Hindu dharma is implicitly at odds with monotheistic intolerance. What is happening in India is a new historical awakening... Indian intellectuals, who want to be secure in their liberal beliefs, may not understand what is going on. But every other Indian knows precisely what is happening: deep down he knows that a larger response is emerging even if at times this response appears in his eyes to be threatening.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The dharmayudh over the "secular" word

by Arvind Lavakare

Arvind Lavakare may be 71, but the fire in his belly burns stronger than in many people half his age. The economics post-graduate worked with the Reserve Bank of India and several private and public sector companies before retiring in 1997. His first love, however, remains sports. An accredited cricket umpire in Mumbai, he has reported and commented on cricket matches for newspapers, Doordarshan and AIR. Lavakare has also been regularly writing on politics since 1997, and published a monograph, The Truth About Article 370, in 2005.

It’s surprising that it came over 30 years late. But BJP president, Rajnath Singh, got it across finally at the recent meeting of the party’s national executive meeting. Probably buoyed by his party’s triumphant entry into south India through Karnataka, he made the point that the long-held popular Hindi translation of “secular” as dharmanirpeksh was utterly wrong and needed to be replaced by the word panthnirpeksh. He may have gone overboard by demanding a constitutional ban on the use of the former word, but there is no denying that he had hit the bull’s eye.

Sections of the English press were sarcastic in their reaction and one news editor, simply itching for ridicule, headlined the report on the first day of the executive meeting as an attempt at “a new definition of secularism”. This was, of course, not surprising because our media’s English reporters, edit writers and columnists seem always itching to take a dig at the BJP’s penchant for “cultural nationalism” and Hindutva that are traceable to its roots in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. (RSS).

And, as always, these cocky, westernised critics had failed in their homework. Unknown to them who seldom care to look up our Constitution or other documents that contain rich, staggering information, the Hindi version of the Constitution of India (in English)
does in fact translate the word “Secular” in its Preamble as panthnirpeksh to denote the India State’s neutrality in regard to any faith or sect.

In fact, there’s an interesting story behind how that word got into our Hindi version of our Constitution.

After the Indira Gandhi Government (of the Congress Party, remember) steamrolled the 42nd Constitutional amendment in 1976 (the dictatorship of the Emergency was continuing, remember) and, among a host of other alterations, got the word “Secular” (without defining that word, remember) added to the Preamble, the Hindi version had to be suitably modified. “Secular” was a troublesome word that did not easily lend itself to a learned translation in Hindi. Smt. Gandhi (Sonia’s mother-in-law, remember), entrusted the task to Lakshmi Mall Singhvi, (1931-2007), an eminent jurist, constitutional expert distinguished diplomat, a literary personality, member of the Lok Sabha, and recipient of Padma Bhushan in 1998.

Singhvi refused to ok a Hindi version which translated 'secular' as dharmanirpeksh. He said it should more appropriately be translated as panthnirpeksh. because the amendments instituted by Indira Gandhi included the addition of a section called the Fundamental Duties of Citizens. He argued with Smt. Gandhi that Bharat, that is India, cannot have a constitution which is neutral as regards dharma. Dharma, the fundamental duty, the foundation ethic of the nation and every walk of life, is, he argued, the very foundation for the Fundamental Duties section being introduced. Smt.G agreed, handed the pen from her PM's office desk and requested Singhvi to make the correction on the Hindi draft version. He wrote down panthnirpeksh.

And that’s exactly how it appears in the official Hindi version of our Constitution.

Therefore, if our English language journalists think that Rajnath Singh raised the issue because he is essentially an RSS man, then the late L.M.Singhvi, Padma Bhushan, and respected by Indira Gandhi, must have been an RSS man too.

But Sitaram Yechury of the CPI (M) doesn’t seem to know of the Gandhi-Singhvi story. Else, he would not have lost his cool with one sentence in President Kalam’s address to Parliament in early 2007. Someone in the cabinet secretariat had translated “secular” as panthnirpeksh instead of the more common dharmanirpeksh. Yechury protested strongly against the use of the prefix Panth in the word panthnirpeksh. He said Panth means sect. This, he said, is the language that the RSS normally uses to underline that Hinduism is a religion and the rest like Christianity and Islam are mere sects. We are supporting the government to keep the communal forces out, he said, but the President in his Hindi translation uses panthnirpeksh. Maybe Comrade Yechury didn’t know in 2007 that there is no word for “religion” in any Bharatiya language, the nearest being panth, the path toemancipation, or union of aatman with the paramaatman. Thus the Bauddha panth, the Khalsa panth and the Jain panth.

Although Smt Gandhi accepted Singhvi’s clear-cut view 30 years ago that dharma does not mean religion and that “secular” in our Constitution’s Preamble should therefore be translated as panthnirpeksh and not dharmanirpeksh, the word “religion” in Articles 16(1), 25(1) and 29(2) of the Constitution of India appears as dharma and not as panth in its official Hindi translation. Can there be a better measure than that of our bureaucratic incompetence and of the utter indifference of our Parliamentarians as well as alleged intellectuals to the correctness of the text in our Constitution’s Hindi translation which, one learns, is lodged in no less than the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Rajnath Singh’s public reiteration of Singhvi’s view that religion is not dharma recalls another milestone move of 30 years ago that, alas, did not turn out to be a milestone event that would have totally transformed our political discourse since then.

The old RSS stalwarts had grasped that “secular” and “secularism” were words being used by Congressmen loosely and cunningly so as to denote “anti-communalism” of the Hindu kind only. Because Nehru, for some unknown reasons, considered the Hindu community as being a danger for the nation even as he had a soft corner for Muslims for equally unknown reasons, this trend of giving a twist to “secular” and “secularism” to mean anti-Hinduism soon came to be dubbed by Hindu sympathisers as “Nehruvian secularism”.

When in 1977, therefore, the Janata Party routed the Congress in the general elections, the RSS members of the Janata Party under Morarji Desai succeeded in persuading their government to introduce the 45th Constitution Amendment Bill wherein one of the amendments sought the definition of the word “Secular” which Smt. Gandhi had added to the “Preamble” without defining it. The amendment wanted “secular republic” in our Preamble to be defined as “republic in which there is equal respect for all religions.”

You know what happened? The proposed Constitutional definition of “secular” meaning “equal respect for all religions” was passed by the required two-thirds majority in the Lok Sabha where the Janata Party’s presence was dominant, but in the Rajya Sabha, where the Congress still held sway because of the six-year fixed term for Rajya Sabha members, the definition was thrown out! The Congress in 1978 did not want a definition of “secular”!! Why? You tell me.

Well, they should no longer object to that Janata Party definition suggested 30 years ago. Why? Because Sonia Gandhi herself has pronounced that “India is a secular country. The term secularism means equal respect for all religions.” She spoke those platinum words in a lecture delivered on June 9, 2007 at the Nexus Institute, The Hague.

Rajnath Singh should pursue that definition given by Madam Gandhi till it finally enters the Constitution of India. Till that happens, Hindu sympathisers would be justified in dubbing the Congressmen, the Comrades and their innumerable friends of various hues as nothing but “Pseudo-secularists”, the word coined by L.K.Advani.

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