Madhav Godbole, former Union home secretary and a champion of secularism on why religion and politics need to be separated

The B.G. Deshmukh Memorial lecture scheduled to be delivered this month by Madhav Godbole, former Union home secretary, was cancelled at the last minute, presumably because it questions several decisions of the BJP government. The lecture—Is India a Secular Nation?—has now been circulated widely. Godbole, who was pursued by the organisers (led by the Maha­rashtra chief secretary) to deliver the lecture for the third time, was told about the cancellation over a phone call with a terse email the following day confirming it. He remains firm on the need to separate politics and religion through a constitutional process. Prachi Pinglay-Plumber caught up with him at his home in Pune. Excerpts from the interview :

What’s the reaction to your add­ress?

Some people felt that this needed to be said. Unfortunately, few speak out these days. That’s why they were quite pleasantly ­surprised that it was a blunt, open speech.

What is your definition of secularism?

“Religion must strictly be a personal matter and have nothing to do with the ­affairs of the state. The state must be equidistant from all religions.”
As I have said before, there is no authentic definition of the word so far, which is the main stumbling block in its implementation. There is a need for a national debate on this. As I see it, secularism does not mean irreligiousness. A synthesis of the ethical and moral precepts of all religions should be the guiding force of governance of the country. But religion should strictly be a personal matter and it should have nothing to do with the affairs of the state or the politics of the country. The state must be equidistant from all religions.

You say secularism has lost credibility.

This has been my impression, having seen it through the years. The earliest was Emergency and the whole family planning campaign, which created quite a stir. It was clearly a blow to secularism. Then came the 1984 riots. I was home secretary in 1991 when these cases against the officers came up because many of them were due for promotions and deputation. I took the ­position that until cases were decided, no one would be given promotion. I also lived through the demolition of Babri Masjid.

Can you tell us what happened then?

It was shocking. We were convinced that Kalyan Singh could not be believed, that the state government could not be relied upon to take any action. The only way the structure could be saved was by imposing President’s rule and to guard the structure. We were requesting the Prime Minister for several weeks to take the decision. We had specifically mentioned this decision must be taken before kar sevaks arrived at the site because then your options would be closed once the monument was ­surrounded by a lakh or two lakh people.

That decision was never taken then?

“Nehru was opposed to banning cow slaughter. When he had said ‘a cow is like a horse to me’ ­people wanted to haul him before a court of law.”
The proposal to impose President’s rule was to be preceded by taking action under Section 355, which would have enabled the government to deploy forces without the state government’s consent. I wanted the forces to move in the middle of the night to take over that structure; then the proposal could be put to the cabinet at midnight, without circulating the note earlier (­because in Delhi nothing remains a secret). After the forces had taken charge at the monument, during the night the President could be asked to sign the ordinance.

We had 20,000 central paramilitary forces deployed at a distance of 10 km from Ayodhya—doing nothing because without President’s rule the Centre cannot act. They were just waiting for an order to deploy them. When the demolition started I telephoned the home secretary in UP, the home minister spoke to the CM requesting him to call for forces. He never did. The interesting bit was that he had given instructions to police saying no firing should be carried out. That’s the prerogative of a state government. As a result, the masjid was demolished and we all know what happened after.


The Babri Masjid being demolished in 1992

You talk about provisions that sought to set the secular tone in the country.

In fact, the first item I talk about is the separation of religion from politics. If you see the Constituent Assembly debates, this was the first resolution of substance (1948). This was the first major legislative initiative by the Constituent Assembly to pass a resolution. There was practically unanimous support for it. Ananthasayanam Ayyangar mo­v­ed it. Nehru supported it. He continued to write to chief ministers in his fortnightly letters about how important it was but during the 17 years of his tenure as PM he took no action. We need a major constitutional amendment for this. Then came the 80th Constitution Amendment Bill, which was moved by P.V. Narasimha Rao after the demolition of Babri Masjid. I have sat in the official gallery in Parliament for years. But I have never seen a bill piloted the way the 80th Constitution Amendment Bill was. There was hardly any consultation. The BJP was naturally opposed to it but I have never seen an important bill being sent to the select committee with only seven days to report back. Congress was not really serious. It was just window dressing.

Do you feel that past reluctance of Congress has done more damage than the present right-wing propaganda?

Yes. Who gave this much latitude to right-wing forces to operate in politics? All these people did. During the Emergency and after, when leftists were so close to Congress, they never prevailed upon the them to bring this bill. They could have.

Did all political parties tacitly accept or openly support religious politics?

“There is an urgent need to increase representation of ­minorities in the police. It has come to the stage where even the data is ­ not ­being released.”
The main concerns of the founding fathers were two: firstly, to remove communal electorates, and secondly, to remove the reservation of seats on the basis of population strength for particular religious groups. They were eminently successful in persuading the minorities but then they had to compromise. So the right to propagation of religion (as desired by Muslims and Christians) was agreed to. And it was given constitutional sanctity by making it a fundamental right despite severe resistance. In any case, we cannot hold them accountable to contemporary standards.

How was cow slaughter discussed then?

There was no real debate. Two or three staunch Hindus spoke on the subject and it was passed. Nehru was opposed to banning the cow slaughter. In the pre-independence days, Nehru had said “cow is like a horse to me” and people wanted to haul him before the court of law. But the same Congress party is now supporting the ban.

That brings us to communalisation.

Reluctance to separate religion and politics is the biggest issue that India faces and no one is prepared to address it. Look at the demolition of Babri Masjid. However ­sacred the place may have been, one cannot rewrite history. At that time Rao said that the masjid would be built in seven days. Nothing happened. Communalisation of the polity is the antithesis of secularism. Year after year, communal riots go on happening. Have we addressed that problem? Is there a rule of law in the country? If there were, we’d not have this situation.

You made several recommendations…

Take the case of sections 153 A and 153 B pertaining to communal hate speeches. Very few cases are filed compared to the number of speeches made. The cases are also mostly withdrawn. All powers are with the government. So I am suggesting these powers should be given to senior police officers. Take away these powers from government and give it to senior police officers so they will be accountable to court for implementation of these provisions. Then, there is need to increase representation of minorities in the police. It has come to the stage when even data is not being released. We have to ensure the data is released and have representation of minorities in the police.

Tell us about the inquisitorial system­ you recommend.

The inquisitorial system (as opposed to accusatorial) operates in a number of places in Europe. Under this, the police ­investigate under the supervision of a magistrate. At every stage the magistrate considers the evidence and decides its merit and if the investigation should go on. It does not stop till the magistrate is satisfied that it’s a fit case to reach the court. This is why acquittals are rare in Eu­­rope.

Is there any acceptance for this?

There is opposition from lawyers who say this would compromise the main principle that a person is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty. But I disagree. The pol­ice, of course, will have a problem. It’s a major debate but it should at least be made applicable in the case of communal riots. This one step will create a sense of confidence in the minorities: assure them we are serious about implementing secularism.