Secularism and the state

Print edition : February 05, 2016

Jawaharlal Nehru presenting the national flag to the Constituent Assembly on July 22, 1947. Photo: The Hindu Archives

A session of the Constituent Assembly in Progress. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Dr B.R. Ambedkar. He did not reject the concept of secularism in the Constituent Assembly as some have claimed recently. Photo: The Hindu Archives

The idea of secularism in the Indian Constituent Assembly has become a debated issue in recent days. Various commentators, ranging from politically important people to scribes in newspapers and social media, have stated that Dr B.R. Ambedkar was opposed to the inclusion of the word “secular” in the Constitution of India. The text of the Constituent Assembly Debates has been cited to argue that when Professor K.T. Shah proposed the inclusion of the word “secular”, Ambedkar opposed the amendment. The politically motivated suggestion behind this so-called discovery is that Ambedkar was not a supporter of a secular Constitution for India.

What are the facts? If you look up the seventh volume of the proceedings of the Constituent Assembly Debates on November 15, 1948, you will see that on that day K.T. Shah did move an amendment to incorporate the words “Secular, Federal, Socialist” in Clause 1 of Article 1 of the Constitution. On his proposal with respect to the word “secular”, he said: “We have been told time and again from every platform, that ours is a secular state. If that is true, if that holds good, I do not see why the term could not be added or inserted in the Constitution itself, once again, to guard against any possibility of misunderstanding or misapprehension. The term ‘secular’, I agree, does not find place necessarily in Constitutions on which ours seems to have been modelled. But every Constitution is framed in the background of the people concerned…. The secularity of the state must be stressed in view not only of the unhappy experiences we had last year and in the years before and the excesses to which, in the name of religion, communalism or sectarianism can go, but I intend also to emphasis by this description the character and nature of the state which we are constituting today….” A major part of Shah’s speech was, however, devoted to the defence of his proposal to include the word “socialist”.

The fact that demands attention is that in responding to this proposal, Ambedkar said nothing at all about secularism; his entire response was about the words “socialist republic”. What did he say? “I regret that I cannot accept the amendment of Prof. K.T. Shah. My objections, stated briefly, are two. In the first place, the Constitution, as I stated in my opening speech in support of the motion I made before the House, is merely a mechanism for the purpose of regulating the work of the various organs of the state. It is not a mechanism whereby particular members or particular parties are installed in office. What should be the policy of the state, how the society should be organised in its social and economic side are matters which must be decided by the people themselves according to time and circumstances. It cannot be laid down in the Constitution itself, because that is destroying democracy altogether.” Ambedkar went on to make his second point: “The second reason is that the amendment is purely superfluous. My Honourable friend, Prof. Shah, does not seem to have taken into account the fact that apart from the Fundamental Rights, which we have embodied in the Constitution, we have also introduced other sections which deal with directive principles of state policy…. My submission is that these socialist principles are already embodied in our Constitution and it is unnecessary to accept this amendment.” Thus, Ambedkar did not say he was opposed to Shah’s proposal, he actually said that it was superfluous and that was why he could not accept the amendment.

By excluding important passages in the source, the Constituent Assembly Debates (which are not easily available to the general reader), an anti-secularist and communalist interpretation that Ambedkar rejected secularism has been made. This kind of misinterpretation of facts about the notion of secularism needs to be combated systematically. However, once you have dismissed such misrepresentation, the question that remains is, how was secularism conceptualised by the Constituent Assembly? That question has not been adequately explored although there is substantial literature on secularism. This may be because of the widely shared impression that the principle of secularism had no enemies in the Constituent Assembly, that it was born out of near unanimity, as one might expect in an assembly of political leaders who had witnessed disastrous communal riots and communal conflict in the preceding years and decades. As one goes through the proceedings of the Constituent Assembly, one discovers that there was considerable divergence of opinion.

In the Constituent Assembly, there emerged three different approaches to the issue of secularism in the Constitution that was being drafted and subjected to discussion and amendment by members of the Assembly:

(1) First¸ there was a section of members who wanted to declare clearly that the Republic would be a secular state. They were not totally satisfied with the various provisions, including the Fundamental Rights, which held a promise of secularity in the functioning of the putative state. They demanded that the specific word “secular” should be included in the Constitution.

(2) Secondly, there was a group which rejected the above approach and desired that the place of religion be recognised in public life; they did not directly oppose the proposition that secularism was a necessity in a multireligious country, but, indirectly, they tried to qualify that proposition in a manner which they thought would be appropriate for India, which they regarded as a “religious country”.

(3) The third group advocated a middle path between the above two approaches. They rejected the religious bias of the second group and also differed from the first group in regarding the addition of the word “secular” as a redundancy. It was seen as a redundancy since the substance of secularism was secured by other means such as the Fundamental Rights, the declaration in the “Preamble” with respect to freedom of thought and faith and expression, prohibition of government expenditure on educational institutions propagating any religious faith, etc. Perhaps in this group there was also an awareness of the historical association of the concept of secularism with the church-state dichotomy in Europe, and hence their caution against inappropriate use of the term “secular”. Some of these members used the term “composite culture” to avoid the discourse of religion altogether.

It is impossible to estimate the size of these groups. The only means of doing so would be to examine the result of the Division separating the Ayes from the Nays in the Assembly when resolutions and amendments were put to vote. But the Constituent Assembly almost invariably made its decisions by voice vote, not by Division. However, there can be no doubt that a substantial majority belonged to the third group, i.e. striking a median between the other two polar opposites. Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru led the third group, and the draft resolutions put up by the Drafting Committee of the Assembly, needless to say, reflected their views and received the approbation of the majority in voice vote.


K.T. Shah was the leader of the first group, proponents of uncompromising secularism, insisting on the use of the word “secular” in the description of the Republic. Shah was an alumnus of the London School of Economics, a Professor of economics in Bombay University, a very active member of the Constituent Assembly, and, in 1952, made national headlines when he contested against Rajendra Prasad for Presidentship of the new Indian Republic (he lost by a large margin since Prasad gathered about five times the number of votes obtained by Shah). Shah moved amendments to the Drafting Committee’s proposals three times in the Constituent Assembly in the months of November and December 1948 with a view to inserting the word “secular” in the Constitution. Each time the Assembly rejected the amendment. He explained his position thus: “We have been told time and again from every platform, that ours is a secular state. If that is true, if that holds good, I do not see why the term could not be added or inserted in the Constitution itself.” He believed that the drafting of the proposal for the Constitution was influenced by the fact that constitutions in other countries did not include the term secular. Shah believed that the general pattern had influenced the thinking of the Drafting Committee; however, he argued that in India’s case, emphasising secularism was exceptionally necessary; “the secularity of the state must be stressed in view not only of the unhappy experiences we had last year [he referred to the communal riots of 1947] and in the years before and the excesses to which, in the name of religion, communalism or sectarianism can go.” Apart from that, Shah wanted “to ensure to all its people, all its citizens that in all matters”, the state will act in an impartial manner and not be influenced by considerations which “will result in injustice or inequality as between the several citizens that constitute the people of India”.

Ambedkar’s response

The important point is that Shah’s resolution was a composite of three amendments, for he proposed the words: “Secular, Federal, Socialist Union of States”. Ambedkar, in his response, focussed only on the “socialist” part. He said: “It is perfectly possible today for the majority people to hold that the socialist organisation of society is better than the capitalist organisation of society. But it would be perfectly possible for thinking people to devise some other form of social organisation which might be better than the socialist organisation of today or of tomorrow. I do not see therefore why the Constitution should tie down the people to live in a particular form and not leave it to the people themselves to decide it for themselves. This is one reason why the amendment should be opposed.” He went on to say: “The second reason is that the amendment is purely superfluous. My Honourable friend, Prof. Shah, does not seem to have taken into account the fact that apart from the Fundamental Rights, which we have embodied in the Constitution, we have also introduced other sections which deal with directive principles of state policy…. If these directive principles to which I have drawn attention are not socialistic in their direction and in their content, I fail to understand what more socialism can be. Therefore my submission is that these socialist principles are already embodied in our Constitution and it is unnecessary to accept this amendment.” Thus, Ambedkar’s reply was not so much a rejection of the secular principle but a rejection of the other part on socialism, which he thought was superfluous. In fact, on December 28, 1948, when, for the third time, K.T. Shah proposed the inclusion of the word “secularism”, the Chairman of the House specifically invited Ambedkar to speak on Shah’s resolution. Ambedkar declined to speak in refutation of the resolution; Shah’s amendment was again rejected by the Assembly.

There were not many who thought of secularism on the lines of Shah. That was probably because of the redundancy of his amendment resolutions to include the word “secular” in the Constitution and the empty nominalism of insisting on that particular word. But there were very strong proponents of rigorous secularism. The communist leader in Bengal, Renuka Roy, for example, saw in secularism a promise of egalitarianism: “I am sure that all those in this House and the country outside will agree with me that above all things, it is necessary that the instruction that is given to the citizens of the future shall be such that the idea of a secular state in which all citizens are equal comes into being, and the provision for this adopted in our Constitution becomes a living reality.” Thus, eradication of “the distinctions which separate man and man” was thought to be a part of the effort to eradicate distinction between religious communities.

The position adopted by many members of the minority communities in the Assembly was that acceptance of secularism in principle was fine, but they wondered whether its practice would follow the principle. For example, Frank Anthony, representing the Anglo-Indian community, said: “We have set our goal and are sailing in the right direction. We have set our goal as a secular and democratic state. And may I say this in passing. Let us not once again indulge in shibboleths and make shibboleths do for facts; let us not proclaim loudly that we are already a secular democratic state when this is an idea which is yet to be achieved.” Kazi Syed Karimuddin complained of discrimination in employment: “My earnest appeal is that we should live up to the ideals and it should not be said that we do not practise what we profess. Sir, today I find that the policies of the Defence and the Railway Departments are moving us towards economic annihilation and I submit that if these provisions regarding the equality of opportunity of employment have been accepted in the true spirit then the unsecular activities existing in these departments must be put a stop to and it should not be a disqualification to be a Muslim in India. I am sure that the majority community will create trust and confidence in the minds of Muslims in order that they may regard this country as theirs.” Z.H. Lari, from a Muslim seat in the United Provinces [now Uttar Pradesh], complained just 18 months after Independence that cultural discrimination was rampant: “The teaching of Urdu, the mainspring of Muslim culture, has been banned. In Lucknow and in Allahabad, where Urdu-knowing public is of sufficient strength—in fact in most places, so far as primary education is concerned, no arrangement has been made for teaching through the medium of one’s own mother tongue.” He was supported by Begam Aizaz Rasul, again from a Muslim seat in the United Provinces. Needless to say, the biggest grievance was voiced by the leader of the Indian Muslim League, B. Pocker Sahib Bahadur; he demanded the restoration of separate Muslim electorates, whereupon Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel protested that “so much I heard today” reverted the clock back to the past, “I thought that I was living in the ages in which the communal question was first mooted.” Pocker’s proposal was negatived by the Assembly.

The above-mentioned were the important issues for the intended beneficiaries of the secular principle, while Shah focussed on the wording of the principle. Hence, he did not garner much support in the Constituent Assembly, although, in retrospect, his principled position attracts admiration.


Proponents of the view that the place of religion in public life must be recognised in a “religious country” like India were important people in the Constituent Assembly. They included K.M. Munshi, Mahavir Tyagi, H.V. Kamath, M. Ananthasayanam Ayyangar, and others; but they had important opponents as well in Jawaharlal Nehru and Ambedkar who had Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel on their side on some crucially important issues. The circumstances prevailing while the Constitution of the new Republic was being framed—despite all the surge of joy that August 15, 1947, brought about, the recent experience of disastrous communal conflicts, the breakdown of law and order in some riot-affected areas, the painful process of Partition which negated the decades of Congress opposition to separatism, the difficulties of negotiating the integration of the princely States into the Republic—helped form a consensus. That consensus, the common ground between old comrades and opponents in the struggle for Independence, was expressed with masterly simplicity by Mahatma Gandhi. In his prayer meeting held in Delhi on July 15, 1947, Gandhi said: “Hindus, Muslims, Parsis, Christians, all are Indians. Religion is a private matter.” Nehru looked to history as he was wont to do: “Narrow sectarian outlook will do injury, not only to nationalism as such but also to the high ideals for which Indian and Hindu culture has stood through the ages.” At the same time, we find Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel writing in June 1947: “I do not think it will be possible to consider Hindustan as a Hindu state with Hinduism as the state religion. We must not forget there are other minorities whose protection is our primary responsibility. The state must exist for all, irrespective of caste, creed.” Patel replied thus to B.M. Birla, who had written to Patel: “Is it not time that we should consider Hindustan as a Hindu state with Hinduism as the state religion?”

There is no doubt that there was a consensual agenda for the Constituent Assembly which gave a central place to secularism. (According to one count, the word “secular” occurs 67 times in the recorded Assembly proceedings, leaving out its mention in connected official papers and drafts.) Notwithstanding the broad consensus on the approach to religion in public policy, there coexisted with it a somewhat different spirit, expressed by some members of the Constituent Assembly. H.V. Kamath proposed an amendment to the Preamble so that the first few words would read: “In the name of God, We the People of India….” A number of Constituent Assembly members, including Ambedkar, requested him to withdraw the amendment. Rajendra Prasad, the President, too asked Kamath to remove the words, but he remained adamant and he moved the resolution. Kamath insisted on a Division on his amendment and it is interesting to note that Maulana Hasrat Mohani also did so. The Division by show of hands showed that there were only 41 Ayes while 68 votes were against the proposal. Kamath said at the end of this episode: “It is a black day in our annals. God save India.”

God and oath of office

A similar issue was raised again in December 1947, when the Assembly considered the evocation of God’s name in the form of the oath of office to be prescribed for the President of India. Mahavir Tyagi proposed the inclusion of the words “in the name of God”. He said: “I well understand the philosophy or the logic of the state being secular. For, in every land, where there are so many religions and so many communities, one cannot give any particular colour to the state. The state must in such cases be secular, so that the consolidation of the nation may be achieved. We have many religions and communities in India. But the name of God is a common factor among them all. Every section believes in God, every group believes in God and every community believes in God. Therefore, if we bring in the name of God in the Constitution of our state, it will help us to unify the state, and will implement the secular character of the state rather than disturb its secularity.” A similar proposal was also made by H.V. Kamath. “This is the first time,” Tyagi said, “that the Constituent Assembly is considering the question whether it would bring in the name of God in the Constitution or not. In fact, we should have brought it in the very beginning….”

Dr K.M. Munshi supported Tyagi and Kamath: “We are emphasising the absence of God in this Constitution too much. My opinion was that we should have His name in the Preamble; but the general opinion was different. But when it comes to swearing, I see no reason why any person should fight shy of the name of God. I fail to understand how this offends against the conception of a secular state.” He went on to define a secular state: It stands “in contrast with a theocratic government or a religious state. It implies that citizenship is irrespective of religious belief, that every citizen, to whatever religion he may belong, is equal before the law, that he has equal civil rights, and equal opportunities to derive benefit from the state and to lead his own life; and nothing more. A secular state is not a Godless state. It is not a state which is pledged to eradicate or ignore religion.” Similar sentiments were voiced in the Assembly earlier also, for example by Ananthasayanam Ayyangar, two weeks after Independence, on the issue of conversion to another religion: “Recently, after the announcement by the Cabinet Mission and later on…a number of conversions have taken place. It was said that power had been handed over to provincial governments who were in charge of these matters. This is dangerous…. All people have come to the same opinion that there should be a secular state here; so we should not allow conversion from one community to another. I, therefore, want that a positive fundamental right must be established that no conversion shall be allowed, and if any occasion does arise like this, let the person concerned appear before a judge and swear before him that he wishes to be converted.”

There was a difference between this proposal with respect to the oath of office and the other proposal, from Kamath, invoking God in the Preamble. The difference was that the oath was a matter of the private belief of the person concerned, not a part of characterising the Republic, which is an action in the public sphere. On this ground, the Constituent Assembly found it possible to accept the inclusion of God’s name in the oath of office, along with an alternative oath, a godless “solemn affirmation”.

However, there were misgivings in the minds of some members of the Assembly. Frank Anthony expressed openly these misgivings about the introduction of the religious theme in the political discourse, as well as the linguistic chauvinism displayed in displacing the Urdu language in some provinces: “Today I see in certain provinces precipitate policies being followed, policies which, I feel, are inspired by ill-concealed communal motives. I see in them the new communalism linguistic and provincial…. I see those ardently wedded to these new communalisms flogging the dead horse of religious communalism, stalking behind it while riding their own hobby-horses of linguistic and provincial communalisms.” Anthony pushed further to make a statement rarely heard in the Constituent Assembly, about the influence of a conservative spirit within the Indian National Congress. “We see, Sir, I say it without any offence, we see members of this great party who technically are members of the Congress, but spiritually are members of the R.S.S. and the Hindu Mahasabha. Unfortunately, I read speeches day in and day out by influential and respected leaders of the Congress Party, who say that Indian Independence can mean only Hindu Raj, that Indian culture can only mean Hindu culture. These are causes for misgivings.” At the same time, Anthony conceded that, on the whole, the course charted out in the Assembly was right: “The main point is this—that we have set our goal and are sailing in the right direction. We have set our goal as a secular and democratic state.”

The causes of the misgivings thus expressed were kept in check by the Constituent Assembly by means not generally known to its members. A member of the Drafting Committee preparing the proposals for the Constituent Assembly revealed the process of preparation. Nearly at the end of the Assembly’s deliberations, Syed Muhammad Saadulla, one of the members of the Drafting Committee, reported on their labours for two years: “We were told that the Constitution must confirm and remain within the four corners of that Objective Resolution”, and that the proposals were “scrutinised by the particular Ministerial department of the government. They criticise it and a fresh draft is made to meet their criticism or requirements. Then it is considered by the biggest bloc, the majority party in the House—I refer to the Congress Parliamentary Party—who alone can give the imprimatur of adoption in the House; and sometimes we found that they made their own recommendations which had to be put into the proper legal and constitutional shape by the members of the Drafting Committee.” These safeguards and Ambedkar’s watchful presence did not allow departure from what we have called the consensual agenda set for the Assembly by the political leadership at the top. Hence, the tendencies outlined above were kept in check.


Having surveyed first the approach of the group led by Shah, and second, the views of those who opposed the “banishment of God” from the state, we may now turn to the position taken by Nehru, Ambedkar, and indeed the majority of the members of the Constituent Assembly. The distinguishing characteristics of this third position may be briefly summarised here.

Arguably, both Nehru’s and Ambedkar’s approach to the concept of secularism arises more from the discourse of justice and equality than from an anti-religious position. They were aware that in the European tradition, the church-state dichotomy, the separation of sacred and this-worldly domains, the rationalism of thinkers like David Hume, the practice of secularism since the French Revolution of 1789, etc., situated the notion of secularism in the Western discourse of modernity. Nehru sometimes quite rudely reminded his audience of that: the “word is thrown up a good deal, this secular state business. May I beg with all humility those gentlemen who use this word often to consult some dictionary before they use it? It is brought in at every conceivable step and at every conceivable stage. I just do not understand it.”

To Nehru the basic issue in the agenda for building a secular state in India seems to be to ensure justice and equality. The Preamble stated that clearly: First, “Justice”, and then “Liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship”, followed by “Equality of status and opportunity”. Nehru believed that it was absurd to claim that “by saying that we are a secular state we have done something amazingly generous, given something out of our pocket to the rest of the world, something which we ought not to have done, so on and so forth. We have only done something which every country does except a very few misguided and backward countries in the world.” The aim was to ensure “justice to the individual or the group” in minority. He had heard or surmised that there were charges of “appeasement of the Muslims” in the House. “Do the honourable Members who talk of appeasement think that some kind of rule should be applied when dealing with these people which has nothing to do with justice or equity? I want a clear answer to that. If so, I would only plead for appeasement.” On another occasion, he said in the Assembly: “It is all very well for the majority to feel that they are strong in numbers and in other ways, and therefore they can afford to ride roughshod over the wishes of the minority. If the majority feels that way, it is not only exceedingly mistaken, but it has not learnt any lesson from history, because, however big the majority, if injustice is done to minorities, it rankles and it is a running sore and the majority ultimately suffers from it.” Nehru exhorted the majority community to be fair: it was up to “the majority community …[to] show that they can behave to others in a generous, fair, and just way”. And he was aware that that spirit was not present in every heart. “We call ourselves nationalists, but perhaps in the mind of each, the colour, the texture of nationalism that is present is somewhat different from what it is in the mind of the other. We call ourselves nationalists—and rightly so—and yet, few of us are free from those separatist tendencies, whether they are communal, whether they are provincial or other….”

Different discourse

Unlike the antinomy of church versus the state typical of the early European discourse of secularism, the issue of religious authority versus political authority is quite absent in the discussions in the Indian Constituent Assembly, and I have not found it in even Nehru’s statements in the Assembly. As Mahatma Gandhi said, religion was a private matter, and to Nehru it sufficed if it was separated from the public domain. Ambedkar also followed that principle. When the Assembly considered the amendment proposed by Mahavir Tyagi and H.V. Kamath incorporating oath in the name of God, Ambedkar was “quite happy that this amendment was introduced. Now, some members have raised objections to the amendment. They are afraid that the introduction of the word God in the Constitution is going to alter the nature of what has been proclaimed to be a secular state. In my judgment, the introduction of the word God does not raise that question at all.” Some persons might take the oath in the name of God and others might solemnly affirm without naming God. “To some people God is a sanction. They think if they take a vow in the name of God, God being the governing force of the universe, as well as of their individual lives, that oath in the name of God provides the sanction which is necessary for the fulfilment of obligations which are purely moral and for which there is no sanction provided. There are people who believe that their conscience is enough of a sanction. They do not need God, an external force, as a sentinel or a watchman to act by their side. They think a solemn affirmation coming out of their conscience is quite enough of a sanction.” This separation of the private from the public domain was the key to solving some differences Ambedkar and Nehru had with the more religious-minded in the Constituent Assembly.

Consistent with this position, Ambedkar declined to allow expenditure by the state to support an educational institution which imparted religious education. There was considerable opposition in the Assembly to the exclusion of schools and colleges run by Hindu social organisations as well as Christian missionary institutions. Ambedkar remained convinced that separation of public funds from religious teaching was essential, for such teaching is addressed to one particular community. “We have accepted the proposition which is embodied in Article 21, that public funds raised by taxes shall not be utilised for the benefit of any particular community.” He also pointedly referred to the possibility of conflict between religious communities. Here, he comes closest to being critical of religions. “Unfortunately, the religions which prevail in this country are not merely non-social; so far as their mutual relations are concerned, they are anti-social, one religion claiming that its teachings constitute the only right path for salvation, that all other religions are wrong. The Muslims believe that anyone who does not believe in the dogma of Islam is a kafir, not entitled to brotherly treatment with the Muslims. The Christians have a similar belief. In view of this, it seems to me that we should be considerably disturbing the peaceful atmosphere of an institution if these controversies with regard to the truthful character of any particular religion and the erroneous character of the other were brought into juxtaposition in the school itself.”

Alternative model

We must note that the Nehruvian model of secularism faced competition from an alternative model. While Nehru holds up justice to the minorities and recognition of their equality as citizens as a value in itself, the alternative view was that for the majority community, it was a rational political choice to recognise the fundamental rights and the “different-ness” of minority communities. Perhaps Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel may be identified as the creator of that model. He played an immensely important role not only in the integration of the princely States, but also as the Chairman of the Advisory Committee on Minorities. In the Constituent Assembly Sub-committee on Minorities, decisions were difficult to arrive at, for there was strong resistance from minorities when proposals went against their expectations; for instance, the decision against statutory provision for reservation of seats for the minorities in the Cabinet of Ministers was passed by a narrow majority of eight votes against seven in the subcommittee. Issues like abolition of separate electorates for minorities, except for Scheduled Castes and Tribes, were contentious. But, as the Chairman of the Advisory Committee on Minorities, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel so managed things that in his report to the President of the Constituent Assembly, he reported near unanimity. A part of his letter to President Rajendra Prasad: “In the case of the electoral arrangements, we considered it necessary to harmonise the special claims of minorities with the development of a healthy national life. We wish to make it clear, however, that our general approach to the whole problem of minorities should be so run that they should stop feeling oppressed by the mere fact that they are minorities and that, on the contrary, they should feel that they have as honourable a part to play in the national life as any other section of the community.” The theory of justice propounded by John Rawls tells us that in a democratic system, support to the worse-off groups in society comes out of rational calculations of costs and benefits, while the philosopher Martha Nussbaum holds that the disprivileged attract help and support, actuated not by such political calculus but by non-rational “political emotions”. In the case of the alternative to the Nehruvian model, the Rawlsian theory fits reasonably well.

The concept of secularism was, no doubt, born in Western Europe, but the Constituent Assembly and the Nehruvian style put it in an Indian garb. Nehru’s contribution to this process was the notion of “composite culture”. One can trace its origins in Tagore’s notion of the unity the Indian civilisation achieved by absorbing various ethnic cultures within India and from outside India; likewise, there was Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of unity across the communal divide. Nehru, in 1946, popularised the notion of unity in diversity in The Discovery of India. I have yet to find when he coined the phrase “composite culture”. Nehru writes to Rajendra Prasad on the issue of cow slaughter in 1947: “Majority Hindu sentiment will affect our activities in a hundred ways. Nevertheless, it does make a difference whether we try to think of India as a composite or as a Hindu country.” After Nehru coined the term “composite culture”, we find that the term gained currency among Congress members of the Constituent Assembly, particularly on the issue of Rashtrabhasha. Shankar Rao Deo’s speech in 1949: “The different varieties of Indian culture must have an equal opportunity of contributing to the moulding, evolving of this composite culture. If you appeal to this country and insist upon having one culture, then, to me it means the killing of the soul of India.” Rohini K. Choudhury also speaks of building a “composite culture” of India being anticipated by the composite culture of Assam. “Composite nation” sometimes stood in for “composite culture”. However, that did not stop, according to Assembly members from the United Provinces, the slow depreciation of the Urdu language in the provincial government education system.

Finally, it is possible that the Gandhians found Nehru’s secularism wanting in some respects. In Nehru’s vision, secularism appears to mean tolerance of differences. Acharya J.B. Kripalani, in one of his rare speeches in the Constituent Assembly, made an interesting point. He made a distinction between the “tolerance of indifference” and a Gandhian approach to tolerance: “Non-violence should go so far as to make us not only what is popularly called tolerant of other people, but to a certain extent, we should accept their ideas as good for them. Mere tolerance will not carry us far. Many people are merely tolerant. Why? Because they are indifferent. They say ‘This man’s worship is different from ours. It is wrong. The man is sure to go to hell; but let him, it is none of my business.’ That is not tolerance. We have to respect each other’s faith. We have to respect it as having an element of truth. No religion in the world is perfect, and yet there is no faith without some element of God’s truth.”

From the evidence we have, it seems that Nehru did not share these ideas, or even this language. However, the Nehruvian state began to adopt some symbolic practices typical of Gandhian meetings and prayers. Mridula Sarabhai accompanied Mahatma Gandhi while he toured riot-torn Bihar in July 1947 and she reflects in her memoirs: “I was greatly encouraged in my work by the similarity I felt between the work of Constituent Assembly and what has been done in these village meetings and by the complementary character.” And she describes how Gandhi’s prayer meetings consisted of “recitation from scriptures of all religions, as Gandhi desired”. Mridula Sarabhai comments: “Gandhi thus teaches the people to respect the religious freedom for all, which is included as one of the fundamental rights in our National Charter.” This practice became a political ritual of the post-Independence state, demonstrating what we may call a secularism of equidistance from all religions. It is easy and fashionable to be sceptical of the symbolic tokenism of such rituals of the state. But it was not necessarily empty of meaning. Emile Durkheim said many years ago of such political rituals: “There can be no society that does not feel the need at regular intervals to maintain and strengthen the collective sentiments and collective ideas which constitute its unity and personality. . . . Hence there arise ceremonies that in their purpose, in the results that they produce and the procedure employed in them, are no different from religious ceremonies proper. What essential difference is there between an assembly of Christians celebrating the principal dates in the life of Christ, or Jews celebrating the exodus from Egypt or the handing down of the 10 commandments, and a meeting of citizens commemorating the institution of a new charter of morality, or some great event of national life?” Such rituals may be rejected by some observers as meaningless, while to some others whom Gandhi’s prayer meetings attracted they might have carried a message. To some observers Ambedkar’s reasoning and Nehruvian rhetoric might have seemed specious, and the Constituent Assembly itself might seem extremely divided. But the Constituent Assembly and B.R. Ambedkar did try to build on the idea of secularism the defences of the new Republic against the divisive forces that threatened it. And it is necessary in this day and age to be alert against the misrepresentation of their endeavour reflected in the deliberations of the Constituent Assembly.

This essay is a revised version of Sabyasachi Bhattacharya’s S.C. Mishra Memorial Lecture delivered at the Indian History Congress, 2015.

Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, formerly Professor of History at Jawaharlal Nehru University and Vice-Chancellor of Visva-Bharati University, was Chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research from 2007 to 2011.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor