The two missing words (secular, socialist) in the Information and Broadcasting (I&B) ministry’s advertisement featuring the Indian constitution’s preamble, whether through default or design, have served two useful purposes. One is to underline the pointlessness of having them in the preamble in the first place when no government feels constrained by their presence; the other is the reality that these words were not part of Babasaheb Ambedkar’s well-thought-out original constitution adopted by the constituent assembly. We need to acknowledge that they were not intended to be there at all even if we don’t now do anything to remove them.

To take the second point first, Minister of State for I&B, Rajyavardhan Rathore, said the “photo of the original preamble was a way of honouring the founding fathers of the constitution”. He slipped in the fact that these changes were inserted in 1976. That was the second year of Indira Gandhi’s infamous internal emergency, and the preamble was modified purely for political purposes.

A close up of the advertisment issued by the government.

It is doubtful if these changes could have been made without sending most of the opposition to prison. Mrs Gandhi packed off all major political leaders – from the right-wing Jana Sangh (today’s BJP) to the various Socialists and the Left – to jail and passed these and several other constitutional amendments in a handcuffed and tongue-tied parliament. So, in a sense, the amendments went against the spirit of the constitution as all major freedoms guaranteed by Ambedkar’s constitution were brutally suppressed at that time. The courts were running scared and the media was in chains when these words were incorporated. Their presence was thus an immoral, if not illegal, entry in the statute book.

In today’s world, it is unlikely that these constitutional amendments would have passed legal muster for the simple reason that they were passed when both houses of parliament had been gagged. Even ordinary bills cannot be passed if the houses are not in order (hence the recent Rajya Sabha logjam); so can major constitutional amendments be passed when key members were sent in jail?

The reason why “secular” and “socialist” were inserted in 1976 is worth retelling. With leaders from all ends of the political and social spectrum in jail – ranging from the right-wing RSS and Jamait-e-Islami, which were banned, to various caste-based Lohia-ite, Socialist and Left factions – the government’s actions clearly lacked legitimacy. They would have been opposed both by left and right. The word “secular” was inserted to validate the action of sending “communal” leaders to prison and banning their organisations; and the word “socialist” was intended to similarly justify the incarceration of the left. Indira Gandhi bunged in these two words to justify her undemocratic actions against leaders from right to left.

Take the word “secular”. What extra idea does the insertion of this word convey when Ambedkar’s preamble already guaranteed Indian citizens “Liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship…” among other things. Does the word secularism add one iota of extra freedom to the basic idea of liberty of belief and faith as enunciated in the pre-1976 preamble, and additionally expanded on by article 25 of the constitution, which guarantees “Freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion”?

Of course, with the BJP in power today, it suits the party’s political opponents, many of them descendents and proteges of some of the leaders jailed by Indira Gandhi, to pretend that they want “secular” and “socialist” to remain in the constitution. In fact, some constitutional experts now claim that these words can never be removed since they form part of the “basic structure” of the constitution that has been upheld by the Supreme Court. Arvind Datar is quoted in The Economic Times as saying that “not even a government which wins 543 out of 543 Lok Sabha seats can change this.”

This view is probably wrong, for it is fanciful to pretend that elements that were never there in the original constitution can suddenly become part of the “basic structure”. It beggars reason why a “basic feature” force-fitted into the preamble 26 years after the country adopted Ambedkar’s constitution cannot tinker with it 39 years later.

However, it is not important to change what does not make a difference to how the state conducts social and economic policy. The insertion of the word “secular” did not prevent Rajiv Gandhi from overturning the Shah Bano judgment or offering Haj subsidies and quotas on the basis of religion. Nor did the insertion of the word “socialist” prevent Narasimha Rao from moving away from socialism in 1991 or the Vajpayee government from privatising public sector companies.

The words “secular” and “socialist” have been robbed of all meaning in the Indian context. They are two nonsensical terms inserted by the whims of an autocratic PM, and they remain there on the whims of an intellectually-bankrupt political class.

We need expend no further energy on words that mean nothing.

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‘Secular, socialist’ are relics of Congress’ undemocratic past; they have little meaning today