Home >Opinion >The spurious debate on the preamble

The rather silly controversy drummed up after a government advertisement displayed the original preamble of the Indian Constitution provides an apt cue to a more meaningful national debate— about whether it is time to remove various socialist distortions in the central document of the republic.

The story so far: The ministry of information and broadcasting issued at advertisement on Republic Day that showed the original preamble of 1950. A storm of protest broke out. Two holy words were missing: secular and socialist. Some vocal critics saw in this innocuous advertisement a harbinger of things to come, as India descends into a dark theocracy.

The omission would have been worth debating if mere words had power over the fate of countries. The darkness is to be found in the manner in which these words were added to the preamble: they were inserted at a time when there was no democracy in India, in 1976, when emergency prevailed. The opposition benches were empty on 28 August 1976, when law minister H.R. Gokhale moved the 42nd Constitution Amendment Bill. In the controversy over these words, conspiracy theorists have conveniently overlooked one fact: the words socialist and secular were part of this package that virtually rewrote the Constitution, tearing its original fabric.

Viewed dispassionately, there are three substantive points in the controversy. One, can the mere addition or removal of words from the preamble, distort the Constitution? Two, how accurate is it to describe India as a socialist country? Three, the controversy ignores the far more serious damage inflicted to the Constitution by the elimination of the fundamental rights, the right to property, for example.

The preamble, as the dictionary meaning of the word suggests, is only an introduction to the Constitution. No substantive rights, powers or duties flow from it. In one of the earliest interpretations of the preamble, the Supreme Court held it not to be a part of the Constitution. This was in the matter of Berubari Union and exchange of enclaves, a 1959 presidential reference. The court was asked if the government could cede a part of the territory of India. At that time, heavy play was made of the preamble to claim that India was an indestructible union and the government had no such power. Relying on US constitutional precedents, the court vetoed this interpretation. Surely the territorial integrity of India is a far more important issue than socialism and secularism? That vital question was addressed on the basis of common sense and not emotion.

India moved away from socialism a long time ago. The economy today is dominated by the private sector. The dismantling of socialism began in 1980, four years after the word socialist was added to the preamble, when Indira Gandhi began liberalizing the economy. From this perspective, hankering for this word in the preamble is pedantic. Another example of this pedantry is the amendment to the Representation of the People Act of 1951 by the Rajiv Gandhi government. Under this amendment a new section was added, demanding allegiance to socialism on part of all political parties before they could be registered by the Election Commission. This is incongruous: if a party professes in free markets, why should it take an oath of allegiance for socialism?

The debate has ignored the much more damaging changes made to the Constitution since 1950. Perhaps the most violent being to the right to property. The original Constitution has Article 31 that guaranteed this right as a fundamental right. From 1951, within a year of the Constitution’s inauguration, the right was diluted till 1978 when it was made a mere legal right. India’s conflicts over land are in great part due to the slow killing of this right.

It is time these pernicious changes—made just before socialism began to retreat—are rolled back.

What about the other word in the controversy, secularism? Again, even if for moment, the word is eliminated from the preamble, will India become a communal country? The right to freedom of religion—under Article 25—is wide in amplitude. The Supreme Court has classed it as a basic feature of the Constitution, making it immune from any amendment, let alone elimination. The substance of secularism lies in fundamental rights and not the preamble. It is civic illiteracy to say that a change in the preamble will make India a theocratic state.

The last word in this debate goes to B.R. Ambedkar. On 15 November 1948, an amendment was moved in the Constituent Assembly to add the words secular and socialist in the Constitution. He dismissed it as superfluous. The Constitution, he said, was “merely a mechanism for the purpose of regulating the work of the various organs of the State...If you state in the Constitution that the social organisation of the State shall take a particular form, you are, in my judgment, taking away the liberty of the people to decide what should be the social organisation in which they wish to live".

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This article has been modified from its previous version to reflect a change.

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