The history and debates over “socialist” and “secular” in the preamble to 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.

Both terms were inserted into the preamble as part of the 42nd Amendment to the Constitution in 1976 during a state of emergency imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Petitioners in two similar cases have argued that these words were never intended to appear in the Constitution and that such insertion is “beyond the power of amendment of Parliament under Section 368”, Live Act reported. Similar petitions have also been filed earlier and have sparked debates around the preamble and the role it plays in the Constitution.

What is the preamble for?

A preamble serves as an introduction to a document and contains its basic principles and objectives. During the drafting of the Indian Constitution, the ideals behind the preamble were first stated in the Purposes Resolution, passed by the Constituent Assembly in 1947. These ideals emerged from the many debates that took place during the drafting of the Constitution.

Originally, the preamble said:

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

JUSTICE, social, economic and political;

FREEDOM of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship;

EQUALITY of status and opportunity;

and promote among them all

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


The Constitution was the product of democratic deliberations and decided by the Indian people themselves in the wake of their liberation from colonial rule, and the ideals mentioned here were at the heart of the newly democratic nation. During the debates in the Constituent Assembly, many suggestions were put forward – including that God should be invoked in the preamble as in the Irish constitution, that the name of Mahatma Gandhi should be included, etc.

The question of whether the preamble forms part of the Constitution or simply an introduction was deliberated by the highest court, because the meaning and weight of the objectives mentioned therein, such as “equal status and opportunity” , have remained unclear from the start. the point of view of law. However, in its judgment in the famous LIC case of 1995, the Supreme Court declared: “…and the preamble of the Constitution which is an integral part and regime of the Constitution”, affirming its position as an integral part of the Constitution.

Also, violation of a principle mentioned in the preamble cannot be a reason to go to court, which means that the preamble is “non-justiciable” – however, court judgments may cite it as an additional factor in their reasoning, since it constitutes the spirit of the Constitution.

If not, how was the preamble debated earlier?

In 2020, BJP MP Rakesh Sinha proposed a resolution in Rajya Sabha to remove the word socialism from the preamble, saying, “You cannot tie a generation to a particular way of thinking. Furthermore, the Congress party that ruled the country for seven decades changed its direction from welfare socialism to neoliberalism. His new liberal policies adopted in the 1990s repudiated his own earlier positions.

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

In 2008, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal seeking the dismissal of “socialist”. “Why do you take socialism in the narrow sense defined by the Communists? In a broad sense, this means welfare measures for citizens. It’s a facet of democracy,” said a three-judge bench headed by then Indian Chief Justice KG Balakrishnan. “It doesn’t have a specific meaning. It takes on a different meaning at different times.

Under what circumstances was the preamble changed?

During her years in government, Indira Gandhi had attempted to cement her approval among the masses based on 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 state of emergency was in place, replaced the words “sovereign democratic republic” with “sovereign secular socialist democratic republic”. He also replaced “the unity of the nation” with “the unity and integrity of the nation”.

Under section 368(2), Parliament may amend the Constitution by passing a bill in “each house by a majority of all the members of that house and by a majority of not less than two-thirds of the members of this chamber present and voting”. ”. After that, the bill “will be presented to the President who will give his assent… and the Constitution will then be amended”.

The 42nd Amendment had several other provisions, through which the Indira government sought to further centralize power. Some of them were canceled by the Janta government which came to power after the emergency.

Were they debated between “secular” and “socialist” before Independence?

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

However, Dr. BR Ambedkar argued, “What should be the policy of the State, how the Society should be organized in its social and economic aspects are matters to be decided by the people themselves according to time and circumstances. It cannot be enshrined in the Constitution itself, because it completely destroys democracy.

In his petition, Dr. Swamy mentioned Ambedkar’s position. Ambedkar also said, “I submit 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 original Constitution, such as in the Guiding Principles of State Policy which are supposed to guide the government in its actions. Some examples are the provisions relating to the “equitable distribution of the material resources of the community for the common good” and the protection of workers’ rights.

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

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