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The history and debates about ‘socialist’ and ‘secular’ in the preamble of the Constitution

The Supreme Court will hear on September 23 a petition filed by former MP Dr Subramanian Swamy, seeking the removal of the words “socialist” and “secular” from the preamble of the Indian Constitution.

The two terms were inserted into the preamble as part of the 42nd Amendment of the Constitution in 1976 during the Emergency imposed by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The petitioners in two similar cases have argued that these words were never intended to be in the Constitution and that such insertion is “beyond the amending power of the Parliament under Article 368”, Live Law reported. Similar petitions have been filed earlier too and given rise to debates around the preamble and the role it plays in the Constitution.

What is the purpose of the preamble?

A preamble serves as an introduction to a document and contains its basic principles and goals. When the Indian Constitution was being drafted, the ideals behind the preamble were first laid down in the Objectives Resolution, adopted by the Constituent Assembly in 1947. These ideals emerged out of the numerous debates that took place during the drafting of the Constitution.

Initially, the Preamble said:

“WE, THE PEOPLE OF INDIA, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a SOVEREIGN 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 of opportunity;

and to promote among them all

FRATERNITY assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity of the Nation;

Freedom Sale

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

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The Constitution was the product of democratic deliberations and decided upon by the people of India themselves in the wake of freedom from colonial rule, and the ideals mentioned here were at the core of the newly democratic nation. During the Constituent Assembly debates, many suggestions were put forth — including that God should be invoked in the preamble as in the Irish constitution, that Mahatma Gandhi’s name should be included, etc.

The question of whether the preamble is a part of the Constitution or simply an introduction has been deliberated upon by the highest court, because the meaning and weight of the objectives mentioned in it, such as “equality of status and opportunity”, remained unclear from the perspective of law. However, in its judgment in the famous LIC case of 1995, the Supreme Court said, “…and the Preamble of the Constitution which is an integral part and scheme of the Constitution”, affirming its position as part of the Constitution.

Additionally, the violation of any principle mentioned in the preamble cannot be a reason to go to court, meaning the preamble is “non-justiciable” — however, judgments of courts can cite it as an additional factor in their reasoning, given that it constitutes the spirit of the Constitution.

How else has the preamble been debated earlier?

In 2020 BJP MP Rakesh Sinha moved a resolution in Rajya Sabha seeking to remove the word socialism from the preamble, saying, “You cannot tie a generation to a particular way of thinking. Besides, the Congress party which ruled the country for seven decades has changed its direction from being socialist to welfare to neo-liberalism. Its new liberal policies adopted in the 1990s have negated its own earlier positions.”

Earlier in 2015, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting used an image of the preamble of the Indian Constitution without the words “socialist” and “secular”, leading to some criticism. Then Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said, “Did Nehru have no understanding of secularism? These words were added during the Emergency. Now what is the harm if there is a debate on it? We have put before the nation the original Preamble”.

In 2008, the Supreme Court rejected a plea demanding the removal of ‘socialist’. “Why do you take socialism in a narrow sense defined by Communists? In broader sense, it means welfare measures for the citizens. It is a facet of democracy,” a three-judge Bench headed by then Chief Justice of India K G Balakrishnan had said. “It hasn’t got any definite meaning. It gets different meaning in different times.”

Under what circumstances was the preamble amended?

Over her years in government, Indira Gandhi had attempted to cement her approval among the masses on the basis of a socialist and pro-poor image with slogans such as “garibi hatao” (Eradicate poverty). The 42nd Amendment to the Constitution, passed in 1976 when the Emergency was in place, replaced the words “sovereign democratic republic” with “sovereign socialist secular democratic republic”. It also changed “unity of the nation” to “unity and integrity of the nation”.

Under Article 368(2), Parliament can amend the Constitution by passing a Bill in “each House by a majority of the total membership of that House and by a majority of not less than two-thirds of the members of that House present and voting”. After that, the Bill “shall be presented to the President who shall give his assent… and thereupon the Constitution shall stand amended”.

The 42nd Amendment had several other provisions, by which the Indira government sought to further centralise power. Some of these were reversed by the Janta government that came to power after the Emergency.

Were ‘secular’ and ‘socialist’ debated before Independence?

During the debates in the Constituent Assembly, members such as K T Shah and Brajeshwar Prasad had raised the demand to add these words to the preamble.

However, Dr B R Ambedkar argued: “What should be the policy of the State, how the Society should be organised in its social and economic side are matters which must be decided by the people themselves according to time and circumstances. It cannot be laid down in the Constitution itself because that is destroying democracy altogether.”

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In his petition, Dr Swamy mentioned Ambedkar’s position. Ambedkar also said, “My contention is that what is suggested in this amendment is already contained in the draft Preamble”.

Indeed, many principles affirming secularism and socialism were contained in the Constitution originally, such as in the Directive Principles of State Policy that is meant to guide the government in its actions. Some examples are provisions related to the “equitable distribution of material resources of the community for the common good”, and protecting the rights of workers.

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Similarly, in the fundamental rights that allow the freedom to profess and propagate one’s religion, as well as in the government policies that recognise religious occasions across communities, an Indian version of secularism is followed. Unlike western secularism which strictly separates the state and religion, the Indian state has over the years acknowledged and involved itself in matters related to all religions.

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