Analysing the Preamble to the Indian Constitution from a dharmic perspective – Arvind Sharma

Constitution of India

Prof. Arvind SharmaBy leaving out ‘historical justice’ from the Preamble of the Indian Constitution, as a form of justice which needs to be redressed, the historical experience of Dharmic traditions, especially Hinduism, is being ignored. – Prof. Arvind Sharma

The preamble to the Indian Constitution reads as follows:

WE, THE PEOPLE OF INDIA, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a SOVEREIGN SOCIALIST SECULAR DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC and to secure to all its citizens:

JUSTICE, social, economic and political; LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship;

EQUALITY of status and opportunity;

And to promote among them all FRATERNITY assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation;

IN OUR CONSTITUENT ASSEMBLY this twenty-sixth day of November, 1949, do HEREBY ADOPT, ENACT AND GIVE TO OURSELVES THIS CONSTITUTION.

The purpose of this post is to examine this Preamble from a dharmic perspective.

The first point to note is the word secular. It is now so well-known that it was introduced into the Preamble during the period of Emergency (1975-77), imposed by Indira Gandhi, that there is no need to repeat it here. It is perhaps less well known that Dr. B.R. Ambedkar beat back three attempts to introduce the word secular into the Constitution, during the debates in the Constituent Assembly, because he did not want to encumber the coming generations with trends of his own times.

His instincts were correct. If such a word had to be introduced into the Preamble, it should perhaps have been plural. This word is used a lot in modern secular discourse, along with the word secular, and this tends to create the impression that the words may be interchangeable. This is misleading. The two words represent two different orientations regarding how one might address the issue of religious differences in the public square. It is true that both wish to prevent the domination of the public square by a single religion or ideology, but they go about doing so in different ways. Secularism tries to do so by creating a wall of separation between religion and the state; pluralism tries to do so by providing all religions an equal place at the table. The confusion on this point is clear from the fact that two different words have been used in Hindi (and perhaps in other Indian languages as well), to translate the English word seculardharma-nirpeksha and sarva-dharma-sama-bhava. Whereas in fact, the first expression connotes secularism and the second pluralism.

This would be one dharmic criticism of the Preamble.

The second point to note is that the Preamble invokes libertyequality, and fraternity as its guiding values, along with a few others. It is difficult not to hear in this the rallying cry of the French Revolution: liberté, égalité, and fraternité. It would be tempting to conclude that Dr. B.R. Ambedkar was drawing on the French Revolution when these were included in the Constitution, given that he earned his higher academic degrees in the Western world, but Arvind Neelakandan has pointed out that this temptation must be resisted. Dr. Ambedkar himself claimed to derive them from Indic religious tradition, and in fact would have preferred the Buddhist word maitiri over Fraternity, if he had had his way.

Nevertheless, it is still possible to critique these values from a dharmic perspective because the dharmic perspective recognises something about them to begin with, which the West is only now becoming aware of—that these values can come into conflict. Our moral imagination is somewhat reluctant to accept that even noble moral ideals can come into conflict, but the level-headed dharmic thinkers caught on to this pretty early. Thus if one gives free rein to liberty, some people will soon become far richer than others, compromising equality, and perhaps even fraternity—to give only one example.

Hindu thinkers faced this issue when they came up with the doctrine of the Purusharthas, or the goals of human life. As is common knowledge, these are four: DharmaArthaKama, and Moksha. Already, by the early centuries of the common era, even the Kama Sutra recommends the harmonious pursuit of these goals. What does harmonious pursuit of these goals involve? As diplomat Pavan Varma points out, it means that these ends should not be pursued in exclusion, that is to say, they should be pursued in proportion.

Let us see what happens when they are pursued exclusively at the social level. If dharma was pursued exclusively in an ancient Indic context, it would lead to unproductive ritualism; in the modern world it would lead to fundamentalism. If Artha was pursued exclusively in the ancient world, it would lead to plutocracy or vyapari-raj. As homespun wisdom has it: jab raja vyaparitab praja bhikhari (When traders rule, the subjects get impoverished). The East India Company in India is a good example of this. In a modern world, it would lead to predatory capitalism (and intellectually to Marxism and Fascism).

If Kama was pursued exclusively in ancient India, society would be reduced to a brothel house. In the modern world, it would lead to hedonism (and intellectually to Freudism). If Moksha was pursued exclusively in ancient Indic society it would collapse. That is what was feared Buddhism was going to do to society, both in India and China, as people saw young men becoming monks. It would probably have the same effect in the modern world too.

This then would constitute the second critique of the Preamble—it seems to lack an adequate recognition of the possibility of conflict among noble ideals. MSN/Firstpost, 6 March 2022

Why Constitution makers should have included ‘historical justice’ in the Preamble

This post is a continuation of the previous critique of the Preamble to the Constitution of India. It was pointed out in that post, that the Preamble overlooks the possibility of conflict among the values celebrated in the Preamble, such as liberty, equality, and fraternity.

A third criticism of the Preamble is related to this criticism in the previous posting, but carries it further. One now needs to move beyond the point that the Preamble does not recognise the possibility of conflict among the various noble ideals it espouses, and Hindu ethical theory does so, to recognise that such conflict can arise within the same ideal, and not only just among ideals. Men and women, for instance, may have different conceptions of what gender equality means. The same could be true of what workers and their employers think about fraternity. Citizens within a country may similarly have different understandings of what should be meant by liberty. Thus one needs to draw attention now to a subtler problem—that the Preamble does not recognise the possibility of conflict within the same ideal.

The Preamble promises “liberty of…, faith, belief, and worship”. Let us use the expression “religious freedom” to refer to these promises. Religious freedom is thus offered to the followers of all religions, on the assumption that it will mean the same thing to all. This confidence may be justified, but only up to a point. It is justified in the sense that the followers of the various religions may take it to mean that their right to follow their religion on the part of all is equally guaranteed, whether it be the Hindu’s right to visit the temple, the Christian’s right to attend the Sunday service, the Muslim’s right to gather for the Friday prayer, and so on.

What the Preamble, however, fails to recognise is that the very concept of religious freedom may vary with the religion. For instance, the right to religious freedom for the Christian and the Muslim includes the right to convert others. Thus, for them, religious freedom means freedom to convert. For the Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, and Sikh, however, freedom of religion means freedom from conversion. They would like to follow their religion without the threat of being made an object of conversion hanging over their heads. For Christians and Muslims, however, asking them to convert is an article of faith.

How could the framers of the Constitution overlook such an obvious point? They overlooked it perhaps because they were too secular in their outlook to spot it. Religion is something only of peripheral interest to the secularist, who considers it an unfortunate aspect of life, destined to disappear. The secularist is too impatient with religion, to bother examining the possibility that the very concept of religion might not be the same among religions, and that this fact might affect their conception of religious freedom.

We have now had more than seventy years of experience with the Constitution, and the point still remains unrecognised. Perhaps the members of the Constituent Assembly were too engrossed with the project as a whole to delve into such minutiae, but what about those who have had to implement the Constitution in a multi-religious country, like India over the past seventy years?  Could the failure to introduce the study of religion as a subject in the Indian curricula—because it would be unsecular to do so—be responsible for this state of affairs?

A fourth and final criticism has to do with the provision for justice in the Preamble. The Preamble promises “social, economic and political” justice. This covers various dimensions of human existence. A human being is a social animal, an economic animal, and a political animal and all these aspects of human life are covered. But a human being is also a historical creature. History determines the starting point of a person’s life. And there might be an injustice inherent in that—as, for instance, in being born an untouchable, or even a woman, as the feminist movement reminds us.

Why this resistance to including “historical justice”, along with social, economic, and political justice? It is easier to address the question of the effect this omission has for the Dharmic traditions than to determine the reason for this omission. The grievances the Dharmic traditions have are largely historical in nature and relate to how the Dharmic traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, have suffered under Muslim, Christian, and secular rule.

By leaving out historical justice, as a form of justice which needs to be redressed, the historical experience of these traditions, especially Hinduism, is being ignored. The effect of this is apparent from the fact that, after the agitation regarding the Babri Masjid gained traction, a bill was introduced to prevent any similar claims being made in relation to other sites, known as the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act 1991. This would not have been possible if “historical justice” had been included in the Preamble. – MSN/Firstpost, 22 March 2022

Prof. Arvind Sharma, formerly of the IAS, is the Birks Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill University in Montreal Canada, where he has taught for over thirty years. He has also taught in Australia and the United States and at Nalanda University in India. He has published extensively in the fields of Indian religions and world religions. 

Marcus Tullius Cicero (3 January 106 BC – 7 December 43 BC)