That “secular” is currently the single most threatened word in India is so open a secret that even a visiting chief guest at the Republic Day parade, an annual mela to remember the Constitution by, felt the need to remind India of its secular foundations. As if further reinforcement of the threat was needed, it came on that very Republic Day when the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting issued an advertisement omitting the words “secular” and “socialist” from the Preamble of the Indian Constitution.

Those supporting the advertisement have defended the omissions, noting that the words have been stripped of all meaning since no government feels compelled to follow them. But the truth is that these words cannot be reduced to intentionality alone. The question here is not whether people believe in the ideas they cite in public. It is about what the erasure of those two words signifies for the political project that the current Indian government has undertaken.

Of the two disputed words, “socialist” is a principle that no man or woman will speak up for today. It is perhaps the emptier of the words, given that even during the height of the socialism rhetoric, India was far from being a socialist country. The word represented an aspiration of the group that believed it legitimised the project of an independent India, for who would replace a foreign regime with a national one merely for cosmetic reasons? For the independent Indian state to be legitimate, it had to take care of the majority of its people, and “socialist” was a word that, tenuously and imperfectly, tried to convey that social responsibility.

Authoritarian regime

The Information and Broadcasting Ministry has reminded us that both “socialist” and “secular” are words that were inserted (rather rudely and undemocratically) into the Preamble to the Constitution in 1976 as part of the 42nd Amendment. But that again is a half-truth.

For decades before that, the concepts had been in political usage. The Constitution unveiled in 1950 was the product of long deliberations that had debated these concepts extensively. If shorthand for the full debate was not included in the so-called “holy book”, it does not mean the concepts were not considered integral by the Constituent Assembly. This is what the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, and the cheerleaders of its game of omission, would have us forget.

Let us get the context right. The words were introduced into the Preamble during the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi. During that period, fundamental democratic rights were denied to the people of India, in part by the application of old colonial laws that had survived into the Constitution. However, the principles she invoked in adding the words “secular” and “socialist” were unobjectionable. These were already the accepted legitimating principles in the public domain. Their use as window dressing by an authoritarian regime did not change this. It was the authoritarian regime that needed to hide behind the legitimate principles, not the other way round.

Defining principles

It is true that the two words’ insertion occurred in an undemocratic and authoritarian manner. It is also true that during the Emergency Indira Gandhi had jailed most dissenting leaders from various political parties, including from the Jan Sangh (the political arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) and from the Left. In a way, the memories of the words’ inclusion are tainted by an unforgivable chapter of Indian political history that belie the very principles the words stand for.

But the value of a legitimating idea lies not in its misuse or use by people who do not mean it. For sure, the Constitution was amended to include words that provided legitimacy. Yet, the empty use of important political concepts does not render them unworthy of defending. More importantly, the concepts were already in political use for reasons incontrovertibly grasped by the framers of the Constitution of the sovereign, secular, socialist, democratic republic of India.

The question to be asked in the omission of the two words – that convey two fundamental principles that define the Indian nation-state– is not about the tainted process of their insertion. We must instead ask what political project is at work here to strike at the base of this country’s secular edifice. Is it the same project that includes rabidly communal projects such as “ghar wapsi”?

Constitution's core

There is consensus among several constitutional experts on the centrality of the two concepts, indicating that the words cannot be removed without fundamentally altering the Constitution’s core – something no government, not even one with all seats in the Parliament, can do. If the present regime intends to do away with them, while arguing that they were added under an undemocratic regime, this tells us how far removed it is from seriously honouring the Constitution and its founding fathers. The correct procedure, of course, would be to remove them by a Constitutional amendment, should that be the desired outcome.

Words, concepts or ideas, especially if they have any legal standing or purpose, cannot be reduced to mere intentions of their users. Their meanings are too dynamic to be gauged solely by intentions of users, which in any case are difficult to access for a third party.

The document the Information and Broadcasting Ministry has used and propagated in its advertisement is technically not the Preamble to the Constitution. It is the older preamble and its usage necessitates clear citation of its identity so as not to be mistaken for the current and only standing Preamble. This, at least, is a legal position on which the present government is clearly on the wrong foot.