From the Archives: Politics, secularism and democracy 

Excerpts from then Chief Justice of India Justice AM Ahmadi’s address while delivering Dr Zakir Hussain Memorial Lecture in 1996

From the Archives: Politics, secularism and democracy 

NHS Bureau

Dr Zakir Husain has made substantial contributions in various fields. All of us are aware of his multifaceted life as a freedom fighter, nationalist and an outstanding statesman. He was one national leader who insisted — even before the struggle for independence had reached its peak — that primary education to all citizens must be given national priority. This was born out of his realisation that national centres of learning would be essential in independent India having regard to its large pockets of illiterate citizens. He was a true secularist, and this is manifest from a dialogue he had with a journalist, when the latter congratulated him on his assuming the high office of the President of India. The journalist after congratulating him said: “This is a victory for secularism.” Dr Husain asked: “How is my becoming the President of India, a victory for secularism?” The journalist replied: “Sir, when a Muslim becomes the President of India for the first time, it is a victory for secularism.”

Dr Husain reacted by saying: “I think your concept of secularism must change drastically.” The journalist though taken aback, ventured to ask: “Why is that, Sir?” To which Dr Saheb replied: “Secularism is achieved only when you do not know my religion.” As we all know, Dr Zakir Husain was a true statesman whose democratic credentials were beyond reproach. The simple theory that he advanced, which in our times is almost an axiom, was that a true democracy is one where each and every citizen is involved in the democratic process. According to him, unless universal education is achieved, which allows every citizen to participate actively in the processes of democracy, we can never claim to be a true democracy.

The Nineties have seen the emergence of a new economic policy which promises to bring in economic prosperity; it is ironic that the same period has seen the emergence of forces which pose a serious threat to the unity and integrity of our country. Only a few years ago, one felt that the spread of education and technology would inculcate in our citizenry a scientific temper which would help eliminate narrow and intolerant attitudes... The framers of the Constitution were not unmindful of the fact that religion has and will undoubtedly continue to have considerable influence on a vast majority of our people, and we cannot wish it away. That is why the basic framework of our Constitution specifies and restricts the domain of religion in our democratic process, and while permitting freedom in the choice of religion, it forbids its misuse in politics.

Secular outlook has always been our culture; it has been engrafted into our Constitution and it is the constitutional duty of every Indian to protect that culture, whenever there is an attempt to trifle with it. The Apex Court of the country has ruled in Bommai case that secularism is the basic feature of our Constitution which cannot be permitted to be destroyed for narrow, power-grabbing purposes. India is a land where several major religions have taken birth and have enriched the cultural heritage of the country. It is a country which has received other faiths and has allowed peoples of different faiths to settle in whichever part of the country they may have chosen. India has been a country where saints and sufis have lived and explained the profundity of spiritual life without allowing it to interfere with politics. It is a nation where peoples of all faiths have lived together in harmony unless their unity has been disturbed by elements seeking narrow political gains

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