What Lies Behind the Hairsplitting Over Dharma, Panth and Secularism

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It is no surprise that a state whose law and order machinery is headed by a minister with such semantic predilections will tend to look the other way when various members of his ‘panth nirpeksha’ government justify the use of violence in defence of their ‘dharma’

New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh in Lok Sabha during the first day of winter session of Parliament in New Delhi on Thursday. PTI Photo / TV GRAB(PTI11_26_2015_000028B)

SOMETIMES WORDS ARE BETTER THAN STICKS AND STONES: Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh in Lok Sabha during the first day of winter session of Parliament in New Delhi on Thursday. Credit: PTI

The word ‘secular’ in the preamble of the Indian Constitution – signifying tolerance, equality under the law and safety for all citizens – has suddenly begun to be reviled as a pejorative, mostly by quarters supportive of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led NDA government of Narendra Modi.

On the first day of the winter session of parliament, November 26, now proclaimed as ‘Constitution Day’, the Union home minister chose to voice his deep resentment over the charge of religious intolerance against his party, parivar and government . It is time, he said, that ‘secular’ – which he described as the constitution’s “most misused word” – and its Hindi synonym ‘dharma nirpeksh‘, were replaced in daily political discourse by the term ‘panth nirpeksh’ (non-sectarian), as is written in the official Hindi translation of the preamble of the constitution.

In Hindi or Sanskrit, the word dharma (as in raj dharma) basically means duty, not just religion, says constitutional expert Subhash Kashyap. To him as to the home minister, the term panth means a denomination and so the term panth nirpeksha is infinitely preferable to the present term dharma nirpeksha to denote a truly sect-neutral state not wedded to any denomination, which could also be religion.

Semantic legal sabre rattling of this kind brings to mind the astringent poetry of Kabir. How shall your heart and mine be one, he asks, you who talk of what is written on paper whereas I describe what is happening before my own eyes. You wish to keep the threads I disentangle, entangled forever:

मेरा तेरा मनवा कैसे एक होई रे,
तू कहता कागज़ की लेखी, मैं कहता आँखिन की देखी
तू कहता उरझावनहारी मैं राखूं सुरझाई रे ||

It is worth noting that virtually all dictionaries continue to describe panth as sampraday, or an ideological group inclusive of religious sects that are major deviations from mainstream Hinduism such as Nath panth, Siddha panth, Gorakh panth, Sikh panth and so on.

In the lexicography of those who are pathologically averse to and dismissive of dissent, the word ‘secular’ is seen as an affront to the majority’s dharma. It is not a coincidence that in the same speech, the home minister also spoke of Lord Ram as an exemplary Hindu ruler who proved his democratic credentials by exiling his pregnant wife to the forest at the mere lifting of a finger by ‘sabse nichli seedhi ka aadmi’ – read,  a ‘low caste’ man – against her. Never mind if Ram was copping out of his own dharma as a husband. Or that he also put to death the tapasvi Shambuk for engaging in a ritual that was above his status as a shudra.

It is no surprise that a state whose law and order machinery is headed by a minister with such semantic predilections will tend to look the other way when various members of his ‘panth nirpeksha‘ government, party and parivar tell Hindus they must fight for their dharma by attacking cow traders and beef eaters and the supporters of secularism.

At the same time, what’s with this Talmudic hairsplitting over terms such as ‘secular’? There is a method in this madness.

Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh visiting the Great Wall of China in Beijing, China on Saturday. Credit: PTI

GET READY FOR THE CHILLING EFFECT: Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh visiting the Great Wall of China in Beijing, China on Saturday. Credit: PTI

For authorities fearful of free and open debates, semantic impoverishment – the evisceration of a people’s political vocabulary by stripping terms that describe the human condition of their essence – weakens the autonomy of individuals. As the political lexicon shrinks, so does the space for free debate. As the authorities start providing all acceptable definitions, citizens gradually cease to be aware of the fact that there are moral values beyond the platitudes of ‘development’ and ‘India first’ that uphold real democracy and which they must fight for.

The home minister’s speech also reveals how in the India of 2015, the authorities have suddenly begun to read every text, including our constitution, as allusive, a double text as it were. And each wave of dissent, instead of bringing them to public platforms for a free discussion with the disenchanted groups, makes them more cagey and cross. As a result, all the agencies of the state are constantly sniffing for duplicity. Under such circumstances, any open confrontation with the authorities and the propaganda machines of the state, such as the one mounted by writers, artists and film makers, will be seen and treated if not as outright treason, then as a paid revolt instigated by the opposition for settling political scores.

It is appropriate, therefore, that a debate on the subject of dharma versus panth, secular versus non-sectarian, has been flagged off, inadvertently or otherwise. As foreseen and foretold by the dissenting writers and artists, arming oneself with as many languages as one can will be very important for all those who wish to keep up the healthy tradition – the parampara, if you will – of the argumentative Indian. In the days to come, the struggle for the future of India as a free and truly inclusive democracy is going to take place more and more in the realm of language. And it will be made even more intense by the mass media and social media. Watch this space.

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  • Sahil

    Your background affects your views.

    Most of these religious fanatic ministers ( Any religion) of India , be it Sadhvi Niranjan jyoti, Sadhvi prachi, Sakshi Maharaj, Rajnath Singh or Azam Khan come from backgrounds where Socio-economic development levels are low.

    Mind you there are Ministers from other backgrounds in the government too , but they are hardly seen making any controversial statements regarding religion.

    To take my point further, I would state that the Right Wing groups have Stronger presence in regions with low Socio-economic development levels than they have in some of the more developed western, southern or north eastern regions of the country.

    My main point being: Where You come from, affects your views too.

    There is this chasm within the cabinet where some ministers from the same party are religiously oriented while some others like Piyush Goyal ,Suresh prabhu or Nitin Gadkari are seen as Performance oriented.

    It is necessary that we understand this divide.

    Similarly, IRRESPECTIVE OF THE PARTY LINES , we the citizens of this country need to stand up and support ministers who stand for development and honesty , be it Yogendra Yadav, Rajeev Chandrasekhar or Suresh Prabhu and decry others like Azam Khan and Sakshi Maharaj for their nonsensical statements.


    Bang on!You nailed the hypocrisy of these people.They are themselves confused with the concept of secularism which they always ridicule as if it is some sort of a contagion which is catching up with people and they are the ones who can save the people from its effects. But when confronted with some solid reasoning they would start looking somewhere else or digress from the debate itself. Today itself this man R.K sinha from Rss when confronted by Ravish kumar Vis-a-Vis his understanding and interpretation of secularism, he sound utterly confused and started giving examples from history ,rather than clearing his own stand.One of the pet issues of them is Common Civil code but to my surprise this Sanghi could not elaborate on that even.All they want is Power by hook or crook and hence this veil of hinduism and Nationalism.On the one hand they want to uphold the supremacy of Constitution and on the other hand they talk of Hindu Rashtra..
    In this case how on earth they are any different from this Most corrupt Congress Party ….which also does the same by tilting towards Muslims for its electoral benefit -‘appeasement’ politics.

  • shashank

    If the home minister is sure of his position then they should consider amending the preamble perhaps replace the word secular with nonsectarian , let us see how supreme court deems this to fit with the basic structure .

  • ProgressForIndia

    I’m an atheist – I believe that all religions and all deities are man-made fiction. But if that word “secular” is so noble and so important, then why was it inserted into the constitution during The Emergency? Are you saying that this action during the Emergency was noble? It most certainly was not – it was deliberately done by Indira Gandhi’s govt as a ploy to sew divisions among the rest of society, as a means of divide-and-rule. Why then try to dress it up and sanitize it now?


    (1) This article is thought provoking, no doubt. But in case of individuals like our Union
    Home Minister and top BJP leader Shri Rajnath Singh, they are trained not to think
    much or question what has been taught by RSS. Naturally, Shri Rajnath Singh is
    making a demand to change definition of words “secular” and “secularism” as mist
    political parties opposed to BJP always allege that BJP is against following principles
    of “secularism” as understood by the whole world. (2) Shri Rajnath Singh, like
    many other top leaders in his party, have thought of a very simple way of
    getting rid of menace called “secularism” by redefining the word “secularism” so
    that the very foundation of our democratic republic is weakened. (3) Since, after all we are a democratic country, logical thing to do for BJP’s top leaders, (including Shri Rajnath Singh), would be to declare right now that as and when BJP will get comfortable majority in both houses of Parliament, they will introduce a Constitutional amendment bill to delete the word “secular” from
    relevant article of our Constitution. Until such an amendment is approved, BJP leaders
    have to be patient and should resist questioning secular credentials of parties
    opposed to BJP. Incidentally, it may be mentioned here that our Prime Minister appears
    to be more pragmatic, and probably diplomatic too. While replying to debate in Parliament, PM reiterated that Constitution was his government’s religion.

  • Raghu Reddy

    After few decades we will create a new constitution. Its simple. There is no garantee that one fundamental hindu would start enforcing his idea of governance which otherwise might not like.Eventually all of us have to create a common set of rules to govern people.