To Rock a Nation
Five decades or so after it saw the light of day, the Indian Constitution towers like a monolith over our vast, undulated political landscape, holding us together and reining us in as we tend to stray.
Just a few months ago, we were puzzling over where we were headed. Our shared destinies increasingly looked irreconcilable. Our common goalposts appeared to be shifting apart by miles before the light suddenly dawned in the form the Election 2009 results.
The verdict has given a loud message to every political formation to eschew unproductive and dividing ideologies.
There’s something claustrophobic about being in the minority. It first imprisons you in a particular mindset and, this mindset, then, depends on grievances to grow and ultimately gauds you to break free.
If it was a resounding vote for secularism, then we must look back at what this secularism is all about and why it is so much supple than French laïcité.
I still remember my father’s law chamber. A gilded reproduction of the original Preamble to the Indian Constitution would adorn one of its blue walls. That was where a private tutor would come to coach me and that was the only time when I would venture into that intimidating room stuffed with old law books.
I even remember my mother reading out the Preamble to me with a subtle sense of pride. My parents were simple citizens who had great respect for our country’s core principles, a respect reinforced by dint of their professions: one practised law; the other taught political science.
Today, I can only thank the founding fathers of our country for leaving such an exceptional document, a jewel in the crown of this republic. It is a thing of beauty and joy forever, and its loveliness and relevance increases. And it will never, pass into nothingness; but still will keep a country quiet for us. (As I steal his words, I wonder what would Keats have made of this.)
The Preamble (for full text, click here) enjoins us to constitute India into a “SOVEREIGN SOCIALIST SECULAR DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC and to secure to all its citizens: JUSTICE, social, economic and political; LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; EQUALITY of status and of opportunity; and to promote among them all FRATERNITY…”
Our Constitution’s scope of secularism is designed to preclude religious and cultural dissensions. This freedom is of course subject to “public morality and order” because no freedom can be absolute. All this makes it a much more sophisticated concept than other models or variants of secularism, namely France’s laïcité.
Continental European Muslims should be envious of Indian Muslims. Western Muslims are caught between a Left which wants Christianity pushed out of public life — but doesn’t mind Islam — and the Right that wants Islam pushed out of public life, while reinforcing Christianity.
The French concept of laïcité that begun as a complete separation of the Church and State, went on to evolve to another extreme. It has now become, in my opinion, an anti-assimilation force. Those who complain of French dereliction of immigrant Muslims should know how France accommodated Jews in the first place.
The French National Assembly in 1791 had declared during a vote to grant full citizenship to French Jews: “They must be granted everything as individuals and nothing as a nation (as a community).”
This goes against multiculturalism that is at the heart of Indian secularism. The French consider such multiculturalism as an affront to their national unity. Our Constitution has achieved secularisation of the State, while it has let culture to be embedded in religion. It does not, like laïcité, uproot culture from faith and indeed culture and faith are intertwined.
Our mullahs can keep their beards flowing and our women can wear their veils, subject to certain to laws. Most Muslims did not have problems with a recent verdict denying a Muslim student the right to keep a beard in a Christian minority school. Evidently, this Muslim student’s permission to sport a beard was struck down because, according to Article 26, people have the freedom to manage their religious affairs. Therefore, Christians can run a convent school the way they want to just the way Muslims can run madrassahs.
People did have a problem, however, with how the particular judge presiding over the case allegedly chose to put it. Talibanisation, he purportedly said, could not be permitted. This may have slipped out inadvertently but words are like missiles. Once fired, they cannot be reined in until the damage is done.
Now contrast this with the situation in France. Numerous born-again “Westernised” Muslim women want to wear their veils. A repressive secularism doesn’t allow them to. So, they get a sense of secularism snatching away cultural identity.
Why is wearing veils not allowed? Because the December 2003 report of the Stasi Commission (set up by Bernard Stasi to go into the application of laïcité in France) resulted in a new law in February 2004. This law, recommended by the Stasi Commission, forbids school students from wearing any conspicuous religious or political signs or symbols, be it the Islamic scarf, the Jewish skullcap or the Christian cross. However, numerous Christians get away with wearing small crosses. Only large crosses are banned.
Laïcité as a concept, from what I understand, seeks to enforce national unity by prioritising French national identity over all aspects of religion, including culture. But enforcement is not the best of ways. It has a certain sense of bullishness.
Our Constitution does not so much enforce, if I may put it this way, but enjoins us to be secular in a multicultural way. Variety is indeed the spice of life.
French laïcité has spun out of control from its noble origins in the French Revolution that resulted in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (click here)
Article 10 states: “’No one should be disturbed on account of his opinions, even religious, provided their manifestation does not upset the public order established by law.” Our secularism not only brilliantly builds upon this, but also tunes it to our needs.
Now there is talk of moderating French laïcité, an atonement as if it were. In his Rome speech the French president Nicholas Sarkozy defended the notion of a “positive laïcité” and recognised the importance of religion in day-to-day life. In Saudi Arabia, he hailed Islam as “one of the greatest and most beautiful civilisations the world has ever known”.
President Sarkozy said: “Fourteen centuries ago, from this place, went forth the great élan of piety, fervor, and faith that would carry off everything it met, that would convert so many peoples and bring about the birth of one of the greatest, most beautiful civilizations that the world has ever known. Here in Saudi Arabia are the holiest sites of Islam, towards which every Muslim in the world turns to pray. […] The West received the Greek heritage thanks to the Muslim civilization. […] No doubt, Muslims, Jews and Christians do not believe in God in the same manner. No doubt, they do no have the same way of venerating God, of praying, of serving him; but, at bottom, who could deny that it is the same God to whom they address their prayers?” (click here).
The problem with Western secularism is that it has often appeared to Muslims as playing truant: now you see it, now you don’t.
On the other hand, our Preamble enshrines the Liberty of Faith in the manner of a guardian angel. Do not forget its backdrop: the painful Partition of Hindus and Muslims was the milieu in which the Constitution was crafted. Perhaps that is why it is such a timeless trouble-shooter. On it has depended the smoothing out of much that was ugly and uncomfortable. On it, we have reposed our faith again.