern that preoccupied the Congress party during the national movement was an artificial appeasement of Muslims, combined with a recourse to governmental machinery, to ensure the ‘secular’ character of India.

Yet, as Ambedkar concludes, “How to make the Muslims join the Hindus in the latter’s demands on the British is comparatively a very small question. In what spirit will they work the constitution? Will they work it only as aliens by an unwanted tie or will they work it as true kindreds, is the more important question. For working it as true kindreds, what is wanted is not merely political unity but a true union of heart and soul.”8

Our current approach to secularism continues to commit the folly of assuming that:

  • Hindu-Muslim unity was a historical reality.
  • Overlooking the assertion of every Muslim that ‘I am a Muslim first and Indian second’.
  • Muslim inclusion in the Republic can be brought about by appeasing the community by acceding to their separatist demands and giving them political and economic preference.

This approach, traced historically, has dominated the thinking of the dominant political party of India viz. the Indian National Congress. This was reflected in the Constituent Assembly debates over secularism. It is important to re-visit these debates to understand the validity of Union Home Minister, Rajnath Singh’s statement that secularism was artificially inserted into the Preamble to the Constitution through the 42nd Amendment Act in 1976 by the Indira Gandhi government – ostensibly to legitimize the Emergency rule of the government.

During the Constituent Assembly debates in the early 1950s, the discussion on secularism was the most acrimonious debate. It saw members like HV Kamath, Govind Malaviya and Pandit Kunzru arguing in favour of including a reference to God in the Preamble to the Constitution. While this proposal was defeated, the suggestions to include a reference to secularism – which does not favour either the majority or the minority community –  was also opposed by the majority of the Constituent Assembly members. This kind of secularism was proposed by members like Dr. Rajendra Prasad, GB Pant, KT Shah, Tajamul Husain and M Masani.

It was based on the idea that nationalism should form the basis of the Indian state and religion should strictly form a part of an individual’s private life. The Indian state cannot favour any religion and no religion should be allowed ‘freedom of expression’ or proselytization in the public life. Thus, these members clearly “dissented from the inclusion among fundamental rights of any provision guaranteeing institutions belonging to any religious community.”9

It is clear that the current structure of Fundamental Rights does not adhere to this idea of secularism. Articles 25 to 28 guarantee the Right to Freedom of Religion. Instead of relegating religion to the private life of the individual, the current structure of our Constitution lays down that the state shall treat all religions with equal respect. During the Constituent Assembly debates, this view was initially put forward by KM Munshi and JB Kripalani. KM Munshi argued that, “We are a people with deeply religious moorings. At the same time, we have a living tradition of religious tolerance – the result of the broad outlook of Hinduism that all religions lead to the same god…In view of this situation, our state could not possibly have a state religion, nor could a rigid line be drawn between the state and the church as in the US.”10

The view was widely favoured that India should retain her spiritual heritage instead of giving in to the materialism of the West. Thus, what should be encouraged was a dynamic relationship between state and religion, based on allowing religious practice rather than merely narrow religious worship. Further, to guard against communalism, people like JP Narayan suggested that use of religion for setting up of political organizations should be prohibited.

The Flaw in the Debates

An extreme view that came up during the debates was that freedom of religion should also include the right to freely profess one’s religion and that minorities should be allowed to even freely propagate their religion. This view was opposed by B.R. Ambedkar, GB Pant, Jagjivan Ram and others. They wanted only linguistic minorities to have the right to freely set up their cultural and educational institutions, instead of allowing the religious minorities to hold the Indian state to ransom. However, as the current structure of the Constitution shows, even religious minorities have been granted the right to establish and administer their educational institutions, under Article 30.

Historically, the colonial state too had granted immense power to the Muslims by allowing them separate electorates since 1909. It would have been much worse if religious minorities had been allowed quota along the same lines as caste minorities. This had almost happened during the framing of the Constitution, but was revoked in the final draft due to the Partition.

However, the idea of secularism persisted as the state recognition of all religions equally in the public sphere. The upshot was that over the following decades it was easily manipulated politically, with the Congress being the main agent of starting a policy of Muslim appeasement. Besides providing the Haj subsidy to the Muslims, one of the consistent efforts of the Congress, till recently, has been to talk favourably about Muslim quota. Central universities like Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Milia Islamia have been granted a minority tag to facilitate 50% reservation for the Muslims, while majoritarian’ institutions are subjected to the provisions of the quota and the Right to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE). The government, since the Nehruvian era, had also undertaken to ‘reform’ the Hindu personal laws and take state control of most Hindu temples and institutions. They left the discriminatory and unjust Muslim personal laws untouched.

Ironically, the majority of riots have occurred in Congress-ruled states since 1960. Yet, behold the politics of secularism, which publicizes only the Gujarat riots of 2002.

Table: Communal riots in India since 1960:11

Year     City                              Casualty          Government  

1961    Jabalpur, MP              Not Clear              Congress

1967    Hatia-Ranchi               200+                    Jana Kranti Dal

1969    Ahmedabad                1000+                    Congress

1970    Jalgaon, Maharashtra   100+                  Congress

1979    Jamshedpur                150+                       Janta Party

1979    Aligarh                          Not Clear             Congress

1980    Moradabad                1500+                    Congress

1983    Nellie, Assam              2500+                 President Rule

1984    Delhi                           2700+                   Congress

1984    Bhiwandi                    200+                    Congress

1985    Ahmedabad                300+                    Congress

1987    Meerut, UP                 350+                    Congress

1989    Bhagalpur                   1500+                 Congress

1990    Delhi                           100                      –

1990    Hyderabad                  365+                   Congress

1990    Aligarh                         150+                   Janta Dal

1992    Surat                            152                      Congress + JD(G) + JD

1992    Kanpur                        300+                   President’s Rule

1992    Bhopal                        150+                    President’s Rule

1993    Mumbai                      2000+                President’s Rule

2002    Gujarat                       1500+                 BJP

2012    Assam                         100+                    Congress

2013    Muzaffarnagar, UP     –                         Samajwadi Party

This is how the ideal of secularism has worked out in Indian politics. It has failed to recognize that such an approach has been counter-productive to Indian nationalism and has also left the Indian Muslims ghettoised and more radicalised. The recent chanting of anti-national slogans in Jawaharlal Nehru University – the hub of Indian academics – was nothing but the public exposure of a process that had been happening for a long time.

To be continued…



  1. Ambedkar,B.R.n.d.Ambedkar.org. http://www.ambedkar.org/pakistan/40D.Pakistan%20or%20the%20Partition%20of%20India%20PART%20III.htm.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Jha, Shefali. 2002. “Secularism in the Constituent Assembly debates, 1946-1950.” Economic and Political Weekly 3175-3180.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Asghar, Mohammad Neyaz. 2013. Muslim Mirror. June 30. http://muslimmirror.com/eng/why-demonize-only-modi-for-communal-riot/, Nayyar, Sanjeev. 2013. Firstpost. April 6. http://www.firstpost.com/india/not-just-modi-guide-to-communal-riots-before-2002-and-after-688714.html.

Series Navigation<< The Disease of False Secularism – Part-IThe Psuedo–Secularism and the Isolation of Muslims since Independence – Part-III >>
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