Why give MPs a chance to swear in the name of god?

  • Gopalkrishna Gandhi
  • Updated: May 03, 2016 02:03 IST
(HT Archive)

The Constitution of India was created by the honest for the innocent.

Those honest men and women (290 and nine, respectively) are now a fresco. They may fade, they will not change. Their honesty is forever. But what of us for whom that document was — and is — intended? ‘We the people’ cannot and will not fade. We are perennial. But by god, have we changed !

Over the last 67 years we have moved from innocence to experience. And we have worked our experience into the Constitution. Not into its foundations or its façade, but in its interior design. Amendment by amendment, a full one hundred of them, we have aligned that document to our changing times, our realities.

Apart from constitutional amendments passed by Parliament, a great many judgments of our Supreme Court, passed by its constitution bench have given to the original text fresh meanings, new impetus.

‘Old innocence’ had not conceived the possibility of ruling parties losing their majorities by large-scale defections from one party to another or to new groupings . In fact — and this seems incredible — it had not conceived of parties at all. The phrase ‘political party’ did not figure in the Constitution. But ‘new experience’ showed new skills at work, including very specially, that of engineering defections and decoctions. So very wisely, very sagaciously, in 1985, anti-defection provisions were brought into the Constitution. And the word ‘party’ entered the Constitution for the first time by the coy side door of a new Schedule Ten.

Likewise, the idealistic assumptions of the Constitution’s founders had not imagined that its provisions for the promulgation of an emergency under Article 356 would be crassly manipulated as they were in 1975. But the trauma of that experience led to the clauses being drastically altered in 1977, to protect democracy from a supremacist’s whimsy.

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The innocence about political intentions is now history. The Constitution is wiser now if also sadder for its bitter wisdoms. There is however one feature in the Constitution that has not only not changed but has entrenched itself.

And that is about god.

God? In the Constitution of India?

Curiously, yes.

Unlike many constitutions of the world, ours did not mention god either. Not in its ‘body’. Our Constituent Assembly comprised, in the main, of ‘believers’. One might say that most of them were, in their hearts, pious. Yet, despite their beliefs, they did not think it necessary or right to bring the Almighty into the text. They kept god out of the formulations. We were, after all, to be a secular nation. The speeches of Gandhi outside of the Constituent Assembly and of Nehru and Ambedkar in the Assembly made it clear that the State was the State, religion was religion, and the two were not to mix.

But god is god.

He is omnipresent.

Almost in spite of the framers of the Constitution, god tiptoed ever so gently into the Constitution of India. But what a footprint he has made! So, how does he come into the Constitution? Right through the front door, right royally. And yet invisibly. He is in a Schedule, Schedule Three. What is in a Schedule is Scheduled. And so, like a Scheduled subject in the Union, State or Concurrent lists of ‘subjects’, like a Scheduled State or a Scheduled language, god, too, is Scheduled in our Constitution as a Scheduled Oath. Only a constitution amendment can deprive him of that position now.

The form of oath prescribed in the Third Schedule of the Constitution , gives our MPs, MLAs and a host of functionaries and judges of the Supreme Court and high courts entering their high office this option: They can either ‘swear in the name of God’, or ‘solemnly affirm’ that they will bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution and the law. Our president, vice-president and prime minister are also given the same option, in separate Articles of the Constitution. If they value god over their solemn word they can all come into office in god’s name. And they are doing so now, in steadily increasing numbers.

So are we becoming more and more godly? Or just more and more superstitious?

Our Constitution’s Preamble, needless to say, did not — does not — invoke god. The Preamble to the Constitution of Pakistan does: ‘Whereas sovereignty over the entire Universe belongs to Almighty Allah alone, and the authority to be exercised by the people of Pakistan within the limits prescribed by Him…’. Pakistan is a theocratic state.

Our first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and our first law minister, Dr BR Ambedkar, did not swear in the name of god, they solemnly affirmed. That was their personal and right choice but why, as the Constituent Assembly’s leading lights, did they let the Constitution give anyone that choice? Was it because that option was in keeping with standard international practice? Or did the format of ‘a mere form’ creep in by oversight?

All the 16 Lok Sabhas seem to be happy to have the choice. The number of MPs and MLAs placing god above a solemn word has been rising steadily. More and more are now swearing in the name of god. In the current Lok Sabha, out of 513 MPs who were sworn in on 4 June 2014, as many as 474 ‘swore in the name of god’, and only 39 ‘affirmed’, Sonia Gandhi being one of those 39. The same goes with our Presidents.

Is god, then, stealing a march over the solemn word? Undoubtedly, yes. But what does that god represent? Faith or fear? Belief or superstition? Is the ‘oath’ an appeal for Grace or for protection, security? For inspiration or indemnity?

An oath or affirmation is but a way of saying ‘Believe me’, ‘Trust me’.

That solemn word should be enough, more than enough. Trustworthiness can be put to the test by us, godliness only by God.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is distinguished professor in history and politics, Ashoka University

The views expressed are personal

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