I’m noting this paper here – for further analysis as time permits.
Hindu Bias in India’s ‘Secular’ Constitution: probing flaws in the instruments of governance
ABSTRACT There has been almost a consensus among the political opinion makers in India that the Constitution of India that came into force in 1950 has been a secular constitution. This paper critiques that consensus and demonstrates that the secularism of India’s constitution is Hindu-tainted. It takes up some key articles of the Indian constitution and, by analysing the constitutional debates of the 1940s that went into the making of those articles, highlights the Hindu bias features of the Indian nationalist movement and the constitution. While acknowledging some admirable and progressive features of the constitution, the paper argues that its Hindu bias must be read as symptomatic of the depth of institutionalised Hindu communalism in India and the shallowness of the secular foundations of the Indian republic. The existence of institutionalised Hindu communalism means that the power of Hindu communal sectarianism is greater than that which is merely represented by Hindu nationalist organisations. The paper concludes by suggesting that the secular reconstruction of India demands critical combat with the institutionalised communalism embedded in a range of societal and state institutions. Examining Hindu bias in the constitution is an instance of an examination of institutionalised communalism in one key institution of the Indian state and society.
This paper is an attempt to demonstrate Hindu bias in the Constitution of India. During Indira Gandhi’s Emergency rule (1975 – 77) an amendment to the constitution (42nd Amendment, 1976) formally inserted the word ‘Secular’ (along with ‘Socialist’) as a characterisation of the Indian republic. However, informally there has been almost a consensus among the political opinion makers in India that the Constitution of India, which came into force in 1950, has been a secular constitution. In this paper, I question that consensus.
This paper demonstrates that the secularism of India’s constitution is Hindu-tainted. Through this critique, an attempt is made to question the complacency of Indian secular opinion about the secular foundations of the
Indian republic. I am not suggesting a rigidly fixed template of secularism which must be made the basis for evaluating the secularism of India’s constitution. Secularism as a concept and ideal is a contested terrain and I start from what might be considered the minimalist and possibly the least controversial norm, that a state and its institutions must enable equal opportunities to all individuals and groups in society. Converting this norm to the sphere of secularism would imply that a secular state should, at least, treat all religious communities on an equal footing. A secular state could do better if it also goes further than this and makes provisions for safeguarding the numerically disadvantaged religious minorities. In assessing the absence or otherwise of Hindu bias in India’s constitution, I am using the less demanding definition of secularism, ie equal treatment of all religious communities.1
I start below by briefly providing the politico-historic context of my argument. I then reproduce those articles of India’s constitution which reflect its Hindu bias.2 My comment on each of these articles contains arguments and evidence to further substantiate the point about the Hindu bias in the constitution.
Some sections of the progressive and secular opinion in India faced with the powerful rise of Hindutva forces since the 1980s believe that a campaign to emphasise that our constitution is a secular one can be used as an ideological weapon against the Hindutva forces’ attempt to transform India into a Hindu nation. I consider that this belief in the political utility of the constitution is not well grounded. I wish to argue that, although the Constitution of India has many admirable and historically progressive features, it has significant elements of retrogressive Hindu bias in it. A point which I am not going to dwell upon here but is worth making very briefly is that this Hindu bias must be seen in the larger context of the continuation of Hindu bias in the national movement for India’s independence,3 and in the world-view of most of the leaders of the movement, including Mahatma Gandhi.4 The rise of Hindutva forces can be considered more a continuation and deepening of that bias than a rupture with it. If the Hindutva forces have not made this claim self-consciously, it is mainly because of the intellectual poverty of the Hindutva ideologues. I have no doubt that it is only a question of time before the cleverer sections of Hindutva ideologues start invoking the heritage of the national movement in their favour. They already do this in an eclectic manner when they promote Sardar Patel, KM Munshi and the others but they can be expected to do this in a systematic manner in the future. Had Mahatma Gandhi not been murdered by a Hindu fanatic, the ambiguous and contradictory nature of his thought would have made him a very valuable source of legitimacy for some version of Hindutva ideology. The anti-Hindutva forces can use the fact of his murder by Godse only in a tactical fashion against Hindutva organisations and even that, perhaps, for not too long. In the larger strategic scheme of things, Hindutva ideologists are quite capable of owning Gandhi as a Ram bhagat (devotee of the Hindu god Ram) and a great Hindu thinker, while disowning Godse as a misguided patriot.5
The progressive and genuinely secular forces in India need to recognise a bitter truth, namely that uncritically claiming a secular heritage from the national movement and the Constitution of India is to play a potentially losing game from the very beginning against their Hindutva opponents. What the progressive forces need to do is to project a truly secular and egalitarian perspective for India—a perspective which does not hesitate to subject the national movement for independence, its leadership and the existing Constitution of India to unwavering criticism where it is needed.6 It is from this perspective that the paper now subjects the existing Constitution of India to criticism over one of its flawed aspects, namely its Hindu bias.
Hindu bias elements in the constitution
Article 1. Name and territory of the Union (1) India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union of States.
The naming of India as Bharat reflected the power of the Hindutva-minded sections in the Constituent Assembly who wanted the name to reflect the ancient pre-British and pre-Muslim era of a ‘glorious’ Hindu past. This might be considered harmless cosmetic Hindutva but, if we bear in mind the alienating impact of this on non-Hindus, it is certainly not harmless. The famous British geographer of the Indian subcontinent, OHK Spate, wrote: ‘In Hindu literature the sub-continent as a whole is styled Bharat-Varsha, the land of the legendary king Bharata; but it seems safe to say that there was little feeling of identity over the whole country’.7 According to Spate, “‘ Bharat”…is used mainly by. . .the romantic Hindus’.8 In August 1949 a Hindu sanyasin went on a fast which she threatened to continue till her death unless two of her demands were met, namely that Hindi should be adopted as a national language and India should be renamed Bharat.9 According to Austin, ‘Nehru, among others, visited her. She broke her fast on 12 August, claiming that Nehru and other Congress leaders had assured her that Hindi would be adopted’.10 The fact that in the rest of the constitution’s text the word Bharat is not used again suggests that its insertion in the opening article was meant to suggest a word of huge symbolic significance.
Further, a member of the Constituent Assembly who was heavily Hindutva-minded in his political outlook (he claimed himself to be a Gandhian) highlighted the symbolic significance of the word Bharat by suggesting a more favourable positioning of it in the Article. Jagat Narain Lal (from Bihar) said: ‘I would have liked the name “Bharat”to come before India. It is a fact that “Bharat”and India have come in, but I would have liked “Bharat”to come before India’.11 The symbolic significance of ‘Bharat’ in the opening article was meant to suggest a sense of Hindu ownership of the new India—the India which was perceived to have achieved self-rule after many centuries of foreign rule. The name Bharat signified the birth of a new India, with whose government and state the Hindus felt a sense of identification.
The word ‘Union’ in the opening article was also consciously preferred over ‘Federation’.12 It does not have direct Hindutva implications but, once we understand the context of the use of the word, we can start seeing the Hindutva sentiments and arguments associated with this word. In the negotiations leading up to independence and partition the Cabinet Mission had suggested a plan in 1946 which envisaged India as a loose federation with a weak centre and relatively strong states, with residuary powers vested in the states. This federal framework had been suggested in order to accommodate the Muslim League’s concerns about the dangers of Hindu domination if the centre were to be too powerful. This plan did not succeed for various reasons, the main one being the Congress’s resistance to the idea of a federation with a weak centre. This is what eventually led to the creation of Pakistan. Ayesha Jalal has demonstrated this very convincingly, although the majority of Indian historians still blame the Muslim League leader Mohammad Jinnah for partition.13 Once the partition plan was accepted, the Indian political leadership (at least the majority) was relieved that they could get on with their plan for a strong centre.
Let me quote KM Panikkar, one of the leading figures in the Constituent Assembly. He wrote on May 1947: ‘Federation with limited powers for the Centre, was an unavoidable evil in India, so long as the Muslim majority provinces had to be provided for in an all-India centre. ..It is no longer necessary to provide for the very large measure of power for the units, which a full union with the Muslim majority provinces would have rendered unavoidable’.14 This seemed to reflect a sense of relief that Muslim bargaining power had vanished and the centralising agenda could now be implemented without any resistance. Nehru expressed similar views:
The severe limitations on the scope of central authority in the Cabinet Mission’s plan was a compromise accepted by the Assembly much, we think, against its judgment of the administrative needs of the country in order to accommodate the Muslim League. Now that partition is a settled fact we are unanimously of the view that it would be injurious to the interests of the country to provide for a weak central authority.15
Some other members of the Constituent Assembly went even further in articulating a Hindutva view of history as a justification for a strong centre. Jaspat Roy Kapoor and Ram Chandra Gupta (both from United Provinces) and Jagat Narain Lal (Bihar) argued such a position. Kapoor said: ‘History undoubtedly proves that whenever there has been no centralisation in this country it has been overrun by foreigners’.16 He dubbed anyone questioning centralisation almost as a foreign government spy: ‘The two fundamental things about this Constitution are the unity of the country and a strong Central Government.. .nobody should be sorry for it excepting one who would like to bring about confusion and chaos in this country because his sympathies may be lying somewhere else outside the borders of this country’.
Kapoor expressed his disappointment ‘about the special provisions for Kashmir’18 and concluded his speech with strong Hindu nationalist fervour: ‘Our motto and slogan hereafter should be: Bharat samvidhan ki Jayaho, Bharat Mata ki Jayaho’.19 Ram Chandra Gupta justified centralisation as a response to the creation of Pakistan and then articulated a Hindutva-oriented view of Indian history in favour of centralisation:
Prior to the partition of the country, it was thought that all the provinces should be practically independent of the Centre except in certain matters— defence, communication etc—the residuary powers to vest in the units; but the partition did demand, and rightly demanded that Centre should be made as strong as possible. The Constitution has effected this change. ..A strong Central Government is the need of the hour. . .All along the ages, and our history bears ample testimony to this fact, the overmastering problem before India has been one of integration, and consolidation and unification.20
Jagat Narain Lal equated more central power with national solidarity and said, ‘Time after time in history, we have found this solidarity being broken and India falling at the feet of the foreign conquerors’. 21 It is not difficult to imagine that by ‘foreigners’, in this context, Kapoor and Lal were referring mainly to the Muslims. KM Munshi, in a weaker Hindutva tone than that of Kapoor, Gupta and Lal, also eulogised the virtues of ‘strong central authority’ in the Indian historical experience.22
There were others (most prominent being Ambedkar) who also argued for centralisation for different reasons. There seemed to be a convergence of positions: Hindu nationalists, secular Indian nationalists (Nehru) and Ambedkar all seemed to agree on the need for a strong centre for different reasons. Although Ambedkar was a centraliser, he also played the most influential role in critiquing Nehru’s over-centralising approach (mainly for economic reasons) on many issues. For example, he opposed and defeated Nehru’s view that a simple majority of the parliament should be able to amend some features of the constitution. He also showed a critical awareness of the fact that many of the centralising features of the proposed constitution, in the framing of which he had himself played a key role, ‘invaded provincial autonomy’.23 There was, of course, strong opposition to the emerging consensus for a strong centre. This opposition came mainly from southern states: NG Ranga, K Santhanam, Mahboob Ali Baig and Ramalingam Chettiar all opposed the move towards centralisation.24 Prof Ranga said: ‘centralisation, I wish to warn this house. . .would only lead to Sovietisation and totalitarianism and not democracy’.25 Mahboob Ali Baig argued for institutional mechanisms like the electoral system of proportional representation to safeguard the interests of religious minorities. He criticised the moves towards a unitarist political system: ‘in the hands of a Central Government which wants to override and convert this federal system into a unitary system, it can be easily done. Now there is a danger of this sort of Government becoming totalitarian. This is the danger in the form of the Constitution that is embodied in the Draft Constitution.’ 26 TT Krishna-machari, who was sympathetic to giving some powers to the centre in order to
introduce uniform labour welfare measures (as proposed by Jagjivan Ram) and to maintain public health standards, feared that creating a strong centre ‘would also mean the enslavement of people who do not speak the language of the legislature, the language of the Centre’.27 He feared ‘Hindi imperialism’ and ‘totalitarianism’ as a result of centralisation.28 Socialists HV Kamath and Prof Shibban Lal Saksena made spirited criticisms of the many pro-centralisation proposals, especially the ones relating to the president’s rule. Kamath looked upon these measures as a threat to democracy and characterised them as a Hitler-like takeover by the Union government.29
Some other well known critics of centralisation were the jurist HN Kunjru and the United Provinces premier GB Pant who, ‘seems to have been the unofficial spokesman of the provincial premiers in the Assembly’.30 Kamlapati Tiwari criticised centralisation from a Gandhian perspective: ‘The first fundamental defect of the Constitution appears to be that it is terribly centre-ridden. ..Everyone knows that effective power in the hands of the centre can only be based on military strength and the concentration of military power is the sure road leading to the complete destruction of popular rights. This is a historic truth. Our Constitution obviously presents this danger.’ 31
Regarding the Sikhs’ opposition to the centralisation proposals, Justice Ajit Singh Bains has highlighted the well known historical fact that ‘The Sikh representative in the Constituent Assembly did not sign the Constitution of India as it had not given any autonomy to the states’.32Hukam Singh, a Sikh representative, stated:
the Sikhs feel utterly disappointed and frustrated. They feel that they have been discriminated against. Let it not be misunderstood that the Sikh community has agreed to this Constitution. I wish to record an emphatic protest here. My community can not subscribe its assent to this historic document. ..In our Constitution, each article tends to sap the local autonomy and make the provinces irresponsible. . .The minorities and particularly the Sikhs have been ignored and completely neglected. The Provincial units have been reduced to Municipal Boards. . .there is enough provision in our Constitution. . .to facilitate the development of administration into a fascist State.33
Another Sikh representative Bhupinder Singh Mann (spelt wrongly in the CAD Official Report as Man), said, ‘I will be failing in my duty if I do not give the reactions of my own community, the Sikhs of East Punjab, so far as this Constitution goes. Their feeling is that they can not give unstinted support or full approval to this Constitution.’ 34 Bains argues that the Sikh unrest in Punjab since 1947, and especially in the 1980s and the 1990s, can be attributed to this unitarist constitution which empowers the centre vis-a`-vis the states.35 Bajpai captures the dominant Hindu majoritarian and nationalist mood in the Constituent Assembly debates and points out that Minorities were referred to as “disfigurement”, “cancerous”, “poisonous” for the body politic’.36 Khilnani notes that ‘Hindu voices’ had become ‘emboldened’ in the Congress Party after the 1947 partition.37
Hindutva elements both before and after 1947 have been the most ardent proponents of strong centralisation and Union power. Although there were other supporters of centralisation, as pointed out above, if one were to construct a league table of support for centralisation, Hindu nationalists would come out at the top. Strong central power in the Indian constitutional framework and the Indian political structure is associated, in the Hindutva vision, with strong Indian Hindu nationhood. Decentralisation and minority rights are viewed, in this vision, with suspicion as potential threats to that nationhood.
Article 25. Freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion (1) Subject to public order, morality and health and to the other provisions of this Part, all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion. (2) Nothing in this article shall effect the operation of any existing law or prevent the State from making any law. ..
(b) providing for social welfare and reform or the throwing open of Hindu religious institutions of a public character to all classes and sections of Hindus…
Explanation II. In sub-clause (b) of clause (2), the reference to Hindus shall be construed as including a reference to persons professing the Sikh, Jaina or Buddhist religion, and the reference to Hindu religious institutions shall be construed accordingly.
The Article 25 (2) (b) fundamentally undermines the secular character of the state in favour of Hindus. If one adopts a strict definition of secularism, namely the separation of state and religion, this is an unambiguous violation of secularism. Even with a looser definition of secularism, the so-called Indian version of equal treatment of all religions, it violates secularism because of the clearly expressed special interest of the state in favour of ‘social welfare and reform’ of the Hindu religion.38 Why should a secular state be concerned about the social welfare and reform of only one religion? Why should a secular state be concerned with social welfare and reform of only Hindu temples?39 It seems that the overriding concern behind these social reform measures was to prevent the exodus of the dalits (literal meaning ‘oppressed’ and referring to the lowest caste strata in the Hindu caste system) from the Hindu fold.40 This was an instance of active state intervention to consolidate Hindu identity. Pratap Mehta has rightly emphasised this point:
The Indian state has used state power to consolidate Hindu identity in more ways than one can list. The state, for the first time, created a territorially unified body of Hindu law, transcending numerous regional divisions. Supreme Court judges not only promulgate public purposes; they act as authoritative interpreters of Hindu religion, defining what is essential to it and what is not.
The state runs thousands of temples across the country, appropriated in the name of social reform or financial propriety.41
Explanation II above reflects a Hindu assimilationist perspective towards the Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists in India. The welcome accorded to this clause by Jaspat Roy Kapoor illustrates this assimilationist attitude: ‘One very good thing which I have found mentioned in Article 25(2). . .This includes the Buddhists among the Hindus. . .This is a provision of which I am particularly happy’.42 All these three religious communities have, in varying degrees and at different points in time, protested against this section of the constitution. During the Akali agitation of the 1980s even a moderate and the most pro-Hindu Akali leader, Parkash Singh Badal, joined the Akali protest against this clause of the constitution. He led a procession of Akali volunteers in Delhi which burnt the pages of the constitution containing this clause. Singh has discussed the political significance of this phase of the Akali agitation.43
In a paper, ‘Secularism in India: a critique of the current discourse’, Anwar Alam has examined the definition of Hindu in the context of the Hindu Code Bill of 1955. His examination of the bill as a move towards Hindu homogenisation and assimilation is particularly striking because it took place during the Nehru era, the era most often advertised as the golden period of secular Indian nationalism. According to Alam, ‘the Hindu Code Bill produced a tendentious legal description of a “Hindu”. It included Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs despite their protest’. It included anyone in the definition of a Hindu who was not a Muslim, Christian, Parsi or Jew. ‘The negative description of a Hindu, as one who was not a member of the four excluded religions, produced a Hindu so tightly manacled to his/her birth that even non-belief could not provide an exit. Even though the Constitution provided for the right of non-belief and atheism, the reformed Hindu law took away the freedom of legal self-definition and self-designation from individuals born in Hindu families’.44 This was clearly a legal move by the Indian state to construct a consolidated, homogenous and assimilationist Hindu identity. Alam’s examination of the cultural policy of the Indian state demonstrates that ‘the Brahmanical features of Hinduism were deliberately selected, promoted and projected at the national level in a manner that, for all practical purposes, blurs the distinction between Hindu nationalism and Nehruvian secular composite nationalism’.45 Taking his story further to the more open ‘Hindu card’ policy of Indira Gandhi in the 1980s, he notes (quoting an article by Sumantra Bose) that, after Operation Bluestar, Mrs Gandhi had publicly stated ‘that Hindu dharma [faith] was under attack from the Sikhs’.46
Article 48. Organisation of agriculture and animal husbandry. The State shall endeavour to organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and shall, in particular, take steps for preserving and improving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle. (emphasis added)
The specific insertion of ‘prohibiting the slaughter of cows and calves’ in the constitution, as one of the directive principles of state policy, was an unmistakable reflection of the religious preferences and powers of the dominant upper caste Hindus among the constitution makers. This specific inclusion also meant the exclusion of the preferences of others for whom the cow did not signify what it did for some upper caste Hindu groups.
Kancha Ilaiah, a dalit scholar and activist, considers the cow protection measures by the state as spiritual imposition by upper caste Hindus on dalits and non-Hindus. He argues: ‘Indians do not live with one mode of scriptures. We have the Buddhist scriptures, we have had the Bible as a living book for 2000 years in India. The Quran has been in India for more than 1000 years. The Dalits in the spiritual realm have more affinity with Buddhism and Christianity than Hinduism. In their spiritual realm, the cow is not sacred. How can Hindutva forces impose their spirituality on others?’.47 He condemns this as ‘cow nationalism’ of the Aryan Brahmins and counterposes to it the ‘buffalo nationalism’ of the dalits because, in his view, the black coloured buffalo represents the dalits and the Dravidians.48 According to Smith, ‘The cow protection legislation is undoubtedly the result of Hindu communalism: the coercive power of the state is pressed into the service of Hindu religion, to the detriment or at least inconvenience of beef-eating Muslims and Christians’.49 The political philosopher Pratap Mehta calls cow protection ‘the most symbolically potent of Hindu demands’,50 while Harkishan Singh Surjeet, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI (M)), considers that the strong Hindu revivalist outlook in a section of the Congress leadership was responsible for including the cow protection provisions in the constitution.51 Jagat Narain Lal had provided an unhesitating Hindu majoritarian viewpoint in the CAD for justifying ‘the banning of cow-slaughter’. He said: ‘The majority of the people of the country hold the cow sacred. They hold very strong views on this question.’52
Article 343. Official language of the Union. (1) The official language of the Union shall be Hindi in Devanagari script.
Article 351. Directive for development of the Hindi language. It shall be the duty of the Union to promote the spread of the Hindi language, to develop it so that it may serve as a medium of expression for all the elements of the composite culture of India and to secure its enrichment by assimilating without interfering with its genius, the forms, style and expressions used in Hindustani and in the other languages of India specified in the Eighth Schedule, and by drawing, wherever necessary or desirable, for its vocabulary, primarily on Sanskrit and secondarily on other languages. (emphasis added)
The importance accorded to Hindi language and especially to the Devanagari script and the Sanskrit language in the constitution reflects the strong pro‑Hindi and pro-Hindu bias of a very powerful section among the constitution makers.
David Lelyveld highlights the legacy of the Gandhi and Nehru led national movement on this question, which reveals several degrees of closeness between the Congress tradition and the Hindutva tradition. A passage from Lelyveld helps to demonstrate this point. According to Lelyveld:
[Gandhi] supported Hindi or Hindustani as the national language, the language that would take the place of English for communication between Indians of different linguistic backgrounds. In that spirit, Gandhi campaigned most vigorously for Hindi in the South, establishing in 1927 the Hindi Prachar Sabha, a network of teachers and a body of teaching materials aimed at teaching Hindi to speakers of Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam, all in the name of patriotism and national service. Ignoring anti-Sanskrit sentiment in Tamil Nadu, Gandhi argued that the common Sanskrit vocabulary would serve to bind the languages of India together. At the same time, Gandhi advocated that all Indian languages be written in the same script, Devanagari, in order to make them easier to learn.53
It is necessary to mention here that many other statements by Gandhi and Nehru could be cited to reflect their conciliatory attitude towards Urdu and non-Sanskritised Hindi. Nehru was particularly sympathetic to Urdu and felt an emotional bond with the language and its script. Both Gandhi and Nehru were genuinely worried about the negative consequences of Hindi extremism for India’s unity. However, both of them eventually succumbed to the pressure of the pro-Hindi forces in the country.54 The often contradictory and ambiguous nature of Gandhi’s many political positions was reflected in his position on Hindi and Devanagari script also. If, on one hand, he feared that imposing Hindi in Devanagari script would harm national unity, he also believed, on the other, that promoting Hindi in Devanagari script was in the interests of building a unified Indian nationalism. He eventually seems to have veered more towards the latter position.
Sadhana Saxena, in an excellent paper ‘Language and the nationality question’, has criticised the oppressive role of Hindi, her own mother tongue, as a link language in crushing the growth of several mother tongues in ‘the so-called vast Hindi belt’. She points out that the Constitution of India disenfranchised these non-Hindi mother tongues by excluding them from the Eighth Schedule (ES), which lists only 14 languages (Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Malayalam, Marathi, Oriya, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu and Urdu). In 1967 Sindhi, and in 1992 Konkani, Manipuri and Nepali, were incorporated in the ES, bringing the total to 18. The Brahmanical Hindu bias speaks loudly and clearly through the Constitution of India when one notices that Sanskrit, which is the claimed mother tongue of only a few hundred people, is included in the ES while none of the tribal mother tongues such as Santhali (3.6 million), Bhilli (1.25 million) and Lammi (1.2 million) etc are constitutionally recognised.55 Saxena has pointed out that the 1981 census data listed official figures for Hindi speakers at around 260 million, but that this number was arrived at by grouping several widely spoken tribal languages under Hindi.56 Hindi has been further privileged over the other ES languages by according it the status of National Official Language, the language of the Union and of centre – state exchanges.
The Hindi lobby was very powerful during the pre-1947 period but it became even more powerful after 1947. The Hindi lobby had become so arrogant after 1947 that some of the Hindi fanatics opposed constitutional recognition of any other language apart from Hindi. One such fanatic, Ravi Shankar Shukla, a member of the Constituent Assembly and the prime minister of the Central Provinces, characterised the move to give official recognition to non-Hindi languages as a ‘reactionary provision’ because, according to him, such a provision would ‘delay the introduction of Hindi as the Official Language of the Union.57 TT Krishnamachari of Madras decried this ‘Hindi imperialism’. He said, ‘I refer to this question of language imperialism. ..I would, Sir, convey a warning on behalf of the people of the South. . .that there are elements in South India who want separation.. .and my honourable friends in UP do not help us in any way by flogging their idea “Hindi imperialism”to the maximum extent possible’.58 Non-Hindi linguistic groups had to unite against this Hindi imperialism. According to Krishnamachari and Mrs Durgabai/Durgabai Deshmukh, both members of the Constituent Assembly, ‘We had these languages [non-Hindi languages] listed in the Constitution to protect them from being ignored or wiped out by the Hindi-wallahs’.59 Although the non-Hindi linguistic groups succeeded in getting this constitutional recognition for their languages, they could not prevent the pre-eminent status of the ‘Official Language of the Union’ being accorded to Hindi. Austin summed it up aptly: ‘It was one of the unfortunate coincidences of Indian history that Hindustani was a northern language and that it was given special status by North Indians, like Nehru, Prasad, and Azad and by north-oriented Gujaratis like Gandhi and Patel’.60
Alok Rai characterises this constitutional victory of Sanskritised Hindi ‘as a vehicle of “national”aspiration for a regional upper-caste elite’.61 He translates a piece of Hindi poetry, which captures the emotive link between Hindi and Hindutva imagination:
If your well-being you really want,
O children of Bharat!
Then chant for ever but these words—
Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan!62
The Constituent Assembly members who were Hindi extremists were, generally, also Hindu nationalists who ‘envisaged the new India in terms of the glories of the ancient Hindu kingdoms’.63 Purushottam Das Tandon, Seth Govind Das, Balkrishna Sharma, GS Gupta and Dr Raghuvira were some of the leading Hindi extremists who were also known to be Hindu revivalists. GS Gupta had a long association with Arya Samaj. Dr Raghuvira contested the parliamentary elections in 1962 as a Jan Sangh (precursor of the Bharatiya Janata Party) candidate. Many of the Hindi/Hindu nationalists worked within the Congress Party. Some of the Hindi extremists, like Algurai Shashtri, VD Tripathi and Prof SL Saxena, were secular and socialist in their political outlook but their Hindi extremism, which took the form of opposition to English, Urdu and other non-Hindi languages, brought them closer to the sentiments of the dominant Hindi/Hindu nationalist tradition.64
The special constitutional status accorded to Devanagari as the script for the Hindi language reflects the strong bargaining power of the Hindutva-minded lobby in the Constituent Assembly. Alok Rai provides a brilliant historical overview of the contestation over the script issue. He shows that, although Kaithi script was more widely used than the Devanagari script, Kaithi was dumped in favour of Devanagari because of the latter’s perceived closeness to Brahmanical Hindu identity. He points out that the Bengal Provincial Committee reporting to the Education Commission in 1883 – 84 had spoken up in favour of the Kaithi precisely on the grounds that it was widely in use. He highlights an interesting aspect of data provided by Vedalankar on this issue. According to Vedalankar, the number of primers in the schools in North Western Province in 1854 that used different variants of the script were: Kaithi 77 368, Devanagari 25 151, Mahajani 24 302.65 But, according to Rai:
Kaithi was unacceptable to the Nagari/Hindi propagandists. It appears that there were some crucial disqualifications that attached to Kaithi. It was perceived to have some association with Hindustani rather than with Sanskrit. It was, moreover, known to Hindus and Muslims alike and so might not have appeared ‘pure’ enough to proponents of the Nagari variant—Devanagari, no less, the script of the scriptures. Perhaps most crucially, for instance, it could not serve as a basis of ‘differentiation’.66
Another dimension of the Devanagari script, namely that it was also known by another name ‘Babhni, the script of the Brahmins’67 signifies further the upper caste Hindu bias of the constitutional provision regarding the Devanagari script. The linguist Suniti Kumar Chatterji has highlighted the Hindu cultural significance attached to the Nagari script by the supporters of the script. He has pointed out that the first society established to propagate the cause of Hindi in North India was named as Nagari Pracharini Sabha (Society for the Propagation of the Nagari Script) because, in his view, ‘the Hindu thought leaders in Northern India realised the importance of the Nagari script for the maintenance or preservation of Hindu culture’.68 According to Brass, the religious attachment of Hindus to the Nagari script is ‘profound’.69 Krishna Kumar has highlighted that the Hindu revivalist Arya Samaj provided the inspiration behind the setting up of the Nagari Pracharini Sabha. He points out: ‘A biography of Shyam Sunder Das, the founder secretary of the Nagari Pracharini Sabha, has recorded that the idea of starting the Sabha had come from a speech delivered by Arya Samajist preacher, Shankar Lal.. .Hindi soon acquired the title of ‘Aryabhasha’ [the language of the Aryas] in Arya Samaj parlance, and its Sanskritised form became a part and parcel of the movement’s vision of a reformed Hindu society in which Vedic ideals would be practised’.70
The third component of the Hindu bias in the constitutional provision on the language issue is Article 351 quoted above, which specifies the duty of the Indian central state to promote the vocabulary of the Hindi language by relying primarily on Sanskrit. The proposition that ‘Sanskrit is a dead language’71 would outrage Sanskrit enthusiasts. In their imagination Sanskrit represents the glorious spiritual richness of the Hindu heritage and is a key to unifying the Indian Hindu nation. According to Rai, ‘Sanskrit belongs certainly at the level of myth, where it is the literal and always-already perfect language of the gods’.72 The known Hindu revivalists in the Constituent Assembly had argued passionately for giving the primary importance to Sanskrit eventually accorded to it in the constitution. In the words of these Hindu revivalists, ‘The highest dictates of nationalism require that our terms of any technical value must be based on Sanskrit. This way lies the linguistic unity of India.’ 73
The Hindu, Hindi, Devanagari and Sanskrit lobby managed to put a powerful stamp on the Indian constitution and thus inflicted a damaging blow to its secular content.
This paper has attempted to demonstrate that the Constitution of India is not a document which the secular and progressive forces in India can use unproblematically against their Hindutva opponents. This constitution has several elements of Hindu bias in it. The symbolic insertion of ‘Bharat’ in the opening article naming the country; the provisions for strong centralisation supportive of Hindu nationalism; the active intervention of the state to consolidate Hindu identity through reform of the Hindu religion; the definition of ‘Hindu’ supportive of a Hindu assimilative agenda towards Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs; cow protection; pre-eminent status for Hindi in the Devanagari script and special importance for Sanskrit are all features of the constitution which make its secularism seriously Hindu-tainted. It is time for the uncritical celebratory references to the secularism of India’s constitution to cease and for the compromised nature of its secularism to be recognised.
Recognising the Hindu bias in India’s constitution helps to show that Hindutva in India is widespread and deeply rooted and goes beyond what is represented by the Hindutva group of organisations known as the sangh parivar. It could be called institutionalised communalism akin to the phenomenon of institutionalised racism in Western societies. Institutionalised racism is more than that which is represented by racist political organisations. Institutionalised racism in Western societies manifests itself through a whole range of institutions in these societies. Similarly, institutionalised communalism in India is embedded in and manifests itself in varying degrees through a range of societal and state institutions like the civil service, police and the other security services, prisons, legal institutions, media, culture, arts and education.74 Examining and combating institutionalised communalism demands an interrogation of communalism in each one of these institutions.75 Examining Hindu bias in the Indian constitution is an instance of an examination of institutionalised communalism in one key and foundational institution of the Indian state and society