Aakash Singh Rathore Preamble Ambedkar

ELS Discourse Episode 2 Part 2: Prof. Aakash Singh Rathore


This is the transcript for Episode 2 Part 2 of ELS Discourse. You can find the first part of Episode 2 here.


Prakhar Raghuvanshi: Diverting a bit from the book, this is with respect to a debate in Constituent Assembly. An amendment was moved by HV Kamath to introduce the words “in the name of God” at the beginning of the Preamble to the Constitution, before the words, we, the people of India. Then after rounds of debate and discussions, the amendment was ultimately rejected. So, can we reasonably presume and interpret from this episode that secularism was impliedly accepted by the Constituent Assembly and there was no particular need for the 42nd amendment? Can we interpret that secularism was impliedly an inherent part of the Constitution of India?

In one of the books that you have edited Indian Political Thought, Romila Thappar authored an essay in that,  the title is, is secularism alien to India. So can we say a thread can connect all the dots and we can reasonably presume that this is something that India stands for as a whole?

Prof. Aakash Singh Rathore:

Let’s divide this into three parts, and I’ll try to be brief on the parts. So, the first part is historical by bringing in what professor Romila has to say. The second part is technical and that’s something I’ll explain in a moment. And then the third part is in a way the implications that you were speaking of, can we see secularism as being implied?

Starting with the first part, this debate about whether the secularism is alien to Indian civilization is, of course, Romila’s answer or counter-argument against Ashish Nandi and several others, of course, who say that secularism is a foreign or an alien concept. Now Romila’s argument is I think is the right argument.

Probably why I included the essay in the book, is that Ashish is partly right and partly wrong. He’s right, because as his claim is that the various Indic tradition have religious resources internal to the history of those traditions in themselves and to be the functional equivalent, to what the West referred to as secularism when it imported it and imposed it in India. In fact, if the West had not imposed secularism in India, then we would have seen less communal violence because the communal violence is largely a response to the imposition of alien and modern ideas.

Amartya Sen had argued that famines were largely a result of the British presence in India. So, you know, British presence is often justified on the basis of our poverty and tendency to have famines. Sen argues no, it’s the other way around. So, none of these says, forget about secularism because we, for two reasons, we have a functional equivalent internal to our religious traditions. And since internal to our religious traditions, we have this functional equivalent we would always prefer to stay true to our internal traditions than to worship the imports. Now Romila’s argument is that yes Nandi is exactly right, that various Indic traditions, religious traditions, as well as philosophical traditions have internal resources that are functionally equivalent and in fact, superior to certain foreign models of secularism.

But where Nandi and Madan are wrong, is to play this game that just using the word secularism is in some way dangerous. Words have contexts in order to have meaning, you don’t just go from words to meaning, you go through context into meaning. Since the context within India is those very internal and past resources, any Indian citizen can simply understand by secularism, not the British’s definition and demarcation of what it means, but his or her own traditional encounters and experiences with practices that are functionally equivalent to secularism. I side with Romila very much on this issue because while Nandi is right, I think in the first aspect that Indic traditions have functional equivalents, he’s wrong in the second to say that therefore it is dangerous for us to use the word secularism. It’s just a word. So, that’s the first part of it.

Second part, Dr Ambedkar is fairly clear about this as well because, in each of the concepts that, he is interested in amplifying and championing, he traces them back generally to Buddhist traditions. So he always wants to have an indigenous functional equivalent to the concepts or principles that vitalize the Constitution. Ambedkar also would agree with Romila Thapar’s argument. So why didn’t he just put the word secularism in the Preamble then? Because he was asked many times and in very animated ways by Shah and others to include socialist and secularist. Of course, as I had mentioned the States and Minorities was a state socialist constitution, that Dr Ambedkar had drafted. So why would he refuse to use the words socialist and secular in the Preamble itself when Shah and others were demanding it?

So here we come to the technical reason. Now, this is something that I’m afraid I’m a lone voice on these throughout all of India and a good friend of mine and mentor Neera Chandhoke, one of India’s top political theorists. She always gets angry with me because she disagrees. The point is that the word secularism, literally the word secularism did not appear in any Preamble to any Constitution when the Indian Constitution was drafted. Now, Neera says that well obviously the Turkish Constitutions, that Ataturk had written and he is a champion of secularism in Turkey and considered a Westerniser, are a model.

She says that India has the Ataturk’s model. That was a secular constitution. Now, the problem is that it was a secular constitution, but secularism is in Article 1, it is not in the Preamble, of the Turkish Constitution. There was no preamble in the world that had the word secular in it and this significant if you actually look at how BN Rao was drafting the draft that was to be handed over to the Drafting Committee for working on, he was very specific about precedents. In the Indian Constitution, Preamble should not just be because we’re excited about being a new Republic should not just create all sorts of new-fangled concepts and ideas. We have to learn from the hundreds of years of previous democracies, Poland, France and the United States.

The Drafting Committee was quite decisive on the issue that we’re not going to introduce terms have never appeared before in other constitution. This was merely a technical thing. I’m very much alone on arguing this point. Other people think it’s not significant, but I assure you it is. Imagine you have the burden of framing the Constitution for free India on your shoulders. You need some anchor. The anchors that the drafting committee had were pre-existing Constitutions and the ways that words travelled through them. Then we come to the third point,  that can secularism be inferred from the Constitution or you phrased it stronger since there was a rejection of an involuntary invocation of God. Now, this relates to the question of sovereignty. For example, the organization of Islamic countries have Allah as the source of sovereignty.

India has the people as the source of sovereign and then various other constitutions around the world will include some kind of a designation that sovereignty lies in the people, but it is under the stewardship of God, for example, like the Irish. What we get is a constant negotiation of what role does God have to play in a secular Republic’s constitution? The drafting committee was very decisive that there would be no invocation to a higher power in the Indian constitution that sovereignty lay with the people of India. This would not be confused by bringing any invocation to a God, Parameshwar or Gandhi who were the three main competitors to be invoked in the Constitution. The refusal to invoke God in the Preamble can serve as a ground for inferring secularism. This is true, however, it is not something which we need to infer. Dr Ambedkar himself in the open Assembly said that this is a secular constitution as we can see from the numerous clauses and the Directive Principles of State Policy.

Third Part, On the question of did we need the 42nd Amendment, is something different as that was the period of Emergency, and that period, if we could wipe out from history, would be very healing to us. I find it superfluous that we added the words integrity with the unity of the nation. This is because this term has been used by the State so much to justify violence. The function and the spirit of the Preamble are, we the people of India our aspirations are finally able to flourish and pursue freedom as a community. However, these terms put a brake on these aspirations and say that this would be on our terms and if we consider them dangerous it is punishable. It ruins the whole people-centric approach into question.

Secular and socialist has been put in the wrong place by the 42nd Amendment. Reading the transcripts of the makers of the 42nd Amendment it is clear that instead of them putting it in the descriptive part, they put it in the objectives part. It is not an objective to be secular or socialist. I am not a fan of these insertions and fundamental duties. Fundamental duties go against the entire process of fundamental rights, that my individuality can flourish in a community such as a state but as all states and organisations that have a monopoly on violence have a natural tendency to be oppressive. Consequently, safeguards are put up to prevent oppression by the state. Where in this entire process is the duty of a citizen towards the state and is a perversion of the idea of constitutional democracy? I do have moral duties as a citizen but to inscribe them in the Constitution is extremely troubling. 

Prakhar Raghuvanshi: A petition was filed in the Supreme Court by two advocates who wanted removal of the words ‘socialist’ and ‘secular’ from the Preamble. The petitioners claim that they want to form a political party and these are some restrictions. How valid do you think their argument is? Considering what Neera Chandhoke wrote that secularism is central to a democracy and true opposite of secularism is communalism, not religion. Do you think the state is forcing an ideology by having these words?

Prof. Aakash Singh Rathore:

The argument is fallacious. Prima facie it is tenable because Neera Chandhok’s position is that we treat secularism as a value. People have laden it with value and expect it to solve all problems even outside its domain. People depend on people; expect them to solve the problems. The same is with secularism. Everything is piled on to it. In recent history, in the post-colonial movement, there is this idea of decolonizing the minds, which is represented by people like Ashis Nandy. Nandy is the most responsible of this group which goes up to Bal Gangadhar. These are the basic fascists who say we have to get rid of secularism and have a Hindutva nation, a spectrum like that. Ashis’ is the most authentic voice there and Neera’s argument is that because of this spectrum they say secularism is a way of controlling religion.

Neera’s argument is that we have equality between persons which is a fundamental right recognized by the Constitution of India. What about religions? These people who are equal to each other belong to groups called religions. How do we have equality between these groups? Equality between religious groups is simply secularism. It is the most beautiful and simple explanation of secularism. It is an analogue of equality between individuals at the level of religious communities. If there is no equality between religious groups, there will be a priority among them and that is communalism. The Opposite of secularism is not a religion but communalism. This is Neera’s argument in a nutshell.

Prima facie the two advocates seem to be making a case because for them secularism is a substantive phenomenon. For instance, I prefer coffee and you prefer tea and the State has no right to tell you to prefer coffee or tea. They are treating secularism as a choice, as a substance, we can choose between. Equality is not like that. One can’t say that the State cannot ask him/her to choose to be equal. It would be stupid because the very legitimacy of the State is that everyone is equal. We don’t have India without equality. The basic law, the rule of law enshrined in Articles 14, 15 and 16 talks about equality. If one comes and says Articles 14, 15 and 16 are violative of the Constitution and is therefore unconstitutional, they will be thrown out of the court. Similarly, the people who say that secularism is unconstitutional, the same with happen with them because secularism is equality between religious groups. You cannot say that no one can come and force me to treat other religions as equal. Of course, we can. There is no India without this principle. Secularism is a strictly procedural concept like equality. It is nonsense to see secularism as another religion. It’s like saying we have Hindus, Buddhists and Secularists. It’s called a ‘category mistake’ in logic.

Prakhar Raghuvanshi: Seeing that India is increasingly moving away from socialism with the current government looking ever more ready to do away with Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs), should the Preamble be used as a road map for policy formulation? Or should the preamble be amended to reflect the times or should a Preamble be even amended, ever, in the first place?

Prof. Aakash Singh Rathore:

That’s an interesting question. So the last 30 years, the rise of globalization not merely the neoliberal ideology but the practices, treaties, negotiations etc., global capitalism has created a scenario where the governments around the world with, very few exceptions, are incapable of living up to the original mandates which are being a welfare state. Furthermore, the welfare state can be articulated as being socialist as just a byproduct of freedom like in the USA. The USA is a welfare state but they hate the word socialism. They don’t see welfare state and socialism as the same thing even though the current crisis about postal services, healthcare and social security are all socialist things.

In India, since the birth of the Constitution is a welfare state constitution whether socialist or not. Global capitalism is eroding the possibility of the state to perform its welfare function. All nation-states are bankrupt but the corporations are richer than all the nation-states. Because they profit off of the economy and nation-states has lost its sovereign capacity because of MNCs, taxing loopholes etc. and can’t get a bite from these transactions.

For about 15 to 20 years it has become more and more clearer that India cannot live to its own mandate of being a welfare state. During this period, it has been emanated from the administration, be it centralist like the UPS or Rightist, that you need to start taking more care of yourself, the citizen needs to more responsible. The thing is that the idea of Welfare State emerges from the Constitution and what we find today in 2020 is the impossibility of the administration to effectively be welfare because it’s bankrupt. There is an attack on the very Constitution that demands the State to be welfare so let’s start rewriting this Constitution that is forcing us to be a welfare state so that we don’t have to be a Welfare state. That’s why there is so much talk about rewriting it or scraping it or amending it. These are not abstract ideological ideas coming from nowhere; these are materially created ideas, which result from the era where we find ourselves. In this era, the administration wants to subvert so that it doesn’t have to perform as a Welfare State as mandated by the Constitution.

Selling profitable PSUs, it’s not about the failed ones, it is making them fail and then selling them. Why on Earth would this be done? This is because of a wholesale movement, away from the paradigm of Welfare State and rise in a paradigm of libertarianism and we will see more and more books and articles articulating libertarianism like Tripurdaman Singh’s book, Sixteen Stormy Days on the First Amendment is nothing but a libertarian manifesto. Tripurdaman is a smart guy. He is very intelligent but that is how the machinery is working now. Anything fundamentally welfare is going to be degraded and replaced by anything fundamentally libertarian. It’s not just a decision; this has been in making for a long time due to global capitalism. The government is not sinister, this is not emerging from sinister endeavour but the pressure from global capitalism which has made it impossible.

Prakhar Raghuvanshi: “Nearly all of India’s recorded civilizational history can be reorganized and rewritten as a millennia-long struggle for equality”. To what extent this statement reflects the equality clause of the Preamble?

Prof. Aakash Singh Rathore:

In my book Indian Political Theory, I try to reorient the way we normally think. When I teach at different places- India, USA or Canada, what I usually hear is that words like equality are western concepts. Americans say we invented it and spread it and Indians say the British brought this concept.

Let’s think of the 18th century from where this claim originates. We get declarations from Americans or the French like “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” this says that equality is fundamental o humanness. The first global event that happened after these two declarations is the Asian uprise. Haiti was a French slave colony and as soon as they heard that French said all men are created free and equal, they said “Great! This means we aren’t slaves anymore.” The first thing that the French did was send naval ships to crush the rebellion and said that when we said that all men are equal weren’t talking about you, we were talking about ourselves.

America got to know about it and said that’s a good idea and sent their army to support the French Navy so that the black slaves don’t believe that they were doing the right thing by rebelling. The two states that we attribute equality to, were the states that defied the actual practice it while articulating it.

Now coming to India, yes it is true that we haven’t had ideologically widespread concepts of equality like those declarations but on the ground, 4 millennia we have had real struggles for equality. It has been manifested all the way back to early Buddhism to include women into sangha and outcasts in Buddhist folds while rejecting Brahmanism that excluded them. These were gestures of equality. Then the history, the movements, didn’t make a statement per se but on the ground, there was a constant struggle for equality. So, when we ask ourselves am I equal and what does it mean? Which is the answer- Do people call me equal or I feel equal? Empty words don’t matter, what matters is the result of a tangible real struggle, feeling equal.

What I am trying to say is that we have always said that equality came from the West but this is an empty and pointless concept, it comes to us through a colonial mentality. Equality was an empty concept until colonies like India made it a real substantial phenomenon. In 1950, it was one of the first times in global history that there was unity between theory and practice of equality. We didn’t have just empty words in the Preamble but real abolition of untouchability and universal suffrage.

It is important because what these words mean is the sweat and blood that went into making them substantially real. When we see that Dr Ambedkar talks about equality in the Preamble he is not just mimicking the liberal idea or a foreign concept that we will use. He is inscribing down the long struggle for equality from Buddha to today’s India. By writing equally in the Preamble we have unified this long quest for equality that has been there throughout Indian history.

It suggests that the Preamble is not just another false document like the American or French declarations. If today a Haitian revolution rises, it won’t be true to the Preamble to crush it. This is what is special to the equality clause in the preamble. It is a real, substantive clause which represents 2000 years of real struggle.

Prakhar Raghuvanshi: Could you please recommend a few readings for our readers on Preamble or Preambular concepts?

Prof. Aakash Singh Rathore:

Gautam Bhatia’s The Transformative Constitution is a nice way of seeing some of the same issues from a Nehruvian perspective instead of the Ambedkar perspective. It goes through many concepts and it does it with the help of many case laws. It is a significant book because what I have written in Ambedkar’s Preamble is starting from 26th January 1950 and going backwards and Bhatia’s book starts from 26th January 1950 and goes forward.

Another book I will recommend with great caution is Tripurdaman Singh’s book, Sixteen Stormy Days on the First Amendment. It should be read because he argues more or less that Preambular concepts especially freedom were so revolutionary that even the first cabinet couldn’t cope with what they had done so the first amendment was a way of putting a lid on the Pandora’s box of freedom opened by the Constitution.

However, it is right-leaning, anti-Nehru rhetoric which I find offensive, really. There is no need to keep attacking Nehru. He had his own flaws but also accomplishments which leave behind a legacy which shouldn’t just be belittled. I really dislike this part. The more dangerous part is that it seems to try to say that the left-leaning, progressive people keep blaming the Modi government for violation of Fundamental Rights but Nehru did it first. This seems to be the premise which is dangerous. If you leave these two dangerous ways of writing it, it is important because it talks about how profound a kind of liberty the Constitution introduced. The original draft introduced such a profound concept of liberty not just in Asia but in the whole world. It shows how radical the 1950 Constitution was. It is a well-written book and it should be read to understand how powerful the original Constitution was in terms of liberty.

Host – Prakhar Raghuvanshi.

Technical Editor – Aarzoo Gang.

Transcript – Chaaru Gupta and Saarthak Singhal.

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