The unity and idea of India owes as much to the integration of princely States to the Indian union as to the numerous ideals shaping the destiny of our country from time immemorial.

One such enduring ideal is secularism which has always been celebrated in terms of coexistence of all faiths and not using one particular faith, be it practiced and professed by majority people or minority of the citizenry, to define India or the Indian State and ensuring all citizens equality and equal opportunity irrespective of their creed.

During the freedom struggle when French Philosopher Andre Malaurx asked Jawaharlal Nehru as to what he would find the most difficult to do in India Nehru with his sensitive understanding Indian society replied "to create a just society by employing just means and to create a secular State in a religious society".

Now the secular State has been badly compromised and the idea of secularism is being dismissed with contempt by those who never participated in the freedom struggle and opposed the Constitution when it was being framed.

The ruling leadership which is claiming to own Sardar Patel and appropriate him and his legacy is hardly invoking even the word "Secular" very often used by the great Sardar while delivering speeches in the Constituent Assembly and provisional Parliament.

It is instructive to note that when he was integrating princely States to the Indian union he faced refusal and resistance from some princely rulers not only in the name of Islam but also in the name of Hinduism and its deities.

For instance when the rulers of the princely State of Travancore in Kerala stubbornly defied attempts of Sardar to integrate that State to Indian union, they gave the spacious ground that Lord Padmanabh, the presiding deity of Travancore, constituted the repository of sovereignty of that Hindu kingdom and the revered Lord would never be subjected to the Indian Union.

In other words a Hindu God was employed by the rulers of Travancore as a factor for not joining India and for foiling the statecraft of Patel to integrate princely States based on secular values and vision. To completely checkmate Sardar those princely rulers of Travancore came out with the plea that Hinduism was in danger.

Sardar Patel's question to them as to how they allowed the sacred Lord Padmanabh to keep Him under British suzerainty confounded them. Eventually Travancore joined the Indian union and Patel asserted that no religion including Hinduism would ever be in danger in India.

It is important to recall that legacy of Sardar Patel who even before the Constitution came into force never allowed any religion or God including Hinduism and its Gods or Goddesses to negate the Idea of India, statecraft and rule of law. That legacy assumes critical significance when in the 21st Century the secular foundation of the Republic of India is being assaulted. And even the Supreme Court judgement permitting women into the Sabarimala temple is not being allowed to be implemented by some top public figures who claim that this is against Hindu faith and tradition. Such attempts by them negate the vision and values associated with the legacy of Sardar Patel.

When his birth anniversary is celebrated as national unity day we need to be mindful of the all embracing idea of unity which he espoused till the very end of his life. Patel never reduced it to a single denomination or any single factor. Of course it connotes the territorial framework of India which could be made possible with the integration of princely States which Patel achieved by showing exemplary statesmanship.

We should be mindful of the fact that Sardar Patel understood unity in very broad contours which, among others, included the coexistence of all faiths and treating all Indian as citizens without reducing the idea of citizenship to religious identities.

In his speech delivered in the Constituent Assembly in 1947 when the articles on citizenship were taken up for discussion he said that the idea of citizenship of India should not be narrow at all and it should be as broad, enlightened and liberal in scope.

It is rather shocking that that the citizenship amendment Bill which the Government drafted and is under scrutiny by a Parliamentary Committee has provisions in it that only Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Christians who come from other countries to India would be considered for citizenship of our country. In the scope of the Bill there is no place for Muslims who might come from other countries. The Bill is inconsistent with the enlightened and liberal vision of Sardar Patel.

Such a dangerous tendency of reducing Indian citizenship to a few selective religions speaks volumes for the divisive agenda which would jeopardize the secular character of India and our Constitution which Sardar Patel painstakingly highlighted in his innumerable articulations and underlined the necessity of defending it.

Rather it is highly deplorable that there is massive opposition even to the idea of secularism from the ruling leadership which feels very uncomfortable with the secular framework of the Constitution declared by the Supreme Court in the Bommai judgement as its basic structure.

Home Minister of India Rajnath Singh said in the Lok Sabha that there should be a debate on secularism and another Union Minister Shri Hegde said that people instead of invoking their identities as Brahmins, Kayasthas, Muslims or Christians are calling themselves secular which he said never helped one to understand their ancestary.

Hegde even went to the extent of saying that the Government headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is there to change the Constitution. The Government on its own did not counter what the Minister said and when the opposition protested against this in the Rajya Sabha then the Government issued a clarification on the floor of the House that it had no plan to change the Constitution.

It is instructive to note that a leadership which tries hard to appropriate Sardar Patel is absolutely silent on his secular vision and outlook which he coherently expressed on numerous occasions in his interventions in the Constituent Assembly. While moving the provision for reservation for scheduled castes and tribes in the Constituent Assembly he asserted in May 1949, "They were laying the foundation of a truly secular democracy in India."

Again on June 5,1949 he said in the Assembly that "...a healthy secular outlook is the foundation of true democracy." He even invoked God in defence of secularism when he said in the Constituent Assembly that "And now we are today with the grace of God and blessings of the Almighty laying the foundation of a true, secular democratic State where everybody has an equal chance and equal opportunity. May God give us wisdom and courage to do the right thing to all manner of people as our Constitution provides."

After the Constitution was adopted and enacted Sardar Patel while addressing a meeting in Fateh Maidan in Hyderabad on October 8,1950 said that people should realise that they were citizens of a secular democracy enjoying equal rights. He said so to assure the Muslims, after the integration of princely State of Hyderabad to the Indian union to feel secure about their status as citizens in secular India.

Even as he wanted to rebuild Somnath Temple he paid heed to the suggestion of Gandhi that State funds should not be used to restore and rebuild it, rather a trust should be established to appeal to the people to voluntarily contribute to the project. Accordingly Sardar Patel took the initiative to establish the trust which mobilised the resources from the citizens of India to rebuild the temple. Even in that action of Patel his secular credentials were amply demonstrated.

All such pronouncements of Patel combined with his action to keep the State away from religion proved beyond doubt his commitment to secularism can be cited to validate and vindicate the incorporation of the word "secularism" in the Constitution of India by late Indira Gandhi in 1978.

(S.N.Sahu served as Officer on Special Duty and Press Secretary to President of India late Shri K.R.Narayanan and had a tenure as Director in Prime Minister's Office and Joint Secretary in the Rajya Sabha Secretariat.)