Socialism, Secularism and the Shifting Goalposts of Indian Democracy

CM announces a series of writings on political life and public culture in South Asia, guest curated, gathered, and edited by Sanyasi. The idea is to present here a range of perspectives –by writers, journalists, academics, artists, and others–on the entanglements of culture, public life, and the political in and about the vast swath of humanity that lives in that impossible imagined community called South Asia. Inaugurating the series is Prayaag Akbar’s  examination of the place of secularism and socialism in Indian democracy. The essay earlier appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Of the five descriptors for the Indian state enthroned in the Constitution – ‘sovereign’, ‘socialist’, ‘secular’, ‘democratic’ and ‘republic’ – which one would you say our polity, in this the 65th year
of its making, has most failed to achieve? Is India any, or all, of these things?

Along three of these parameters there can be no arguing that India has established itself well, even irrevocably, in the years since Independence. It is certainly a republic: matters and debates of state are of and for the public, no matter how many times critics point to the overreach of a few political families. It is also undoubtedly sovereign on both domestic and foreign policy. This debate reaches most urgency when India forms a loose alliance with a state of far greater political power, such as, arguably, we once formed with the USSR and, again arguably, we today form with the United States; yet such things are natural in a world order wherein coalitions of interest can be made, and the Indian state’s willingness to enter into them should be seen as an exercise in the nation’s sovereignty, not detraction from it. It would also be fallacious to argue India is not democratic: despite the many failings of its electoral system, India’s people and politicians almost across the spectrum have continually displayed a commitment to the procedures put in place in 1950, even if these institutions need bolstering for our governments to be genuinely representative. These three, then, could be seen as the positive descriptors of the Indian state – the qualities that, princely pockets aside, no one with a stake in the heady politics of the 1940s and ’50s took issue with. It is when we get to the other two that the debate becomes more interesting.

‘Secular’ and ‘socialist’, as descriptors of a state, are laudable goals, at least to my mind, but they should not, because of their preclusive nature, be placed at the origins of a state. It is to say that a non-socialist government cannot be formed in Delhi – a laughable assertion – and that a party espousing non-secular values cannot be a legal member of the Indian political community – even more laughable. It comes as no surprise then that these two terms were added to the Preamble to the Indian Constitution, as if in dilution, during the only time in its independent history that India’s democratic and republication aspirations were genuinely under threat, at the height of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. Within the vast draconianism of the Forty Second Amendment of the Constitution of India (1976) lay this bold and determinedly political move. Here, then, was the enshrinement of a set of political values substantively different from the character of the Indian state proscribed by the Constituent Assembly. In the intended formulation of the Constituent Assembly, ‘sovereign’, ‘democratic’ and ‘republic’ are suprapolitical
terms, in that they speak of the essence of the Indian state, not the nature of its government. ‘Socialist’ and ‘secular’ do not pass this test. (Caveat: I write that ‘it comes as no surprise’ to learn of this part of the Amendment, but it was a great surprise when I first read of it, as an undergraduate abroad – you’d think in seven years of CBSE-shaped Civics and History lessons through school we might have discussed the implications of such an important development once or twice, but no.)

This trope, that India is socialist and secular, is trotted out so often, in articles and in books, that it demands examination. Socialism is not on the radar of today’s political establishment – so far off it, in fact, that we might actually get a supermajority, even in our mutinous Parliament, were we to put to vote the excision of this term from the Preamble. It is an anachronism, a rotary phone in the Android age. Perhaps it was ever thus. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems that India’s pretensions to socialism were always somewhat innocuous, a superficial, ideological sheen given to half-hearted populism. Certainly there was no upsetting of the applecart as far as the real elites were concerned, whether in politics, industry, commerce or agriculture. A blind eye turned to the real entrenchments of capital, and a wildly deleterious emphasis on collective ownership that stymied the economic growth of a talented populace.

Indian secularism has its roots in the French separation of Church and State, but here we mean that the state has no official religion, and that it will not discriminate against any citizen on the basis of her religion. Every religion is valued equally by the state. But – and this is the point – in the political discourse of our times, secularism has come to mean something quite different. Now, here, it means opposition to electoral appeals made on the basis of Hindutva, the “saffron” policies that are the primary electoral plank of parties like the BJP and Shiv Sena. This, I believe, is an act of intellectual dishonesty. Truth told, after the Left’s winnowing to irrelevance, there is not a single major secular party in India. We are now an ethnic party system: parties ride to power on the basis of appeals to ethnicity, whether religion, region, caste or some interplay of two or even all three. Every pronouncement by a television psephologist on how various caste groups will vote en masse is a blow against secularism. The Congress, which long positioned itself India’s secular champion, has in actuality made appeals and calculations all over the country on ethnic considerations. In the last UP Assembly elections it wore the garb of the Dalit Muslim party, but over 65 years it has made appeal to almost the entire gamut of Indian ethnicity – a feat of electoral gymnastics that is quite unmatched.

This narrowing of the definition of secularism into anti-Hindutva tells, perhaps, of the extent to which the Congress has moulded liberal thought in India. But it is also heartening, because it suggests that the liberal Hindu has a real aversion to majoritarian rule, that the spectre of a trishul-wielding, minority terrorising gang of thugs in government is antithetical to his idea of democracy in India. This is perhaps why, as a liberal Muslim, the scenes in Mumbai’s Azad Maidan made me think of all this. The vengeful Muslim mob is nothing I wanted to see again, yet it is an indictment of the nature of Muslim politics since 1947. For 65 years most Muslim votes have gone to one party, based on non-secular appeals. These appeals have largely been emotive instead of substantive: Shah Bano became a national issue while the vital findings of the Sachar Committee were ignored, the reform of Madrassah education, urgently required, is deemed too sensitive a topic, even as “secular” politicians and their flunkies in the mohallas are allowed to stoke up fear and anger about majoritarian encroachment. And now we’ve ended up with this: at the bottom a rudderless community, quick to incite to violence, mired in medieval mores, devoid of intellectual leadership; in between, the gangster-politician, protector not provider; and at the middle and top Muslims like me, eager to remain part of the national conversation, desperate to dust from our hands any responsibility for this malfeasant cohort.

Let me be clear, this is no clarion call for Hindutva. I do believe, especially at the local level, when festival can turn to flare-up, that Muslims, Christians and other minorities are safer under the Congress than under the BJP. But I also believe, 65 years down the line, an Indian Muslim should be entitled to ask for more than safety.

We could begin by looking at the deceptions contained in our Preamble. India is no more secular than it is socialist. Let us acknowledge that first, and then move from there.

3 thoughts on “Socialism, Secularism and the Shifting Goalposts of Indian Democracy”

  1. There’s another way to examine the “socialist” and “secular” words, keeping in mind particularly the context in which the 42nd Amendment came into the picture.

    “Socialist” and “secular” were to be to the goals which the government of the day could aim to while subverting or doing away with the “democratic” and “republic” parts of the Constitution.

    The reason why “secular” has become a bad word is precisely because of the bad faith in which it was espoused (one could equally say the same of “socialist” but other factors also come into play) by the Congress party under Indira Gandhi.

    I disagree that Indian secularism (as reflected in the Constitution at least) is picked up from the French Revolution’s separation of Church and State. It is true of Nehruvian secularism, but not true of Gandhian (or as some would disparagingly call it, Hindu) secularism which found its way into the Indian Constitution. The abolition of untouchability, the protection of the cow, the iron-ringed-fence around minority educational institutions and the advocacy of “social reform” of all religions were all pet projects of a Gandhian/Hindu secularism that Nehruvian/French Revolution secularism would’ve found distasteful. Nehru preferred that the State stand above and aloof from religion, dictating terms but offering no special favours. Gandhian secularism called for greater involvement of the State with religion, but with all religions equally. The latter approach was adopted in the Constitution.

  2. possibly secularism has two dimensions – 1. state not favouring any religion, a kind of atheism 2. state favouring all religions, the kind Gandhi advocated. The second is more relevant to India as something to have evolved over period of time in its history, while the first, preferred by Nehru and all others after him, is more like someone else’s Idea of secularism imposed on India. Due to this brand of secularism followed by every so called secular political parties, India appears to be in a more schizophrenic state not knowing whether to appear religious or just plain denounce it?

  3. The words “socialist” and “secular” were debated in the Constituent Assembly and not included for the reasons given in this article. During the “Emergency”Indira Gandhi changed the Constitution; some of her changes were subsequently thrown out but these two words remained as part of the Preamble. the original preamble needs to be restored.

Leave a Reply