As a vibrant democracy, any issue that concerns the public is open to debate, and that includes our Constitution. But the debate should not become politicised or create a polarising effect. This is what seems to be happening on the issue of a Directorate of Advertising & Visual Publicity advertisement which has omitted the words ‘socialist’ and ‘secular’ from the Preamble to the Constitution. These words, indeed, were not in the original document, they were inserted in 1976. But the fact is that the Constitution as it stands today does include these words, suggests that the advertisement was misleading, some say deliberately. The Union minister for telecommunications, Ravi Shankar Prasad, is not off the mark when he says there should be a debate on the issue. But when we have worthies from the Shiv Sena, an ally of the BJP, quoting its late chief Bal Thackeray and before him VD Savarkar as saying that if Pakistan was carved out after Partition for Muslims, the rest of the country is a Hindu Rashtra and that India was never secular in the first place, the debate takes on undesirable tones.
Unfortunately, the very word secular has been misinterpreted by certain Right-wing elements to mean minority appeasement. In fact, the spirit in which it should be read is that all faiths are free to pursue their own beliefs within the larger constitutional framework. The Constitution is a document that the majority of Indians consider a beacon in the life of our nation. A debate on these two words and their relevance today should be informed by knowledge and restraint. And, in the end, any change should be made only when at least 50% of state legislatures approve and both Houses of Parliament can muster a two-thirds majority on this. This suggests that this is going to be long-drawn-out affair. It should be spearheaded by constitutional experts and, of course, have political inputs. The issue here is not whether Nehru had an understanding of secularism or not, as Mr Prasad has put it. The era of Nehru did not see such sharp religious polarisations as we are witnessing today.
Our Constitution serves to provide us the checks and balances that keep this vast amalgamation of cultures, creeds and ethnicities together. Any change, if at all, must only be made after intensive deliberations not tainted by petty politics. And at all times, ‘we the people’ in whose name the Constitution was written must be kept in the loop.