The Big Story: A saffron constitution
In poll-bound Karnataka, Union Minister of State for Employment and Skill Development Anantkumar Hegde told an audience that the Bharatiya Janata Party was there to rewrite the Constitution. He would “be happy if someone identifies as Muslim, Christian, Brahmin, Lingayat or Hindu”, but the trouble arose when they called themselves secular. Such people, claimed Hegde, did not have an “identity of their parental blood”. The rewrite he suggests, presumably, would involve excising the word “secular” from the Constitution. Coming from a Union minister, this willingness to tamper with the bedrock of Indian secularism is alarming, though not new.
The BJP’s onslaught on the secular character of India is now, sadly, a given in the country’s politics. And this is not the first time the party has suggested a subtle rewrite. Back in 2015, a Republic Day advertisement put out by the government apparently quoted the Preamble to the Constitution when it described the “sovereign, democratic republic of India”. It was quoting the Preamble before it was amended by Indira Gandhi by the 42nd Amendment in 1976 to include the words “socialist” and “secular”. Later that year, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh suggested that the word secular was “misused”. In the Hindi text of the Constitution, Singh pointed out, the word translated to “panth nirpeksh” or denomination neutral, rather than “dharm nirpeksh” or religion neutral.
Indian secularism has historically distinguished itself from the Western version of the idea. Rather than erasing all religion from the public sphere, it allows all religions to crowd into the public sphere. It replaces the thought that religion is “no concern” of the state with the idea that all would receive “equal respect”. This understanding of Indian secularism has led to a political culture where the state sees communities rather than individuals, where community rights are assured rather than individual freedoms. There lies the real contest between two ideas of India, Pratap Bhanu Mehta has argued.
It is tempting to place Hegde’s remarks within this debate about political rights, to merely castigate him for failing to look beyond community identity. But when a Union minister speaks of rewriting the Constitution, and implicitly removing the word secularism, he speaks of erasing the written guarantee that individuals from all communities have certain fundamental rights. That is a frightening prospect. As the party in government, the BJP should come forward to clarify that this is not the case, that secularism, in the Constitution and elsewhere, will remain intact – not only in word, but also in spirit.
The Big Scroll
The words, “secular” and “liberal” should be dropped from India’s political discourse, argues Keshava Guha.
The Constituent Assembly chose to be secular in caste-ridden, Partition-scarred India, finds Ipsita Chakravarty.
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Sunil Sharma goes back to a Dakhni romantic tale where conspiracy meets adventure:
The Phulban comprises almost 2,000 couplets and is a racy mix of romantic escapades and fantastic adventures involving Chinese merchants, kings of Kashmir, Sindh, Egypt, and Ajam, princes, princesses and fairies, mendicant figures such as a dervish and yogis, a talking parrot. The opening narrative involves a story told by a dervish to the king of the fabled city of Kanchanpur (City of gold).